After researching last year’s Gulf oil spill, author Antonia
Juhasz came to the conclusion: We still don’t know how bad it was
Ruined beaches, oil-soaked wildlife and devastated
communities mark just the beginning of the Gulf oil spill’s effect on
our world. From April 20, 2010 until July 15, when the well was capped,
about five million gallons of crude oil leaked into the bottom of the
Gulf of Mexico, killing or mutating sea life, washing up on shore in
“tar balls” and later, mixing with chemical dispersant to create a toxic
More than one year after the spill, what’s changed? Has the oil
industry been moved to restructure their practices or is it business as
usual? On April 28 I spoke with Antonia Juhasz, director and founder of
the energy program at Global Exchange, a nonprofit organization
dedicated to human rights. She’s also the author of “The Tyranny of Oil: The World’s Most Powerful Industry — and What We Must do to Stop It” (William Morrow, $26.99), and her most recent book is “Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill”
(Wiley, $25.95). Juhasz spent the greater part of 2010 in the
spill-affected areas of the south, interviewing family members of those
who died on the Deepwater Horizon, fishermen, crabbers, Gulf-area
business owners, politicians, oil industry workers, oceanographers,
doctors, beach cleaners and others. She hoped to discover why the spill
took place and what can be done to prevent another one.
The BP oil spill, rather than being the result of just one error,
actually emerged from a series of failed protocols and bad
communication. What are some of the circumstances leading up to the
blowout and spill?
There are two chains of events happening that lead to the blowout. These
started before the Deepwater Horizon even arrived at the Macondo well.
The Gulf of Mexico is one of the most difficult places to drill in
the world. That’s because of the gas in the area. The gas is lighter
than the oil and rises up ahead of the oil. If it gets into the pipe, it
starts to kick at the pipe. And if it makes it onto the rig, it’s
flammable (and so is everything else on the rig). It can make you lose
control of the rig if too much gas gets introduced. The fullest loss of
rig control is a blowout, and there’s been a large increase in Gulf of
Mexico blowouts recently.
This particular well had been talking to the crew. It had been
kicking, burping and basically telling the crew not to drill there. They
called it the “Well from Hell.” Another ship had actually tried to
drill there before the Deepwater Horizon arrived and experienced a
blowout that put it out of commission.
So, the well was obviously difficult to begin with. But now, BP was
behind schedule, over budget and rushing to get the job done. Workers on
the rig told me that this was business as usual. Drilling is extremely
technologically difficult work and they’re always over budget, pressed
for time and cutting corners.
On the rig, dozens of maintenance protocols weren’t followed. The
blowout preventer was low on batteries, leaking hydraulic fuel and
hadn’t been tested in ten years (it was supposed to be tested every five
years). Basically, a whole series of safety precautions were not
followed. One was the blowout preventer. The crew tried to ignite the
rig preventer and nothing happened on the rig floor. Alarms failed to go
off. Doors failed to shut, and thus gas escaped into the entire rig.
The crew reported that the gas flowed through the ship like a wraith,
this sort of semi-visible physical presence that preceded the
After the explosions began, another series of events took place.
Another piece of machinery that malfunctioned was the disconnect
function. The rig should have been able to disconnect itself from the
well, but it couldn’t. This then led to the fire on the rig and a failed
attempt at extinguishment occurred. Because of the faulty method of
firefighting, the capsizing of the Deepwater Horizon occurred, and this
capsizing caused the pipe to bend and kink in three places. In that
sense, we got lucky. If the pipe had broken clean off, the oil spill
would have gushed out, but with the pipe in place, only leaks occurred.
In the first days after the spill, BP’s then-CEO Tony Hayward
ensured the public that BP would “do everything in their power to
contain this oil spill and resolve the situation as rapidly, safely and
effectively as possible.” How prepared was BP for this disaster, and how
did the government factor into the oversight of the oil spill response?
BP wasn’t prepared at all, but neither were any of the other oil
companies. I think that’s important to note. It wasn’t like any one
company was hoarding machinery or information. They all sat around a
table and none of them knew how to cap the well. None of them had the
proper equipment to deal with it, and they all should have. The
government wasn’t prepared either.
In some countries, they designate crews as special oil spill
emergency response crews; they’re kind of like firefighters. But we have
nothing like that.
As it turns out, BP’s “Disaster Preparedness Plan” was virtually
non-existent. What technology did BP have to deal with disaster?
BP actually did have a 500-page document, as required by law, to
describe their disaster plan. It was, however, meaningless, as evidenced
by the fact that nobody knew what to do when the oil spill happened. It
basically outlined how to respond to an arctic spill. For example, it
described how to attend to saving polar bears. It was obvious they had
cut and pasted from their arctic plans.
BP actually did have some boom and skimmers for oil cleanup. It seems like that wasn’t really adequate though.
The oil industry had been required to improve their technology and
safety after the Valdez oil spill (through the Oil Pollution Act of
1990), but none of them complied. They had the exact same technology —
the boom, the skim, the chemicals — that had failed in the Exxon Valdez
(oil spill of 1989), where only 14 percent of the oil was actually
collected. The Deepwater Horizon spill was equivalent to one Valdez
every four days. They never even had enough equipment; they were
gathering it from all over. But the BP Deepwater Horizon spill affected
five states and is the largest marine oil spill in the history of the
industry, in the ninth largest body of water in the world. Can you ever
truly protect the shores of five states from a blowout in the Gulf of
Mexico? BP said they could handle a spill more than three times the size
of the Gulf oil spill.
One of the attempts at cleanup involved chemical dispersant. Some
experts actually think this dispersant may have caused more problems
than it solved. How did the dispersants affect the eventual outcome of
Applying chemical dispersants is a standard response to any oil spill.
But your standard oil spill is very small. They happen a lot, but
they’re small. The dispersant spreads it out and keeps it from being
this mess on top of the ocean.
The problem is we’re still using the same types of dispersants we
know are bad. For example, the dispersant used in the Exxon Valdez
spill, Corexit, which got people horribly sick, is still being used in
Another problem: BP tried to match dispersant for oil. A colossal
amount of oil required a colossal amount of chemicals, and the
combination is terrible. The combination results in a much worse outcome
than either on its own.
The decision you’re making when applying dispersants is that you’re
basically saving the shore and sacrificing the ocean. This makes some
sense: You want to keep oil away from where the people are. But in the
case of the BP Deepwater Horizon incident, there was so much oil, it
didn’t matter. We ended up with oil and dispersant on the shore.
There was also the burning of oil and chemicals on the ocean’s
surface — this resulted in an aerosol. All of this is really bad news.
What kind of health problems did the dispersants cause?
Acid reflux, neurological damage, the “BP Peel” (people report a
continual reptilian-like shedding of their skin) and the “BP cough.”
How did the spill affect the area’s wildlife and sea life?
We’re still figuring that out. We do know that what we find on shore is
only about one percent of what has actually died. This is because
mammals that die in the ocean don’t try to get to shore first; they just
die in the middle of the ocean. The official death toll is in the
thousands, but that’s probably not accurate.
They also basically stopped counting the fish that washed up on shore
because there were just too many. Probably millions of fish have died.
As you get smaller down the food chain, the death toll is much larger.
The worms, algae and other small organisms that larger creatures feed on
are gone. The dispersant also breaks the oil down into bite-sized
morsels. The fish that eat it then become mutated. Fishermen have
reported fish that are inside out, the wrong color or swimming in the
There are dead baby dolphins and dolphin fetuses found washed up on
shore. It took a while to ascertain the cause of the deaths, but the oil
in them has been traced to the Macondo well.
What about the economic health of the Gulf?
It really depends on where you live in the Gulf. That’s why there are
media stories that depict diametrically opposite realities. Five states
were affected. When the oil first spilled, it moved liked a monster.
There were daily “oil casts” on the news, telling where the oil hit that
day. So, just like the way a hurricane will destroy one house and leave
the next one standing, there are places in the gulf where things are
fine, and places that are devastated. It also depends on what people do
for a living.
Bayou La Batre, Ala., where I spent a lot of time, is the seafood
processing center of the United States. There are 2,500 mostly
Vietnamese immigrants who work in processing facilities. They’ve been
out of work since the spill. Certain fishing communities in Louisiana
have also been hard hit. So the food that’s free to them is gone.
Right now, where does BP stand in the claims process?
BP was required under the Oil Pollution Act to set up a claims process.
They made it difficult and laborious. The CFO of the state of Florida is
suing BP for intentionally making the process too complex and keeping
money from going out. They made it so laborious that the federal
government took it over. So far, about 900,000 claims have been filed,
and about 300,000 have been paid.
You attended BP’s shareholders meeting in London this April. After
going to that, do you think BP is really more committed to safety after
all the negative press its received post-spill?
I was there with five Gulf Coast residents, and they each had proxies.
Before going to the shareholders’ meeting, BP had communicated that the
victims were important to them. There were ads that BP was cleaning up
the Gulf. But when we actually got to the meeting, they didn’t let the
residents in. I got in because I hold shares, under the caveat that I
couldn’t make a speech (normally every shareholder is allowed to address
the board). I agreed, but I didn’t know then that the Gulf Coast
residents hadn’t been admitted. When I discovered that they had been
denied access, I had to speak.
I feel that being there and making the speech required BP to discuss
the disaster in ways they hadn’t planned. It was only after I made my
intervention that CEO Bob Dudley read the names of the eleven deceased
Deepwater Horizon workers.
In terms of their policies, nothing has fundamentally changed. Still,
they did have to acknowledge that Gulf residents aren’t going to sit
back and shrug their shoulders that BP hasn’t changed: They’re going to
What kind of legislation would you like to see passed to prevent similar disasters?
There was an initial huge push toward new regulations after the spill.
This is one of the longest disasters that the media has covered so
thoroughly. And the American public wanted even more. When polls asked
people how much coverage on this topic they wanted, they said they
wanted more, and this was already with an unprecedented amount of media
coverage. People were gripped.
And this media attention spurred legislation. The legislation was
moving through Congress, and it looked like it would go through. But
several things happened that stopped it. One was the well being capped,
which was great news. Another was when the Obama administration
announced on Aug. 16 that the oil was gone. At the same time, the oil
industry was aggressively stating that the disaster was a “BP-only”
problem and a fluke. Another problem was the Republicans who didn’t want
the legislation to go through.
We need a dramatic change in regulatory oversight. We need better
educated employees who know the industry better, much tighter
regulations, a much larger staff with greater resources and greater
oversight and enforcement. Short of that, if we can’t manage these
things, I don’t think we should be offshore drilling.
This disaster taught us that the oil industry doesn’t really know how
to drill in deep water. The truth is, most oil spills happen in shallow
water. I think we need to ban all of it, but that’s a big step. A
smaller step would to be to ban the deep-water wells. Basically, if it’s
impossible to regulate something that had such a catastrophic effect,
we shouldn’t be doing it.