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An Environmental Catastrophe

May 30, 2010

One can say that this does not concern us, here in India. That is, the volcano of oil spewing out of the belly of Mother Earth deep down in the sea in the Gulf of Mexico. But it does. It does because we are doing the same in the Krishna-Godavari basin in the Bay of Bengal. Our Indian oil and gas giants have found some substantial amount of gas in this lucrative gas deposit off the coast of Andhra Pradesh. The finds are increasing and the talk is that we might be able to suffice the increasing oil and gas needs of our nation because of these finds.

There is a lesson to be learnt here. The fire in the British Petroleum oil rig killed 11 workers. That was the first loss. The rig collapsed into the sea and made it dirty. That was the second cost. And now a never ending flow of oil from the bottom of the sea has polluted the waters of the Gulf of Mexico such that the people of the state of Louisiana are appalled at the magnitude of the disaster that has struck their coastline.

I am not one to point fingers at anyone. But in this case BP has been irresponsible and has not understood the scale of the problem. They have been giving misleading statements and have tried to downplay the enormity of the disaster. They initially claimed that around 5,000 barrels of oil is leaking into the ocean. That was just not true. Someone said that it was a million barrels a day. That could be over the top but surely massive amount of crude oil is leaking from the ocean floor.

What no one knows for sure is the effect this has had on the marine life in the Gulf of Mexico. It can be safely said that fish and coral must have been hit hard by this unending toxic discharge that no one seems to have a clue as to how to stop. Fishermen have reported that they cannot find any catch in the sea. An aerial view of the Gulf of Mexico and satellite imageries have shown a clear pattern as to where the oil spill has affected and the enormity of the disaster. The spill has now reached the marshlands off the coast of Louisiana and migratory birds drenched in oil have died unable to understand as to what was happening around them. Some have been rescued and cleaned by some enterprising residents of Louisiana but most could not take the pollutant and have succumbed to the toxic substance.  This is a catastrophic event and one that could mean massive environmental damage if not controlled immediately.

Aerial view of marshlands of Louisiana drenched in oil

President Barack Obama has been to Louisiana twice after the oil spill started and has taken upon him the responsibility of the crude oil leak. But what can Obama do? Man has mastered the technology of drilling for oil in the deepest of the oceans. What we have not learnt is to plug holes deep down in the sea were one of the drilling sites face an accident. In the meanwhile BP is spraying chemicals to disperse the oil on the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. That is another pollutant in the sea. The most annoying part was when BP started giving uninterrupted live coverage of the leak. That bothers me a lot. You can show crude leaking from the sea bed but can’t do anything about stopping the leak? And what are we to do watching oil ooze out of the sea bed?

Then there was this flamboyant ‘top kill’ method that was to be employed. This was nothing but showering debris on the hole from where the oil was leaking – hoping it would cap the hole. It has failed. BP is again spraying chemicals on the oil spill.

It appears that the options are few. From what we hear the oil leak will continue till August when another two ‘pressure release’ wells are to be completed. Till then we can just wait and watch. Even then, we cannot be sure that these new wells will release the pressure and oil will stop gushing out.

This is a catastrophe of mammoth proportions. While it is true that BP have tried to downplay the whole disaster, I am not sure any other company would have been able to do anything had their oil platform collapsed and such an accident occurred. We just do not have the technology to cap leaking oil wells in deep waters. We must have the technology to take care of oil wells deep in the oceans. What oil companies have been focusing on is the technology to drill deep and find oil. There is more to oil exploration than just mindless drilling. Such a disaster could have happened anywhere in any company. That is not to exonerate BP and there were signs early on that the oil rig was not in the best of conditions, but still, now that this has happened we must find ways to control the environmental damage that seems to be incalculable.

There is a lot of talk of how much BP will be ‘charged’ for this catastrophe. Some say $600 million and some others quote figures much higher. Even Obama indicated that the company will have to pay ‘damages’. Apart from those interested in shares of BP and oil investors others just do not care as to how much the company will pay. The fact is that the environmental cost is incalculable and a few hundred million dollars here and there is really nitpicking looking at the kind of damage this has been to the environment.

India is on the other side of the globe. But if such effluents keep on gushing out of the ocean bed there could be a scenario where this could become a global disaster.

Should deep sea drilling be banned? Obama had overturned earlier order and had allowed deep sea drilling. He has now put a moratorium on deep sea drilling for six months. My hunch is that the BP oil leak may not be plugged in another six months and Obama administration will again have to take a call on this decision. Some say that this is Obama’s Katarina. I beg to differ. Hurricane Katarina came and went and left in her wake a battered New Orleans, but the Gulf oil leak is continuing and there is no respite at all. This is perhaps a much bigger problem which few have answers to. Crude keeps coming out of the sea and oil floats on the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

The answer to this problem is not in banning deep sea drilling. The important thing is to develop technology to take care of oil wells where drilling has been done to make sure oil does not spill into the sea. That is the challenge that man faces and that is what we need to work on.

Update 1.06.2010: Incredible as it may sound, there is a talk of a controlled nuclear explosion at the mouth of the leak to cap the oil oozing out. Russians have done it more than once and the French believe that under sea nuclear explosion (remember the French conducted a series of tests in the Pacific in the 80’s)  does not have any perceptible affect on marine life. Let us see whether things become so desperate that BP decides to go in for a controlled nuclear explosion to contain this environmental disaster.

Update 17.07.2010: After 88 days of non-stop spillage from the sea bed in the Gulf of Mexico, there has been a cap fitted that seems to have worked and the spill has stopped. That is good news. But this is not a permanent solution. When the relief wells are dug only then can it be said that the problem has been finally contained. Some in Louisiana wondered as to why this was not done earlier?

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