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Finger of blame?

David White

Want to know where to point the finger of blame for the Deepwater Horizon disaster? You can start by pointing to yourself, says oil-spill response specialist David White*.

Geoscientist 21.03 April 2011

The Deepwater Horizon blow-out in the Gulf of Mexico brought safety and oil spills to the forefront of the global media, and pretty soon coverage turned to the question of where to point “the finger of blame”. As a geologist with experience in exploration and production who has been working in the oil-spill response industry for a number of years (including Deepwater) I wonder if, when all is said and done, we should not all look towards ourselves for blame: yes – that’s you, me, everyone.

Our insatiable thirst for oil has resulted in relatively easy-to-exploit reservoirs becoming drier, and new finds rarer. Exploration has been pushed by our demand into frontier regions of world, where extremely challenging situations for exploration, production, transportation and spill-response present themselves. Such new frontiers may lie in deeper water, more remote and sensitive locations, and/or in extreme environments.

The Deepwater Horizon incident highlighted a number of issues, from prevention to response and restoration. One aspect that has not been widely reported is the change being seen in the source of oil spills. Historically, spills were mostly associated with shipping – now, according to global statistics on a clear downward trend. While this is of course good news, what is worrying is the emerging opposite trend in the exploration and production sector.

We all know Deepwater Horizon was a well blowout; but how many readers are aware of a blowout in 2009 off Western Australia that received much less international media attention? Not to mention other smaller incidents that occur every year in the North Sea, West Africa, Gulf of Mexico - in fact, all the smaller incidents that happen everywhere. Wherever oil is handled there is an inherent risk of spillage despite all our preventative measures. The problem now facing us comes from a combination of existing production infrastructure in those older, easier-to-extract fields approaching the end of their life cycle, and higher-risk frontier areas being newly explored. Hardly surprising, then, that collectively, the risk of oil-spill incidents rises.

You may think this spill risk is unacceptable, but it is we who have pushed demand up. Industry has a duty of care, and makes huge investment in new drilling and production technologies that can cope with frontier areas – as does the response industry, so as to ensure a suitable level of global preparedness should preventative measures fail. But how often do we ask where the hydrocarbons for our cars, for our holiday flights, our plastic consumer products, (the list is never ending), actually come from?

We have the right to demand that the original crude came from a well run, non-polluting field; that it was shipped in modern double-hull tankers and refined at facilities with strict environmental management systems. Unfortunately, traceability to exact source for any particular hydrocarbon product is virtually impossible, and such standards cannot be guaranteed.

So, rather than asking where it comes from, perhaps you had better ask yourself whether you actually need that hydrocarbon product at all.

* David White is Senior Consultant Response Specialist with Oil Spill Response Limited, Southampton, UK. E: W: