Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Worst Oil Spill in U.S. History Will Devastate the Ecosystem, Economy, and Culture

Two weeks ago a British Petroleum oil drilling rig operating in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, and the riser oil pipe which transported the oil from the sea floor to the surface collapsed, and began gushing oil in three separate rupture points. A video illustrating how the rupture occurred, and potential engineering solutions to stem the oil flow is available here. Two days prior to the explosion Halliburton (former VP Dick Cheney’s company) had successfully completed cementing the oil pipe rig to the sea floor and connecting the riser to the oil rig on the surface or so everyone thought. Some are beginning to blame not only BP but Halliburton as well for their negligence. As a result of the explosion and subsequent pipe rupture, approximately 200 gallons of oil is gushing out of the three rupture points into the Gulf, and the wind is quickly pushing the oil towards the Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida coast lines.

The enormity of this oil disaster is difficult to comprehend. I am myself struggling to grasp all of the variables that are at play. My co-blogger, Joseph Grant wrote an excellent commentary on Saturday addressing the impact of the Gulf oil disaster on the current American energy policy to allow drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. I would like to modulate the focus of the discussion a few degrees, and discuss the oil spill and its devastating impact on the environment, economy and American culture.

Dr. Robert Thomas, professor and director of Loyola University’s Center for Environmental Communication in New Orleans, explains that the BP oil spill’s impact on the environment will be disastrous. According to Dr. Thomas, the coastal wetlands of Louisiana are the most productive ecosystem along the coast in our country. Forty percent of the fisheries of the continental United States are based in the Gulf of Mexico wetlands. Alaska has extremely productive fisheries, simply think Alaska crab legs and salmon. However, holding constant the richness of the Alaska fisheries, the Gulf of Mexico, in particular southern Louisiana has seven of the top ten ports for fisheries in the United States. Ninety percent of the species of commercially important fisheries in the Gulf use coastal wetlands as their nursery grounds, including shrimp, crabs, oysters. Louisiana is the “mecca” of fisheries in the continental United States. The impact on the Gulf ecosystem can be damaging. The reality is that fish can possibly swim away from the oil. So can whales and possibly dolphins. Hopefully, they will return in the near future but for oysters who grow on the reefs, and crabs and shrimps that lay their eggs in the wetlands, when the oil comes in on top of them it’s just going to be devastating. Sea birds such as pelicans and gulls will also be devastated. They could simply fly away and some will. But what of those that have built their nest and laid their eggs in low lying barrier islands, which are just barely above sea level, throughout the coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, when the oil-enriched waters arrive. Like any parent, the adult birds will not leave their young, and the eggs and the baby birds will be completely covered by oil along with their parents who will try in vain to protect their young. None of them will survive.

Residents in coastal communities in Louisiana have begun reporting that the oil sheen has washed up on some parts of southern Louisiana. Local residents working alongside the U.S. Coast Guard have created more than 218,000 feet of boom (orange cylindrical devices designed to prevent the oil from reaching the coast line) has been placed throughout the Gulf, most of it off Louisiana's coast. People are beginning to question not only BP's slow response to the spill but also the Obama Administration’s response, which has been measured. Sally Brice-O'Hara, Coast Guard Rear Admiral, was questioned on Friday morning about whether the government has done enough to push BP to plug the underwater leak and protect the coast. Admiral Brice-O’Hara stated that the “federal response led by the Coast Guard has been rapid, sustained and has adapted as the threat grew since the drill rig exploded and BP has failed to stem the flow of oil into the Gulf… The Coast Guard has been closely monitoring efforts led by BP to contain and stop the oil spill and has filled in gaps where needed.” We may be witnessing the death of American seafood industry for the next few years, which is estimated to be approximately $2 billion per annum. We forget sometimes that every industry is comprised of not only the product or commodity being sold, but also the people within the industry. The seafood industry like many industries is people intensive, it is viewed by many as an inter-generational industry. For fourth-generation oyster farmer John Tesvich, looking out to sea off the coast of Louisiana, the future is daunting. For Tesvich, the future looks very bleak. "It's just like what we saw with Hurricane Katrina... At first, it was just another storm, just like this was just another oil spill. But by the time they realize how bad it really is, it's too late." A video illustrating the impact, of the reality of the BP oil spill on people’s livelihood and future is available here.

I am a little baffled by BP‘s and Halliburton’s inability to control the oil that is spewing out of the riser pipe. I understand the basic argument that a pipe ruptured. I also appreciate that the engineers are working with sensitive robotic equipment in attempting to cap the leaks, and that they are working under extreme oceanic pressure in pitch blackness. But why is it taking soooo long to fix? I am most astonished by BP’s and Halliburton’s apparent lack of preparedness for the magnitude of this catastrophe. Where is BP’s and Halliburton’s risk analysis and corresponding contingency plan to contain the damage? An oil pipe rupturing is not a “force majeure” or an “act of God.” This was a completely foreseeable catastrophic “worst case scenario.” BP and Halliburton should have been better prepared to handle this catastrophe. In 1989 the Exxon Valdez oil spill caused billions of dollars of damage to the Alaska coast line. The Alaskan ecosystem is still dealing with the damage to this day. Have we learned nothing from Exxon Valdez?

Risk and actuarial experts will argue that the extent of the damage caused by Exxon Valdez and the current Gulf oil spill were not properly calculated because they are the "worst case scenarios" and the "probability" of a disaster of that magnitude occurring fall into the category of “wildest dreams.” Therefore, there is no contingency plan for a disaster of this magnitude. But in the last few years one thing has become certain, when it comes to energy exploration and transportation worst case scenarios do happen—-coal mines collapse, “freak” waves destroy oil rigs, oil ships run aground, oil pipes rupture, oil rigs do explode, and people really do die. A video illustrating the harsh reality of when "wildest dreams" come true is available here. The time has arrived when energy companies must be held accountable not only for clean-up costs but also for failing to be prepared for foreseeable "worst case scenarios" that cause severe damage, destroy lives, and threaten the very survival of the ecosystem, economy and culture. In the words of Hugo Voltaire, “greater than the might of a thousand armies is an idea whose time has come.”

Lydie Nadia Cabrera Pierre-Louis


  1. BP should be held accountable for all losses arising out of the oil spill. If Halliburton was negligent they should share the costs.

  2. I can't believe that BP still can't stop the oil form gushing out. Where are the enigneers! I feel real bad for the Louisiana folks. They just can't get a break. You raise a good point professor, where is BP's contingency plan? These companies make billions off of our backs and they can't put together a viable contingency plan. It's because they are so used to keeping the profits and letting the government bail them out, literally off the tax payers backs. BP better pay for this mess but that is just part of it. The environment is totally messed up because of this. No seafood, no crabs, no shrimps. This sucks.

  3. In fact, there was a plan in place to deal with a spill, as Ron Gouguet, a former NOAA official, points out:

    MOBILE, Ala. -- Federal officials should have started burning oil off the surface of the Gulf last week, almost as soon as the spill happened, said the former oil spill response coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

    Ron Gouguet, who also managed Louisiana's oil response team for a time, said federal officials missed a narrow window of opportunity to gain control of the spill by burning last week, before the spill spread hundreds of miles across the Gulf, and before winds began blowing toward shore.

    "They had pre-approval. The whole reason the plan was created was so we could pull the trigger right away instead of waiting ten days to get permission ... It's unfortunate they didn't get the burning going right away. They could have gotten 90 percent of the oil before it spread."

    Gouguet, now an environmental consultant with Windward Associates in Seattle, was part of the group that created the 1994 plan designed to allow federal responders to begin burning oil as soon as a major spill occurred, without an approval process.

    Mobile Register

    The media has bent over backwards to downplay and hide the Obama adminstration's poor handling of this crisis. Having destroyed any claim to objectivity in promoting his canidacy and getting him elected, they are reluctant to expose his incompetence. The administration downplayed the potential for a major spill and failed to respond agressively at the very beginning of the crisis. They failed to act according to long established plans and were unaware of the response capacity of key departments and agencies. Their response so far has consisted of dispatching lawyers to New Orleans and shutting down other rigs that have nothing to do with the BP disaster.

    Yes, BP will have to make restitution to those whose livlihoods have been impacted and pay for the clean up. At this time, there is absolutely no evidence that Haliburton is responsible for the fire that led to the collapse of the rig, so implying that they are is irresponsible. Barrack Obama, not Dick Cheney, is in charge and he alone should be held responsible for the governments response. It's time for him to stop blaming others, and man-up.

  4. Gee, let's see if we can connect the dots:

    BP and its employees have given more than $3.5 million to federal candidates over the past 20 years, with the largest chunk of their money going to Obama, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.


    “The Interior Department exempted BP’s calamitous Gulf of Mexico drilling operation from a detailed environmental impact analysis last year, according to government documents, after three reviews of the area concluded that a massive oil spill was unlikely.”

    The Washington Post

    Try to imagine the outrage on the left if this had been George W. Bush and Dick Cheney accepting huge campaign donations from an oil company only to find out that that company's Gulf drilling operations, which later became the source of the largest oil spill in U.S. history, were exempted from environmental impact analysis.

    It's time to take off the ideological blinders and to start holding this administration accountable.

  5. The Washington Post has changed the link to the above story, Here's a new link to the story.

  6. Steve Newbold St. Thomas 3L

    As Prof. Pierre-Louis corretly points out, the real issue is the foreseeability of Halliburton, and not Obama's response to the oil spill.

    How is Halliburton not prepared for these types of catostrophic events? As Prof. Pierre-Louis mentions, this is not the first disaster of it's kind, when you look back at the 1989 Exon Oil Spill.

    There may be room to criticize Obama, but you die-hard republicans will never get to the root of the problem.

    Obama needs to hold Halliburton accountable for this disaster in some way. A real evaluation of Obama won't be in regards to his response to the disaster itself, but whether or not he has it in him to hold Halliburton responsible.

    I think it's safe to assume he won't, given his established ties to Wall Street and this culture of bailouts.

    But you Republicans will never raise this, because it would force you to look into the corruption of your own party. Obama's ties to these corporations is just a continuation of the an already established partnership between the White House and Wall Street that already existed during the Bush administration.

    I'm guessing Republicans see it as their duty to deflect blame from Halliburton since it's Dick Cheney's company, even though Halliburton is obviously in a better position to prepare for these types of disasters than Obama and the Coast Guard.

    The mainstream media wants to frame the argument in the same way they framed Katrina, because they know the public will bite on it from this angle, regardless of how absurd it is.

    Can we stop this media bias nonsense?

    There is a bias in the media, but you are completely missing what it is.

    The media is biased, but not in the conventional way that "anonymous" has assumed. The media is biased toward the "elites" in general.

    You have Fox News who takes the side of the "right" and the other news outlet takes the side of the "left."

    They work together to misframe issues and convince you that each fight is centered around the liberal vs. conservative idealogies.

    If you took the time, to research the chain of command all the way to the top of each news station you would see that each company is controlled by "elites" who really don't disagree on very much.

    So yes, there is a biased, and it's not toward democrats and it's not towad republicans. The biased is toward elites and is against you, by keeping you uninformed and thus easily controlled.

    Ask yourself why Rupert Murdoch donated so much money to Hillary Clinton.

    I realize that the notion that liberals and conservatives at the top are really on the same side takes a lot of people out of their comfort zones, but there's just so much overwhelming evidence that supports this notion, that you have to willfully be keeping your eyes closed to not see it.

    We do not even have a two party system. We have a "one party system" and they are the democrat/republican/corporate party.

  7. Planetresource.net has a Eco friendly solution to clean up the tragedy British Petroleum has created, please watch the video animation:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=60bdQQQ3iVw and pass this along to as many people as you know.

    One person can still make a difference in this world, is that simple interactions have a rippling effect. Each time this gets pass along, the hope in cleaning our planet is passed on.

  8. Planetresource.net has a Eco friendly solution to clean up the tragedy British Petroleum has created, please watch the video animation:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=60bdQQQ3iVw and pass this along to as many people as you know.

    One person can still make a difference in this world, is that simple interactions have a rippling effect. Each time this gets pass along, the hope in cleaning our planet is passed on.

  9. When the spill began I assumed that BP would quickly stop the leak and clean up the oil. How a leak in a pipe could continue for so long and be called an act of God shocked me. Im a 2L and I could make a strong argument on the spot as to why this leak was foreseeable. But then why should BP worry Americans have a short memory, we have already forgotten.

  10. These accidents how it will happen and how a leak in the pipeline could continue for so long time, these kind of things should be taken care by oil companies.Working in Offshore sector is great thing, but at the same time we have to take care of ourselves.Sometimes oil spill accidents may occur.There are few worst Offshore Oil spills taken place in history.In this Deepwater Horizon oil Spill , USA is the biggest disaster and taken 11 people lives and killed thousands of marine species including birds,turtles and dolphins.