With the gush from the BP oil spill plugged for the past two weeks, experts are beginning to question whether it can really be called an environmental disaster at all, writes Alex Spillius.
Nature is taking its course, aided by a naval-size flotilla of skimming boats and some powerful chemical dispersants.
Alex Spillius – American Way
Published: So, the oil in the Gulf of Mexico is disappearing much more quickly than expected.
The sea’s warm surface and oil-munching bacteria have dissipated the slick to such an extent that a planeload of journalists had to fly for an hour before their pilot could find a patch of oil. His relief, according to one reporter on board, was comparable to the anxious captain of a tourist boat spotting a distant pod of dolphins.
It turns out that the playful sea mammals, like other creatures, suffered much less damage than was forecast. A grand total of three dead dolphins covered in oil have been recovered by wildlife rescue teams. The spill has so far killed less than one per cent of the number of birds claimed by the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska in 1989.
With the gush plugged for the past two weeks, experts are beginning to question whether the BP spill can really be called an environmental disaster at all.
Doubts remain about the long-term underwater affects of the oil on the ecosystem, but the greatest tragedy remains the 11 lives lost when BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, causing the well to rupture.
On Friday, the company’s new chief executive Bob Dudley announced that the clean-up operation could now begin to be scaled back. It was one of the American’s first public utterances since replacing Tony Hayward as chief executive.
In an earlier appearance before BP employees in Britain, Dudley praised his predecessor for having the decency to stand down “just when things are starting to go right”.
It was not something Dudley would dare to say in the United States, where Hayward, as he acknowledged last week, remains a villain.
There are understandable reasons for this.
His “I want my life back” remark was callous in its carelessness.
You also don’t compare the biggest oil leak in US history to a “drop in the ocean”, even though that has turned out to be more or less the case, when your company is responsible for dumping 60,000 gallons a day into the sea, and when it has probably been economical with the truth about the size of the outflow.
But Hayward’s pillorying revealed how the well-spoken scoundrel remains a latent British stereotype, one that is connected to the “don’t-forget-we-kicked-your-butts-in-1776” smirk that can easily greet a British visitor on July 4.
It was also a reminder that the primary purpose of a scapegoat is to deflect blame. Amid the anger at BP, there were very few in government, the environmental movement or the media prepared to acknowledge that the despoliation of the Gulf and of the Louisiana coast has been going on for decades.
Long, long ago the state – and its people and its elected representatives – embraced oil and all its hazards. Development of the industry was rampant, corrupt, poorly regulated and carried out with little regard to the delicate marshlands that everyone was so worried about once the BP well burst open.
The thirst for oil, and the jobs and revenues it brought, led to the construction of 4,000 offshore oil and gas platforms. Thousands of miles of pipeline and a complex of roads and canals contributed to the disappearance of more than 2,000 square miles of Louisiana coastline over the past century. Teams assessing the damage caused by BP to the wetlands found 350 acres of oily marshes, but the state was already losing many times that amount every year.
As the Washington Post’s energy correspondent put it, Louisiana had become a “Cajun sheikhdom”, with over-dependency on one commodity leading to underdevelopment in many areas.
That reliance explained why the major issue for locals during the spill was not the nationality of the BP’s CEO. They cared about prompt payment of compensation – and there are few complaints heard about that these days – and President Barack Obama’s moratorium on deep-water drilling, which was regarded as a mass job-deprivation programme.
The vilification of Hayward was a Washington affair and the onus is now on Washington to craft an energy policy that will exploit natural resources while offering better care for local environments and requiring stricter adherence to safety standards from the industry.
BP, having committed a colossal and tragic error, seems to be doing its part. It is now up to America’s politicians to do theirs.