Closing the BP oil leak was a tremendous feat of engineeringby Derek Brower / August 19, 2010 / Leave a comment
The tactless remark made some weeks ago by former BP boss Tony Hayward that, given its size, the ocean would cope with the Gulf of Mexico oil slick, has turned out to be more or less correct. Predictions of devastation haven’t come true. Yes, the spill is the worst in the history of the US, in terms of the volume of oil that spewed into the sea. But no, the Gulf shoreline hasn’t turned into an oil-drenched mess of the kind we ignore in places like Nigeria. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has recorded fewer than 4,000 bird deaths from the spill. The Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989 may have killed 250,000.
Meanwhile, the White House concluded on 4th August that almost three quarters of the oil spilled from the well had either evaporated, been burned, skimmed off, recovered from the wellhead or dispersed using chemicals; and much of the dispersed oil “is in the process of being degraded.” By then, the US Environmental Protection Agency had ruled that BP’s dispersants were not, as critics had claimed, even more toxic than the oil itself. And the gravity-defying “plumes” of oil said to be moving through the sea, bearing more devastation, haven’t materialised, perhaps because they have already dematerialised: scientists cited by the White House say BP’s oil is degrading very quickly.
BP was lucky. The Exxon Valdez spilled less oil, but its crude oil was heavier, containing sulphur and other nasties, whereas the light, sweet crude which spewed into the Gulf evaporates more quickly and contains more water. The warm Gulf waters are also more conducive both to speedier evaporation of the oil and to the kind of insects that help degrade it. Lastly, the containment efforts after the Exxon Valdez spill were made more difficult by a storm that blew the oil along the Alaskan coastline and up onto its shores. BP, by contrast, faced relatively clement conditions as it deployed nearly 380 miles of booms to stop the oil from reaching beaches, while 830 skimmers scooped oil from the water.
This story—of a successful response to a tragic accident—hasn’t had as much attention as the earlier one, about big bad oil companies and their reckless ambition to defy nature. Armageddon is sexier. And BP didn’t help itself—among other mistakes, it badly underestimated the volume of oil its well was spilling.
This explains why we have…