ENTER: CYNTHIA, QUEEN of the HUNT
On 20th April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon, a British Petroleum oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, exploded, killing eleven workers and unleashing an oil leak of volcanic proportions five thousand feet below the surface. By the time the well was finally capped, fully four months later, after many failed attempts, an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil had billowed into the Gulf. Even capping the well did not seal the leak completely; the pressure split the surrounding rock-bed, and oil continued to seep out in other places.
The bore-hole, at more than thirteen thousand feet, is one of the deepest ever drilled into the earth’s crust, penetrating a huge deposit of heavy crude oil: the Macondo Prospect. At this depth, the astronomical pressures involved created an unprecedented challenge. As the direct result of a sequence of errors and reckless shortcuts, pressure from the well overcame defenses, forcing methane and other gases up into the rig, which exploded when they reached the engine room. The rig burned ferociously until it tipped over and sank on top of the bore-hole two days later, on 22nd April – which happened to be Earth Day. Over the next eighty-seven days, the gusher discharged an estimated two hundred million gallons of oil under pressures of up to seventy thousand pounds per square inch.
The Deepwater Horizon rig was owned by Transocean, a subsidiary of Halliburton Corporation, and operated by British Petroleum. In the run-up to the blow-out, crucial shortcuts were taken which would leave the three corporations pointing fingers at each other after the catastrophe. There was no built-in acoustic switch; the blow-out preventer failed; the steel casing was improperly attached to the blow-out preventer. Four employees of Halliburton had overseen the cementing of the well just twenty hours before the blow-out, using inappropriately formulated cement. Results of safety tests were misinterpreted; a final safety test, for which a team had been specially flown out to the rig, was cancelled at the last minute; the installation of the second cement plug was aborted mid-operation on BP’s orders for no good reason; instead, the heavy drilling mud was flushed out and replaced by sea water, a move which provoked disbelief among rig workers.
It wasn’t just that mistakes were made – they were rammed through in the teeth of fierce opposition from the drilling floor. The operation had already provided some heart-in-mouth moments, with a dangerous build-up of natural gases and a series of ‘kicks’ when drill-heads hit gas pockets. At the beginning of the project BP had been warned by the US government to proceed with caution, but they did the exact opposite of that at every step, handling the record-breaking project with breathtaking recklessness. So egregious was the flouting of normal procedures that it provoked a near mutiny by Transocean workers, culminating in physical scuffles on the bridge.
After the event, CCTV recordings of events on the bridge during the six hours leading up to the disaster were found to be missing; and the rig’s ‘block box’ instrument recorder was never recovered – the first time that this had happened in any oil rig accident.
While the resulting submarine gusher pumped out one and a half million gallons of toxic heavy crude per day, creating a sixty thousand square mile slick and threatening the entire ecosystem of the Gulf, the measures taken to alleviate the effects only made matters worse – horribly so. BP proceeded to saturate hundreds of miles of ocean and shoreline with a chemical dispersant more toxic than the oil itself, and much more poisonous in combination with it. This dispersant, Corexit, had been developed after the Exxon Valdes disaster in Alaska. Corexit emulsifies oil into tiny droplets and submerges it beneath the surface, rather than destroying it. It is designed in effect to hide the problem, rather than fix it. It also absorbs carbon dioxide from sea water, leading to algae blooms which create anaerobic dead zones, displacing all other life forms from the eco-system. In July, when BP was able to announce that 75% of the oil had ‘evaporated’, it was fact still there, its toxicity, reach and bio-availability magnified by the chemical.
Corexit is poison. Designed to penetrate lipids in order to break up oil, it is equally effective, it turns out, at penetrating the cells of living organisms. Absorption of petroleum hydrocarbons by fish and shellfish is massively enhanced. The result of the spraying was that a deadly, micronized mixture of oil and Corexit permeated throughout the Gulf, entering the water table in neighboring states and soon showing up in rainfall and the food chain. Life in the sea and the swamplands was devastated, as were fishing and shrimping industries and the general economy of the entire region. In August 2012, Hurricane Isaac careered through the Gulf, stirring the brew. People who could, got out; those who remained were plagued by ill-health – headaches, nausea, and horrible skin lesions.
The use of Corexit continued covertly after the completion of the ‘clean-up’ – for years, according to witnesses. The oil-free appearance of the sea surface and the beaches, however, disguised the reality of a vast plume of oil hanging suspended beneath the surface, and mats of oil settling onto the sea floor and into the New Madrid fault-line.
But wait, there’s more. BP wasn’t done yet.
Enter Cynthia, goddess of the hunt, flesh-eating synthetic bacterium.
Cynthia is an engineered microbe designed to eat oil. In fact, the oil-eating bacterium Pseudomonas putida is the creature which ushered in the whole bio-tech revolution, having been the subject of a watershed court case (Diamond vs Chakrabhati) in the Supreme Court of the United States in 1980, in which Justice Warren E Burger ruled that a living, man-made micro-organism is patentable subject matter as a ‘manufacture’ or ‘composition of matter’ within the meaning of the Patent Act of 1952. The multiplasmid hydrocarbon-consuming Pseudomonas was the first patented organism in the world.
In its incarnation as ‘Cynthia’, designed at the J Craig Venter Institute for Synthetic Genomics corporation, the organism was loosed in the Gulf in 2011. At first Cynthia did her job well, tearing into the oil with a fierce appetite. However, she quickly began to show a taste for the flesh of living creatures. Reports of strange occurrences – five thousand birds falling from the sky in Arkansas, a hundred thousand dead fish coughed up by the sea in Northern Louisiana – starting appearing. One hundred and twenty BP employees who had worked on the clean-up fell sick from mystery illnesses. People who swam in the Gulf or were even caught in rainstorms found themselves covered in itching sores, some of them dying in agony from internal bleeding. Cynthia reproduces rapidly within the body, and is immune to antibiotics. According to the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), up to 40% of the residents of the territories adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico have become infected with severe respiratory and skin diseases.
Soon seals, turtles and dolphins, their bodies covered in horrible skin lesions and damage to internal organs, were being found as far north as Alaska. One year after the accident, the Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences at Louisiana State University was finding lesions and grotesque deformities in sea life—including millions of shrimp with no eyes and crabs without eyes or claws—possibly linked to oil and dispersants. A study by the University of South Florida found that the spill and its chemical treatment had caused a “massive die-off” of microscopic organisms at the base of the food chain.
Words hardly exist to describe what was done.
But here’s one: ecocide.
So we curse capitalism and deregulation and greed, and bemoan the incompetence of those under the cosh of the balance sheet. We mourn the damage done to bolster the huge profits of mega-corporations like BP and Halliburton – and despite the massive penalties placed on BP in US courts, the company was still able to pay out $100 million in dividends to its shareholders that year. Greed, incompetence, reckless endangerment of the very ecosystems which sustain us, utter obliviousness to the sacredness of life in all its forms: this is humanity at its worst.
Looking at the sequence of events, we marvel that every step that was taken – everything leading up to the blow-out, and everything afterwards – only made matters worse: exponentially worse, turning an already dire situation into an extinction level event. In the case of the Corexit bombardment, the damage was infinitely amplified. Oil on the surface is visible and collectable, using the sophisticated boom systems which exist. Oil under the surface, atomized and dispersed, entering the water table and the water column, convecting through the clouds, eating into every living thing like some particularly hideous chemical weapon, means irreversible, continuing, widening damage, disease and death… and not confined to the region. Confined to the planet. The Gulf of Mexico houses the Loop Current which feeds the Gulf Stream. The toxification of the seas is accompanied by more bad news: there is evidence that with the continued presence of submerged plumes of heavy oil and Corexit leaching into the Loop Current, the chemical impact may be changing the behaviour of the Gulf Stream, diverting it away from Europe and bringing rapid warming to the Arctic.
No one wants to look into the abyss. But once again, one must resist the appeal to ignorance.
Not that ignorance doesn’t have its appeal. Never more so than right now.
How can a such perfect storm come together like this? Everything conspired to bring about disaster and then to make it worse. Everything. But no one, of course. Because… well,
“Why would BP blow up its own rig?
I don’t know.
Therefore BP didn’t blow up its own rig.”
First we have to say, there’s no question that they did blow up the rig – their own actions, in very specific sequence, in the teeth of dire warnings, led directly to the blow-out. As the BP’s well-site leader told the angry drill-crew, ‘That’s the way it’s gonna be.’ And that’s the way it was.
Nobody asks out loud whether it really was an accident – that’s the unexamined assumption of all inquiries into the case, media coverage, and public perception. But this assumption becomes impossible to ignore when it is discovered that the CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, divested himself of BP stocks worth £1.4 million two weeks in advance of the event. Halliburton did the same. Goldman Sachs, part owner of Corexit, placed put options on ‘the whole of the Gulf’, as one commentator puts it. Transocean, the owner of the rig, placed put options on its own stocks on the very morning of the disaster. Out of the blue, Halliburton also acquired the world’s leading specialist oil clean-up operation, Boots and Coots, in a move which puzzled observers at the time.
Ten days later, the event occurred which made sense of all these actions.
The insider-trading shows conspiracy. Foreknowledge. Intent. In view of the insider-trading, combined with the insanely reckless decisions made by BP and Halliburton, we have to conclude – I see no way round it – that the Deepwater Horizon disaster was deliberately engineered.
The oil, and then the Corexit. It’s almost as if it was designed to magnify the damage. A chemical weapon. Then the flesh-eating bio-weapon, Cynthia, huntress of everything. Poison, corrosion, sepsis.
Could they have made it any worse if they’d tried?
Why? Why would they do that?
Hold that question.
Now, rather than making the appeal to ignorance, I invite you to consider the work of the brilliant but little known satirist, Leonard C Lewin.
NEXT: THE CARBON EPIPHANY