Analysis: U.S. Oil Spill a Man-made Disaster on An Epic Scale
    2010-05-26 14:21:36     Xinhua      Web Editor: Liu Donghui

Fishing boats are anchored at the Buras boat dock in Venice, south Louisiana, the United States, May 25, 2010. U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on Tuesday extended the closed fishing area in the Gulf of Mexico to 54,096 square miles, which is slightly more than 22 percent of Gulf of Mexico federal waters. Meanwhile, U.S. Small Business Administration on Tuesday approved 15 economic injury assistance loans for small businesses impacted by the Deepwater BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast region. [Photo: Xinhua]

U.S. President Barack Obama recently announced the establishment of an independent presidential commission to investigate the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The move highlighted the severity of the still-unfolding disaster that is not only damaging the ecological system, but also casting shadow on politics, the economy and social life in the United States. It is indeed a classic example of a man-made tragedy that profoundly affects both mankind and nature.

It started on April 20, when a Swiss-owned offshore oil rig leased to British Petroleum (BP) exploded into flames and sank into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, some 85 km southeast off the coast of Venice, Louisiana.

Crude oil has been gushing out from the rig's bottom well since April 24, resulting in environmental pollution on an unprecedented scale.

More than a month has passed, and the exact amount of the leaking oil is still hard to gauge.

Based on the most pessimistic estimate made by scientists, if the total leak is divided into one-gallon (about 4.5 liters) milk cans, a lining-up of those cans could stretch as far as 18,000 km, equivalent to the distance of a round trip between New York and Buenos Aires.

Even under the most optimistic scenario envisioned by the U.S. government, which puts the amount of spilled oil at 5.25 million gallons, those cans can still be formed into a line long enough to link Washington and New York.

But the most frightening fact is that oil is continuing to gush out at a rate of 5,000 to 70,000 barrels (one barrel equal to 42 gallons) a day. In other words, the disaster is continuing.

Since the onset of the spill, BP has used dispersants, oil pipelines and other means to absorb the leakage, but little success has been achieved.

On Tuesday, the company outlined a new option called "top kill," where heavy drilling fluids would be injected into the well to stem the flow of oil and gas and, ultimately, kill the well. But the effectiveness of this method still needs to be proved.

The U.S. government's anti-pollution efforts so far have involved some 24,000 personnel, roughly 1,100 ships and a 600-km-long protective boom, or floating barrier.

However, there has been little progress despite all the efforts to plug the well and clean up the spill. The prospect for the short term is hardly optimistic.


Recently-disclosed documents and files exposed the lack of supervision, an inadequate emergency response and a number of other human errors behind the catastrophe. In other words, it is largely a man-made calamity.

On the governmental level, the Mineral Management Service under the Interior Department, the leading offshore drilling regulatory agency, has long been criticized for its laxness towards the oil companies and its failure to properly assume its duty as a regulator.

In response, the Interior Department has recently come up with a plan to split the agency into three new entities.

Obama has admitted that several offshore drilling permits were issued without appropriate assessments of the environmental impact, and therefore the government should be held partially responsible for the accident.

On the corporate level, BP's internal documents and evidence obtained through investigations suggest that a series of human errors ranging from poor electrical wiring, failure of the blowout preventer valve to an inadequate battery have led to the explosion of the drilling platform and an intensification of the oil spill.


The impact of the accident is multi-faceted, analysts say.

In the short run, it is directly damaging the ecological system, tourism, the fishing industry and inhabitants along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

For the long term, it will have negative political, economic and diplomatic effects, and thus tarnish the image of the Obama administration.

It poses a serious threat to coastal organisms, including sea turtles, sperm whales and other endangered species. Representatives of the fishing sector are worried that consumers may stop buying seafood from the contaminated Gulf waters. Tourism experts say tourists may no longer wish to visit those contaminated beaches.

No wonder Obama described the spill as "a serious challenge" to the U.S. economy that has just started showing signs of recovery after two years in recession.

The damage is more than economic; it has become a public health hazard. Experts say that by inhaling or coming into contact with the hazardous substances released from the oil leak, the human body will have a series of adverse reactions that may even lead to cancer.

The spill has also affected the U.S. offshore drilling policy. In March, the Obama administration announced an expansion of offshore drilling, but had to suspend issuing drilling permits in the aftermath of the spill.

Moreover, analysts say since the accident occurred just months ahead of the U.S. mid-term elections, political fallouts are inevitable. The spill may also affect the relations between the United States and other countries.

With the disaster still unfolding, both the Obama administration and BP can expect greater pressure.

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