British Petroleum assures that it will pay the costs of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, but the oil pool continues without control, expelling thousands of barrels of petroleum daily and generating the worst petroleum disaster in the dirty history of that industry.
In reality, neither BP nor the government of the United States will be able to cover the cost of this tragedy that many unmistakably compare with the spillage of Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989. Unfortunately, the parameter of comparison most adequate is Chernobyl, in both range and duration.
When a tank vessel runs aground and starts to spill its load, at least one knows how many thousands of barrels it transports. But in the case of the disaster of the platform Deepwater Horizon, there is no telling the quantity that will be spilled. Everything will depend on the operations to close the spill that, according to BP, emits some 5,000 barrels daily. Other, perhaps more realistic, estimations place this figure at around 25,000 barrels daily. The forces to control the catastrophe have been useless until today, and containing the spill will take weeks. Even according to conservative projections, the leak from the Gulf of Mexico is quickly headed toward exceeding the total of Exxon Valdez (250,000 barrels).
The platform Deepwater Horizon was constructed in the shipyards of Hyundai in Ulsan, Korea in 2001. This floating structure with pontoons and ballast tanks in their gigantic columns was designed to perforate in ultra-deep waters. It was equipped with a dynamic geographic positioning system that permits a fixed-position with respect to a point at the bottom of the sea. This technology utilizes current and wind sensors in order to activate motors that permit the fixed-positioned platform in the sea.
The geo-reference is tied to one or more gyroscopes and the entire system is coordinated by computer. In September of 2009, the Deepwater Horizon punctured the deepest submarine oil drill in the world, at some 10,700 meters (of which 1,260 meters is the distance between the surface of the water and the ocean floor). In a few words, Deepwater Horizon is the most advanced technology for making perforations in ultra-deep waters.
The businesses that operate platforms in this economic zone, exclusively within the territory of the United States in the Gulf of Mexico, have always boasted about their technological capacities and the very low probability of oil leaks. Therefore, they have always insisted that, even in the rare event of a leak, environmental effects and damage to other economic activities (fish, tourism) would be minute, short-lived, and easy to repair.
At the time of the explosion and fire, the platform operated at some 80 kilometers southeast of the Mississippi River’s delta. Their work consisted of putting the final touches on the drill hole, preparing the cement covering that should permit their commercial exploitation. The origins of the explosion continue to be unknown, but as in Chernobyl, the initial reaction of those responsible (BP and the regulatory entities) was to play down the consequences of the accident.
As early as March 31, Obama announced that his administration would open millions of square kilometers to exploration and submarine perforation in the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. coastal region of the Atlantic and north of Alaska. No one knows how much crude oil is in the submarine deposits in the zones open to exploration, but geological data indicates that, in the best case scenario, it would barely meet the United States’ consumption for one year. We are talking about ridiculously low quantities for which to risk extraordinary environmental damage.
On the United States coast of the Gulf of Mexico, there are 3,858 submarine perforation platforms in operation. However, all of these petroleum platforms contribute only 1.6 million barrels daily while the United States consumes 19.5 million barrel in a day. American energy independence is not going to come from opening new fields for environmental disaster.
The parallelism with the nuclear industry is shown through another aspect: the limited liability of those responsible for a disaster. Federal legislation in the United States establishes that BP will have to pay the reparation costs, but it limits their responsibility for economic damages to only $75 million, a tiny fraction. Of course, BP should have to pick up the bill for the cost of operations, but who will pay for the damages to hurt ecosystems?
The Torrey Canyon, the first vessel tank that ran aground, spilled its cargo in 1967 on the coasts of England while transporting 120,000 tons of crude oil. The ship left half of the spillage until it was bombarded with 3,000 gallons of napalm in an attempt to burn the petroleum and avoid the leak. All this turned out to be useless, of course, but it was a spectacular shooting exercise for the Royal Navy. It was an educational example of how people are always able to resolve problems that modern technology makes for us.