Thursday, September 09, 2010

Double Standards, Oil and the Environmental Timebomb

Recently BP has had a lot of bad press for its handling of the Deepwater Horizon Oil leak in which over 1.1 million tonnes of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico.

President Obama stepped into the debate demanding that BP be held accountable and should be made to pay for the full cost of the leak. This seemed to be a very different stance to the one the US took regarding the Bhopal disaster in India - where to this day children are still born with birth defects and virtually no one has been held accountable. I feel the primary difference here is that the Obama administration is trying to make this look very much like a foreign entity which has made a big mistake in the USA rather than the country itself accepting any responsibility. Obama used the term "British Petroleum" on occasions despite the company being renamed many years ago. According to BP's own figures 39% of the shares are held by Americans, only 1% more than the UK's holding.

So far this has been the worlds single largest oil catastrophe. However, there is a much larger problem brewing at the bottom of our oceans and world governments seem slow in forming any meaningful response or taking any responsibility for this problem.

Worldwide there are over 8500 shipwrecks which potentially contain oil. These are mainly but not exclusively wrecks from the second world war.

Estimates suggest there are between 2.5 million and 20 million barrels of polluting oil contained in these wrecks which over time have started to rust. When these wrecks will start to leak oil is dependent on how quickly they rust. Most of the ships sunk during the second world war hull platings would have been between 19 and 25 millimetres thick with them loosing structural integrity once they loose between a quarter to a half  of their thickness. There are many factors affecting the rate of steel corrosion but a good rule of thumb is 1mm per decade. So 70 years after the start of the war you would expect some of them to already be leaking. There is evidence of this. In the early 1990's oil started coming ashore sporadically and killed 50,000 seabirds and polluted 100,000 square kilometres of tidal marshes. It was found that the oil was coming from the wreck of the Jacob Luckenbach sunk in 1953.

Although the United States does have some plans in place to protect its sea waters and drain the oil the world really needs a global response. Many of these wrecks are situated off of the coasts of developing nations who do not have the resources to deal with this problem.

In the absence of a global response to this we need to buy ourselves time. We can prevent wrecks from rusting further by using sacrificial anodes to change the electro-chemistry of the wreck preventing rust. This would also have the added bonus of increasing the local waters PH which encourages protective marine deposits to grow.

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