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Oil Volcano Apocalypse

The story of the Gulf oil spill have been on my mind a lot lately, I’ve been following it since the initial disaster, and there are some interesting recent developments, so it’s as good a topic as any to start with.

Basic background:  On April 20, there was an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig (belonging to Transocean, leased by BP, operating 80 km off of the Louisiana coast).  The resulting fire could not be extinguished, and after two days, the rig sank.  The disaster killed eleven crew and caused a massive oil spill.

The oil spill should have been stopped by the rig’s blowout preventer device.  It’s unknown if the crew tried to trigger the device manually.  The failsafe dead-man’s switch failed to trigger the device.  Subsequent attempts to activate the device with ROVs failed.  Some countries require an acoustic remote control for the blowout preventer on offshore wells, but BP had successfully lobbied against US regulation that would require that.  It’s not clear that would have helped.  Yesterday, the well casing collapsed.

BP and the Coast Guard have been trying various methods to contain the oil spill, with very limited success.  BP does not appear to have had enough boom on hand to contain a spill of that magnitude (a lot, but still actually rather cheap compared to the cost of operating the rigs, where just the lease is nearly a half-million dollars per day).  The general idea is to use multiple layers of overlapping boom to divert oil to catchment basins.  That way, even though some oil sloshes over and under the booms (and it will), the lion’s share of it can be concentrated and removed from the area.  If you see long parallel lines of boom parallel to the shore, that’s a sign that things are being done wrong.

They’ve also been hitting the spill with chemical dispersants, which have several problems:  They’re toxic.  The metabolism of oil by bacteria, which the dispersants are intended to allow, is also pretty disruptive to ecosystems.  It turns the ocean into a giagantic oil lava lamp, which makes the oil harder to track and more disruptive to ecosystems at all depths.  Not surprisingly, oil is being found at great depths and the media are mostly following the spill at the surface.

BP is also considering implementing a “top kill” (circulating mud and concrete through the well to seal it), but it’s not clear whether that plan will work now that the well has disintegrated further.  Also, if they succeed, they’ll face the question of why they didn’t implement the plan sooner.

The spill has been interesting politically.  BP has claimed that they’ll pay “all legitimate claims” of damages from the spill, but it’s not clear how arduous a process they’ll use for determining “legitimacy”.  If they pay more in civil liabilities than required by law, they might risk shareholder lawsuit.  Republicans have blocked attempts to raise that limit from $75M to $10B, but I don’t know if such a change after the accident would affect BP.  President Barack Obama has talked a good talk about making BP pay, but has done nothing of substance (some possible but implausible options).  Sarah Palin has accused Barack Obama of being in bed with big oil (warning: the preceding sentence may contain a lethal dose of irony).  Libertarian (and now Republican congressional candidate) Rand Paul accused Obama of being “un-American” for merely criticizing BP, seeming to assert that BP’s assurance that they’ll pay civil penalties is more than enough.

It’s also been interesting from a media standpoint.  BP’s been trying to restrict access to spill sites.  On the other hand, they put the live streaming feed from their ROV monitoring the drill site on the internet, though that may now be down.  CNN is curating citizen journalism on the spill on their iReport site.

So, interesting stuff.  What am I still missing about this story?  I’ll probably have some political opinion writing to do on the subject, but I think I’m going to wait a bit given recent developments, and because this post is long enough as it is.