Deepwater Horizon, Chernobyl, Bhopal

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Mr. Dresner is Associate Professor of History at Pittsburg State University and an Editor of HNN.

The crisis stage of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster may be coming to an end, if all goes well, but the consequences of the massive oil and gas spill will unfold for the foreseeable future.  The environmental devastation, economic damage, social changes and infrastructure implications are difficult to predict, but it's quite certain that the regional effects will have global consequences.  There have been any number of attempts to use historical analogies—case studies of the past—to gauge the political and environmental effects of this catastrophe, but most of them seem to fall short.  The Exxon Valdez spill has been mentioned as the most recent large-scale petroleum event, though the scale and location are rather different.  Hurricane Katrina/New Orleans levee disaster has been brought up, both as the most recent Gulf region analogue and as the most recent large-scale federal government disaster response.  The potential political consequences have, creatively but not terribly convincingly, been compared to the Iran hostage crisis.  I'm sure I've missed a few others, but two which I think are worth considering are the nuclear power plant disaster at Chernobyl in 1986 and the Union Carbide gas leak at Bhopal in 1984.

The Chernobyl accident deserves very serious consideration as a parallel case, both for the structure of the event and the nature of the damage.  First and foremost, Deepwater Horizon and Chernobyl both were energy production disasters, striking at the heart of the modern industrial system.  As in the current crisis, there was an initial catastrophic failure caused by weak design and exacerbated by inadequate safety mechanisms.  The Russian case was actually the result of a safety test that went horribly wrong, but in both cases safety mechanisms that should have been rigorously tested were overlooked and additional safety mechanisms that should have been in place were not due to lax oversight.  Both BP's rig and Chernobyl's reactor fire required immediate heroic efforts—including deaths of workers and first responders, as well as technical and scientific creativity—to find a limit to the catastrophe, to reach a point, in other words, where the situation would not continue to get rapidly worse.

This did not mean that "the worst was over" in the past, any more than capping the well means that the oil spill disaster is in the past.  It merely means that there's a physical limit, now, to the death and destruction which we might see.  Chernobyl's local effects took time to understand—and are still debated—but involved at minimum scores of deaths, the displacement of tens of thousands of people, destruction of ecosystems and the loss of industrial productivity due to power losses.  The release of radiation into water systems and into the atmosphere above Europe forced agricultural changes, destruction of crops and avoidance of milk in the short-term, long-term loss of fisheries in some areas, and a measurable increase in certain kinds of cancer and genetic abnormalities.  Maintaining containment on the destroyed reactor and the materials within required ongoing monitoring and massive engineering efforts, some of which are still being carried out to avoid further accidental destruction.

The next phase of our present crisis will involve mitigation and recovery efforts, as well as a great deal of helpless desperation as events unfold.  The environmental damage will certainly be immense, and the cautionary loss of fishing in the Gulf of Mexico means that there will also be social and economic damage, as well as food shortages.  Not that we'll notice those food shortages much in the United States—shrimp and fish prices will rise for a while, probably, along with oil and transportation prices—but the need to replace Gulf fisheries with other sources of protein, and the attendant rise in prices, will both limit access to food among the global poor as well as creating an economic opportunity for fishing communities and industries elsewhere (and the attendant potential environmental degradation from overfishing those regions, of course).  As with the Chernobyl situation, there is only so much that can be done to mitigate the damage, and there will be sacrifices and suffering for people very distant from the point of origin.  In fact, as with Chernobyl, we don't know at this point how bad it will be, because the exact scale of the leak, the direction it will take, the amount it can be mitigated offshore, and the damage done by mitigation itself, are all unknowns.

As with Chernobyl, this is an international event:  not just because BP is a British oil company, but because the spill is in international waters, it will affect global shipping and fisheries, and may well affect Caribbean waters and other nations with Atlantic coastlines.  The damage is not limited to the United States, any more than the Soviet Union contained all the victims of Chernobyl, but the full extent will only be revealed slowly and painfully.  Another international effect of Chernobyl was a global slowdown in new nuclear power plant projects, as governments, communities and insurance underwriters became more cautious about atomic energy.  It's entirely possible that the BP incident may produce similar shifts in the oil industry, though that remains to be seen:  at the very least, it's unlikely that many new deep water drilling projects will be allowed to go forward without much more substantial safety systems, inspections and liability clarifications in place.

The Chernobyl disaster was caused by a government-owned power plant, and governments are notoriously hard to hold fiscally responsible, especially in other jurisdictions.  While the costs of containment have been shared by the international community, for fairly obvious reasons, the costs of mitigation, relocation, agricultural product destruction, etc. have been borne by the jurisdictions where the damage has occurred.  The Deepwater Horizon rig, though, was owned and operated by British Petroleum, one of the largest multinational corporations in the world.  This is where the comparison with the Union Carbide failure in Bhopal, India may be instructive.

As an American corporation with headquarters in Houston, BP America is certainly subject to civil and criminal jurisdiction in the U.S., but at some point courts in the UK and U.S. may have to come to some agreement about jurisdiction over the entire corporation.  In the Bhopal case, after the Indian government passed a law giving the government the right to act as a kind of class action representative for all victims, U.S. courts consistently referred the issues to Indian courts.  It took several rounds of negotiation and litigation before a final settlement was made, a settlement that Union Carbide, now subsumed under Dow Chemical, considered eminently reasonable but one which has left both victims and many observers dissatisfied.  Two decades later, a Yes Men satire briefly crashed Dow's stock value by falsely announcing a new settlement two dozen times larger and substantiating it with a mock Dow website documenting the extent of the environmental and medical damage done by the gas leak.  Despite the settlement, Indian authorities also initiated criminal manslaughter proceedings, still ongoing, against Union Carbide executives, with international warrants outstanding for the arrest of several responsible figures.

The U.S. government has opened investigations into the possibility of civil and criminal proceedings, and Congress is considering modifying the civil liability in the case of offshore drilling.  Union Carbide, like Exxon, was able to negotiate a settlement that preserved the value of the company.  Arthur Andersen, on the other hand, collapsed and disappeared as a corporate entity when investigations into its role in the Enron debacle were announced.  BP America is a substantial company producing something real and holding property, equipment and rights of great value:  while it could lose stock value, or even be forced to divest itself of assets, it is unlikely to disappear entirely.  Still, a great deal depends on both the approach taken by the U.S. government to BP America in terms of liability and responsibility as well as the way the petroleum industry changes in response to the disaster and its legal, environmental and insurance fallout.

Despite the value of these analogies, we are clearly charting new territory, historically speaking.  Petroleum is fundamental to the chemical industry and energy economy in a way that nuclear energy was not.  The Gulf of Mexico is a valuable fishery as well as a major route for international shipping; all of that may now have to change, not to mention the tourist economy—one of the most valuable service sectors in many parts of the nation —of the Gulf coast possibly as far as Florida, or even beyond.  The now-obvious risks of deep-sea oil exploration may raise the cost of oil, gas, plastics, fertilizer etc. in the long term, with both obvious and subtle effects on global economic and social processes.  Despite the recent focus of writers like Jared Diamond on the collapse of societies major and minor from environmental factors, there are many societies which have changed and adapted successfully to shortages, disasters and other changes.  Humanity is an immensely creative and adaptable species, which is part of why the study of history and the present, not to mention the future, is so unpredictable.

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Andrew D. Todd - 6/18/2010

I should like to raise a point which is not immediately germane to the subject of the oil spill, but which has arisen within the last week or so, the claim that the United States has to stay in Afghanistan to mine certain minerals. Several days ago, James Risen published an article in the New York Times, effectively ghost-written for General Petraus, presenting dubious arguments in favor of this proposition.

Afghanistan is alleged to have a trillion dollars worth of minerals, including a large quantity of Lithium, and this is alleged to be an essential industrial resource. I have assembled a collection of reports, and the sum and total of them is that the purported Lithium shortage is fictional. One can alway obtain Lithium from the sea, in virtually unlimited quantities, and the cost of doing so is very small, compared to the cost of working lithium up into batteries or other electronic devices. Thus, there is no compelling need for Afghan lithium. The limiting factor on the use of Lithium batteries, incidentally, is not their cost or resource-availability, but their weight. It is possible that one might reach a point where the battery cannot generate enough power to carry itself for a certain distance at a certain speed. The serious prospects for electric transportation involve building roads with electric power built in, and this renders Lithium ultimately irrelevant.

It is also claimed that Afghanistan has a lot of iron ore, and this accounts for approximately half of the claimed trillion dollars worth of mineral resources. However, like coal, iron ore is cheap and heavy and bulky and ubiquitous, and transportation costs are always a major concern. If you look at a map of the world's iron-mining districts, you will find that, while they are distributed all over the world, they are all within a couple of hundred miles of the sea, or a major inland waterway, such as the American Great Lakes or the Russian Volga. Two to three hundred miles of rail haulage is about as much as iron ore can stand, while remaining economic. New iron ore tends to preferentially used where particular steel alloys need to specified, in building transportation equipment, rather than providing structural steel. For structural steel, recycled scrap is just as good, and the so-called "mini-mills" which produce it are sited to economize on transportation. Afghanistan is inland, and behind mountain ranges. There are no inland waterways-- and no water to fill them. There are no railroads-- and while railroads could be built in principle, they would be understandably expensive. The iron and coal reserves of Afghanistan, such as they are, have no value unless you build an industrial region on top of them, in which millions of people are employed in thousands of companies, producing sophisticated machinery such as automobiles and aircraft.

Another quarter of Afghanistan's claimed trillion dollars of minerals is copper. It _might_, in theory, be economically possible to produce copper in Afghanistan, if there was peace and a stable government. Copper is just valuable enough that it can-- sometimes-- be mined inland. However, copper is not scarce enough to support something like OPEC. The most basic fact is that the world has something like thirty to a hundred years of copper reserves at present rates of consumption, and the copper is not really being consumed, but merely being put into durable use. The price of copper, like the price of other metals, steel included, has gone up in recent years because Chinese demand has out-run the capacity of the machinery for turning ore-in-the-ground into ingots or I-beams, or reels of wire. Such equipment cannot be built very quickly. This does not imply that Afghanistan has any special advantage. Suppose that you are building a ten-thousand-ton steam shovel, in parts, in Korea, for mining copper ore. You have the choice to ship this shovel to Australia, or Chile, or Canada, or Arizona, or possibly even Afghanistan. Why choose Afghanistan? All the cost factors are against Afghanistan, even if it were at peace. One must bear in mind that many uses of copper are replaceable by either aluminum or plastic, both of whose ores are fundamentally abundant. The developed countries have enormous reserves of copper-in-use, in the form of wires, pipes, etc., reserves built up over the last hundred years or so. As recycling expands, large quantities of copper-in-use will be replaced by something else. The break even point for American copper mines is in the neighborhood of a dollar-and-a-half per pound. The controlling fact is that you have to dig a hundred or two hundred pounds of ore to get a pound of copper. Some overseas mines have lower costs. Given the necessity of building infrastructure from the start, Afghanistan's costs are likely to be on the high side.

For three different purported minerals, the cost calculations do not check out. In short, the purported mineral riches of Afghanistan are what used to be called a "stoner fantasy." What is more fundamental is that the Afghan mineral report is an example of the idea of "unobtainium," a uniquely rare mineral which justifies extravagant efforts to retrieve it. The scientific conception of minerals and raw materials generally starts from the idea that a molecule is simply an arrangement of atoms, and that, by arranging fairly common atoms, you can make just about any kind of material you want, or any kind of device you want, within the limits of fundamental scientific laws. There are only ninety-two naturally-occurring elements, many of which can be substituted for each other. A claim that one fairly small country has anything indispensable, is, ipso facto, suspect.

Here is a short collection of reviews of published articles, a proto-review essay, in which I discuss the subject of electric transportation in a systematic way, with a view to debunking the errors introduced by opportunistic businessmen:

Materials on Lithium:


The Afghan government report.


This report claims deposits of 450,000 tons, 130,000 tons, 124,000 tons, 127,000 tons, 187,000 tons, and 253,000 tons of Li_2_O in various locations, for a total of 1,271,000 tons Li_2_O, or about 600,000 tons of pure Lithium, worth anywhere from three to thirty billion dollars, less mining and refining costs. Bear in mind that this is effectively a company promoter's prospectus, likely to be on the high side rather than the low side. This would be only a tenth of the deposits in Bolivia, and and a thirtieth of global reserves.
JAMES RISEN, U.S. Identifies Vast Mineral Riches in Afghanistan, New York Times, June 13, 2010


"I have a bridge I want to sell to Mr. Risen..."
M. Steinberg and V.D. Dang, "Preliminary design and analysis of a process for the extraction of lithium from seawater," Sept 1, 1975 (OSTI Identifier OSTI ID: 7351225, Report Number(s) BNL-20535-R; CONF-760112-4)(Symposium on United States lithium resources and requirements by the year 2000, Lakewood, CO, USA, 22 Jan 1976) [ABSTRACT]

This is a notice of some research done in 1975, concerning recovery of Lithium from seawater to be used as nuclear fuel in a "breeder" fusion reactor. The idea was that lithium would be irradiated and become Tritium (heavy hydrogen), and then fuse into helium. Of course, nowadays, people merely want to use lithium as a durable battery.

"The energy requirement for lithium extraction varies between 0.08 and 2.46 kWh(e)/gm for a range of production rates varying between 10/sup 4/ and 10/sup 8/ kg/y;"


At worst case, that is 2400 KwH/kilogram. Taking electricity at a wholesale rate of perhaps 5 cents/KwH, that would be $120 per kilogram of lithium. In short, there is an unlimited supply of Lithium lapping at our shores.

Price information for lithium carbonate, ranging from $2000-$5000 /ton. Lithium Carbonate, Li_2_C_O_3 is 14/74 metallic lithium, so this is equivalent to $5-$12 per pound of pure Lithium (approx $10-$25 per kg).
William Tahil, The Trouble With Lithium: Implications of Future PHEV Production for Lithium Demand. 2006


Tahil quotes Lithium Carbonate at $1000-10,000 per ton, ie. $2.50-$25 per pound of pure Lithium (approx $1-$10 per kg). [p.13] Also cites a requirement, for current Lithium-Ion batteries, of 0.3 kg (metal equivalent) of lithium per KwH of power storage, estimates a typical requirement of 5-9 KwH per automobile for 20-30 miles range (at undetermined speed) [p. 6]. Expected production cost of Li-Ion batteries, $350 per KwH [p. 11], which is at least a hundred times the cost of the Lithium at the highest market price, and twenty times the cost of getting Lithium from seawater.
N.B. Note that the original Toyota Prius required a battery of only 1.7 Kw-H to achieve its dramatic improvements in gas mileage via dynamic or regenerative braking, whereas the Tesla has a battery of 70 Kw-H, which weighs about a thousand pounds, of which only about forty pounds are Lithium. The Prius's regenerative braking system is intelligently designed to keep the battery's energy requirements small enough that almost any kind of battery would do at a pinch.

One clever system I have heard of in China involves a bus which uses ultracapacitors, and recharges itself at every bus stop, every couple of blocks. This is less expensive than running a full wire along the bus's route.







Andrew D. Todd - 6/9/2010

I don't agree with your assertion that petroleum is fundamental to the chemical industry.

Petrochemicals are not inherently petroleum-based. Rather, they are the byproducts of producing a particular kind of chemical-- gasoline-- from oil, and they would also be the byproduct of producing gasoline from coal or biomass. Such chemicals used to be called "coal-tar-derivatives," back in the age of the steam engine. They typically resulted from reducing coal to pure carbon ("coke") in order to make steel from raw iron ore. (Fe_O_n + C => Fe + C_O_2). Another product was coal-gas for household use, which had to be refined to remove the more poisonous components. Trying to produce a pure and uniform chemical product, whether coke, gasoline, or illuminating and cooking gas, out of an amorphous hydrocarbon mix such as coal or oil, inherently resulted in a certain quantity of "chemical scrap," which could be reprocessed, or used for internal fuel, or sold for other uses. Interestingly, the Sasol synfuel people in South Africa combined their coal-based synfuel plants with electric power plants. Whatever unusable chemicals resulted from the Fischer-Tropf process got fed into the boiler and turned into electricity.

This is rather like saying that a tailor shop generates rags, as an inherent byproduct of the act of cutting out garments. Even if the tailor starts using different kinds of cloth, or starts producing different styles of clothing, he will still generate rags. If you are in the high-grade paper-making business, you might go around and buy the tailor's rags every so often.

It is a peculiarity of the gasoline ("Otto") engine that it dictates fine specifications for its fuel, in terms of how volatile the fuel is, and how long it takes to ignite, etc. This is inherent in the mechanism, which introduces fuel into the combustion chamber before the time when the fuel is supposed to ignite. By contrast, a Diesel engine, and even more so, a Gas Turbine, stipulates that the fuel will not be introduced into the combustion chamber until the combustion chamber is well within "ignition conditions." For a fuel, gasoline is remarkably like an industrial material, and, as a fuel, it is of needlessly high quality. The Otto system is not used for engines of any great size. Depending on whether lightness or durability is most required, engines over five hundred horsepower are either Gas-Turbine or Diesel. The most advanced conventional automobile engines have Diesel modes, meaning that they operate in the Otto cycle for burst power and quick starting, but in the Diesel cycle for sustained running. However, once automobiles adopt the electric-hybrid-power system, the engine, the prime-mover, only operates in sustained-running mode anyway. In other words, once the dust settles, all cars are Hybrid cars, and a Hybrid car is a Diesel-Hybrid car, more or less by definition. An oil industry primarily geared to producing Diesel fuel instead of gasoline would do less of the kind of refining operations which result in petrochemical feedstocks.

One might add that purely electric-powered transportation is likely to increase, one way or the other. The result of all of this would be that petroleum residues would be less attractive as a feedstock for making plastics and other organic chemicals. Coal or biomass would be used instead. The quantities of feedstock used for plastics are fairly small, and they tend not to constitute a significant fraction of the plastic's cost, so there is a good deal of room for substitution. The wrapping for five dollars worth of food might be a gram or so of plastic, ultimately made from a hundredth of a cent's worth of oil. It doesn't really matter if the price of oil increases tenfold. The cost of the plastic is overwhelmingly value added by manufacturing, and even that is small, compared to what it is used to package.

As for fertilizers, they are inorganic compounds of nitrogen, sulfur, phosphorus, potassium, etc. Nitrogen, the historical limiting ingredient, is literally pulled out of the air. Hydrocarbon fuel is used merely as a source of energy to drive chemical reactions in a direction they would not normally take, to drive them "uphill" instead of "downhill." Much the same goes for the production of the various acids, bleaches, and salts. Indeed, ethylene, the basic foundation molecule of plastic-making, can be produced by zapping methane (natural gas, bio-gas, etc.) with an electric-arc, and there is no particularly good reason that the electric-arc cannot be powered by a nuclear power plant.

Certain electric power plants in Texas were originally built to run on local lignite deposits, a low-value fuel whose bulk required it to be burnt close to the place of mining. When those deposits were exhausted, the power plants began importing coal from Wyoming. The cost of the coal was fairly small compared to the value added by converting it to electricity, so it made economic sense to find a way to keep on using the power plants. No doubt the Texas chemical industry can make similar adjustments. These adjustments might not prevent the Texas chemical industry from eventually declining in favor of chemical industries in other states, where energy was cheaper, or the distance to markets was less. West Virginia's coal and coal-related industries have been in long-term decline, faced with competition from cheap western coal, and presumably certain parts of Texas would have a similar experience. This, however, does not amount to a national crisis.

Gasoline presents an economic issue because of the extent to which we expect it to be cheap enough for profligate use, and for no other reason. Considered as mere energy, that is, as a source of fuel for generating electricity, oil and gasoline are not serious contenders. Once you find a means to power transportation primarily by electricity, oil becomes unimportant.

All kinds of little things are happening. For example, the Federal Railroad Administration is promoting a better coupler for freight cars, one which automatically connects air hoses and data lines when two cars bang together, and allows uncoupling with a remote-control unit, similar to a garage-door opener. The effect is to make railroads a little more competitive with trucks. There is a kind of virtuous feedback loop which operates for railroads. If you can get the traffic density up to a certain point, various kinds of improvements such as electric power and separated right-of-way become economically feasible, and you get something like a subway, with everything underground, automated, and operating at incredible speeds.