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The Deepwater Horizon disaster
THE GULF OF Mexico is facing an ecological disaster. The first heavy slicks from the Deepwater Horizon rig, which exploded on 20 April killing eleven workers, have reached the coastal wetlands of the Mississippi delta. The gulf’s loop current may soon carry heavy oil out into the Atlantic, threatening vast stretches of the US’s eastern coast and the Caribbean.
BP claims it has begun to pipe off 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) a day from the fractured seabed pipe. But others have challenged this claim and BP has been forced to admit that the spillage is much greater than this. Scientists estimate that it could be 50,000 barrels a day. Yet BP’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, outrageously described the pollution as "very, very modest".
BP has been using the highly toxic dispersal agent, Corexit (655,000 gallons so far), banned for this use in Britain, which may itself have a devastating effect on sea life. Meanwhile, the US Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, admitted that weak oversight of the oil companies by the Minerals Management Service has to share responsibility for the disaster.
Barack Obama has strongly criticised BA for its role in this crisis, but shows no sign of retreating from plans to expand offshore drilling. The president has now appointed a two-person commission to investigate the spill, but both are Washington ‘insiders’. One, George Reilly, is a former Republican head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Meanwhile, a report from the federal agency OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) highlights the hazards of working in the energy industries. In the past three months alone, 59 workers have died in explosions, fires and collapses at refineries, coal mines, an oil drilling rig and a power station construction site.
Analysing the environmental and health and safety issues, we carry three articles, edited from Justice (No.71 May-June), the paper of Socialist Alternative (CWI in the USA).
Obama calls for offshore drilling
IN APRIL, president Barack Obama called for hundreds of millions of acres of coastal waters to be opened for oil and gas exploration and drilling. This means a horrifying assault on ecology, beaches, and coastal tourist economies - but big profits for the energy industry.
The move is supposed to help Obama and the Democrats win right-wing support for their climate and energy legislation. This is a repeat of the failed strategy they used during the debate over healthcare reform. The liberal Democrats made huge concessions to the rightwing and still did not get a single Republican vote for the US Health Care Act.
We should not be surprised by Obama’s announcement. He called for offshore drilling during his campaign and has consistently attacked the environment since taking office. Obama and the Democrats "have already made significant concessions on coal and nuclear power to try to win votes from Republicans and moderate Democrats". (New York Times, 1 April)
Before the UN conference on climate change in Copenhagen even began in December, Obama stated that the US would refuse to enter into any binding agreement on climate change or emissions limits. These examples add to the already indisputable evidence that we cannot rely on the Democrats to do anything serious about the environment or climate change.
Right now, we have the technology to sustainably live in prosperity. For example, a recent article in Scientific American (November 2009) showed that, with existing technology, wind and solar power alone could provide us with many times more energy than humanity currently consumes. Obama and the Democrats shamefully push to drill offshore while there are plenty of safe and sustainable alternatives.
We need to act immediately to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but solutions like the one offered in Scientific American will never be implemented under the capitalist system. Under capitalism our society is organised based on what is profitable to powerful corporations, so pollution and environmental destruction will continue like a runaway train.
Our only hope is to take the energy industry and major economic institutions under the democratic management and control of communities and society at large. We can only have the power to organise society according to social need, instead of corporate profit, if we take control away from the corporations. We need a solution that benefits society and is democratically planned by ordinary people. This solution is called socialism.
The deregulation disaster in the oil industry
ON 20 APRIL, a scant 27 days after the five-year anniversary of the BP Texas City refinery explosion that killed 15 workers and injured 170, the state-of-the-art drilling rig, Deepwater Horizon, leased by BP, exploded, burned and sank into the Gulf of Mexico killing eleven workers and injuring 17. Raw crude oil from the uncapped exploratory well that the Horizon was drilling began pouring into the ocean at an undetermined rate.
Some fear that there may be further failures of the wellhead structure. If that happens this spill could equal or surpass the 1979 Ixtoc 1 well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. In that spill it took nine months before relief wells could bring the flow of oil under control, resulting in the largest release of oil in the world (100 million gallons) until the Gulf war.
Whatever the exact numbers, there is no debate that an environmental catastrophe is taking place. This spill is poisoning some of the most productive marine environments in the world. The coastal wetlands are particularly vulnerable and impossible to clean. The spill comes just as many animal species are preparing their annual migrations through the Gulf, and there remains the possibility that the surface oil could be swept up by the Gulf Stream and make its way up the Atlantic coast.
The dispersants that BP is injecting into the oil plume are also considered toxic. The effect of the dispersants, essentially detergent soaps, is simply to keep more oil from rising to the surface. They do not remove any oil from the ecosystem, and many suspect they do more harm than good.
Putting profits before safety
THE DEEPWATER Horizon was owned and operated by Transocean, which bills itself as "the world’s largest offshore drilling contractor and the leading provider of drilling management services worldwide". It is registered as a seagoing vessel flagged in the Marshall Islands. BP was paying Transocean approximately $500,000 a day for the use of the Deepwater Horizon to drill and set wells in the Macondo Prospect, the area of ocean floor that BP has leased from the US government. Transocean was further subcontracting out work to Halliburton to ‘case’ the well. It was during this operation that the blowout occurred.
Of the 126 individuals on board, 79 were Transocean employees, six were from BP, and 41 were from other contractors. Flagging vessels to neo-colonial governments and the breakdown of the workforce into subcontracted groups allow companies like BP to better control their costs, escape regulation, limit their liability, and drive down wages and working conditions by passing the responsibility for production goals onto the contractor. Subcontracting also results in a loss of coordination and cohesion between work groups, as anyone who has worked in a similar situation knows.
Working the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico is one of the most hazardous occupations in the US. Between 2006 and 2009 there were 632 reported fires, explosions or other accidents that resulted in the deaths of 30 workers and 1,296 injuries. Many injuries suffered by oilfield workers are ‘life changing’. Limbs are crushed or severed by heavy machinery. Fires cause disfiguring burns. Explosions tear workers apart causing injuries similar to those suffered by combat veterans. A constant push for productivity increases and profits, long hours and fatigue, 24/7 shift work, and a ‘macho’ attitude toward safety encouraged by management, result in a lethal work environment. Workers are a disposable part of the machine.
The 115 workers on the platform who made it to the lifeboats are lucky to be alive. In interviews they have reported that none of the supposedly state-of-the-art safety equipment or alarms gave them any warning. A 300-foot geyser of oil and seawater shot out of the well and a cloud of highly flammable gas settled over the rig. When this gas found a source of ignition, probably a generator or drill motor, it ignited in a tremendous explosion. The eleven workers, whose bodies have not been found, were probably obliterated in this initial explosion.
The very nature of deepwater drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico is technically challenging. You would think that, with the acknowledged risk of blowouts, special attention would be paid to safety devices. But BP, like the rest of the oil industry, fights the introduction of safety equipment claiming that it slows production and is unnecessary.
The ‘drill, baby, drill’ lobby insists that we have the technology to cleanly extract oil. But what good does the technology do you if you don’t use it? Drillers and production platforms routinely disable safety alarms and fail to install or maintain necessary equipment that could prevent these disasters. In addition to a shutoff valve at the wellhead, oil wells are supposed to have a ‘blowout preventer’, an emergency device that cuts and seals the well. There are supposed to be manual and automatic controls to actuate this device. Three layers of redundancy are considered ‘prudent’ in the industry.
A device called an ‘acoustic shutoff’, which costs about $500,000 according to press reports – the cost of a single day’s operation of the Deepwater Horizon – would have enabled the remote shutoff of the leaking well by sending a sonar signal. While this would not have stopped the initial explosion, it would have stopped the fire and oil spill. This device is required by many nations, including Norway and Brazil, but not the US.
The Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) is the federal agency responsible for enforcing safety regulations on offshore oil rigs. It is trying to recover its image after being rocked by a series of scandals which included bribery, and sex and drug orgies involving MMS inspectors and industry representatives (New York Times, 11 September 2008). Even this captive agency was driven by the conditions in the Gulf oil fields to propose new rules to improve worker safety last year.
It estimated it would cost the oil companies about $4.6 million in start-up costs and $8 million in annual costs to maintain an adequate safety programme. BP, Transocean and other industry leaders lobbied to cripple any new regulations and, as usual, were 100% effective. These companies’ main concern is uninterrupted production and ever-higher profit margins. The lives of their workforce and the environment come last.
THE DEEPWATER Horizon disaster shows that private industry is incapable of policing itself and producing oil and gas cleanly and safely. It has put the Obama administration’s plan to push for more offshore drilling on hold. Studies will be done. After time, a report will be released detailing the technical and procedural mistakes before the explosion. Alarms were disabled, someone was asleep, procedures weren’t followed, etc. BP and Transocean may even be fined for failure to follow accepted safety practices. A widow here and a father there may win a wrongful death civil suit against the employers. Then, after the shock passes, after the studies and debates and pithy words at memorial ceremonies, they will reintroduce plans to expand offshore drilling with ‘new improved’ safety guidelines.
But who will enforce these guidelines? Will it be the same group of private industry managers who are literally in bed with the government inspectors? Clean and safe energy production will only come from having public ownership of the industry and with democratically elected committees of workers exercising direct control over production techniques and enforcing safety procedures. This must be combined with full union rights for energy workers enabling them to control their work, putting workplace safety and the environment before production quotas and profits. The struggle against future disasters must be linked to a movement for public ownership of the energy industry, and a comprehensive plan, as part of an overall plan of economic production, to transition to renewable, non-polluting energy sources.
Peak oil and profits
A YEAR ago, BP did an environmental study of the Deepwater Horizon operation. This claimed there was almost no possibility of a severe failure which would produce a large oil spill. This incredible statement was accepted by the US government. Somehow they all kidded themselves that, while drilling for oil a mile below the sea’s surface, nothing could go wrong. It is clear that because of this claim there was no emergency plan. Initially, after the explosion, BP was in denial, claiming that no oil was leaking!
Eleven people are dead, an oil slick 210 kilometres long and 110 kilometres wide is heading towards the ecologically vulnerable coast, and many birds, fish, marine mammals, plants and organisms will be killed. The fishing and tourist jobs of the area will be devastated. Politicians are saying that things have to change. But will they? Just a few weeks ago, president Obama announced he would allow increased offshore drilling for oil on the US coast, claiming that modern oil rigs are safe and don’t cause big oil spills. Republican party leaders like Sarah Palin, with her 2008 election slogan of ‘drill, baby, drill’, continue to support offshore drilling.
Much of the blame has been directed at BP which, undeniably, has a terrible safety record. But are the other big oil companies better? Exxon was responsible for the worst oil spill in US waters, the Exxon Valdez in Alaska. Shell has a terrible environmental and human rights record in Nigeria. Texaco (now owned by Chevron) had an equally bad record in Ecuador. All the oil companies act in a similar way.
This devastation of the environment and trampling on workers’ and human rights is part of the real price of oil. Capitalism is totally dependent on cheap oil. This is the biggest addiction in history. While there are conferences and speeches about sustainable production, climate change, and moving away from oil, the reality is totally different. Recently, ‘British Petroleum’ has attempted to rebrand the company image and name to ‘Beyond Petroleum’. The company tries to present itself as a green company. Don’t believe the hype!
For big business and their politicians, the biggest worry is not climate change but peak oil. About half of all the available oil in the world has been used and what is left is harder to extract and process. The Pentagon recently produced a report which points to growing oil scarcity and states that by 2015 worldwide "the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day". As the world uses 90 million barrels a day now, and consumption is rising, a shortfall of 10% is bad news. So oil companies and governments around the world are seeking oil in ever more dangerous circumstance and from more polluting sources. That is why they will continue to drill for oil in the oceans of the world.
The world is awash with renewable and relativity clean energy. But the oil companies, the other oil-dependent companies and their hired politicians are more concerned about keeping the oil-drug supply going than saving lives, protecting health and the environment or tackling climate change. A sane society would invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency.