The explosion that destroyed the offshore oilrig, Deepwater Horizon, at a well owned by British Petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico has been an environmental catastrophe. A surge of gas and oil burst through safety valves and exploded, killing 11 of the 126 crew on April 20. The rig, owned by the BP contractor, Transocean, and partly equipped by Halliburton, then sank on to the well-head itself and is at a depth of about 1,500 metres. Current estimates are that 210,000 gallons of oil are flowing into the ocean every day. All attempts to cap the well have so far failed. A relief well to intercept the damaged one would take about three months to drill. The technicalities are extremely challenging, as only robot submarines can do work at these depths. The oil spill will cause the extensive death of marine and related wildlife, and could seriously harm the entire coastal economy of Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida, as well as parts of Texas. Oil that strikes the coastline could enter the food chain through the vegetation. Recovery from this huge setback will take years.

The catastrophe is also changing the political climate. There is rising public anger against the oil industry and a widespread demand for federal government action. BP's initial evasiveness was a repetition of its conduct over the 1989 stranding of the oil tanker Exxon Valdez in Alaskan waters. Then, 10.8 million gallons of oil were spilt and investigators later found that BP had neither the rubber booms (as it had claimed) so that the oil could be contained, nor the teams to deploy the booms. This time, some nine million gallons have already been spilt, and many people involved are speaking out. Some of the rig survivors have said they felt coerced by company officials to sign statements that they had not seen what happened. When in office, U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney, a former Halliburton executive, exempted the oil industry from using expensive safety switches. The Obama administration, however, is moving with commendable speed to bring the industry in line. BP will have to pay all costs, including those for U.S. Navy and Coastguard help; President Obama has suspended permission for new offshore drilling; and federal regulators are to inspect all relevant installations. Congress has drafted legislation to raise oil company liability from $75 million to $10 billion. Significantly, the American States most affected by this calamity have been governed, in recent years, by Republican leaders who have been ideologically committed to doing away with governmental regulation. Now the people living in these States are paying the price.

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