BP Disaster Plan Lacked Realistic Solutions

A timeline of the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico Tim Boyle/Getty Images

From the “top kill” to the containment dome to the riser insertion tube, BP has been desperately searching for a way to contain the spill currently raging in the Gulf of Mexico. The company has assured the public that, with the help of experts from around the world, its engineers are working hard to examine any and all possible ideas in order to find a viable solution, but they also seem to be scrambling, and are up against the clock to get results fast.

A blowout like this one apparently wasn’t expected, although it should have been. One of the most stunning examples of BP’s lack of preparation is evidenced in the emergency-response strategy report it prepared in accordance with federal law. The report runs 583 pages, but is alarmingly short on how to stop a deep-sea spill. And now that the worst has happened, the company is lacking solutions. Ed Overton, an oil-spill expert and environmental chemist who is analyzing sediment and water samples for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as part of the current response, says, “You can go down the list of all the ways we weren’t prepared for this.”

“What they’re doing now is kind of like building a fire truck after your house is on fire—clearly that’s the wrong sequence,” says Rick Steiner, a marine biologist and an independent consultant on oil-spill prevention and response, who’s worked on a multitude of spills including the Exxon Valdez. “That’s the huge calamity here—that they were allowed to drill in the deep ocean without a realistic plan for stopping an uncontrolled blowout. It’s the responsibility of the industry to have it, and it’s the responsibility of the government to ensure that they have it,” Steiner says. But in this case, neither happened.

The BP Oil Spill Response Plan for the region, which was approved by the Minerals Management Service in July, is full of details about how to estimate the amount of oil on the surface of the water and which forms to fill out after using dispersants. But when it comes to the type of innovative solutions required to stop a spill deep underwater, the plan has no answers, nor does it show much serious thought. “My jaw dropped when I read it,” says Steiner, a longtime critic of the oil industry who left his job as a professor at the University of Alaska after he lost NOAA funding.

Some of the details that left Steiner skeptical include:

• The plan mentions the need to protect walruses, sea lions, sea otters, and seals—all animals that do not actually exist in the gulf. This suggests that at least parts of the gulf plan could have been cut-and-pasted from response plans for other regions, like Alaska.

• A hyperlink provided for a response contractor points to a Japanese shopping Web site.

• The plan does consider the potential for a worst-case scenario of a blowout much like the one that has now occurred, but doesn’t offer substantial response options to a spill in the deep seas. Nowhere does it lay out specific procedures, like containment domes, top kill, or junk shots. Instead, it discusses using dispersants, boats, and booms to skim the oil from the surface of the ocean.

BP did not immediately comment about the report, which is available to the public. But chief operating officer Doug Suttles has been insistent in his claims that BP is doing the best it can, especially considering that no oil-spill response operation has ever taken place so far under the sea. “We’re taking great care to make sure that we complete this job successfully. We will not be rushed,” he said on Thursday.

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