Revolution #213, September 27, 2010

From A World to Win News Service

Deepwater Drilling: Disaster After Disaster

September 20, 2010. A World to Win News Service. The BP oil well that has been spewing poison into the Gulf of Mexico since April was declared officially "killed" September 19. But like the undead in a horror movie who rise up again and again to attack the living, one after another deepwater oil rig is coming at humanity.

The Deepwater Horizon rig hired by BP was drilling for oil and gas on the seabed 1.5 kilometers [0.93 miles] underwater, and its tubes extended another 4.8 kilometers [almost 3 miles] under the earth. Drilling under these conditions is especially dangerous. The pressures involved are enormous. The wellhead, located far down on the sea bottom, is very difficult to access in case of a malfunction of the valves designed to balance those pressures. That's what happened with the Deepwater Horizon. When oil and gas began surging uncontrollably from the well, the gas shot to the surface and exploded, killing 11 workers and sending the rig to the ocean bottom.

Such wells were unusual until 15 years ago. The oil companies began pushing deeper and deeper into the sea at a spectacular rate over the last few years as older wells in shallower waters began to dry up.

The challenges these wells present are unprecedented. The floating rigs and stationary platforms are often located far from shore, so firefighting and rescue equipment can't be brought quickly. In the Gulf of Mexico, hurricanes regularly pound the surface with giant waves and high winds, while underwater currents and mudslides can be no less destructive. The temperatures just above freezing at those depths can harden natural gas into dangerous hydrate crystals.

Deepwater drilling was made more possible by the development of new technologies in the 1990s. Yet before the BP disaster, oil companies and the governments that supposedly regulate them chose not to take these new risk factors into account. "Our ability to manage risks hasn't caught up with our ability to explore and produce in deep water," said Edward Chow, a former oil company executive now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. (The New York Times, August 31, 2010)

The U.S. Interior Department declared, or, better said, gambled that such drilling was safe based on the relatively few blowouts between 1979 and 2009, without factoring in the unprecedented difficulties and damage that could result if a blowout did occur. But given the increasingly complexity of drilling conditions, on the one hand, and the proliferation of such wells (more than 4,000 in the Gulf's deep waters) on the other, disaster was not only possible but almost inevitable.

Worse, much worse, is this: now that a deepwater rig disaster has occurred, with long-term consequences that are just beginning to be studied, rather than learning a lesson and acting accordingly, the oil industry and the governments are continuing and even expanding global deepwater operations.

Despite the BP blowout, Royal Dutch Shell is continuing to operate the world's deepest offshore platform in the Gulf of Mexico. The Perdido is set to drill 35 wells over the next two decades. Since the April accident, the Gulf has seen the arrival of new ships that can drill more than twice as deep under the seas as the Deepwater Horizon (3.6 kilometers [2.25 miles]). Only two of the 33 deepwater rigs that were operating there have left the area.

Around the globe there are currently about 50 ultra-deepwater drilling operations at depths of greater than 2.3 kilometers [1.4 miles], half of them run by Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig. In addition to the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean, it drills in seas near Norway, Scotland, Brazil, Angola, Nigeria, India, Malaysia and Indonesia. More rigs like the Deepwater Horizon are under construction. Regardless of all the bad publicity, industry publications do not expect this company or others like it to lose much business.

Government officials in Nigeria and Ghana at first voiced concern after the BP spill, but these countries have not delayed any of the projects underway.

Norway decided to go ahead and auction 94 of 100 new lots for drilling in its continental shelf waters. The Norwegian-based Statoil, Scandinavia's leading business, is the world's biggest offshore oil and gas company. It is a major investor in the Gulf of Mexico as well as oil and gas fields in a dozen other countries.

Denmark is allowing a Scottish-based company to drill in an area nicknamed "Iceberg Alley" in the Arctic Sea near Greenland. Greenpeace environmental activists aboard the ship Esperanza sailed out to the platform to draw world attention to the danger to the sea and the various kinds of whales, polar bears, seals, sharks and bird species to which this area is home. Although the Danish government sent a warship, commandos in speedboats and a police flotilla to stop them, several protestors succeeded in climbing a tower on the rig. They hung there for two days before the Arctic weather forced them down into the hands of the authorities, who arrested them September 19.

Meanwhile, at the World Energy Congress in Montreal, another 60 Greenpeace supporters covered themselves with petroleum to stage a "Black Tide Beach Party" to emphasize "the urgent need for the world to move beyond oil."

For the oil companies, the governments dependent on oil revenues and in fact the whole monopoly capitalist system in which profits from oil and oil-burning industries play such a central role, the possibility that there could be another oil well disaster like last April's or even worse is trumped by the certainty that there are huge profits that will not be made if deepwater drilling does not go ahead, and that if anyone holds back, the others are sure to rush in and crush them.

At this point much of the world's known but unexploited oil reserves are located deep under the waves. But what is at stake is more than the issue of supply and demand for this commodity. These deep-sea oil fields represent a part of nature whose ownership is up for grabs. Who gets it and who doesn't will have a lot to do with determining the future of blocs of capital and the nations they are rooted in.

This expand-or-die economic competition between companies and countries is intertwined with military factors. Countries use their potential military power to protect and expand their profits at each other's expense, even if competition takes place in complicated ways, including the subjugation of countries like Iraq in part to keep out other big and little imperialists and not always through direct armed conflict between the imperialist powers. At the same time possession of oil (and the money to be made from it) is also a major strategic factor in itself when it comes to the competition between capitalist nations.

For instance, China is currently developing its naval power to strengthen its claims to the oil- and gas-rich South China Sea (also a transit point for much of the world's energy supplies). The U.S. has responded by holding provocative naval exercises off of China. This is about more than immediate profit. Such conflicts have much to do with the ability of the U.S. to maintain its world empire.

A recent scholarly article in Science magazine (September 10, 2010) concludes that the existing fossil-fuel guzzlers alone (coal-burning power plants, gas-powered factories, cars, etc.) will add a total of about 496 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere over the next 50 years. The authors calculate that this would bring CO2 levels to 430 ppm and global warming to a mean of 1.4 degrees Celsius [2.5 degrees Fahrenheit] over the pre-industrial era. These levels are near the threshold for disastrous climate change, and the estimates may be way low according to an article about the study in Scientific American and other scientists.

The point of the study, however, is not to argue that the danger of climate change has been exaggerated. Instead, the authors conclude that taken as a whole the existing energy infrastructure constitutes a form of investment, or capital, roughly speaking, whose very existence is an enormous obstacle to change, and a powerful economic incentive to expand rather than halt the expansion of the CO2-dependent economy.

That is exactly what we are seeing with the expansion of deepwater and ultra-deepwater drilling despite the now proven risk of disastrous accidents, not to mention the ongoing and definitely non-accidental disaster of increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

A system based on private profit, the private appropriation of the wealth socially produced by the world's working people and of nature itself, a system driven by capitalist competition and short-term considerations, just can't stop itself from wreaking havoc today and worse tomorrow. A socialist system whose highest good is the interests of humanity and the preservation of the planet would and will be determined to find the ways to solve these problems.

A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine (, a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world's Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.

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