The likelihood of a complete collapse is difficult to assess, in part, engineers and legislators say, because BP hasn’t shared enough information to evaluate the situation. But a handful of clues suggest that the company is concerned. On Friday, BP spokesperson Toby Odone acknowledged that the 45-ton stack of the blowout preventer was tilting noticeably, but said the company could not attribute it to down-hole leaks. “We don’t know anything about the underground portion of the well,” he said. But, the stack “is tilting and has been tilting since the rig went down. We believe that it was caused by the collapse of the riser.” The company is monitoring the degree of leaning but has not announced any plans to run additional supports to the structure.
As many have speculated, and as the New Orleans Times Picayune reported Friday, concerns over structural integrity are what led BP to halt “top kill” efforts late last month. When it was digging this particular well, the company ran out of casing–the pipe that engineers send down the hole–and switched to a less durable material called liner. This may have created several weak spots along the well that would be particularly vulnerable to excessive pressure or erosion. So instead of sealing the well, the company has been focused on trying to capture the oil as it flows out the top.
The symptoms are well-documented: The Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 touched off a wave of suicides, domestic violence, bankruptcies and alcoholism in Alaska that created an entire literature on the unique and confounding psychology of technological disaster.
Mike Williams, dazed and battered against the back wall of his shop, shoves his blown-out door out of the way. His left elbow’s hurt bad, and his leg, too. He limps and crawls across the room and through the hole where his door used to be, toward the bulkhead that opens onto the deck. He reaches for it.
Another explosion. That door is ripped from its hinges, and Mike is flung backward again. He’s hurt worse, but he starts moving again, struggles to make it outside. Something warm is dripping into his eyes, blurring his vision. It’s blood from a gash on his forehead. He wipes it away, looks right. The deck, the walkway, the hydraulics, the exhaust stack in engine three and part of the wall—they’re all gone, torn away by the blasts. He doesn’t see any fire, but the heat is intense.
He turns left. From the doorway, he hears a moaning voice. I’m hurt.
"I’m hurt bad, too," he rasps. "I can’t help you." He starts to move, stops, calls back. "But if you make it out the door, don’t go right."
Some of the best work on this subject has been done by Ian Parry, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future. His calculations suggest that adding all the quantifiable costs into the price of oil would increase the cost of each gallon by about $1.23. If you’re very worried about global warming, kick that up to $1.88. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average price of a gallon of gas is $2.72 right now. If Parry is right, it should be as high as $4.60.
That’s almost certainly an underestimation. There are plenty of costs we don’t know how to price. How much of our military policy is dictated by our need for secure oil resources? How much instability is created by our need to treat oil-producing monarchies with kid gloves? How much is the environment worth in a poor country that prefers oil investment to air quality?
Nothing like this has ever been tried, and the potential problems are legion. For starters, the 45 miles of berms the Army Corps of Engineers has OK’d will take six months to build, and “is going to start to erode and disappear immediately,” says Young. “I wouldn’t be surprised if by the time they get to the end the beginning is gone—and that’s without a storm.” (Scientists predict this hurricane season will be one of the worst in years.) But heck, it’s BP’s money ($360 million for the berms alone, to be constructed by The Shaw Group Inc. of Baton Rouge, though the feds and state would have to front it and hope to be repaid), so who cares if the berms have to be rebuilt over and over? The real problem could be if they last long enough to block inlets that carry water to the wetlands on shore. If that happens, notes Young, “organisms that need to move in and out with tidal flushing won’t. You could kill the wetlands without the oil ever reaching them.”
As CEO, Hayward is ultimately responsible for BP’s operations, and for its response to the crisis. And by any measure, the performance has been a debacle. So why is he still in the corner office? Ironically, Hayward owes his continued tenure largely to BP’s unsuccessful efforts to cap the well. For better or worse (mostly for worse), Hayward has emerged as the public face of BP. When he shows up at the Gulf, or on television, he catches all the flak—for his colleagues, for those who report to him, and for those to whom he reports. As a human punching bag, he absorbs all the blows thrown by politicians, the media, and locals that might otherwise land on the corporate board or on investors. He literally owns the spill—and its consequences.
Are you fucking happy? Are you fucking happy? The rig’s on fire! I told you this was gonna happen.
We’ve entered what Michael Klare, a professor at Hampshire College, calls the era of “extreme energy.” Consider how oil production in the U.S. has evolved. In Texas in 1901, wildcatters didn’t have to work very hard to tap into the great Beaumont gusher. The oil was essentially at the surface, all but seeping out of the earth’s crust. When the land-based oil was exhausted, American prospectors went to sea. And when the shallow-water oil was exhausted, they went farther out. In 1985 only 21 million barrels, or 6 percent of the oil produced in the Gulf of Mexico, came from wells drilled in water more than 1,000 feet deep. In 2009 such wells produced 456 million barrels, or 80 percent of total gulf production. Today, deepwater gulf wells account for about one quarter of the oil the U.S. sucks from the earth. The Webcams broadcasting images from the spill provide a real-time measure of the environmental cost of this effort.