BP oil spill: an accounting of its impacts after 39 days

Corporate behavior, drilling methods, regulators’ roles, and the search for oil alternatives all are reexamined in the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

By , Staff writer

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    Workers cleaned a beach of oil residue in Grand Isle, La., on Thursday, more than a month after the BP oil spill began.
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Details about shortcuts ahead of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig – and subsequent obfuscation by oil giant BP – have awakened Americans and their government to the tight relationship between oil explorers and regulators. The disaster has also made more clear the risks of drilling deeper and deeper in the quest for oil.

Already, the spill is changing the nature of deep-water exploration.

“Problems that emerge when you’re 5,000 feet under water, that’s going to be a fact of life moving forward,” says Mark Zupan, an energy expert at the University of Rochester in New York.

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As the spill in the Gulf of Mexico has overtaken the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident as the worst oil spill in US history, BP faces the greatest fallout. University of California researcher Robert Bea has put 90 percent of the blame for the disaster on the company.

While BP quickly accepted responsibility, the Obama administration has had to push BP toward transparency. On May 26, Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts revealed an internal BP document that showed the company low-balled its public estimates of the spill’s size. Instead of 5,000 barrels a day, the flow has been between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels a day, according to a US Geological Survey report this week. Also, the White House had to lean on BP to continue the live feed of its undersea work as it prepared to try a “top kill” maneuver to stop the oil flow.

Laying bare such corporate instincts helped spark the decision by President Obama to extend a moratorium on new offshore drilling to six months. And it may have played a role in shelving, for now, Shell’s plans to drill in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska this summer.

In addition, the spill has moved the White House to move urgently to reform and even break up the 1,700-employee Minerals Management Service, years after reports surfaced about glad-handing among regulators and industry. The agency, critics say, has too often served as a handmaiden to Big Oil.

The spill has taken a political toll, but it also offers the Obama administration an opportunity to push a campaign promise: a more diverse energy grid. “This incident underscores that we do need to move to a new energy frontier,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar testified before Congress May 26.

But even as Americans assess for themselves the fallout from the spill, geopolitical realities and growing resistance in the developing world to exploration are likely to keep the focus of US energy independence on the Outer Continental Shelf. There, high-tech rigs like the Deepwater Horizon poke and prod at the earth to yield up its diminishing stores.

"We can hate this spill all we want, but the world is going to continue to rely on oil until all the oil is gone,” says Robert Bryce, author of “Power Hungry.”

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