Sunday, June 13, 2010

So... what exactly is going on with the oil spill?

1) What is the BP oil spill?  What's been done?  Who are the players?  Who is affected?

These are the images BP doesn't want you to see.  Image by Charles Riedel.
Hint: this is not what a pelican is supposed to look like.

The BP oil spill, as it's now being called (though it is more accurately called the Deepwater Horizon oil spill) is, without question, our generation's worst environmental disaster, and one of the worst in history.

Though the blame, in public eye, falls to BP (British Petroleum), the third largest energy company in the world, there are other players in this disaster such as Transocean, the world's largest offshore drilling company, and of course, the US government and President Obama, whom many consider could be inextricably linked to this crisis and think it could determine his legacy much like Hurricane Katrina determined (in part) President Bush's legacy.

Besides the 11 killed people who were on Deepwater Horizon, there are many other people affected - the other workers and injured members of the rig, the BP execs all the way down to the gas-pumpers (if you live in NJ! [or Oregon]), the residents of Louisiana/Alabama/the rest of the Gulf, and, of course, YOU.  Not to even begin to mention the animals who have already been killed by the oil spill, the ones who will be killed, and the ones who are in dire trouble (see photo above).  Of course, the Gulf itself will be, perhaps irreversibly, damaged.

Read on for a breakdown of the oil spill itself, the players, and the victims.

What is the BP oil spill?  
Before I start to explain things, I'm going to show you a pretty crude diagram I've made, which, if you have no idea how off-shore drilling works, will hopefully clarify things.

As you can see, besides the fact that I am a great artist, what happens is the drilling company scans the ocean for signs of oil.  When they find it, they set up a rig, which is a huge platform full of lots of pipes and other controls to extract the oil. 

They also lay down a well, which is basically a huge pipe on the floor of the ocean that extracts the oil from underneath the ocean.  (Note, it goes without saying that oil doesn't just sit on top of the ocean floor - it is underneath it.)

Then the rig extracts the oil with a drill and takes it back to the shore for refining, by which they turn crude oil into products such as plastics and chemicals, but most importantly into fuels used to power our cars and generate electricity.

What exactly happened?
The BP oil spill was really two events:
- the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion
- the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Image from NY Daily News.
The first event was the rig explosion.  BP investigations show that a bubble of methane gas (CH4, a common organic chemical and major greenhouse gas, though that's not relevant in this case), escaped from the oil well and went through the drill column, eventually exploding and then sinking.

Then came the oil spill.  After the rig exploded, there was some damage done to the well, which led to a leak, which you can watch in real time here.

I keep hearing different facts about the rig itself.  What's going on?
The rig is owned and operated by Transocean, an offshore drilling company, which was leased by BP.  The rig itself had drilled the deepest oil and gas well ever while being leased by BP, to 35,050 feet deep, or over 6 miles.  The water it was in was 4,130 feet deep.  Interestingly enough, it's maximum drill depth was supposed to be 30,000 feet with a water depth of 8,000 feet, meaning it had exceeded its maximum capacity.

At the time of the crisis, on April 20, the rig was in water of 4,993 feet, with its drill at 18,000 feet.

How much exactly is being spilled?
Initially, BP estimated that 1,000 barrels of oil were being spilled a day.
[FYI: one barrel of oil is about 158 liters and is 48 US gallons.  1,000 barrels, for all my non-fellow-math minors out there, is 158,000 liters or 48,000 US gallons.]

They had grossly underestimated it.  A week later, it was estimated to be 5,000 barrels of oil.

AS OF JUNE 10, scientists believe that the oil is spewing between 25,000 barrels of oil a day to 45,000 or 50,000 barrels of oil a day, though some scientists believe the flow is somewhere between 12,600 to 21,500 barrels a day.

The fact is, that no one really knows.  It's not as if we can dive down to those depths to see for ourselves, and BP has refused to allow scientists to use instruments to more accurately measure the flow due to a fear that the scientists may make things worse.

Now, I'm going to take my impartial-glasses off for a second and say, SERIOUSLY BP?  As stated above, the estimates are all over the place.  The recovery, though I'm not exactly an oil-expert (though, I guess in all fairness, neither are you guys...) is highly likely to vary depending on whether 12 thousand barrels of oil or 50 thousand barrels are being spilled a day.

Why did this happen?
No one really knows.  It's a fact that the explosion and oil spill are not mutually independent, however.  A rig can explode without damaging the well (and therefore leading to an oil spill) and, likewise, it's possible for a well to have a leak without making the rig explode (though less likely).

What has been done?
On May 3rd, over a week after it was determined that a spill was occurring, BP started building a relief well, which is basically another well that will circumvent the leak in the original well.

On May 7th, BP sent down a containment dome, which is exactly what it sounds like - a 100 ton cap designed to stop the leak.  It also failed due to the depth and high pressure.  (It was on this containment dome that ice crystals formed around the seal, which forced the suction to fail.)  The containment dome has been partially successful in slowing the flow of oil and sending the oil up to boats on the surface, though leaving plenty of oil to pollute the Gulf waters.

On May 28th, BP attempted a "top kill," which they admitted had never been attempted at these depths.  A top kill is when a large amount of mud and cement is plugged into the leak.  It has, in fact, only been used in above-ground oil leaks.  On June 1st, it was shown that this attempt was unsuccessful.

As of now, it seems that we're waiting for an improved containment dome, or even a "junk shot" (which is, literally, putting trash into the leak to stop it) as we wait for the relief well, which is a much more fool-proof way of containing the spill.

What has been done to clean up?
BP has been sending out ships to gather oil from the containment dome.  They should all be sent out by the first week of July and will be able to hold 40,000 to 50,000 barrels of oil.  There are also currently 400 boats (skimmers) which essentially mop the surface of the water.

BP has been deploying dispersants, potentially toxic chemicals, meant to "break up" the oil on the surface of the water, to provide for easier gathering.  BP has also tried to set fire to the sutface of the oil.

(Note: I'm not saying this to be mocking.  This is really what they're doing.)

There's also plenty to do on-shore.  Volunteers must undergo hazmat training before cleaning up the oil slicks on the beach.
Also, everyone from your next door neighbor to Kevin Costner (of Field of Dreams and Rumor Has It fame) has been offering further solutions.  [Note: Kevin Costner owns a company called Ocean Therapy Solutions which creates centrifuge machines to separate oil and water.]

Who are the players?
BP CEO Tony Hayword, now famous for PR gaffes such as, 

BP: (British Petroleum plc), number 4 on the Fortune 500, based, obviously, in Britain.  It is the third largest energy company in the world.  Their CEO is Tony Hayword.  BP has suffered a huge decrease in stock price since the explosion and oil spill, from $60.48 on April 20, the date of the explosion, to its current price of $33.97.  Business analysts are split on whether the company will ever be able to recover from this.  They are the major player in this crisis and claim responsibility for the clean up.

Transocean: traded on the NYSE with the ticker RIG, it is the world's largest offshore drilling contractor.  They rent out oil rigs, equipment, and personnel to oil and gas companies.  They own almost 50% of the deepwater platforms in the world.  Many of the personnel on Deepwater Horizon were Transocean employees.  Of the 11 killed by the explosion, 9 were Transocean employees.  There is testimony claiming that the other survivors were coerced/forced by Transocean into signing an I-did-not-see-anything and I-did-not-get-injured form before being allowed to be visited by medical personnel or by family.

The US government and President Obama: also major players in this event.  Evidence has surfaced about the government allowing BP to bypass certain laws meant to ensure safety for workers and to prevent a catastrophe like this from happening.  President Obama may use this event to bring the energy issue back to the forefront of policy.  Other major government-related players are the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisana.

Minor players
- Halliburton (NYSE: HAL): a major oilfield services corporation (meaning they sell technologies for oil and gas companies) that warned BP earlier in April about their business practices.
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: a government agency within the Department of Commerce focusing on the conditions of the oceans and atmosphere. 
- Hyundai Heavy Industries (KRX: HHI): the builder of the Deepwater Horizon rig.
- Media: always a force in issues like this

Who is affected?
Image from

BP workers: from the execs such as Tony Hayword, who has been ridiculed in the media for saying things such as "what the hell did we do to deserve this?" and "I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest," to the local BP gas-station operator, there's no doubt that BP is taking a major beating from this.  BP execs are, perhaps rightfully, vilified and mocked, while there have been promises made by citizens to boycott BP gas stations, which would definitely hurt BP's bottom line but, as most of the BP gas stations are franchises, will also greatly hurt small business owners.

(Note: after the Exxon-Valdez spill in 1989, 20% of Exxon customers swore they would never buy gas from Exxon again.  Estimated 3% to 7% actually followed through.
Also note: the BP oil spill has vastly eclipsed Exxon-Valdez, which spilled a total of 11 million gallons of oil.  The BP oil spill, by the most conservative estimates, has ALREADY spilled 18 million gallons.)

I understand the sentiment, but you're also hurting small business owners.  Think about that.

Residents who live near the Gulf: Louisana, still hit hard by Hurricane Katrina aftermath, is the state that's going to be most hurt by the oil spill.  Other states that will be directly affected are Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.  It is possible that Texas and Mexico will also be affected by the oil.

Oil has already washed up to the shores of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.  Florida residents are preparing for the oil to wash up on their shores.  This is, no doubt, going to ruin the tourism industry, which has already been hard hit due to the recession.  The fishing industry has been at a standstill due to the toxicity in the water (and therefore the fish/crabs/etc).

These states, most of which depend on tourism and/or offshore drilling to sustain their economy, are being extremely hard hit.  Although Florida does not partake in offshore drilling, oil is quickly approaching their famous and beautiful beaches and may ruin the Keys.

The Gulf of Mexico: there are predictions that the Gulf of Mexico has now become, will soon become, or has an extremely high chance of becoming a dead zone.  A dead zone is when there is not enough oxygen in the water for any living thing to continue existence.

Image from the Washington Post.
Wildlife: though BP has reportedly tried to stop images such as the one above from surfacing by blocking photographers' access to public beaches, there have been many wildlife deaths and injuries. One website, the BP Oil Spill :Daily Dead Wildlife Tally, keeps a day-to-day tracker of how many animals have died (as of today, 679 dead birds, 296 dead sea turtles, and 37 dead mammals), how many are oiled but alive, and how many have been released.  It only keeps track of known animals, not the many many other ones that will never be found.

Though it should go without saying, oil drastically affects wildlife habitats.  Birds' down feathers are sunken by oil.  If oil gets on enough down of a bird, the bird will sink and drown, unable to fly.  Sea turtles and other animals also have drowned in the Gulf.  Summer is mating-season and egg-laying season for many animals, likely to be devastated due to the oil spill.  Additionally, there are likely to be tons of poisonous chemicals left in this area, even after "cleanup" is over, which many animals will be defenseless against.

You: if the above reasons aren't enough (i.e. if you hate cute animals), this spill also affects you.  BP, responding to market demands, has drilled deeper and further out - along with every other energy company.  Though the guillotine fell on BP this time, it's not implausible or irrational to state that this could have easily happened to any other company.

Why has BP engaged in riskier practices?  Because they, the "experts," know that there's simply not enough supply on land, closer to shore, or in shallower waters.  If I need to spell it out for you: there's just not enough oil for our demands.

The only reason BP was out there today was because YOU put them there.  You, the consumer of gasoline to drive your cars and oil to heat your homes and to turn on the lights, demand cheap energy, which BP will supply as long as it remains profitable.  Ultimately, however, this oil spill could determine the future of the energy industry as we know it in the United States, which will affect everyone.

1 comment:

  1. This is great, Ms. K. I'd just like to add that as a Florida resident who signed up to volunteer, Volunteer Florida said there were no opportunities to help clean it up and suggested that I call up people I knew and invite them to visit Florida to boost our tourism industry.

    I may head up to Pensacola on the Gulf Coast to do some vigilante oil reporting with my dad, and if so I'll let you know how it goes.