Gulf oil spill: The recklessness of capitalism

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The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico highlights the complete absence of care and the incredibly dangerous character of the search and use of natural resources by capitalism.

Since the explosion on BP's floating platform Deepwater Horizon on April 22, where 11 workers lost their lives and about double that number were horribly injured, over $3 billion has been spent on the ‘clean-up' to date; at least 800,000 litres of oil per day has been discharged into the Gulf and threatens coastlines as far away as Cuba, Mexico, the Caribbean and possibly, given the submerged nature of much of it, may have reached the Gulf Stream and the Atlantic. No-one really knows the precise amount of contamination - methane is also escaping in volumes - but at the end of May, papers leaked from BP suggested that their original estimates of one and then five thousand barrels a day could in fact be one hundred thousand barrels with much of this remaining under the sea. BP CEO Tony Haward was correct to say that oil floats on water but, given the enormous pressures at the depth of the drill, it's likely that there are enormous slicks of oil moving underwater.[1] Even without the development of Hurricane Alex, the operation to plug the well, while being possible, needs to be very precise and is potentially extremely hazardous.

First investigations after the spill showed that "the Mineral  Management Service (MMS), the US administration service responsible for the supervision of oil production, gave its authorisations without carrying out any controls to the plan for security and compatibility with the environment (...) In this concrete case, the MMS failed to verify the capacity of the blowout preventer (a valve central to safety for the prevention of leaks [...] In the hydraulic element of this system there has manifestly been a failure. In fact, some hours before the explosion tests on it failed".[2] A worker who survived, subsequently reported that the preventer was leaking several weeks before the spill, that both BP and Transocean knew of it and that it was turned off rather than repaired.[3]

Other enquiries showed that there was no equipment to draw off any leaking oil and there were no means to undertake relief drilling in the case of an emergency. What does this attitude of exploiting oilfields at this depth, without any possibility of containing any possible leaks, reveal? "The oil platform Deepwater Horizon, at a cost of $560 million, was one of the most modern drilling rigs in the world capable of resisting hurricanes and waves 12 metres high".[4] The production costs for building such a platform are astronomical (more than half-a-billion dollars!) while the drilling costs hundreds of millions of dollars more, yet no safety system or emergency cover was put in place. How can you explain this?

Profit at the expense of nature

When the systematic search for oil began a century ago there was a need for only relatively weak financial and technical investments in order to exploit the resources. A century later however the petrol companies are confronted with a new situation.

"A great part of the global oil of the world has been exploited from fields found over 60 years ago without any large technological investment. Today on the contrary companies must use onerous methods for prospecting the fields, the more so given that they are found in relatively difficult areas that are hard to access from the land - and then only deliver quantities considered marginal up to now (...) Above all, western enterprises no longer have access to easy, cheap sources promising the type of production of Asia and Latin America. These sources are in fact in the hands of national petrol companies such as Saudi Arabia's Aramaco, Gazprom (Russia), NIOC (Iran) or PDVSA (Venezuela) and under control of these national states. These are the real giants in controlling three-quarters of the world's reserves.

"‘Big Oil', as the old private multinationals are still called, control hardly 10% of the reserves of global gas and oil. For the likes of BP this means that projects are onerous, costly and dangerous. It's thus necessary that these firms are pushed to their limits to reach these deposits that no-one else wants to explore..."

Greater costs, bigger risks

"It was some time ago that that the petrol companies abandoned platforms solidly anchored to the marine floor. Some floating monsters called semi-submersibles swam in the oceans with kilometres of water beneath them. Vertical canals of special steel or extremely hard composite material plunged into the obscurity of the depths. Normal conduits broke apart under their own weight. At 1500 metres water temperature is 5 degrees and oil gushed out almost at boiling point. Extreme constraints are exercised on the material as a result of this and the risks are considerable. At this depth the technical demands of drilling are much greater. The technique is dangerous: as the cement goes off fissures can appear through which oil and gas can escape under enormous pressure and it only needs a spark to start an explosion"[5] - which is exactly what happened.

Feverishly, tens of thousands of people have fought, vainly up to now, to hold the oil back from the beaches. Lockheed C-130 planes have dropped tonnes of Corexit, a product that is supposed to dissolve the layers of oil - although we can guess that this chemical cocktail can only damage the aquatic surrounds and beyond. We can also fear the unforeseen and still greater long-term effects on nature from this chemical rescue attempt. The economic effects are already devastating for the local populations with many pushed to ruin. But potential health effects on people close to oil spills are already known, with long-term risks to the central nervous system, kidney and liver damage and of cancer. And US worker safety rules only apply up to three miles offshore, leaving workers near the ruptured well even more exposed. BP had to be compelled to provide respirators and other protective gear to workers on the boats fighting the spill and protecting vulnerable populations on the land. But no respirators can provide enough protection - if you can smell it you're breathing it in. And many locals know the bay area as "cancer alley" from the illnesses put down to the constant pollution from the concentration of chemical and oil-related industries.

New exploitation of oil-fields demand greater investment and as a result of this still greater technical risks are taken. The conditions of capitalist competition lead rivals to show less and less respect to the protection of people and nature and this is the case where it's relatively easier to extract oil from the ground. In the Niger Delta independent experts have estimated  (The Observer, 20/6/10) that during the last 50 years there have been spills equivalent to an Exxon Valdez every 12 months. There are similar stories in Columbia, Kazakhstan and in Ecuador; in the latter, with an even more sensitive eco-system than the marshes of Louisiana, ‘toxic water' from drilling is estimated to be something like 470 times the amount of contamination spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.

The thawing glacial caps of the poles, which are opening up the maritime passages of the north-west, and the unfreezing of the permafrost have sharpened the appetites of the petrol companies and provoked tensions between countries laying territorial claims to these regions. Whereas, in reality, the unbridled utilisation of non-renewable and fossil energy constitute a pure waste, and the search for new sources a complete absurdity, the economic crisis and the competition linked to it, lead firms to invest even less resources in the possible and necessary safety systems. Capitalism is pillaging the resources of the planet in a more and more predatory way. In the past, a ‘scorched earth' policy was a method of war. For example, in the first Gulf War of 1991 the United States attacked the oil installations of the Persian Gulf provoking enormous fires and monstrous leaks of oil. Now, it is the daily pressure of the crisis that leads to the practice of ‘scorched earth' and the contamination of seas and land in order to impose economic interests.

This current disaster was foreseeable - as was the catastrophe of 2005, when Hurricane Katrina flooded the town of New Orleans leading to the deaths of 1800 people, the evacuation of the entire town and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. The present event, like the New Orleans catastrophe, is the result of the incapacity of capitalism to offer sufficient protection against the dangers of nature. It is the product of the search to maximise profits undertaken by capitalism.

Dv/B 6/7/10



[1] Volumes of water polluted by particles of oil are found at these depths. Concentrations are at least one litre per cubic metre but the spread of these sheets are important (Wikipedia).

[2]  http://www.spiegel.de.wissenschaft/natur/0,1518,694602,00html and http://www.spiegel.de/speigel/01518,694271,00.html.             

[3]  The Guardian, 22.6.10

[4]  See footnote 2.

[5]  Idem