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Gulf of Mexico oil disaster oozes landward

Gulf of Mexico oil disaster oozes landward

The Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe eerily echoes the global impact of the Icelandic ash cloud, except bigger – and the eventual scale could change much more about the world around us than a couple of Gulf Coast holiday resorts.

The casual observer might well be tempted to look for some extraordinary sort of plan in a growing list of global disasters that have included a series of calamitous earthquakes in Latin America, the Caribbean and China, floods in America, Europe and Great Britain – and, most recently, volcanoes disrupting global transportation and weather patterns with vast clouds of ash belching into the stratosphere. In another age, people would have attributed all of this to divine displeasure and they would have sacrificed some goats, a few cows, a virgin or two, all with the aim of convincing the gods to once again realign the universal balance and let them live in peace and prosperity again.

But aside from the longer-term threats posed by climate change and global warming (unless you remain a dyed-in-the-wool, devout, contrarian doubter) from some combination of natural and man-made causes, our current unnatural disaster, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, cannot be blamed on anything other than a human and thoroughly avoidable error. And this one has yet to play out fully – we’re only in the first act. And we’re also clearly struggling to contain the damage before the oil washes up on the Gulf Coast shoreline.

As grim as the predictions of its long-term environmental impact are, its effect on regular, ordinary people living thousands of kilometres from the site of the spill is beginning to show.  If you like peri-peri prawns, enjoy a piece of toast with breakfast, have a hankering for an apple – or if you plan on getting a new set of tyres any time soon, you could end up paying more because of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, even though you may be living thousands of kilometres from the Gulf of Mexico. For example, about 60% of US grain exports go through this area – and if the spill significantly delays barge traffic going down the Mississippi, global market prices for maize, soy beans and wheat and a whole raft of other products could rise quickly on global markets, according to commodities analysts.

We had a taste of the global impact of local disasters recently – a grumpy volcano on the other side of the world left people stranded at OR Tambo airport, delayed deliveries worldwide and cost Kenyan flower farmers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Meanwhile, the millions of litres of oil continue to belch out of the well shaft one-and-half kilometres under the sea after fire and explosions destroyed the Deepwater Horizon off-shore drilling platform. This reporter can barely wait for someone to figure out how this whole mess can be placed at the feet of Goldman Sachs, rather than BP – or the drilling platform operators and contractors Transocean and Halliburton. BP had leased the rig from Transocean and Halliburton was providing various technical services on the rig on behalf of BP.  Cue lifetime employment for lawyers alert here.

The resulting leak has already shut down the Gulf of Mexico’s rich fishing grounds and it may soon spread to the shipping lanes near the Mississippi River delta, tying up hundreds and hundreds of cargo vessels that constantly move millions of tons of agricultural products, bulk cargo, primary commodities and manufactured goods to and from the heartland of the US. This could drive up costs all around the world as the ripple effects of shipping disruptions move outward to the rest of the global trading network.

In fact, even if the shipping lanes are not stilled, there could still be major shipping delays. Hulls will need to be power-washed to avoid bringing oily contamination into the Mississippi River itself or into berthing facilities.  The knock-on effect could divert shipping elsewhere from the various Gulf ports, thereby driving up overall haulage costs as shippers and customers switch to more expensive land transport.

It’s an interconnected world out there and we’re learning that painful lesson the hard way. Two years ago, for example, an oil tanker and a tugboat collided on the Mississippi in a shipping channel near New Orleans. The oil poured out of the tanker and some 200 ships were forced to a halt until the oil on their hulls could be scrubbed. Yes, we’re talking about the damage caused by only two ships.

Photo: Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, off Louisiana, in this handout photograph taken on April 21, 2010 and obtained on April 22. The oil drilling rig that had burned for 36 hours in the Gulf of Mexico sank Thursday as hopes dimmed for 11 missing workers and the risk of a major oil spill loomed, officials said. Picture taken April 21, 2010. REUTERS/U.S. Coast Guard

The most recent satellite data and first-hand information indicates that the oil slick is now about 30km from where ships enter the Mississippi River south of New Orleans. The visible oil slick is somewhat smaller than it was the week before – down from 5,000km² to about 3,000 km² – but scientists say this is probably because the oil has now slipped below the ocean surface. Yes, we know oil floats, but, remember, this is heavy, viscous unrefined petroleum, not the stuff you put in your car. Moreover, big patches of the stuff, now emulsified with sea water, have broken off from the main slick and are floating north and east from their origins.

Damage control crews are continuing to work on stopping the more than 600,000 litres a day that continue to flow into the sea in the worst oil spill in US waters since the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska, leaking more 20 million litres of crude oil. Crews are now erecting barriers along the shoreline, deploying booms and making use of chemical dispersing agents, but these crews have, so far, been unable to get a seabed shut-off valve to work. Analysts add that it may well take another week before a big concrete-and-metal box can be positioned over the major leak point to capture the out-flowing oil. More troublesome still, workers say it could take up to three months before they can drill sideways into the well and make one of those special mud-and-concrete plugs that closes up an oil well.

BP, despite noting that they were not the actual operators of the collapsed rig, has said it would pay compensation for “legitimate and objectively verifiable” claims from the explosion and spill. Not surprisingly, everyone from US President Barack Obama on down is now insisting BP explain just what that means, before claims get mired in a morass of litigation. Although this disaster will end up costing BP the equivalent of the GDP of a middling European nation, and has already cost the company’s stock valuation some $32 billion, analysts say BP can almost certainly handle it in its situation as the world’s third largest oil corporation. In the first quarter of 2010 alone, it made more than $6 billion.

Although the spill is already hurting the fishing and tourism industries along the US Gulf Coast, some bar operators and restaurateurs are stocking up for heavy traffic as overworked coastal protection workers try to blow off a bit of steam – but they’ll have to make do without the usual fresh crabs, oysters or fish. Fishing has already been banned along the entire affected coast.

One other immediate consequence of this still-unfolding disaster has been a potential sea change in support for off-shore oil drilling. Obama has already announced his withdrawal of support for this kind of oil extraction and on Monday, Republican Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his own Damascene conversion away from off-shore drilling. Painting a grim picture of the spill’s devastation, Schwarzenegger has retreated from a controversial oil drilling proposal that state officials were hoping could generate $1.8 billion in  revenue from exploration and drilling rights that could, in turn, be used to fund state parks over the next 14 years.

As a result, in spite of the temptations of off-shore oil revenue for cash-strapped state governments, the Louisiana oil spill may mark a slow turning away from support for no-holds-barred, off-shore drilling even among the Republicans – the very same people who were chanting “Drill! Drill! Drill!” not so long ago. Despite this, right-wing, hate-caster Rush Limbaugh still managed to call this entirely man-made, national disaster a “naturally occurring disaster” – and that the sea will absorb it. In Rush’s world, it’s still “no worries, mate”, just in case you were wondering.

By J Brooks Spector

For more, read the AP, the New York Times, the New York Times, the New York Times and the San Jose Mercury News

Photo: The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Southern Responder (R) is pictured during cleanup activity in the Gulf of Mexico, south of Louisiana, where oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead continues to spread April 28, 2010. The Coast Guard on Wednesday set a “controlled burn” to battle a giant oil slick from last week’s deadly offshore drilling rig explosion, as the spill threatened wide-scale coastal damage for four U.S. Gulf Coast states. REUTERS/Sean Gardner/Greenpeace


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