In June 2010, as the world was focused on the relentless torrent of BP crude billowing into the Gulf of Mexico, the leading American research journal Science released a special issue on the world's "Changing Oceans." Unsurprisingly, the news is dark, but the clear sense of mounting alarm in the scientific community makes the collected articles more compelling, as they provide the context for the conditions of the world's seas before the emerging era of huge spills from deepwater drilling.
Researching the effects of giant spills is still a young field, but clearly the consequences of the oceans' problems will be felt for generations—"externalities" in economic lingo. The ocean scientists' conclusions, while guarded and understated in the manner of the profession, largely back up the positions of the environmental movement and critics of capitalism.
The Black-and-Blue Seas
The special issue of Science kicks off with a summary of recent research on ocean acidification, an additional and less-known side effect of rising CO2 levels. The ocean's pH has dropped radically, with studies finding a 30 percent increase in surface-level acidity over just 15 years ("Ocean Acidification Unprecedented, Unsettling," Science, 6/18/10). The normally-reserved geochemists aren't holding back: "Aside from the dinosaur-killing asteroid impact, the world has probably never seen the likes of what's brewing in today's oceans. By spewing carbon dioxide from smokestacks and tailpipes at a gigatons-per-year pace, humans are conducting a grand geophysical experiment, not just on climate but on the oceans as well." The scientists go on to compare this development with a previous world extinction event, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, with less total carbon involved, but entering the oceans far faster.
The problem is that as oceans acidify even moderately, many ecologically crucial organisms are losing their ability to function. A research survey by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute chemists found that all species of tropical coral slowed their growth process in conditions of lowered pH. The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, for example, has experienced a 14.2 percent drop in calcification since 1990, indicating the reef's structure is growing more slowly, with no sign of a previous drop of this magnitude. The issue is especially serious because the world's coral is already reeling from "bleaching" in higher global temperatures—a condition harder to recover from in acidic conditions. Acidification is also causing some varieties of plankton to form thinner, lighter shells than over the past millennia, as are sea snails and oyster larvae. The significance of this is that these organisms are crucial for the broader ecosystem—oysters and especially coral provide essential habitats for untold thousands of ocean organisms, and plankton and mollusks are at the bases of the marine food web. Any decline in these organisms will likewise spread up the chain and weaken the ocean's other systems.
The scientists go on to consider ship noise: the profoundly loud, low-frequency, underwater din from the world's 100,000 or so large commercial ships. The deep-register noise from global commerce is "swamping low-frequency wavelengths that whales and other sea creatures use to communicate, find mates, and navigate their watery world. Researchers worry that the cacophony is making it even harder for these creatures to overcome the numerous human threats—from toxic pollution to overexploitation—that have already pushed some to the edge of extinction." Despite the especially disruptive effect of military sonar, scientists have found that regular ship traffic is the main source of this little-known problem, as the rapid growth in world trade has driven low-frequency ocean noise up 32-fold ("A Push for Quieter Ships").
An early research effort monitored noise levels in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off Massachusetts, chosen because the channel to the busy Boston Harbor passes through it. The propeller noise is low and loud enough to make it challenging for whales to maintain acoustic contact and reduces the range over which whales can communicate by as much as 90 percent. Whales are raising the pitch of their calls, up to a full octave for the highly endangered Atlantic "right whales," so-called because they were "right" for efficient killing and harvesting for the whaling industry of the 18th century. About 400 of the animals live in the North Atlantic today—another species nearly "externalized" out of existence by capitalism.
Reduction of ship noise is therefore essential and the journal notes that, "Engineers say such a reduction is technologically feasible, but the costs—and opposition from some shipping companies—could be formidable." Fixes include technical changes to propellers, "streamlining boxy hulls now optimized for storage, and slowing cruising speeds," although each of these changes would mean forcing shippers to cease externalizing large costs onto the environment.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is also included in this ocean survey, a Texas-sized ocean eddy saturated with minute plastic particles. The Science writers characteristically deride the mainstream media's sensationalization of the patch: "Although many media stories conjure up a chunky soup of bottles and tires, it is mostly an unstrained consommé of small bits of floating plastic…. A similar accumulation of plastic particles—which include weathered fishing line, Styrofoam, wrappers, and raw resin pellets—has shown up in the North Atlantic Ocean" ("The Dirt on Ocean Garbage Patches"). Since its discovery by Woods Hole oceanographers in 1972, the problem has apparently escalated, with a 2001 survey voyage finding 334,271 pieces of plastic per square kilometer, coming to an almost unbelievable 6:1 ratio of plastic to zooplankton biomass. The discovery of these floating garbage soups has driven more research, since, as Science indicates, "In the past, researchers have mostly focused on larger threats: abandoned fishing nets that trap turtles and seals; plastic bags that block the digestive tracts of turtles; and the toothbrushes and bottle caps that seabirds mistake for food, sometimes starving as a result or dying from a blockage. But toxin-laden microplastics may add another risk to marine life. Benthic worms, mussels, krill, sea cucumbers, and birds will ingest tiny plastic particles."
The centerpiece of the special issue examines recent research on "The Growing Human Footprint on Coastal and Open-Ocean Biogeochemistry." While conventional economic theory encourages treating the economy as if it exists in an empty world that can absorb endless pollution, the scientists are not so optimistic, noting for example that 25-30 percent of humanity's total CO2 emissions since the beginning of the industrial era are now dissolved in the oceans. Besides acidification, there are serious effects on fundamental biological productivity, since warming surface layers makes them circulate less with cooler, lower waters, thus increasing ocean "stratification." This circulates fewer nutrients, driving the menacing decline of phytoplankton in strong correlation with warming temperatures, especially in the tropics and subtropics.
Also encouraged by vertical stratification of the water column is the problem of hypoxia, extremely low oxygen levels in coastal waters due to excessively high volumes of oxygen-consuming algae and bacteria. These algae feed on the nitrogen-rich waste of human commerce: "Fertilizer runoff and nitrogen deposition from fossil fuels are driving an expansion in the duration, intensity, and extent of coastal hypoxia, leading to marine habitat degradation and in extreme cases, extensive fish and invertebrate mortality." There are currently over 400 coastal hypoxic zones worldwide, including the massive "Dead Zone" in the Gulf of Mexico.
Among the more heartbreaking aspects of the research survey is the conclusion that, while major sources of industrial pollution are often very visible, less attention goes to "the global spread of industrial pollutants into what otherwise would appear to be pristine environments." This includes organic mercury and persistent organic pollutants like DDT, "found in even the most remote marine locations, transported through the atmosphere in the vapor phase, aerosols, and soot particles [and] by ocean currents." Importantly, the situation is not hopeless, as a chemist contributor describes: "It is encouraging that, after the phase out of leaded gasoline in North America that began in the mid-1970s, the high levels of anthropogenic lead observed in the North Atlantic declined sharply and are now comparable to those occurring at the beginning of the 20th century." Environmental disruption as a side-effect of capitalism can be turned back, but it would take the equivalent of a lead-gas phase out for fossil fuels.
Science's spotlight on the oceans concludes with the discussion of the acceleration of polar ice sheet melting, raising median expectations of a sea level rise by 2100 from about 60 centimeters to a full meter ("Sea-Level Rise and Its Impact on Coastal Zones"). The pace has risen recently, due to the combined effects of quickening inflow of water mass from the ice sheets and from thermal expansion of the existing ocean as it warms. In addition to the known melting of the ice sheets of Greenland and West Antarctica, it's been discovered that the East Antarctic ice sheet sits much lower on bedrock than thought, with many stretches well below sea level and therefore subject to far more melting from rising ocean temperatures ("Could East Antarctica Be Headed for Big Melt?"). Global effects of sea level rise are expected to be highly uneven, but in dry scientific language, the "socioeconomic effects…appear to be overwhelmingly negative."
Other entries compare the climate and ecosystem effects of human activity to large meteoric strikes, review the potential for interaction and destructive synergy among all the above problems, and warn of the "increased risk of sudden nonlinear transformations." It is into these stressed and degraded waters that major disasters like the Deepwater Horizon spill now intrude.
Drill, Maybe, Drill
Despite the glaring spotlight that shone on BP and its Deepwater Horizon well from the rig explosion in April until the final capping in September, mainstream coverage has treated the disaster as an accident due to factors unique to particularities of the well. However, reporting in the business press and scientific journals has documented something more menacing: the spill followed a consistent pattern of cost- and corner-cutting by BP, reflecting a clearly inadequate provision for the huge danger to the Gulf's battered ecology in the event of a major spill. These costs to the ecosystem, for which businesses typically are not held accountable, are therefore considered "externalities" from the point of view of market exchange.
The pattern is exemplified by BP's admitted decision to ignore the results of a "negative pressure test," in the hours before the well exploded, killing 11 workers and triggering America's biggest oil spill to date. The test had indicated a "very large abnormality," which ultimately turned out to be a column of high-pressure natural gas erupting up the well, as workers attempted to temporarily seal it. Whether it was the on-board BP managers who made the final call to proceed despite the result or the Transocean workers who ran most of the oil rig is still in dispute ("BP Cites Crucial 'Mistake'," Wall Street Journal, 5/25/10). Indisputable is the fact that BP was days behind the drilling schedule and over budget with each additional day of rig operation costing the company one million dollars.
But the ignored pressure test is just one example of BP's relentless corner-cutting and hastiness, which of course elevates risk and affects others' livelihoods, the Gulf's ecology, and future generations. The business press, especially the Wall Street Journal, has documented a parade of cost externalizing by one of the world's most powerful corporations. Examples include skipping cement quality tests, important to make sure the seal around the well's pipe was airtight and prevents the release of high-pressure natural gas. Another was skimping on centering devices, which ensure the pipe is fully surrounded by cement—BP's cement contractor, Halliburton, recommended 21 of these, but BP went with 6, despite a warning from Halliburton that the well would face "a SEVERE gas flow problem" (WSJ, "BP Decisions Set Stage for Disaster," 5/27/10). The issue of proper cementing was especially relevant, considering BP also made the unusual decision to run a single pipe from the sea floor to the oil reservoir, rather than the standard practice of two pipes nested together, which "provides an extra level of protection, but also requires another long, expensive piece of pipe."
BP's drilling logs also indicate the corporation cut short another important safety procedure called a "bottoms up" test, where the drilling "mud" is cycled through the well, bringing material at the bottom of the well up to the rig for testing. This pivotal procedure allows for detection of natural gas entering the cement, a crucial safety issue, but is also time consuming. The full test takes 6-12 hours, but the test was done for only 30 minutes the day before the explosion, plausibly to spare BP the $500,000 an additional half-day would have cost in rig rental and expenses. Rig workers reported being instructed to finish other work double-time, "like they were trying to rush everything." Also, the last of the cement pumped into the well was not tested for quality, again despite the particular importance of the cement to the well design. Evidently, cement contractors were aboard the rig to perform these tests, but were told by BP management no test was needed and were flown ashore at 11:00 AM—the only lives known to be saved by BP's systematically risky behavior.
There are other negligent policies that might also have enabled the explosion—an enormous spring was meant to lock down the seal at the top of the well, but BP's reports show no installation. The final error appears to have been the decision to remove the company's heavy drilling "mud" before injecting a cement plug to cap the well until later extraction of the oil. The picture is pretty clear—an under-valuing of risk, which is to be expected in markets based on private exchange, with no regard to effects downstream. So the well exploded on April 20, shattering 11 families and sending several million barrels of oil streaming into the Gulf of Mexico.
Notably, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), BP's offshore regulator, approved most of these risky maneuvers, including several hasty changes to the well that were rubber-stamped—literally five minutes to approve a tapering pipe and less than one day to approve the single-pipe design that may have played a role in the gas eruption ("BP Revised Permits Before Blast," WSJ, 5/30/10). Prior to this, the Interior Department, which includes the MMS, released a report documenting that Louisiana regulators accepted lunches, sports tickets, and other gifts from the oil majors, which are very often their former and future employers. This is a classic instance of "regulatory capture," where the enormous wealth and economic power of major corporations is enough to keep their own regulators in their pocket.
The ultimate statement of this corporate undervaluation of risk due to external costs came from a BP engineer, who wrote in an April report that the one-pipe option was "the best economic case." (As long as potential costs to others are omitted.)
Oil and Water Didn't Mix
While the early signals are highly ominous, the full effects of the spill won't be known for years, in part due to BP's efforts to control and impede the research process. In the weeks after the rig explosion, BP caused "a public cry of outrage" over an effort to "buy up" scientists, after BP offered funding to study damage from the spill, but "would have banned…discussing or publishing any data collected on their dime for up to 3 years," as Science reports ("After Outcry, Oil Data Inches Into the Open," 8/20/10). BP ultimately backed off after massive negative press attention and the refusal of many scientists to participate. In a similar fashion, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was ultimately forced to relax its tight restrictions on publishing spill data. However, BP has still given out very little of the $500 million in research money it promised after the spill, in part because the money must be funneled through the Gulf Coast state governors' offices. To date, only $30 million has been disbursed and the governors' offices are so far not responding to scientists' research proposals, which "limits scientists' ability to plan research over several years." ("The Case of the Missing $470 Million," Science, 8/20/10).
Meanwhile, the Obama administration had no problem pressuring NOAA to mislead the public, as its post-spill report claimed that 75 percent of the oil was "gone," having been burned, evaporated, and dissolved. While this claim received enormous media attention, it was almost immediately leapt upon by the scientific community and ripped to shreds. A review by the University of Georgia found that, even assuming favorable conditions, at least 70 percent of the total spill remains in the Gulf, or about 3 million barrels ("Current Status of BP Oil Spill," Georgia Sea Grant, 8/17/10). Another accounting in Science finds that NOAA's much-hyped report got the numbers exactly reversed—75 percent of the spill remains, with one-quarter removed/ destroyed. These findings ultimately led NOAA's senior scientists to repudiate the original feel-good report ("A Lot of Oil on the Loose, Not So Much to Be Found," Science, 8/13/10). These estimates are rough, of course, both due to the recent occurrence of the spill and the fact that BP clearly prioritized keeping the oil below the surface.
The scientific literature describes BP's use of chemical dispersants as "a story of scientists turning to desperate measures during desperate times." The dispersants—essentially detergents—break up oil flows into microscopic drops for microbes to eat, much like dishwater detergent breaks up oils on dishes ("An Audacious Decision in Crisis Gets Cautious Praise," Science, 8/13/10). But these chemicals have spotty health records even when used on the surface of oil spills. Their use thousands of feet down is an experimental exercise. The determination seems to have been that crude oil is so deadly for marine life that oil-plus-chemicals was considered barely worse.
The effect of dispersants and the great pressure at the well leak was to create the now-notorious plumes of oil and gas thousands of feet below the Gulf surface. The plumes have been proven through isotopic analysis to flow from BP's well rather than natural seeps and are over 20 miles long, a mile wide, and about two-thirds of a mile underwater. While BP's dispersant use has kept the oil from already-battered coastal wetlands, it has sentenced the deepwater Gulf ecology to an unknown fate. Perhaps more compelling for BP, it keeps the oil out of sight of news cameras and makes damage surveying far more challenging.
Throughout the coverage, the hope was raised that native bacteria, evolved to consume oil from natural seeps on the sea floor, would consume most of the spilled crude. Unfortunately, the emerging body of research on microbial consumption of the BP spill paints a disappointing picture. A team of earth and marine scientists found that about 70 percent of the bacterial feeding seems to be on the natural gas compounds in the underwater plumes ("Propane Respiration Jump-Starts Microbial Response to a Deep Oil Spill," ScienceExpress, 9/16/10). Further analysis suggests that bacteria are preferentially consuming the smaller compounds in the crude oil mixture, rather than the bigger, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are the most toxic ones.
Finally, more recent research seems to support this conclusion, finding that microbial activity, as measured by the decreased oxygen levels it causes, is breaking down the oil plume far more slowly than anticipated. Research voyages have found that the underwater oil plumes "persisted for months without substantial biodegradation," and that the hypoxia generated by the microbes is lower than expected ("Tracking Hydrocarbon Plume Transport and Biodegradation at Deepwater Horizon," ScienceExpress, 8/19/10). On the one hand, this is good news, as strong hypoxia is harmful to higher marine life and the Gulf is already struggling with low oxygen levels caused by algae feeding on agricultural runoff from the Mississippi basin. On the other hand, it also "suggests that the petroleum hydrocarbons did not fuel appreciable microbial respiration on the temporal scales of our study…if the hydrocarbons are indeed susceptible to biodegradation, then it may require many months before microbes significantly attenuate the hydrocarbon plume." In other words, the oil mixture may stick around for some time—a far cry from "75 percent gone."
The microdroplets of oil and the chemical dispersants are having effects that are just now being examined. Marine geochemists from the University of Southern Florida have found oil in microscopic plankton, at the base of the marine food web, meaning it will tend to bioaccumulate in higher animals eating the plankton and one another. The effects are seriously deleterious for organism health: "Biosensor assays indicate that marine organisms, phyto-plankton and bacteria, express a strong toxic response" in waters with petroleum hydrocarbons present (WUSF, "Oil Found Deep in Gulf Is Toxic to Tiny Marine Life"). While these findings are new and not yet corroborated by further research, the signs are not encouraging.
It should be borne in mind that the situation is not hopeless. The removal of lead from U.S. gasoline was driven by the introduction of catalytic convertors after citizens demanded EPA action and was followed by decreases in the lead content of the North Atlantic. Likewise, scientists have noted that NOAA's current policy of sharing BP's spill data was driven by loud public demands for openness and BP probably wouldn't have been so eager to hide the crude underwater if it thought no one cared about the environment. Prospects for radical change lie in the public's desire for a clean environment for their grandkids, who will clearly suffer from corporate America's undervaluing of risk and who are therefore victimized by capitalism's "externalities" as much as the fisherperson out of work due to contaminated catches and the coral bleached by warming and dissolved by acid.
Capitalism's structural inefficiencies make its "best economic case" into a worst-case scenario for the world.
Rob Larson is Assistant Professor of Economics at Ivy Tech Community College in Bloomington, Indiana. He has written for Dollars & Sense, Z, and the Humanist.