July 27, 2010

BP, Gulf Coast Clean-Up Efforts Take Center Stage

With the leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico finally capped, the Deepwater Horizon saga now shifts to clean-up efforts--both for the residents of the affected territories, as well as for the petroleum company being held responsible for the three-month long environmental disaster.

Before the cap was put in place on July 15, an estimated 25,000 barrels of crude were being skimmed from the massive oil slick closest to the well site daily, according to AFP reports. However, near the end of last week, that number was reportedly down to just 56 barrels. While much of the oil has been burned off or cleaned up already, reclamation workers seem to be having difficulty finding remaining masses of the leaked petroleum.

"As to where all the oil that hasn't been skimmed or burned off has gone, opinions vary: some experts say it has been broken down naturally by the elements and by microbes in the ocean, others fear it could be lingering undetected in underwater plumes," AFP reporters said in a Tuesday article. "Only weeks ago, the slick was an unstoppable force that couldn't be prevented from swamping shorelines and slowly choking helpless pelicans, now the oil is an elusive enemy, one that has to be tracked down."

"What we have is an aggregation of hundreds of thousands of patches of oil and the challenge is to find out where they are at right now because they are widely dispersed," US spill chief Thad Allen told the news agency on Tuesday. "Maybe patches is a misnomer on my part. What we're seeing are mats, patties, small concentrations, very hard to detect, but they're out there"¦ What we're trying to figure out is where is all the oil at and what can we do about it."

Meanwhile, at least one expert was upbeat about the overall environmental damage to the area.

Geologist Ed Owens, an international authority on protecting shorelines from oil spills and a former technical advisor during the Exxon-Valdez oil spill, said that the overall ecological damage would be "quite small" in just a couple of months.

"It's a very, tiny, tiny fraction of what's spilled has actually reached any of the shorelines in the area, which means that the environmental impact in terms of the coastal side of it is quite small," Owens added in comments made to the AFP. "Because of the nature of the oil, we expect that the recovery will be very much in a matter of months to a year at the most. We're not talking about years or decades here as has been the case for other spills in the United States."

Doug Inkley, a senior scientist at the National Wildlife Federation, disagrees. In comments made recently, Inkley said that he expected the impact on wildlife would "last for years, if not decades."

The Gulf oil disaster has also had a major impact on BP, as the British petroleum giant replaced CEO Tony Hayward and posted a record $17 billion quarterly loss on Monday.

The 53-year-old Hayward, who led BP's cleanup efforts ever since the Deepwater Horizon exploded, sank, and began spewing oil into the Gulf waters in late April, stepped down in what was being called a mutual decision. Hayward's handling of the environmental disaster had drawn criticism from U.S. leaders, including President Barack Obama, and he drew the public's ire by participating in a yacht race and commenting that he would like his "life back" in the midst of the cleanup effort.

Replacing him was American Robert Dudley, the first non-British CEO in company history.

"The BP board is deeply saddened to lose a CEO whose success over some three years in driving the performance of the company was so widely and deservedly admired," BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg told reporters in a statement. "BP remains a strong business with fine assets, excellent people and a vital role to play in meeting the world's energy needs"¦ But it will be a different company going forward, requiring fresh leadership supported by robust governance and a very engaged board."

"The Gulf of Mexico explosion was a terrible tragedy for which--as the man in charge of BP when it happened--I will always feel a deep responsibility, regardless of where blame is ultimately found to lie," Hayward said in a statement following his departure. He will receive a $1.6 million buyout.

The company also announced the establishment of a $32-plus billion fund to cover the costs of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, AP Business Writer Jane Wardell reported on Tuesday.

Then there are the legal aspects of the disaster, which has resulted in numerous lost jobs for residents in and around the Gulf Coast.

According to AP Legal Affairs Writer Curt Anderson, "BP PLC and the other companies involved in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill are faced with fast-multiplying lawsuits that will provoke one of the most drawn-out and costliest legal battles in U.S. history, one that could easily consume the $20 billion set aside by BP to pay for the disaster, according to legal experts and attorneys nationwide."

"One veteran complex litigation attorney estimated that unless there is a quick settlement that satisfies all sides, it will be 2015 before any trials begin and at least 2028 before appeals and other legal issues are fully resolved," he adds. "The attorney, Lela Hollabaugh of Nashville, Tenn., pointed out that it took 20 years to complete all claims from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster in Alaska."


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