Where the blame lies

It is well known in the UK, if not the US, that Obama’s presidential bid was partly sponsored by Big Oil. Earlier this year it was clearly pay-back time and he granted them one of the biggest items on their wish list — access to vast areas of the Outer Continental Shelf for drilling. Obama proposed to open huge expanses of virgin territory along the Atlantic coastline, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the north coast of Alaska to deep sea oil drilling. The proposal was also intended to reduce dependence on oil imports and to generate further revenue from the sale of offshore leases.

The eastern Gulf of Mexico tract was the richest single tract that would be open to drilling under the Obama plan. It was bitterly opposed by officials from both political parties in Alabama and Florida who feared exactly the sort of damage which later occurred to their coastlines, fisheries, popular beaches and wildlife. Obama assured them that no wells would be allowed within 125 miles of the Florida and Alabama coasts, making them invisible from shore – but thereby ensuring it would be deep water drilling of the type responsible for the disaster.

The real issues of what caused the Gulf oil spill, the failure of technology to staunch it, and where the responsibility lies are understandably being obscured by the embarrassed President’s childish attempts at xenophobia. By stressing the word ‘British’, Obama, whose own role in the oil spill will surely be subjected to critical scrutiny, chose to present the disaster as foreign inflicted. Ludicrously he compared the spill to the 9/11 attacks as an assault on the American homeland by external enemies – an analogy which caused derision even in the Southern states.

BP has not really been “British” since its merger with the US oil giant Amoco (Rockefeller’s old Standard Oil) and the staff likely to lose their jobs (and shareholders losing their dividend) are mainly American. In addition, the firms actually responsible – from a technical point of view – for the tragedy are almost all American. It was, of course, a BP operation but we need a cool look at the accident, its planning and oversight, and the over-arching issue of America’s need for politically secure sources of oil.

The old Alabama Drilling Company, rebranded under a flag of convenience as Transocean, owned and operated the rig while other American firms provided the mud engineering (Swaco), sea bed cementing (Halliburton), and blowout preventer valves (Cameron). Even at this stage it is clear that there were problems with the well design, that the cementing poor with no bond logs, and that the decision to displace drilling mud with sea water 8,000ft below the drill deck was highly controversial. It is still not known exactly why the rig’s blowout preventer, a fail-safe device fitted at the source of the well and built by the Houston based company, Cameron International, did not automatically cut off the oil flow as intended when the explosion occurred.

Yet it is also clear that the Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service failed to properly assess and manage the natural hazards. Risk assessment is essential when drilling for oil a mile down on the ocean floor and whatever the regulations presently in place, if anything went wrong, there was no immediate remedy. So from a scientific and commercial point of view, this catastrophe was not only a failure of BP’s planning – which it manifestly was – it also was a failure of American drilling procedures and Federal regulation.

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