The massive oil spill from BP’s offshore drilling rig began on April 20, 2010. It is now officially the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.
There will be government investigations into what caused the accident and how it could have been prevented. The federal government has initiated a criminal probe into the accident and a Presidential Commission has been formed to look into the root causes of the incident. Someone will probably end up in jail.
What can we learn from this environmental disaster now? Here are some things that we know for sure at this point.
There is no such thing as a fail-safe system. Engineers and experts have assured the public repeatedly that an accident of such magnitude could never happen or are extremely unlikely to happen. Well it happened. The experts have been proven wrong. In fact BP’s 582-page emergency plan entitled “BP Gulf of Mexico Regional Oil Spill Response Plan” dated June 30, 2009 does not contain specific plans to deal with an accident of this magnitude. According to the plan, the TOTAL worst case discharge from an uncontrolled blowout from an exploratory well off shore was 250,000 barrels. The low estimate from the federal government on the amount of oil spilled is around 20,000 barrels per day. That’s 600,000 barrels per month and the spill began on April 20 with no end in sight.
There was no detailed discussion on how to stop a deep water blowout in the response plan. There were no Plan A, Plan B or Plan C outlined in the plan to address this magnitude of a spill. There was no mention of “Top Hat” or “Top Kill” in the plan. That’s why it has taken BP so long to stop the blowout. In fact, the Financial Times of London quoted BP’s CEO on June 3 as saying it was “entirely fair” to criticize the company’s preparations. The CEO went on to say that “what is undoubtedly true is that we did not have the tools you would want in your tool kit.”
The second thing we know is that too many emergency response plans contain a lot of fluff and extraneous material just to make them look substantive and impressive. One would have thought that a 582-page document would have the room to cover ALL possible worst case scenarios – including a blowout of a size that matches what actually happened. But that was not the case.
The 582-page plan was prepared by outside consultants. There is evidence that parts of the BP plan contain boilerplate languages used by other plans elsewhere. One example that has been cited by the media and much to BP’s embarrassment is that the BP plan actually lists walruses as among the Gulf of Mexico’s sensitive biological resources (see section 11 of the report). We all know that walruses live in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. They simply do not live in the balmy waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The fact that no one has caught this glaring mistake in the plan during the review process should be a cause of concern. The consultants who prepared this plan has offices in Alaska. A reasonable person could reasonably infer that the reference to walruses came out of a spill response plan that had been prepared for the frigid waters off Alaska. Cutting and pasting did not work this time around. It seldom does, It also tells us that the regulatory agencies responsible for reviewing the BP plan missed the mark by a wide margin.
So what else does this 582 page plan tell us? Size does not matter. It is the content and specifically local contents that really count. Despite its massive volume, the plan contains none of the different remedies that BP has actually tried out since the spill. One valuable lesson we learn from this disaster is that next time when we prepare a spill response plan or a contingency plan we need to focus on site-specific environmental conditions and not pad those plans with boilerplate cut-and-paste languages and fluff. All that flowery language in its 582-page has not helped BP plug that hole. Another valuable lesson we learn is that if we engage the services of an outside consultant or contractor to write our plan, we need to READ it carefully before sending it on to the agencies.
One final lesson we have learned is that if we spend a lot of money to develop a new manufacturing process to make a new widget, we need to also spend some money on how to control the pollution coming out of this new process. That’s one thing the oil industry has failed to do. It spent billions of dollars developing new deep water oil drilling technology without considering new technologies to deal with spills at such great depths.