Paul Horsman is a Greenpeace campaigner, currently in Louisiana to assess the destruction from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Read his previous Deepwater Horizon blog here.
In a clear attempt to downplay the impacts of BP’s latest oil spill, chief executive, Tony Hayward, recently said "The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume." His comment shows a cynical disregard for the reality of what is happening here to the environment, wildlife and communities who live and work here on the southern coast of the US.
I’m not sure whether Hayward and the folk at BP are just being arrogant or ignorant – or maybe both. On Monday I stood in gloopey thick oil accumulating on the beaches at the end of the Mississippi River – at the low water mark and below, the oil was 20-25 centimetres (9-10 inches) thick. Maybe Mr Hayward would care to join me and watch as BP’s oil oozes from the high tidemark to form thick brown streaks down the short beach; or perhaps he could come to the breakwater rocks and see the splattered mess.
The fact that the amount of oil gushing from the ocean floor is less than the volume of water in the Gulf of Mexico is a statement of the obvious and not the point. Currents, tides, wind and waves take the oil, sometimes causing it to accumulate, sometimes causing it to spread. This beach is only one tiny part of the coastline that is made up of hundreds of miles of inlets, bayous and islands. And the oil here is one miniscule part of that which is bleeding from the severed pipeline on the seafloor about 60 miles away and at a mile deep.
The folk at BP should note what independent scientists are reporting – and warning. These scientists are finding enormous oil plumes in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico; one plume was 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and 90 metres (300 feet) thick in places. They have just undertaken a mission to gather information about what is happening and report that the oil is in multiple layers in the water – much more than at the surface. The oil plumes are reducing the amount of oxygen in the water (this is needed by marine bacteria to start degrading the oil) and the scientists fear that the oxygen level could eventually fall so low as to kill off much of the sea life near the plumes. . There are already some so-called ‘dead areas’ in the Gulf that regularly experience a decrease in the amount of oxygen in the water.
No one really knows how much oil is gushing from the ocean floor into the Gulf – it is certainly several thousand barrels a day – a vast amount by any calculation. BP – has injected over 500,000 gallons of dispersants to make a lethal cocktail that is spreading under the water. Evidence from beaches and wetlands over 60 miles away shows just how much the oil has spread; and this is still early days.
The oil industry likes to portray itself as heroic, battling against all odds to bring fuel – Hayward compared the oil industry to the Apollo mission quoting the Apollo 13 unsuccessful moon mission as a comparison to what his company is doing. The comparison is fallacious. If ever there were a manifestation of the “wrong way” then the oil poisoning the Mexican Gulf is it. The sheer arrogance of an industry which over the last couple of decades has refused to shift its direction, is clearly demonstrated by Hayward’s comment and by their stubborn clinging to their identity as an oil company - a dirty, dangerous, environmentally destructive and fundamentally unsustainable business – Beyond Petroleum? More like Back to Petroleum!
The oil industry is a dinosaur of the 20th century, a legacy of the carbon age. This century is a post-fossil fuel, post-carbon era with clean renewable energy, efficiency, clean green jobs and true sustainability. Let’s not forget – it is not oil that society needs, (or for that matter coal or nuclear power); what society needs are the services which these provide. And increasingly societies energy needs will be provided from sources which do not, either in their production or use, cause catastrophic environmental destruction of the scale that we are witnessing in the Gulf of Mexico.
Hayward says that he “will be judged by the nature of the response” – no: BP has been judged and found guilty in the court of public opinion of betraying the trust and confidence of the communities in which it works and by its lack of foresight, lack of ingenuity, and lack of ability to be flexible and shift away from oil as its core business. The oil industry is a sunset industry and the sun has gone down.
Images: Various examples of what Mr Hayward calls a 'tiny amount of oil'.
First and second photos: © Daniel Beltrá / Greenpeace
Third photo: © Sean Gardner / Greenpeace