Sunday, 20 June 2010

I Wish We Hadn’t Let That Goal In...

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.


  1. (good to hear from you again) I am curious about the stance taken by Obama. He seems determined to be 'tough' with BP and to shift the blame away from anywhere, and anyone, else. It does feel like someone trying to act the part of a tough guy and to move the focus from other, equally pressing, problems. It just makes him seem too (pardon the expression) crude and not the apparent smooth operator initially portrayed.

  2. Too right. I've also heard rumours that the cap head that caused all this was American made... but you're right. This is not blame. It's about ingenious thinking... and learning from the mistake. The only good thing that may come out of it is a greener conscienced America. Possibly.

  3. Well said; BP may not be entirely blameless but the current witch hunt is ridiculous. However, if our press and politicians start to see the 'special relationship' for what it really is perhaps they won't be so eager to follow the US lead quite so readily.

  4. Couldn't have put it better myself. Obama is superficial and obviously leapt on the bandwagon in order to score brownie points for himself. The fact that it has taken him a fortnight to realise the damage he was doing with all his rhetoric to pension funds of his own people as well as those over here indicates that he is not the brightest of politicians.

  5. Interesting post. I was so worried by that title that you'd only broken your radio silence to mention the unmentionable.

    Good to have you back (for however long).

  6. Love your blogs when they appear....anyway, seems to me that Obama is going off the rails with all sorts of things.....

  7. There was something in the news over here that some Kiwi guy had come up with an invention involving a slinky and some rope that was going to fix all this....

  8. I heard a scary Radio 4 programme the other day saying that this depth of drilling should never be allowed - anywhere - as there simply isn't the technology in place to deal with any ensuing disaster, so until they sort one out all deep-drilling should be suspended.
    Trouble is this deep drilling is only going on as we really ARE running out of oil, finally.

  9. There are far too many oil disasters. I don't think any of the companies are careful enough: because everyone needs what they sell, they seem to have invented their own rules about safety and the environment, and prices too!
    It is always the 'small person' that suffers- the poor people that live around the leaky and toxic Texas refineries, the fishermen and seaside workers, and of course the wildlife.
    It's to do with the multinational corporations getting bigger than the governments, I think.

  10. BP has a very bad record on safety even for its workers. A chap in Scotland repeatedly warned them of unsafe practices, only to find a co-worker's arm damaged irreparably in a terrible explosion. Their response was to blame the guy who tried to blow the whistle, and take him through court to try to prove that it was his fault. Luckily, he was exonerated, but he no longer has a job.
    I don't like being blamed for what they have done just because I am British, but personally I felt that the attempt to blame the UK didn't stick.
    BP are a greedy multinational, one of many who have become more powerful than any government, and I think that most people now understand that such corporations regard themselves as being above any safety regulations or laws, whether national or international.
    I have responded by using my car half as much!

  11. It makes one wanting to weep for this world. This a very well written piece BT. The mention of Scotland brings a certain amount of wistfulness too. Ar-grr, Mondays...

  12. Nice blog! i´m portuguese but i like english very much!
    would you like to follow my blog? i would really appreciate that!
    thank you! and continue!!!

    by the way i love your poetry! ;)