Ruined beaches, oil-soaked wildlife and devastated communities mark just the beginning of the Gulf oil spill's effect on our world. From April 20, 2010 until July 15, when the well was capped, about five million gallons of crude oil leaked into the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, killing or mutating sea life, washing up on shore in "tar balls" and later, mixing with chemical dispersant to create a toxic aerosol.
More than one year after the spill, what's changed? Has the oil industry been moved to restructure their practices or is it business as usual? On April 28 I spoke with Antonia Juhasz, director and founder of the energy program at Global Exchange, a nonprofit organization dedicated to human rights. She's also the author of "The Tyranny of Oil: The World's Most Powerful Industry -- and What We Must do to Stop It" (William Morrow, $26.99), and her most recent book is "Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill" (Wiley, $25.95). Juhasz spent the greater part of 2010 in the spill-affected areas of the south, interviewing family members of those who died on the Deepwater Horizon, fishermen, crabbers, Gulf-area business owners, politicians, oil industry workers, oceanographers, doctors, beach cleaners and others. She hoped to discover why the spill took place and what can be done to prevent another one.
The BP oil spill, rather than being the result of just one error, actually emerged from a series of failed protocols and bad communication. What are some of the circumstances leading up to the blowout and spill? There are two chains of events happening that lead to the blowout. These started before the Deepwater Horizon even arrived at the Macondo well.
The Gulf of Mexico is one of the most difficult places to drill in the world. That's because of the gas in the area. The gas is lighter than the oil and rises up ahead of the oil. If it gets into the pipe, it starts to kick at the pipe. And if it makes it onto the rig, it's flammable (and so is everything else on the rig). It can make you lose control of the rig if too much gas gets introduced. The fullest loss of rig control is a blowout, and there's been a large increase in Gulf of Mexico blowouts recently.
This particular well had been talking to the crew. It had been kicking, burping and basically telling the crew not to drill there. They called it the "Well from Hell." Another ship had actually tried to drill there before the Deepwater Horizon arrived and experienced a blowout that put it out of commission.
So, the well was obviously difficult to begin with. But now, BP was behind schedule, over budget and rushing to get the job done. Workers on the rig told me that this was business as usual. Drilling is extremely technologically difficult work and they're always over budget, pressed for time and cutting corners.
On the rig, dozens of maintenance protocols weren't followed. The blowout preventer was low on batteries, leaking hydraulic fuel and hadn't been tested in ten years (it was supposed to be tested every five years). Basically, a whole series of safety precautions were not followed. One was the blowout preventer. The crew tried to ignite the rig preventer and nothing happened on the rig floor. Alarms failed to go off. Doors failed to shut, and thus gas escaped into the entire rig. The crew reported that the gas flowed through the ship like a wraith, this sort of semi-visible physical presence that preceded the explosions.
After the explosions began, another series of events took place. Another piece of machinery that malfunctioned was the disconnect function. The rig should have been able to disconnect itself from the well, but it couldn't. This then led to the fire on the rig and a failed attempt at extinguishment occurred. Because of the faulty method of firefighting, the capsizing of the Deepwater Horizon occurred, and this capsizing caused the pipe to bend and kink in three places. In that sense, we got lucky. If the pipe had broken clean off, the oil spill would have gushed out, but with the pipe in place, only leaks occurred.
In the first days after the spill, BP's then-CEO Tony Hayward ensured the public that BP would "do everything in their power to contain this oil spill and resolve the situation as rapidly, safely and effectively as possible." How prepared was BP for this disaster, and how did the government factor into the oversight of the oil spill response? BP wasn't prepared at all, but neither were any of the other oil companies. I think that's important to note. It wasn't like any one company was hoarding machinery or information. They all sat around a table and none of them knew how to cap the well. None of them had the proper equipment to deal with it, and they all should have. The government wasn't prepared either.
In some countries, they designate crews as special oil spill emergency response crews; they're kind of like firefighters. But we have nothing like that.
As it turns out, BP's "Disaster Preparedness Plan" was virtually non-existent. What technology did BP have to deal with disaster? BP actually did have a 500-page document, as required by law, to describe their disaster plan. It was, however, meaningless, as evidenced by the fact that nobody knew what to do when the oil spill happened. It basically outlined how to respond to an arctic spill. For example, it described how to attend to saving polar bears. It was obvious they had cut and pasted from their arctic plans.
BP actually did have some boom and skimmers for oil cleanup. It seems like that wasn't really adequate though. The oil industry had been required to improve their technology and safety after the Valdez oil spill (through the Oil Pollution Act of 1990), but none of them complied. They had the exact same technology -- the boom, the skim, the chemicals -- that had failed in the Exxon Valdez (oil spill of 1989), where only 14 percent of the oil was actually collected. The Deepwater Horizon spill was equivalent to one Valdez every four days. They never even had enough equipment; they were gathering it from all over. But the BP Deepwater Horizon spill affected five states and is the largest marine oil spill in the history of the industry, in the ninth largest body of water in the world. Can you ever truly protect the shores of five states from a blowout in the Gulf of Mexico? BP said they could handle a spill more than three times the size of the Gulf oil spill.
One of the attempts at cleanup involved chemical dispersant. Some experts actually think this dispersant may have caused more problems than it solved. How did the dispersants affect the eventual outcome of the spill? Applying chemical dispersants is a standard response to any oil spill. But your standard oil spill is very small. They happen a lot, but they're small. The dispersant spreads it out and keeps it from being this mess on top of the ocean.
The problem is we're still using the same types of dispersants we know are bad. For example, the dispersant used in the Exxon Valdez spill, Corexit, which got people horribly sick, is still being used in the U.S.
Another problem: BP tried to match dispersant for oil. A colossal amount of oil required a colossal amount of chemicals, and the combination is terrible. The combination results in a much worse outcome than either on its own.
The decision you're making when applying dispersants is that you're basically saving the shore and sacrificing the ocean. This makes some sense: You want to keep oil away from where the people are. But in the case of the BP Deepwater Horizon incident, there was so much oil, it didn't matter. We ended up with oil and dispersant on the shore.
There was also the burning of oil and chemicals on the ocean's surface -- this resulted in an aerosol. All of this is really bad news.
What kind of health problems did the dispersants cause? Acid reflux, neurological damage, the "BP Peel" (people report a continual reptilian-like shedding of their skin) and the "BP cough."
How did the spill affect the area's wildlife and sea life? We're still figuring that out. We do know that what we find on shore is only about one percent of what has actually died. This is because mammals that die in the ocean don't try to get to shore first; they just die in the middle of the ocean. The official death toll is in the thousands, but that's probably not accurate.
They also basically stopped counting the fish that washed up on shore because there were just too many. Probably millions of fish have died. As you get smaller down the food chain, the death toll is much larger. The worms, algae and other small organisms that larger creatures feed on are gone. The dispersant also breaks the oil down into bite-sized morsels. The fish that eat it then become mutated. Fishermen have reported fish that are inside out, the wrong color or swimming in the wrong direction.
There are dead baby dolphins and dolphin fetuses found washed up on shore. It took a while to ascertain the cause of the deaths, but the oil in them has been traced to the Macondo well.
What about the economic health of the Gulf? It really depends on where you live in the Gulf. That's why there are media stories that depict diametrically opposite realities. Five states were affected. When the oil first spilled, it moved liked a monster. There were daily "oil casts" on the news, telling where the oil hit that day. So, just like the way a hurricane will destroy one house and leave the next one standing, there are places in the gulf where things are fine, and places that are devastated. It also depends on what people do for a living.
Bayou La Batre, Ala., where I spent a lot of time, is the seafood processing center of the United States. There are 2,500 mostly Vietnamese immigrants who work in processing facilities. They've been out of work since the spill. Certain fishing communities in Louisiana have also been hard hit. So the food that's free to them is gone.
Right now, where does BP stand in the claims process? BP was required under the Oil Pollution Act to set up a claims process. They made it difficult and laborious. The CFO of the state of Florida is suing BP for intentionally making the process too complex and keeping money from going out. They made it so laborious that the federal government took it over. So far, about 900,000 claims have been filed, and about 300,000 have been paid.
You attended BP's shareholders meeting in London this April. After going to that, do you think BP is really more committed to safety after all the negative press its received post-spill? I was there with five Gulf Coast residents, and they each had proxies. Before going to the shareholders' meeting, BP had communicated that the victims were important to them. There were ads that BP was cleaning up the Gulf. But when we actually got to the meeting, they didn't let the residents in. I got in because I hold shares, under the caveat that I couldn't make a speech (normally every shareholder is allowed to address the board). I agreed, but I didn't know then that the Gulf Coast residents hadn't been admitted. When I discovered that they had been denied access, I had to speak.
I feel that being there and making the speech required BP to discuss the disaster in ways they hadn't planned. It was only after I made my intervention that CEO Bob Dudley read the names of the eleven deceased Deepwater Horizon workers.
In terms of their policies, nothing has fundamentally changed. Still, they did have to acknowledge that Gulf residents aren't going to sit back and shrug their shoulders that BP hasn't changed: They're going to keep pushing.
What kind of legislation would you like to see passed to prevent similar disasters? There was an initial huge push toward new regulations after the spill. This is one of the longest disasters that the media has covered so thoroughly. And the American public wanted even more. When polls asked people how much coverage on this topic they wanted, they said they wanted more, and this was already with an unprecedented amount of media coverage. People were gripped.
And this media attention spurred legislation. The legislation was moving through Congress, and it looked like it would go through. But several things happened that stopped it. One was the well being capped, which was great news. Another was when the Obama administration announced on Aug. 16 that the oil was gone. At the same time, the oil industry was aggressively stating that the disaster was a "BP-only" problem and a fluke. Another problem was the Republicans who didn't want the legislation to go through.
We need a dramatic change in regulatory oversight. We need better educated employees who know the industry better, much tighter regulations, a much larger staff with greater resources and greater oversight and enforcement. Short of that, if we can't manage these things, I don't think we should be offshore drilling.
This disaster taught us that the oil industry doesn't really know how to drill in deep water. The truth is, most oil spills happen in shallow water. I think we need to ban all of it, but that's a big step. A smaller step would to be to ban the deep-water wells. Basically, if it's impossible to regulate something that had such a catastrophic effect, we shouldn't be doing it.