Experts raise serious questions over safety of U.S. oil industry and warn another spill may be 'unavoidable'

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Saturday, April 16, 2011

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico pictured from the International Space Station in May last year. It is now almost a year since the largest spill in the history of the petroleum industry began after the Deepwater Horizon exploded.
Image: NASA.

One year after the Deepwater Horizon disaster which caused the largest oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry and caused huge environmental damage in the Gulf of Mexico, experts have warned there are serious questions over the safety of deep water drilling as the United States government approves more exploration without improving safety measures.

Cquote1.svg I have seen no evidence that they have marshaled containment efforts that are sufficient to deal with another major spill. I don't think they have found ways to change the corporate culture sufficiently to prevent future accidents. Cquote2.svg

Charles Perrow, professor, Yale University

Scientists have raised major concerns over repeated assurances from the industry and the government, who insist lessons have been learned from the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Charles Perrow, a professor at Yale University, said the oil industry "is ill prepared at the least" to deal with another oil spill. "I have seen no evidence that they have marshaled containment efforts that are sufficient to deal with another major spill," he said.

While the government has implemented new regulations, technical systems for stopping oil flowing from a leaking well, and increased oversight from oil officials, Perrow said deep water drilling had become no less dangerous. "I don't think they have found ways to change the corporate culture sufficiently to prevent future accidents," he said. "There are so many opportunities for things to go wrong that major spills are unavoidable."

Last year, Doug Inkley, a scientist at the National Wildlife Federation, said the culture of an "addiction to oil" was ultimately responsible for the catastrophe. "How long must we wait for lawmakers to act to prevent future disasters? How many more lives, livelihoods and animals must be claimed by our addiction to oil?" Greenpeace also slammed BP, who ran Deepwater Horizon, for how they allowed the disaster to happen. "The age of oil is coming to an end and companies like BP will be left behind unless they begin to adapt now," the organization said.

However, under pressure from industry executives the administration of president Barack Obama has resumed issuing drilling permits. It is understood regulators are still allowing oil companies to obtain drilling permits before reviewing new spill response plans. "I'm not an oddsmaker, but I would say in the next five years we should have at least one major blowout," Perrow said. "Even if everybody tries very hard, there is going to be an accident caused by cost-cutting and pressure on workers. These are moneymaking machines and they make money by pushing things to the limit."

Under pressure from industry executives the administration of president Barack Obama has resumed issuing drilling permits.
Image: U.S. Senate.

BP has insisted it has changed safety procedures. The oil giant came under heavy criticism for how it handled the crisis, and other major oil companies insisted Deepwater Horizon was a result of a culture exclusive to BP. Michael Bromwich, the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE), the U.S. government agency responsible for regulating offshore drilling, said the view was "as disappointing as it is shortsighted," and the issue of deep water safety was "a broad problem."

The warnings came as it emerged BP had attempted to take control of an independent study into the environmental consequences of the Deepwater Horizon spill. Internal emails expose how BP executives attempted to influence the study, which was funded by a US$500m grant from the oil company. The study may be part of the final verdict as to what penalties, fines and criminal charges are brought against the company. Greenpeace, who uncovered the emails through a Freedom of Information Act request, attacked the reportedly unsuccessful attempts to influence the supposedly independent study as "outrageous".

Cquote1.svg My community is dead. We've worked five generations there and now we've got a dead community. I'm angry, I've been angry a long time. Cquote2.svg

—Diane Wilson, Gulf coast fisherwoman

Protesters rallied outside BP's annual conference in London this week, where shareholders met for the first time since the disaster off the Gulf coast. Executives faced questions over their competence and large salaries from angry shareholders, many of whom disapproved of the appointment of Carl-Henric Svanberg as chairman and Sir Bill Castell as the head of BP's safety board.

Some demonstrators purchased shares in BP in an attempt to get inside the meeting; one woman, a fisherwoman who lives on the Gulf Coast was arrested after pouring a black substance down herself at the entrance to the conference centre and refusing to move. "I have travelled all the way over from the Gulf Coast and I just wanted to talk those responsible for destroying my community," she said as she was led away by police. "My community is dead. We've worked five generations there and now we've got a dead community. I'm angry, I've been angry a long time."


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