BP’s Oil Disaster: What you want to Know About It.

Via Nathan Smith
on May 14, 2010
get elephant's newsletter

BP Oil Spil Gusher Volcano

If you haven’t seen the video of the massive, gushing volcano spewing oil out of BP’s well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, I’ve embedded it at the bottom of the post. But here’s the bottom line. Now that experts have had a chance to analyze actual footage of the “leak,” they have been able to determine just how much oil is being dumped into the Gulf.

According to Thinkprogress.org:

Based on “sophisticated scientific analysis of seafloor video made available Wednesday,” Steve Wereley, an associate professor at Purdue University, told NPR the actual spill rate of the BP oil disaster is about 3 million gallons a day.

3, 000, 000 gallons per day = 1 Exxon Valdez every 4 days. Today is Day #25. Of course, this analysis is of only a 30 second video and we can’t be sure that the oil has been gushing at the same rate the entire time. But, still.

In a recent interview with the Guardian, BP CEO Tony Heyward described the event in the following way:

The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.

That’s right. He called it ‘tiny … in relation to the total water volume [of the entire Gulf of Mexico].”

About that chemical dispersant…

That’s helping, right? It must be. After all, “BP has already bought up more than a third of the world’s supply” of chemical dispersant, according to ProPublica. So it must being doing something good.

Well, not exactly. You see, what the chemical dispersant does (in a way, not unlike what some home washing detergents do) is to attach itself, on one end of the molecule, to oil and, on the other end, to water. This effectively breaks apart the large globs and streaks of oil we can see and distributes the oil into the water. Obviously, this does not change the *amount* of oil released into the ocean. It’s what Joseph Romm refers to as the out of sight, out of mind strategy.

The problem with this strategy, as Romm’s article explains, is threefold: First, while dispersed oil is less likely to come up on shore and muck up birds and other large animals, it is more likely to be ingested by fish and smaller marine life like shrimp and oysters. In effect, dispersed oil has the potential to effect larger portions of unseen marine life. Second, one of the main ingredients in the dispersant, Corexit 9500, is known to bioconcentrate. This means that the dispersant, presumably with its little oil molecule passengers, tends to accumulate in marine life (like fish, shrimp, and oysters) in greater concentrations than in the surrounding medium. That means the lower level organisms in the food chain will become more toxic than the water around them. Third, we have no idea what it means to the well being of marine life for us to dump the greater part of the world’s supply of this chemical substance deep into the ocean. It’s never been done before.

What’s so bad about the oil, again?

What’s gushing out of BP’s oil well is called “crude oil.” This is actually the term for naturally occurring hydrocarbons. It’s a bunch of different types of hydrocarbon molecules–methane, ethane, propane, butane, pentane, hethane, and natural gas–along with other organic material. These “anes” are distinguished by the length, shape, and complexity of the bonds of hydrogen and carbon that make them up.

When living organisms ingest hydrocarbon molecules in gas or liquid form, these molecules have a potential to be carcinogenic. In addition, some are toxic to various biological systems, particularly, the pulmonary, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems.

And, presumably, right now, the equivalent of 1 Exxon-Valdez tanker of these hydrocarbons is being dumped into the Gulf every 4 days.

One of the most horrifying aspects of this is that there does not appear to be any easy way to stop it. The well itself is a 4,000 foot pit connected to an enormous reservoir of oil, likely tens of millions of barrels of oil according to one expert.

So, basically, what’s going on right now in the Gulf of Mexico is really, really bad, will likely go on for some time, and will have unimaginable long-term effects.

So, whose fault is this?

British Petroleum’s. Recently, fellow elephant columnist Chris Chopik published an admirable if misguided piece declaring that we are to blame for our consumer habits and thirst for oil that made this whole mess possible. I disagree with this assessment on two counts:

1) We consume what we need to and want to in the context of a culture and economy that we have little control over. We cannot blame ourselves for the lack of mass-transit, readily available local goods, unfair pricing (through corporate welfare), or long commutes. We do the best we can with what we have. This does not excuse egregious consumerism, like Al Gore’s fourth mansion in California. But we are neither the largest nor most relevant cause of the fact that oil is at the center of our economy.

2) BP appears to have displayed nothing short of preposterously poor judgment (if not gross negligence).

There is a lot of rumor and finger-pointing going on, but there are some things that have become relatively clear since the beginning of the Stupak investigation. Here are some of the meatier bits:

  1. BP pinched pennies in the design and implementation of one of their most ambitious oil exploration projects. The blowout preventer that was supposed to be the fail-safe device on the well had many problems. These include a modified component that rendered the cutting tool inadequate, a leaky hydraulic system that may have resulted in a lack of power, a dead battery, and a number of design flaws. (Some design issues may be the fault of Cameron, who manufactured the device, though modifications to the blowout preventer may render their culpability moot.)
  2. The night of the explosion, BP executives were present on the rig, popping champagne and toasting each other with cocktails. This was in celebration of their gold mine of a reservoir that they were anticipating pumping. In the meantime, engineers and drill operators were attempting to cement the well. Apparently, this procedure is the single most dangerous part of the entire operation. This is the process that allows a drilling rig to transfer operation over to a pumping rig. In order to do this, the drill has to be removed and the well plugged. Think of it like the moment you try to tie the balloon you’ve just blown up. Except, imagine that the “air” escaping the balloon is crystallized methane gas, and it’s headed up a 1000 ft. pipe into your engine compartment.
  3. It is possible that workers who tested the cement seal did not perform a more thorough test that may have been recommended. (This is the part that Halliburton was responsible for.)
  4. It is possible that workers removed the “oil mud” (a thick sludge in the drill column that prevents methane gas bubbles from rising) and replaced it with sea water *before* placing a cement plug. (This would be a crucial lapse in protocol.)

The combination of the failure to cement the well and the failure of the blowout preventer to operate resulted in the catastrophe we are now witnessing. This was BP’s operation and they were in charge. They are to blame.

What now?

Well, what do you get when you cross an elephant with a rhinoceros?


May 7 flyover:



About Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is a philosophy professor at Houston Community College - Northwest. He's a father of two and husband to fellow elephant columnist, Joana Smith. As a philosopher, he specializes in Descartes, the philosophy of mind, and phenomenology. He's interested in all kinds of things, but he blogs primarily about politics, spirituality, and good, green living. Follow him on twitter @smithnd. And share your thoughts in the comments; he doesn't bite.


7 Responses to “BP’s Oil Disaster: What you want to Know About It.”

  1. Jen says:

    Wow, amazing article. Thanks for this.

  2. Thanks, Nathan. I was hoping to come across an article somewhere that would bring me up-to-date on this disaster. Your blog here fits the bill perfectly–clear, concise, informative, passionate.

    Bob Weisenberg

  3. smithnd says:


    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. This issue of how much we are to blame is something I've been thinking a lot about. In the sentence you quote, of course, I link to a previous article of mine where I basically blast Al Gore. I think that post is defensible, but you are right that it's a whole lot more complicated.

    What I'm trying to convey here is just that, while we should try to be conscious of how our consumer habits contribute to potential environmental catastrophes, the fact that for instance oil is one of the most powerful and influential commodities in our economy is not something we had any choice about. So it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to blame ourselves for it.


  4. Dalia says:

    Hi Nathan, thanks for this. i have not read the news in about two weeks, and so this was an excellent way for me to grasp what is going on and how bad the situation is. I would love to read more of your thoughts on it. – dalia

  5. 60 Minutes just had an excellent 40 minute interview with one of the engineers who was on the rig and just barely escaped. Excellent analysis of what happened and the horrible decisions that were made that caused this entirely unnecessary disaster. Really scary stuff. You can probably find it online.

  6. smithnd says:

    Thanks Bud!

  7. smithnd says:

    Brian – Must have lost my previous reply to your comment in the change over to the new server.

    Anyway, thanks for the very thoughtful comment. Of course, in that sentence you quote, I refer to my previous article blasting Al Gore for his hypocrisy. So this issue is close to my heart. I still think my position on Gore is defensible, but as you point out the issue is complex. What I'm trying to point out here is just that the fact that oil is such a central and precious commodity in our economy is not our *fault* because we didn't choose in any relevant sense the conditions that currently make oil so precious. This does not entirely exonerate us for our consumer choices, but we should acknowledge that there are much larger forces at work.

Leave a Reply