GULF OIL SPILL | Accidents, tragedies and catastrophes

Michael Grey | LLOYD’S LIST

ONE cannot possibly envy poor Tony Hayward, the chief executive of BP, in his dreadful task on the shores of the US Gulf.

Every expert that can be dragged in from the world of offshore petroleum has been put to work, but the poor chap still cannot do anything right in the eyes of his critics.

Goodness, he dare not open his mouth, lest he be condemned for disrespecting those who lost their lives aboard the Deepwater Horizon, or for showing a lack of sympathy to the shrimps or the shrimpers, many of whom are getting a pretty good daily rate for participating in the clean-up. The corpse of a dolphin has been sighted, which probably means old Hayward’s goose is cooked.

The language of US greens becomes more lurid by the day, as they marshal more Big Oil haters to their colours, demanding pretty well everything short of the death penalty for the evil Brits who have caused such a catastrophe.

Prosecutors are rushing to get in on the act, while BP is occupying a place in the lexicon of horror in Washington that was once reserved for world communism.

Experts who would be better employed in actually trying to stop the outflow of oil, or helping to defend the coastline. are wasting hours having to give evidence to politicians, whose role in the fight against pollution must be considered questionable.

Even President Obama, of whom one might have thought better, is starting to use the same sort of language he employs when referring to the Taliban.

I am sorry, but having spent an hour or so reading various US newspaper columnists inveighing against the Brits in general and BP in particular, it is very difficult to remain either measured or polite.

Of course, it is a wretched business, and we know US lawyers do not understand the concept of an accident, but is it yet a “catastrophe”? The US media want it to be so described, and pander religiously to the greens by parroting their extravagant language.

On May 27, we were told, breathlessly, that the quantity of oil that had been emitted was now the greatest spill in US history and had exceeded that which had gushed from the Exxon Valdez, which is the popular yardstick that everyone in the US likes to remember. Ask any American child to name a ship, and if it is not the Titanic; this is the one they remember.

That unfortunate navigational miscalculation spilt 11.2m gallons of North Slope crude into Prince William Sound, which, when we spell it out in this modest and homely unit, seems an astronomical amount of oil, but amounts to some 36,446 tonnes of the stuff.

This is less than half of that spilled from the shattered wreck of the Braer around Shetland, and almost exactly half of the crude oil that washed around the pretty coves and beaches of Pembrokeshire after Sea Empress failed to make the entrance to Milford Haven.

I know language is relative and that used by politicians and those with a point to prove is far from accurate, but a “catastrophe” to me is the Second World War.

In modern marine terms, it might be used in connection with Dona Paz, which killed nearly 4,500 people after colliding with a tanker, or the 1,000 who died in the Estonia. The 29 dead men and the 270,000 tonnes of crude that spilt into the Atlantic off Tobago from Atlantic Empress, and the 30,000 tonnes that leaked out of the very large crude carrier with which it collided, could better be described as a tragedy.

The current tragedy is the sudden deaths of the workers on the rig. The same word could probably be employed with justification over the terrible outpouring of an entire cargo that poured out of the wrecked Amoco Cadiz, or the entire quarter million tonnes lost from the ABT Summer and Castillo de Bellver respectively.

And for sheer nastiness, the heavy oils lost from Erika and Prestige sinkings come high up on the scale, because of their persistence, which is not usually the case with crude in warm waters.

But while thinking of nastiness, you do not get much nastier and more ill-informed than some of the muck that is being thrown at BP by the US media, dancing vigorously to the shrill pipes of the environmental campaigners, who seem increasingly to dictate the political agenda in the US.

Don’t any of these people ever use petroleum products, or realise that the average American burns about four times as much per capita as people in other industrialised countries?

Maybe they all ride bicycles. They probably don’t remember the 167 mainly Brits who died when the US oil company-operated Piper Alpha blew up in the North Sea.

But as I recall it, the aftermath of that tragedy (still a bit short of a catastrophe) was not a hysterical witchhunt on Americans, but a serious inquiry to discover what had happened, and to make sure it would not happen again.

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