The BP 2010 oil spill: We have met the enemy, and it is _______?

It looks like the enemy might be BP...

... because BP has a terrible safety record:

OSHA citations to BP compared to other refineries
"Two refineries operated by BP account for 97 percent of all "egregious willful" citations issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration since June 2007, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis." Some specific sad sad examples are here. A marine biologist and spill remediation consultant gives more detail on KCRW radio's To the Point on May 21, 2010.

... because BP's faulty well-head has now released millions of gallons of toxic oil into the Gulf:

Adjust the leak rate glider in this widget to see the total gallons so far
After BP's original estimate of 1000 barrels/day, it has now 'conceded' a probability of 5000 barrels/day, at the same time that university oceanographers calculated a minimum of 76,000 up to a max of 104,000 barrels/day. There are 42 gallons in a barrel, so 100,000 barrels (which is just short of the scientists' upper limit) is 4.2 million gallons -- per day. There is no indication of whether these estimates include, as yet, the 700,000 gallons of oil which the oil rig held in its bowels on the day it exploded. source:BBC

... because BP is holding controlled burnoffs of the oil that make the oil less visible, but do not remove the toxins:

The burnoffs move many of the toxins off the sea surface by putting them into the air we breathe.
A known carcinogen (PAH**) in the air from controlled burnoffs and combustion of oil has been shown to affect the neural development of fetuses when pregnant mothers are exposed to the carcinogen. It's also toxic to children (post birth) and to adults. (source: Scientific American) .
The aerial plume of a burnoff



**PAH: Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon
Though the burns emit plumes of smoke that dump carbon and soot into the atmosphere, according to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, BP has performed burns regularly since early in the spill. The oil left behind in a burn congeals into tar balls. (source)

... because BP is using dispersants that make the toxicity less visible while increasing its magnitude.

The dispersants pull oil down from the surface while adding their own toxicity to the mix.

As of late May, BP had sprayed 785,000 gallons of dispersant -- "685,000 gallons on the surface and 100,000 underwater. The EPA has told BP to use less toxic dispersants." (source)


The dispersants "do not actually reduce the total amount of oil entering the environment", but instead offer a trade-off between damage from oil on the surface vs. damage to life underwater and on the seafloor (source:National Academy of Sciences)

"...subsurface creatures from oysters to coral to larval eggs that might never have had significant exposure to the oil are now going to get a double whammy, getting hit by the oil and by the dispersants... The droplets can also clog up fish gills..." (source)


So BP might be the enemy, but perhaps there's a silent party in this--

-- Or perhaps millions of silent parties. In line with the old anti-war slogan of the 60's of "What if they held a war and no one came?" one could also ask, "What if BP proposed to deep-water drill and no one needed that gasoline?"

Consider what T. Boone Pickens, founder and chairman of the hedge fund BP Capital Management has to say about this:

"Every day 85 million barrels of oil are produced around the world. And 21 million of those are used here in the United States. That's 25% of the world's oil demand. Used by just 4% of the world's population.
Can't we just produce more oil? Consider this: America imports 12 million barrels a day, and Saudi Arabia only produces 9 million a day. Is there really more undiscovered oil here than in all of Saudi Arabia?"source

As Peter Maass, the author of Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil (2009) says,

"If you want to drill less, you have to significantly decrease your demand for the stuff... Patting ourselves on the back for fining BP, increasing safety standards, making more areas off-limits to drilling -- it doesn't get at the fundmental problem... which is our consumption of oil." (source)

To the citizens of the planet who have weaned themselves off of a major dependence on fossil fuels and who know from experience that there is real and surprising wealth in a life that is very spare in fossil fuels, we appear naive at best and tragically hypocritical at worst. They are more aware than we that we are cursing BP as we drive cars and fly in planes that are kept 'afloat' by the oil industry.

And oil company executives know this. As John Hofmeister, the former president of Shell Oil has said in relation to BP and the spill,

"To keep up with demand the US needs to keep producing energy from every available source, despite the associated risks.... The ultimate business challenge is to appreciate the consuming public. It wants ever more inexpensive gasoline but won't stand to taste, touch, see or smell it or its production....So BP must learn to operate invisibly, adjoin politicians as partners, engage media as witness, befriend needy, greedy consumers and accept legal costs as structural. When mistakes happen, it must soldier on." (source)


Many US citizens, especially near the Gulf, are already switching to buying their gas at a non-BP gas station, reminiscent of a junkie stiffed by one dealer who indignantly switches to another dealer. BP knows we'll be back in the fold as soon as some other oil 'dealer' takes its turn for a spill, since spills are an inevitable part of doing business.

Peter Maass, the author mentioned above, puts it more succinctly:

"We want our oil, and we're pretty much willing to pay any price for it." (source)




This is not to say that we shouldn't hold BP responsible for the clean-up costs, but the industry will just pass on such costs to us. They know that many of us would feel outraged at a government tax on gasoline to lower consumption, even if the money were handed back to us as a rebate on our payroll taxes. But we would curb our consumption willingly, and in the name of patriotism, if the companies producing it were to raise the cost of gasoline by an equal amount and give no rebate.


Can we deny that BP would ever have drilled such an expensive and dangerous well if it could not see America chained to oil in perpetuity even for something so mundane as getting to and from work? And even if BP were to pay for every penny of the many years-worth of restoration, clean-up, and job-loss compensation that will be needed (and assuming that all the damage and loss could be fixed) would that be any guarantee that something like this would not occur again?

The hard fact of our finger pointing is that BP will keep "soldiering on" until we put not our money where our mouths are, but put our habit-changing where our indignation is, replacing fossilized (fossil-fuel-driven) habits with better ones.

photo of oil-covered bird by Igor Golubenkov, taken 2007 after an oil spill in the Black Sea