How can Future Oil Spill Catastrophes be Eliminated

The complexities of extracting and moving oil over the waterways of the world are so profound that it may never be possible to eliminate them, except through eliminating dependency upon and transporting of oil. There are conditions of human error, rough seas, lobbying and negotiations that convince governments to not impose stringent safety features, earthquake and a host of other factors that make the problem one which will not go away.

There are underwater oil extraction blowouts, collisions, fires, and groundings that contribute to about a hundred thousand gallons of spilt oil annually. Natural disasters, such as hurricanes and flooding that are sources of oil spills with Hurricane Katrina as an example that involved about 7 million gallons of oil and fuel.

Of the catastrophic and anthropogenic oil spills, most of the oil is being extracted moved, refined and stored  for human use. But about half of the oil that enters the waterways is from natural causes! There is seepage that is not very well understood, and marine and aquatic life seems to adapt to the seepage as it occurs over time and not as a sudden introduction of masses of oil.

Preventing oil spills must then involve hardening oil refineries, transportation, storage and pipelines against not only the forces of nature and human error, but against the complexities of the oil, itself.

Oil is a volatile and complex substance that contains many components, including volatile gases and chemicals that produce surprising interactions whether it remains underground, is engaged in the extraction process, is introduced to the atmosphere, or is confined in man made structures and tinkered with to extract such elements as kerosene, liquefied gases and other components.

In moving oil by tanker, there is a push for all tankers to be double hulled, where the second hull will contain the oil in the event of a collision or grounding. There are also improvements in Global Positioning technology to help to reduce the number of collisions and groundings, but GPS and double hulls only work when humans use technology and operate ships properly and under safe conditions, including weather and acts of aggression or piracy.

Sadly, there are limits to the punitive and financial action that can be taken as an incentive for tanker owners, and many ships sail under “flags of convenience”, where certain countries are lax about safety and security matters. Many countries refuse to allow ships to use their ports when they do not have proper safety documentation, but by the time that the ship is applying for the port access, it is too late!

The United Nations treaty MARPOL 73/78 (MARine POLlution) went into effect in 1983, and has helped to reduce the amount of oil pollution stemming from the shipping industry. In the US, the Oil Pollution Control Act of 1990 “required” that industry take more precautions and will require that all tankers be double hulled by 2015.

As for the 2010 Gulf oil spill, the controversy over British Petroleum and other firms that resisted adopting programs that would improve human error, but most of those involved auditing and hazard assessment in relation to human error, not specific equipment that would have stopped the chain of events which led to a catastrophic underground blowout.

The situation involved a mechanism for shutting down the well in the event of a problem. The mechanism would stop the flow of oil by closing a valve. There was already a manual switch and a “dead man” switch, neither of which managed to function.

A $500 thousand acoustic trigger, which is also called a switch or actuator, would have sent an acoustic signal that would have operated either a valve or explosives that could possibly have shut down the well in event of catastrophic damage to the rig.

There was a requirement for “reliable backup systems” in 2000, but BP, in collusion with then Vice President Dick Cheney, opted to get around the requirement. In addition, ways to limit BP and other oil companies liability were enacted. Thus, BP will never have to pay for the damage that was done. Having higher financial liabilities would definitely have served as an incentive for BP to stop negotiating for doing the least possible to prevent catastrophic spills.

      “BP didn’t want to spend the money for a system – a fail safe system, used all over the world…[that could have prevented this]. We’re talking about a company that makes forty billion a year that wouldn’t invest five hundred thousand dollars…It is the most unreported part of this story…”

            – Mike Papantonio, Pensacola Attorney

As a result, while there is existing technology, training, auditing, research, safety programs, financial punitive measures, restricted access and equipment that can provide extra protection against blowouts, prevent collision, and lower the incidence of anthropogenic spills, all is dependent upon the willingness of governments to enforce the law and of firms to comply with the requirements.

All oil spills will never be eliminated, but there are mechanisms available for greatly lowering the odds of having both regular and more catastrophic spills.

Environmental Literacy Council, “Oil Spills”

Gregory Patin, “$500K Device May Have Prevented Oil Spill”, San Francisco, May 2010