For anyone who didn't hear it last night, I was on Radio 4's the World Tonight yesterday, talking about BP, though there's only so much you can get over in 2 minutes!
Right about the time Tony Hayward faced the shakedown from the House Committee, I mentioned the Jones act. This piece of 1920's pork-barrel protectionism was preventing sophisticated Dutch skimmer ships, 4 of them, apparently with sufficient capacity to clean up 146,000 barrels of oil per day (the flow before the well was capped last night was around 50,000 barrels per day, of which about half was being recovered) from dealing with the Macondo spill because they are not US registered vessels with American (unionised) crews.
In addition, American environmental legislation aims to prevent ANY spill of oil, means the best is the enemy of the good. The skimmers are about 97% efficient, which means as they pump sea water back into the ocean there is a trace of oil left in it. This means anyone taking 100 barrels out of the water and putting back in 3 would be guilty of putting 3 barrels of oil into the water and be fined anywhere between $1,000 and $4,300 per barrel.
Both the ridiculous Jones act and the tight environmental protection legislation which is not designed to cope with desasters could have been eased by presidential fiat and these ships could have been skimming oil from the water BEFORE it reached shore, a week after the blow-out preventer failed. Instead we had dither and delay.
Having technology like the Dutch skimmers should also allow us to feel more comfortable about allowing deepwater drilling. If the skimmers work then it greatly lowers the environmental risks from future oil leaks in deep water. One advantage to deepwater wells is they are typically very far from shore, giving a long response time to clean up the problem. There would be no need to have a moratorium on deepwater drilling and having 50,000 people loose their jobsOf course, it might not have been incompetence. It may have been a political calculation: Obama cannot defy the unions, who like the Jones act; he cannot defy the environmental lobby and suspend some environmental regulations for expediency; and his party's left wing (of which he is a part) wants to end Offshore drilling anyway. This is of no political concern to him: Oil Workers don't tend to vote democrat, and it's all concentrated in red states, so who gives a shit about the
However 3 days before the well was capped the legal changes were made on the quiet and the Ships are now cleaning up oil. It's a bit late, and smacks of arse-covering.
This isn't over: whilst for the first time in 3 months, there is no oil floating from the sea-floor in the Gulf of Mexico, but BP are still merely testing the well to see if it will leak under pressure should the valve be turned off. There is just a few feet of rock between the bore and the relief wells. There is still much that could go wrong and capping the well now is and remains a risk - the safe option would be to do nothing to jeapordise the releif well operation, and increasing the pressure in the well certainly doesn't help. Should the well-head crumble there would be much more than 25,000 barrels a day of oil going into the sea, and almost nothing BP could do about it until they can kill the well hopefully in 3 week's time.
Of course the economics and politics forced BP to take this calculated risk - $4,300 per barrel (does anyone think BP will get away with anything other than the maximum fine?) and 25,000 barrels per day, that's $107,500,000 per day or a Billion dollars every 9 days in fines alone. With BP's partners Mitsui, Anadarko and Moex refusing to pay their share of the cleanup costs, and Halliburton all being allowed to deny any responsibility; as Transocean continues to pay dividends to its shareholders whilst Exxon lies through its teeth saying "of course we would NEVER have done this that way..." BP shoulders the burden of this spill, not entirely of its own making, alone. And nothing the President has done has served to cap the well quicker or keep the black stuff of the Beaches of Louisiana. For Obama read everyone in American politics who is up for election in November. The US media has been hysterical on the issue, and as a result, every politician in the house, 34 of 100 senators and 36 Govenors are all having a "let's beat up BP" mainly to avoid attack ads "Bob J. Clusterfuck III let BP drill in the Gulf... Don't vote for him". Everyone's just serving his own base politics.
It's about time BP had some luck. I hope the cap works and this is over (except for the cleanup) by August, and I hope American politicians grow up on November 3 and remember the little thing called the rule of Law.