Chevron – Because BP Wasn’t Drilling Deep Enough

Fifty miles off the coast of Louisiana, upwards of 100,000 barrels per day of oil are gushing from BP’s Deepwater Horizon well into the Gulf of Mexico. With the equivalent of one Exxon-Valdez seeping into the Gulf every three days, mass devastation of the wetlands, wildlife, and marshes surrounding the area is a forgone conclusion. Those who make a living in fishing industry, often through family businesses inherited from generations past, can only watch as their entire way of life is slowly consumed by the crude.

The catastrophe aboard the Deepwater Horizon was not supposed to happen; BP all but guaranteed the well’s safety, submitting in it’s 2009 exploration plan it was “unlikely that an accidental surface or subsurface oil spill would occur from the proposed activities.” If an accident were to occur, BP insisted, “no significant adverse impacts are expected … due to the distance to shore (48 miles) and the response capabilities that would be implemented.”

BP’s Gulf of Mexico Regional Oil Spill Response Plan fares no better in accuracy, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) noting BP’s plan “is studded with patently inaccurate and inapplicable information … most notably the response plan contains no information about how to cope with a deep water blowout, … does not contain information about tracking sub-surface oil plumes from deepwater blowouts, … (and) lacks any oceanographic or meteorological information, despite the clear relevance of this data to spill response.”
Among the “outright inanities” found in the farcical plan is the inclusion of “sea lions, seals, sea otters (and) walruses” as “sensitive biological resources” in the Gulf, listing a Japanese home shopping website as a “primary equipment provider for BP in the Gulf of Mexico Region (for) rapid deployment of spill response resources,” and forbidding company spokespeople of promising “that property, ecology, or anything else will be restored to normal.” Perhaps the most egregious example of BP’s utter ineptitude at disaster response readiness lies in the contact referenced to monitor the impact oil would have on local marine and wildlife. Listed as the emergency contact is Dr. Peter Lutz, former biologist and university professor. The problem? Dr. Lutz died of pancreatic cancer in 2005.

The disaster in the Gulf can be traced back to the Bush/Cheney administration, and is a direct result of the incestuous relationship between Republican lawmakers and the oil industry. Between the years 2001 – 2008, the Bush White House cut funding to clean energy research and development, provided multiple tax breaks and subsidies to the Oil and Gas industry, approved drilling along coastal strip of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), and lifted the decades old moratorium – put in place by George H.W. Bush – on offshore oil drilling. But by far, the single most destructive element of the Bush/Cheney energy platform was in allowing the industry to self-regulate.

“The Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) – the agency responsible for managing oil and gas resources on the Outer Continental Shelf and collecting royalties from companies – decided in 2005 that oil companies, rather than the government, were in the best position to determining their operations’ environmental impacts. This meant that there was no longer any need for an environmental impact analysis for deepwater drilling, though an earlier draft stated that such drilling experience was limited.”

The fallout of these industry-friendly policies can be seen throughout the Gulf region; toxic subsea plumes comprised of oil and chemical dispersants; marshes, wetlands and wildlife saturated in heavy crude; pristine beaches spotted by a repeated deluge of tarballs.

As days turn into weeks, and weeks into months, the sense of helplessness felt by those directly effected by the spill has now engulfed an entire nation; All the while, the oil continues to flow, unabated, into the Gulf of Mexico.

Ironically, as North American attention is focused primarily on the crisis in the Gulf, drilling quietly began on an even deeper well some 430 km off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Located in the Orphan Basin, Chevron’s Lona 0-55 exploration well is being drilled in 2600 meters (8530 ft) of water; nearly twice the depth of BP’s 1500 meter (5000 ft) deep Deepwater Horizon well. Because this class of ultra deep exploration poses a substantially greater risk than did the BP rig, one would assume greater precautionary measures and safety procedures would be required to gain approval to drill such a well.

Such an assumption, however, would be incorrect.

The long standing rules governing offshore drilling in Canada were once rigorous, requiring oil companies to install specific safety equipment, such as certain types of blowout preventers and safety valves. So detailed were the regulations, they directed a wide range of procedures, from how companies were to carry out the cementing process, to how they should conduct pressure tests. Thorough environmental assessments were made by the federal government, and were mandatory prior to awarding a drilling contract.

But much like the Bush/Cheney administration, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative colleagues have implemented industry friendly policies, gutting environmental oversight, and handing over regulatory duties to the industry friendly boards.

Under policy changes that came into effect late 2009, deep well operators are asked to “set environmental-protection goals, list the equipment they will use to achieve those goals and disclose their plans for inspecting, testing and maintaining such gear;” Governmental inspection and specific safety equipment installation is no longer required.

Environmental protections were the target In March 2010, when Harper shifted assessment duties from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, to the pro-industry National Energy Board (NEB). Environment Minister Jim Prentice was also given free rein to severely limit, essentially cancelling environmental assessments on any given project; a move he argued would “get good environmental outcomes,” but without “delaying and frustrating projects through unnecessary red tape.”

Another component of Harper’s watered down legislation deals specifically with emergency response plans; particularly the requirement of relief wells. Prior to the 2009 regulatory changes, Oil companies were mandated to present a detailed list of contingency plans as well as identify a specific rig to drill a relief well. Required information about the stand-by rig included its “operating capability, its location, contractual commitments, state of readiness and the schedule for mobilization to the well site.” Now, as a result of Harper’s regulatory revisions, the requirement for thorough, detailed relief well plans no longer exists.

Because Chevron is drilling at record depths, reaching farther into the deep than has ever before been attempted, the policy changes enacted by the Harper government are a grave cause for concern. But beyond the weakened set of rules governing the oil industry are specific questions surrounding Chevron, and the federal-provincial agency – the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB) – who approved, and is regulating, the Lona 0-55 well.

Like the NEB, who’s industry insider members include a member of the Canadian Petroleum Hall of fame, the C-NLOPB has come under fire for it’s close ties to the Oil and Gas sector. C-NLOPB chairman and CEO Max Ruelokke is a veteran of the offshore oil industry, and at the time of his 2005 appointment to the C-NLOPB he was general manager of AMEC Oil and Gas.

Between 2000-2008, AMEC was “delivering deepwater Gulf of Mexico production to market” including “engineering, procurement, inspection, construction management, health, safety and environment, action tracking, quality assurance / quality control, environmental support, and flow assurance.”

Location – Gulf of Mexico and Louisiana, US.
Client – BP.

According to project manager John Barnes, AMEC “developed and implemented an innovative health, safety, and environmental management system; successfully managed stakeholder interfaces; and ensured minimal impact on Louisiana’s environmentally sensitive wetlands – a great result.”

Even as Ruelokke witnesses the disaster with the BP well, the former AMEC general manager sees no additional risk with Chevron’s well; Nor does he support a drilling moratorium. Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams, a Conservative who in 2006 blasted Harper for being “in bed with the oil industry,” is himself downplaying the potential impact of a spill, suggesting “the colder water and thicker crude in the Orphan Basin would mean the oil would sink to the bottom instead of washing toward the coast.”

The assurances of the safety of the Lona 0-55 rig, including Ruelokke’s claim “we would never allow (a disaster like is happening in the Gulf) to happen. Our policy, procedures, training, equipment are such that it will not happen,” are simply not supported by the facts.

Subsequent to the grilling of the five major oil companies (Chevron included) by Washington lawmakers, it became apparent that BP’s ineffective, error riddled emergency plan was identical to the plans of the other four oil companies; identical in that they were literal photo-copies of one another, bound behind different company logos. In essence, the flawed contingency plan BP had in place at the time of the blowout is the same flawed contingency plan currently in place by Chevron; Even as it drills the world’s deepest offshore oil well.

Furthermore, the failure of the blow out preventer on the Deepwater Horizon has raised concerns about a repeat occurrence on the Lona 0-55, who’s blow out preventer “has shortcomings that could hamper efforts to respond to an emergency.” This is a problem, Chevron says, they “are aware of.”

Wonderful.

The apparent lack of concern by the Conservative government, the federal and provincial regulatory boards, and Chevron itself regarding the unprecedented depth of Lona 0-55 is particularly puzzling given that in 2005, Chevron’s own report warned it could not clean a major spill:

“Physical recovery of spilled oil off the coast of Newfoundland will be extremely difficult and inefficient for large blowout spills. First, the generally rough sea conditions mean that containment and recovery techniques are frequently not effective. Second, the wide slicks that result from subsea blowouts mean that only a portion of the slick can be intercepted.”

For a province that boasts how “few fishing destinations in the world rival Newfoundland and Labrador,” the grave impact on the fishing industry in the event of a spill has yet to resonate with Premier Williams. The staggering cost of the clean up effort, given Chevron’s admitted inability to handle a blow out, would also leave taxpayers on the hook for the vast majority of the clean up effort. In Canada, oil companies are only liable for up to $40 million – that’s $35 million less than the U.S. liability cap of $75 million.

The parallels between BP’s Deepwater Horizon well and the risky game being played off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador are worrisome. Though the oil industry boasts advancements in drilling technology and the ability to explore in ever deeper waters, there has been little progress made toward making drilling safer.

The consequences of failing to invest in safety technology for drilling are clearly laid out in a report by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. In comparing techniques currently being used to try and stem the leak in the Gulf to the techniques employed 31 years ago in a similar well blow out, Maddow uncovers the failure of the oil industry to match advancements in drilling safety with advancements in drilling capabilities.

“The Ixtoc rig erupted in the middle of the night in 1979 in June, as it was drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico. The drilling was being done by a company called Sedco. It later became known as Transocean-the operator of the rig that blew up this year in the Gulf of Mexico. The reason the Ixtoc explosion turned into a massive uncontrolled leak 30 years ago is because the well‘s blowout preventer malfunctioned. Does it sound familiar? The blowout preventer failed to stop the Ixtoc leak and what followed was an environmental disaster the likes of which the country had never seen before … Nine agonizingly long months after the Ixtoc well exploded, a pair of relief wells finally allowed the engineers to cap the leaking well.” […]

“Same busted blowout preventer, same ineffective berm, same underwater plumes, same toxic dispersants, same failed containment domes, same junk shot, same top kill-it‘s all the same technology. The Ixtoc well, which couldn‘t be plugged for nine months, was in roughly 200 feet of water. Now, in 2010, we‘re using the same exact techniques to try to plug a well that is leaking in 5,000 feet of water.”

Now with Chevron drilling in 8,530 feet of water, the chance these failed maneuvers would effectively stop a leak at even greater depths is virtually non-existant. The Lona 0-55 well off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador carries with it a higher degree of risk than did either the Ixtoc or Deepwater Horizon wells; Still, the tested, effective response measures necessary to mitigate those risks has yet to be developed. With Oil companies raking in profits of billions of dollars every year, there is no excuse for the failure to invest in drilling safety technology. Furthermore, the catastrophic impacts resulting from weakened regulatory policies should serve as a lesson to all who wish to move beyond dependence on foreign oil. North America cannot drill its way to energy independence, nor can it rely on scant offshore oil reserves as a stable source of energy. The only way to achieve energy independence is through advancements in renewable energy technology. While the need for fossil fuels will remain well into the future, we can limit our dependance on oil through innovation, investment and a clean energy strategy.

In order to prevent another Deepwater Horizon disaster, strict regulatory policies must be put in place. No further drilling contracts should be awarded until adequate safety technology is developed, and demonstrated to work, at the depths oil companies wish to drill. Tax breaks and subsidies to the industry also need to end; The money, in turn, invested in clean and renewable sources.

If we hope to make real advancements toward a clean energy future, bold action is required from both government and citizens alike. Time and again, world leaders have proclaimed the need and the desire to break the oil addiction. Unfortunately, the tangible action necessary to achieve this lofty goal have been few and far between. Desire, intention, and imagination can only take society so far; Now, a firm commitment and a clear course of action are what’s required to attain a future without a dependance on fossil fuels.

To quote essayist V. Havel, “It is not enough to stare up the steps – we much step up the stairs.”

Cross-posted at rabble.ca

UPDATE: June 25, 2010

I received this message from Annie Roy on behalf of Environment Minister Jim Prentice, requesting a correction:

Subject: [Corrections] Minister Prentice corrects a fact on environmental
assessment

Minister Prentice would like to correct a statement in the article entitled “Chevron – because BP wasn’t drilling deep enough” by Alheli Picazo which appeared on June 21, 2010. With the proposed changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Minister of the Environment would not have the authority to cancel an environmental assessment as stated in the article. The changes would provide the Minister of the Environment with new authority to focus an environmental assessment on key components of a project, if appropriate. The discretion is intended to provide legal certainty and to ensure that resources and efforts are invested where it matters the most.

While Mr. Prentice may not like what I’ve written, my reporting on his powers to allow projects to go essentially without a thorough environmental assessment is accurate.

From the Globe and Mail: […] legislation giving Environment Minister Jim Prentice wide-ranging powers to scale back the scope of any assessments. Under the changes, Mr. Prentice could limit environmental reviews to parts of a contentious project, and not evaluate the development in its entirety.”

Here is the key phrase in the legislation:

15.1 (1) Despite section 15, the Minister may, if the conditions that the Minister establishes are met, determine that the scope of the project in relation to which an environmental assessment is to be conducted is limited to one or more components of that project.

The Crisis In Gaza — An International Tipping Point

If, and as long as between the Jordan and the sea, there is only one political entity, named Israel, it will end up being either non-Jewish or non-democratic… If the Palestinians vote in elections, it is a binational state, and if they don’t, it is an apartheid state. – Ehud Barak

This sentiment expressed by Israel’s former Prime Minister and current Defence minister Barak provides ammunition to those who refer to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, and the resulting humanitarian crisis in Gaza, as Israeli Apartheid. In 2008, the BBC reported that little more than basic humanitarian aid had been permitted to enter the Gaza Strip by the Israeli government. In recent years the Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip has intensified further, leaving an estimated 1.5 million residents of the coastal territory in a state of abject poverty. The plight of the people of Gaza further deteriorated following the December 2008- January 2009 Gaza war.

The military assault on the Gaza Strip by Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) completely devastated the region, the U.N. World Food program noting “it was precisely the strategic economic areas that Gaza depends on to relieve its dependency on aid that were wiped out.” A similar assessment was given by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights which found “it was obvious that IDF intended to erase any civilization features in the Gaza Strip. They deliberately and systematically destroyed the entire vital facilities to make Gaza go decades back.”

The Goldstone Report, an independent U.N. investigation into the Gaza conflict, concluded that Israel’s military operation was “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorise a civilian population.”

As a direct result of this ‘Israeli Apartheid’, Gaza remains in a state of ruin, A 2009 Red Cross report concluding Israel’s blockade is ‘strangling’ the economy, and preventing reconstruction efforts, warning “Gaza neighbourhoods particularly hard hit by the Israeli strikes will continue to look like the epicenter of a massive earthquake unless vast quantities of cement, steel and other building materials are allowed into the territory for reconstruction.”

As Israel continues to resist international calls to lift the blockade, the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip grows increasingly dire. This is precisely the reason a fleet of ships called dubbed Freedom Flotillas set out to defy the blockade; seeking to deliver tens of thousands of tonnes of food, medicine and reconstruction materials directly to the people of Gaza.

While they expected to meet resistance, no one could have predicted the bloody assault by the IDF on the Turkish flagged ship, the Mavi Marmara. So egregious were the actions of the Israeli government, so disproportionate was the use of force, a major in the IDF reserves felt the need to pen a scathing op-ed, declaring “the events off the shores of Gaza last week, in which Israeli commandos stormed a blockade-busting aid ship and killed nine activists, were a painful reminder that I also belong to a class of Israelis that is deeply concerned about the direction of our country. Increasingly, our conflict with the Palestinians is separating us, not only from our moral faculties, but also from the rest of our senses.”

The U.N. Security Council condemned the actions of the IDF and called for “a full investigation into the matter and … a prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation conforming to international standards.”

The request for an independent investigation was immediately rejected by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who attributes the international condemnation he’s facing to rampant anti-semitism, claiming “the State of Israel faces an attack of international hypocrisy.”

However, past events reveal that the true hypocrisy rests with Israel.

In his article Echoes of Raid on ‘Exodus’ Ship in 1947, Robert Mackey reports on the “parallels between Monday’s killing of pro-Palestinian activists by Israel’s military in international waters, as commandos intercepted a flotilla of ships trying to break the Israeli naval blockade on Gaza, and a seminal event in the Jewish struggle for an independent homeland.” Mackey includes an obituary of the captain of the Exodus 1947, adding “the violent way the British Navy seized that ship and deported the refugees backfired, creating global sympathy for the plight of stateless Jews.”

The obituary reads, in part:

“The refugees had no legal authority to enter Palestine, and the British were determined to block the ship. In the battle that ensued, three Jews aboard the Exodus were killed. The ship’s passengers – more than 4,500 men, women and children – were ultimately deported to Germany.

The attack and its aftermath, which focused attention on the plight of many European Jews after the war, made headlines worldwide and helped marshal support for an Israeli state. […]

Captain Ahronovitch was 23 when he took the helm of the Exodus. On July 11, 1947, he picked up the refugees at Sète, in southern France. On July 18, as the ship neared the coast of Palestine, the British Navy intercepted it. Captain Ahronovitch tried to break through, but two British destroyers rammed the ship.

Several hours of fighting followed, with the ship’s passengers spraying fuel oil and throwing smoke bombs, life rafts and whatever else came to hand, down on the British sailors trying to board, The Times reported at the time. Soon the British opened fire. Two immigrants and a crewman on the Exodus were killed; scores more were wounded, many seriously. The ship was towed to Haifa, and from there its passengers were deported, first to France and eventually to Germany, where they were placed in camps near Lübeck.”

Mackey also cites the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, whose records state “large protests erupted on both sides of the Atlantic. The ensuing public embarrassment for Britain played a significant role in the diplomatic swing of sympathy toward the Jews and the eventual recognition of a Jewish state in 1948.”

Israel’s self-righteous outrage extends to the massive public relations strategy it undertook following the massacre on the Mavi Marmara. In his article How Israeli propaganda shaped U.S. media coverage of the flotilla attack, Glenn Greenwald notes “it was clear from the moment news of the flotilla attack emerged, that Israel was taking extreme steps to suppress all evidence about what happened” to prevent reports which undoubtedly would contradict it’s own version of events.

As passengers and journalists return home and detail their their experiences aboard the IDF raided ship, Israel’s account of what happened continues to unravel.

Autopsy reports of nine Turkish men killed by the IDF on the Mavi Marmara conclude the nine men were shot a total of 30 times, five of whom were killed by gunshot wounds to the head. This contradicts Israeli assertions the IDF fired in ‘self defence.’

A detailed Guardian account of the autopsy’s states “a 60-year-old man, Ibrahim Bilgen, was shot four times in the temple, chest, hip and back. A 19-year-old, named as Fulkan Dogan, who also has US citizenship, was shot five times from less than 45cm, in the face, in the back of the head, twice in the leg and once in the back. Two other men were shot four times, and five of the victims were shot either in the back of the head or in the back.”

Award-winning journalist Man Blumenthal has also been hard at work debunking Israel’s propaganda, exposing outrageously doctored audio released by IDF, “which purports to show flotilla passengers telling the IDF to ‘go back to Auschwitz’.” Caught red handed, Blumenthal further reports on the non-clairification clarification made by the IDF, revealing the lengths the Israeli government will go to in an effort to garner international sympathy.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is once again calling for an end to the Israeli blockade, proclaiming “had the Israeli government heeded to international calls and my own strong and urgent and persistent call to lift the blockade of Gaza, this would not have happened.” There are also reports that Moon will move forward with an independent investigation of Israel’s raid the Gaza bound ship, despite the refusal of Israeli Prime Minister Netenyahu.

It’s important that the international community support the actions called for by Moon. Moreover, it’s imperative that the United States, Canada, and other enablers of Israeli Apartheid recognize their role in creating the international crisis.

Mark LeVine, a professor of history at UC Irvine, equates the ‘friendship’ between the United States and Israel to the relationship a drug dealer has with an addict. “We ‘defend’ Israel from every criticism – ‘No! It doesn’t have a problem!’ ‘It’s the only democracy in the region!’ ‘We stand with Israel!’ … The occupation (of Gaza) has been an act of sheer brutality for decades. What has happened in Gaza the US and the world community have allowed to happen.”

An editorial in The Nation details the role the international community played in creating the crisis in Gaza:

“The attack on the Freedom Flotilla is the culmination of more than four years of failed policy, in which a siege has been imposed on the entire population of Gaza in an attempt to weaken and isolate Hamas after its victory in the 2006 parliamentary elections. Israel does not bear sole responsibility for an unjust blockade that also undermines its own long-term security; indeed, the policy was jointly crafted and executed with the United States and has enjoyed the collusion of the European Union, Egypt and even the Fatah wing of the Palestinian Authority.

The effects of this policy on the people of Gaza have been devastating. According to various UN agencies, the formal economy has collapsed. More than 60 percent of the people are food insecure, and nearly 80 percent depend on the UN for sustenance, with rising levels of malnutrition. The destruction of Gaza’s infrastructure has been comprehensive, with the reduction in electricity supply damaging food production and storage and dangerously limiting access to safe drinking water. The blockade has prevented all but minimal repair of the damage from Israel’s 2008-09 military assault; thousands are still displaced from their homes.”

One distinguished voice to propose a solution for the stalemate in the Middle East comes from Zbigniew Brzezinski, the United States National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter. Brzezinski, who played a key role in the attainment of the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty, offers an historical comparison followed by a four step plan to achieving stability between Israel and Palestine.

“More than three decades ago, Israeli statesman Moshe Dayan, speaking about an Egyptian town that controlled Israel’s only outlet to the Red Sea, declared that he would rather have Sharm el-Sheikh without peace than peace without Sharm el-Sheikh. Had his views prevailed, Israel and Egypt would still be in a state of war. Today, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, with his pronouncements about the eternal and undivided capital of Israel, is conveying an updated version of Dayan’s credo — that he would rather have all of Jerusalem without peace than peace without all of Jerusalem. […]

First, a solution to the refugee problem involving compensation and resettlement in the Palestinian state but not in Israel. This is a bitter pill for the Palestinians, but Israel cannot be expected to commit political suicide for the sake of peace.

Second, genuine sharing of Jerusalem as the capital of each state, and some international arrangement for the Old City. This is a bitter pill for the Israelis, for it means accepting that the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem will become the capital of Palestine.

Third, a territorial settlement based on the 1967 borders, with mutual and equal adjustments to allow the incorporation of the largest West Bank settlements into Israel.

And fourth, a demilitarized Palestinian state with U.S. or NATO troops along the Jordan River to provide Israel greater security.

Most of these parameters have been endorsed in the Arab peace plan of 2002 and by the Quartet. And the essential elements have also been embraced by (Ehud) Barak and another former Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert.

Some believe a tipping point was reached when the IDF descended on the Mavi Marmara, slaughtering activists who’s sole intention was to provide relieve the suffering of those in Gaza living under siege. The international community can no longer look the other way when the Israeli government violates international law. It can no longer allow Israel to operate under a separate set of rules when it comes to Middle East policies.

As Bradley Burston of Haaretz puts it, “We were determined to avoid an honest look at the first Gaza war. Now, in international waters and having opened fire on an international group of humanitarian aid workers and activists, we are fighting and losing the second. For Israel, in the end, this Second Gaza War could be far more costly and painful than the first … We are no longer defending Israel. We are now defending the siege, which is itself becoming Israel’s Vietnam.”

Cross-posted at rabble.ca