The continuing oil spill off the southern coast of the United States shows how limited the world’s technology actually is. We can see the oil coming out of the ground in a live video that British Petroleum (BP) has set up at the menacingly named Deepwater Horizon rig. But there hasn’t been a successful way to plug it.
This is remarkable because the leaking pipe is only 21 inches across, less than two feet. One would imagine that plugging something that small might be easy, but it hasn’t been. And so two million litres of crude oil is flowing into the Gulf of Mexico every day. Some estimate that the spill may actually be many times that. The reason that the operation has been difficult is that the pipe is 1.6 kilometres under the sea. This makes it difficult to access, though clearly it wasn’t difficult to drill and extract oil from such a depth in the first place.
The damage to the environment from the leak is to the ecology of that part of America, and also the economy. Some of the most profitable fishing off American waters happens in the Gulf of Mexico and now that will be affected possibly for years.
The area is also a big tourism location, but that is also expected to suffer heavily now, especially given the state of the struggling US economy.
It is quite strange for us in poor nations to see the most powerful companies and men in the world put on display their helplessness.
There have been three attempts to seal the pipe and the latest, and most expensive, method was tried so apologetically that its failure was no surprise. That was the ‘top kill’ method, which shot heavy liquids down two thin pipes into the leak to block it physically. The qualification that BP offered was that since this method had never been attempted at this depth it was not clear if it would succeed. It didn’t.
BP is a giant corporation and its revenues of about $250 billion are the same size as Pakistan’s GDP. But for now it is absorbing serious blows both by way of publicity and financial loss. It has already spent about a billion dollars on containing the spill and much more expense is on its way. Its stock lost five per cent of its value on Monday alone.
President Obama has also cut a sorry figure in this mess, though for little fault of his own.
People think he should display anger and somehow arm-twist BP into doing more, though it isn’t clear what more can be done at this point.
The long term solution to the leak, and this is the direction that the crisis appears to be moving at this point, is that a series of new wells be dug, diverting the oil away from the leaking pipe.
This is expected to take up to 90 days, till August. This is uncomfortably close to November 2, the date when America will vote in its midterm elections. These will decide all the seats in the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate. With the American economy showing little sign of revival, and with Obama seen as a man unable to assert himself, the extreme wing of the Republican party could storm to victory in the House. And that would really compound the disaster.
Published in the Express Tribune, June 2nd, 2010.
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