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Opinion: BP oil disaster has huge repercussions

A conversation with Big Oil’s Cassandra, Matt Simmons

It was hoped, at first, that the oil pouring forth would be “Louisiana Light,” which would be comparatively easy to deal with, but instead it is a “horrid, toxic crude that has never seen daylight before.” It is also very thick, and much of it won’t rise to the surface, but could turn the gulf into a dead sea devoid of marine life. The stuff is so poisonous that Simmons fears that people are going to sicken and die upon exposure to it and its accompanying noxious gasses. There may come a need to evacuate people back from the Gulf Coast, Simmons fears.

What happens if the 18 water-hungry power stations along the gulf have to shut down because of oil in the water?

“The Houston ship channel could be closed,” and the region’s oil refineries might have to close, which would cause worldwide economic damage. “We could be facing enormous fuel shortages,” Simmons said.

One of the most troubling aspects of trying to plug the leak, according to Simmons, is that the oil under the Gulf of Mexico’s deep sea bed is under tremendous pressure — pressure not seen in shallower wells or on land. The oil industry, he said, hasn’t enough experience dealing with such force.

In Mexico’s “Ixtoc” gulf disaster of 1979, which was in much shallower water, the well was never plugged until the pressure diminished on its own, and that took 10 months, Simmons said. The size of the BP field is so much larger that it could take many years until the pressure lessens on its own.

That’s why Simmons feels that the moratorium on deep sea drilling is absolutely essential until the industry finds out more about how to deal with previously unknown oil pressures and how to avoid disasters.

As for the current under-sea gusher, Simmons is an advocate of using a nuclear device to heal the ocean floor.

“Nothing you can do now but nuke it,” he said. The Russians have used nuclear devices to plug leaks, though not at such depths, and their expertise could be put to work. Basically you insert a nuclear torpedo deep into the hole and the blast turns the earth to glass, sealing the hole. The Obama administration has rejected this option.

When all is said and done, the most serious international repercussions from the BP disaster could be how much economic and political damage it does to the United States and the Obama administration. It seems clear that BP is never going to be able to pay for all the damage, and the danger is that the economic recovery of the United States could be hindered. And when the American economy catches cold other economies catch pneumonia, as the saying goes.

And if the gulf disaster weakens the Obama administration in the eyes of the world — it is already a thousand times more serious than Katrina — then there can be repercussions that we can only guess at today for United States foreign policy.