As the leaking crude in the Gulf of Mexico chokes sperm whales, wipes out local fishing incomes and ruins tourist destinations, we’ll see continued debates over who is to blame. Obama is pointing at BP, insisting the company won’t be let off the hook. BP’s claiming that they weren’t really on the scene – Transocean were after all the drilling contractor. Transocean are saying they followed BP’s brief, but that Halliburton must have failed to set the correct cement plug – and Halliburton were after all also involved in the disastrous Timor Sea spill[1] last August.

Greg Palast[2] has a great piece on truthout[3] making clear that BP bears central responsibility – as it did with Exxon Valdez[4] back in 89. The company was the operator, prepared the spec, directed Transocean where & how to drill. This in a context where BP was cutting corners, drilling deeper than they were allowed, making cost-savings by not installing an acoustic trigger and was evidently not prepared to deal with a major oil spill. BP clearly isn’t a responsible operator – reaping mega-profits when all is easy before complaining that life is tough when something goes wrong.

But imagine if BP were “better”: if it had more staff on board, was more careful in observing correct drilling depths and didn’t push Transocean to make cutbacks. Either way, offshore drilling, especially deepwater offshore, is inherently risky. The oil companies are developing the technology to break through this frontier, reaching ever greater depths – BP’s Tiber find in August 2009 was 35,000 feet down, deeper than Mount Everest is tall, deeper than the previous record Tupi well off Brazil and several times as deep as the current Macondo failure. But as the operations become more complicated, the risks of failure increase. And when that disaster happens as it did in late April, dealing with it is wholly outside the oil companies’ expertise. The company described its mega-Thunder Horse project as “at or beyond the limits of the offshore industry’s experience”. BP has wells planned in the Gulf of Mexico, Brazil and Angola that are deeper and more complicated than what Deepwater Horizon was attempting.

John Gapper in the FT[5] recognises this, and points out that the current blow-up is “less a reminder of BP’s legacy” of failures than an indicator of the future “oil supermajors face by drilling in such difficult spots.” He does not blame BP for being careless, recognising that the disaster is a result “of the inherent nature of the task. It may want to blame the past but the Deepwater fiasco looks ominously like the future.”

Clearly, BP needs to pay up for the losses & destruction caused by the current leak. And then we need to stop state & corporate efforts to open up more of the oceans to offshore drilling.

Endnotes:
  1. disastrous Timor Sea spill: http://blog.platformlondon.org/content/australias-worst-oil-spill-same-week-government-approves-mega-gorgon-gas-project
  2. Greg Palast: http://www.truthout.org/slick-operator-the-bp-ive-known-too-well59178
  3. truthout: http://www.truthout.org/
  4. Exxon Valdez: http://blog.platformlondon.org/content/www.carbonweb.org/documents/chapter12.pdf
  5. in the FT: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/dfa2624c-5877-11df-9921-00144feab49a.html