Last week I was paddling across Loch Etive with my son, under the soaring bulk of Ben Cruachan. It occurred to me that at 3,694 from sea level, the height of the mountain was over a thousand feet less than the depth of the sea bed in the Gulf of Mexico. We had arrived a few days before via a hundred mile detour, while engineers struggled to recover a railway carriage which was perched 40 foot above the road, after it had derailed at the foot of Cruachan. It brought home the magnitude of the task of capping the current oil spill, and the sheer, irritating, negative pointlessness of the current American diatribe of invective against ‘British Petroleum,’ and by implication, all things British, as Satans of the western world.
In March 1967 the Torrey Canyon, a tanker carrying 120,000 tons of crude oil, ran aground on the Seven Stones Reef off Cornwall and the Scilly Isles. The Torrey Canyon was a US built ship owned and operated by a subsidiary of the Union Oil Company of California. The Captain, Pastrengo Rugiati, who was held responsible for the navigational error which caused the disaster, was an Italian recruited by Consulich, agents for Union Oil.
The Royal Navy were working at the scene within four hours. 42 ships were deployed to spray over 10,000 tons of dispersants. Efforts to use foam booms to contain the oil were of limited success due to their fragility in high seas. In an attempt to sink the ship and burn off and break up the oil, the RAF and Royal Navy dropped 62,000lbs of bombs, 5,200 gallons of petrol, 11 rockets and large quantities of napalm onto the ship.
Bombing eventually sunk the ship and the oil slick was finally dispersed by favourable weather. By then tens of thousands of seabirds had been killed, together with huge numbers of marine organisms including all fish within a 75 mile radius. The resultant oil release coated miles of Cornish beach in brown sludge, in what was then the world’s worst environmental disaster. The slick stretched along hundreds of kilometres of the south coast of Britain and Normandy, killing most of the marine life it touched and blighting the areas for over a decade after. When I was living and working in Cornwall six years later, football-sized lumps of crude oil were still sweeping ashore from the wreck.
Mistakes were made in this first oil disaster. A lot of technological lessons were learned, and maritime law was changed. But one thing stands out to me; a national government which put blame on the back-burner and focussed its immediate resources on tackling the problem.
Today BP chief executive Tony Hayward is receiving further vilification for spending a day with his son sailing at Cowes this weekend. Not adroit of him, although I doubt the man has seen much of his family in the last few weeks. Mind you, I see that President Barack ‘the buck stops here’ Obama was pictured in the Chicago Sun Times sporting a White Sox hat and drinking beer whilst enjoying a White Sox game at the Nationals last Friday. Of course, as Obama is reported to have made clear, “I can’t dive down there and plug the hole. I can’t suck it up with a straw”.
Following its merger with Amoco (Standard Oil of Indiana) BP has as many (give or take one percentage point) American as British shareholders. The American designed Deepwater Horizon rig is owned by Transocean, essentially an American company (it originated in Birmingham Alabama, but relocated to Switzerland two years ago for tax reasons). It was operating in American waters, extracting American oil, under American licence and American supervision and regulations. According to the Wall Street Journal, one possible key suspect in the loss of the rig is flaws in the cementing process which plugged holes in the pipeline seal. That work was the responsibility of Halliburton - the world's second largest oilfield services corporation, with its headquarters in Houston, Texas.
We won’t know for some time whether the blame for this disaster lies with an American-owned company, a multi-national company with substantial American ownership, or simply the risks associated with cutting-edge technology. However, if the Deepwater Horizon disaster causes the United States to reassess its addiction to fossil fuels and finally brings it, kicking and screaming, from cavalier denial into line with the rest of the western world’s efforts to address the causes of global warming, it may turn out to have been a blessing in disguise.
Meanwhile, I detect a quietly spiralling back-lash of anti American resentment building in this country. We all feel powerless, but as our pension funds dwindle and news reports on the continuing spill vie with the latest deaths of British soldiers in Afghanistan, in what some perceive to be the latest of a series of American oil-inspired wars in the Middle East, the ‘Special Relationship’ begins increasingly to look like a rather one-sided and insubstantial political convenience. Those mid term congressional elections have a lot to answer for.