Tuesday, June 01, 2010

BP's Tony Hayward likely to be oil spill's Top Kill

Perhaps the most relieved man in the world today is BP’s CEO Tony Hayward. Israel’s Mediterranean piracy has knocked his knackered Gulf of Mexico pipeline off the front page of the news. But Hayward’s relief, like all the attempts to fix the Deepwater Horizon rig since it exploded is likely to temporary and ultimately unsuccessful. The US Government and BP shareholders are both likely to demand Hayward's head on a pike for the worst American environmental disaster of all time.

The blowout of the Deepwater Horizon in a deadly methane explosion six weeks ago killed 11 people, injured 17 others and sank the rig that drilled the deepest oil well ever 9,100 metres below the surface. Thanks to the incredible pressure of the ocean floor, it is now spewing out up to 16 million litres a day for a total of almost 4.2 million barrels of oil since April 20. At the current price of $72 a barrel, it amounts to $290 million of oil in the ocean, not to mention the inestimable environment costs. (photo AP)

Hayward has blundered from one pathetic excuse to another as the damage bill rises. Today, BP still has no idea how to plug the leak. The series of exotically named and increasingly desperate rescue methods it tried have all failed. These included the “Top Hat”, the “Junk Shot” and the “Hot Tap” (which all provided wonderful fodder for Jon Stewart). The latest called the “top kill” failed on Saturday. In this method BP tried to pump large amounts of drilling mud into the blowout preventer faster than pressure of the rising oil and gas could push it back out. It didn’t work and other risky options are now being considered none of which have a great chance of success.

With all conventional and unconventional means proving fruitless, apparently serious organs such as Oil-Price.net are suggesting a subterranean nuclear explosion may be the only solution. They say the Russians have done it at least five times. In Uzbekistan in 1966, the Soviet Union put out a 120 meter tall flame which had been burning for three years fuelled by massive natural gas using a 30 kiloton atom bomb. The explosion sealed the well by displacing tonnes of rock over the spill.

While the nuclear option still sounds preposterous, it may be the only thing between the Gulf of Mexico and Armageddon. A few different perspectives show this is developing into one of the world’s most serious environmental catastrophes. Firstly, there is the view from space which looks as if a gigantic bird has shat on the Gulf. A vast whitened plume is headed straight for the Mississippi Delta and its fragile wetlands could easily be destroyed. Another useful tool is the Google maps app “in perspective” where you can centre the spill on any point in the globe to see just how wide a similar spill would look there. Centred on London the spill takes in all of East Anglia and the south coast across to Bristol.

Centring the explosion on London is particularly apposite as it contains the headquarters of BP. Founded 101 years ago as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company it became one of the largest companies in the world by seizing Iranian Oil for 70 years until it was thrown out by the Ayatollahs in 1979. Consistently named as one of the ten worst companies in the world it has suffered crisis after crisis with its Texas City Refinery explosion in 2005, Prudhoe Bay Alaskan oil spill in 2007 and its hook-up with Russian criminal billionaires in the TNK-BP joint venture.

But it survived them all unscathed. During the Bush era, BP seemed to stand for “Beyond Prosecution”. Deepwater Horizon promised more untold riches for the company. The Gulf rig was in the rich Tiber fields estimated to contain up to 6 billion barrels of oil. BP owns three fifths of Tiber and when it announced the discovery of oil last year, their share price rose 4.3 percent in the middle of the recession.

Now the share market has turned against the British monolith. Shares in the company fell 15 percent yesterday and the FTSE 100 fell by more than 100 points. But London cares only about its profits and is merely worried the crisis “won’t be solved until August” which is the month stockbrokers go on holidays. Nuclear explosion or no, the longer term prognosis for those must live with the consequences is poor. 400 bird species are at risk as are the already threatened loggerhead turtles. Sea birds, dolphins and other mammals could be affected if as is likely, the spill escapes into the Atlantic. The livelihood of poverty-stricken coastal Central Americans is threatened. Fishing and tourism across the region will also take the brunt. On the bright side, it may mean the US's unquestioning faith in the oil industry is starting to waver.

Americans are slowly awakening to the bitter truth that peak oil has already arrived and is swamping their Gulf.

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