Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Brazil Spill

Late yesterday I saw a headline reporting that Chevron was being assessed more than $10 billion for a spill from its drilling activities offshore Brazil last month. The story was later revised to clarify that the amount in question was associated with a civil lawsuit being filed by a Brazilian prosecutor, rather than an actual fine by the government petroleum or environmental agencies. Either way, the sum involved goes beyond surprising. Given the quantity of oil that actually leaked from an appraisal well at Chevron's Frade platform, it is grossly disproportionate to any objective gauge of the scale of the spill and the effectiveness of the response, which stopped the leak within a few days and reduced the surface oil slick to around one barrel within a couple of weeks, without any oil reaching shore. For a nation that aspires to sit at the top table globally, including a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, the reaction to this event raises questions about due process and rule of law. It could also backfire badly, in light of the substantial foreign investment Brazil is seeking in order to develop the enormous "pre-salt" oil deposits off its coastline.

My purpose in writing about this incident isn't to defend Chevron. I don't have enough of the details of what happened, and my well-known conflict of interest as a former employee and Chevron shareholder would undermine my credibility on that front in any case. From my perspective the noteworthy aspects of this spill are its magnitude and the Brazilian government's hasty and exaggerated reaction to it. In terms of its energy implications, it almost doesn't matter what company was involved, except that it's highly unlikely that a similar spill by Petrobras, the partially-privatized national oil company of Brazil, would have elicited the same response.

Start with the magnitude of the leak. No oil spill is a good spill, but the estimated 2,600 barrels that leaked into open waters about 120 miles offshore was at least two orders of magnitude (100 times) smaller than the kind of worst-case tanker spill that oil companies routinely plan and train to be able to handle. Suggestions by the Brazilian government that a global oil company and its drilling contractor, Transocean, weren't prepared to handle a spill of less than 3,000 barrels--more than one year after the Deepwater Horizon accident--belong in the realm of politics, rather than serious analysis.

In fact, any comparisons to the disaster that killed eleven men and leaked 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over 89 days, fouling beaches and harming birds and marine life in four states must pale. The total cost to BP and its partners in the Macondo well isn't yet known, but between the $20 billion escrow fund for Gulf Coast cleanup and claims, along with the federal fines they face, the bill could come to $40 billion, or 4 times what a Brazilian prosecutor is apparently seeking for a spill roughly 2000 times smaller, that never threatened Brazil's coastline. The Frade leak is also modest in comparison to spills from tankers and other ocean-going vessels. Comparable or larger spills averaged more than 3 per year in the last decade, according to the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation.

Another interesting feature of the spill is that it didn't result from an uncontrolled well blowout, as BP's did, but from subsea oil seeps that developed during the process of drilling into the complex geology of Brazil's technically challenging pre-salt oil deposits. Although these particular seeps were apparently directly related to the well Chevron was drilling, similar seeps are a common feature of many oil-rich offshore regions. NASA has estimated that the Gulf of Mexico experiences similar, naturally occurring seeps on the order of 500,000 barrels per year.

So if the Frade spill was relatively small and contained in short order, why should anyone other than Chevron's management and shareholders care if Brazil slaps them with large fines or a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit, in an apparent attempt to make an example of them and enforce what amounts to a zero-tolerance policy toward oil spills from its offshore projects? I'd argue that we all have something at stake here, indirectly. Brazil's pre-salt reserves offshore represent some of the largest recent oil discoveries and are expected to contribute 2 million barrels per day or more to global oil supplies by 2020. With output in Latin America's two other largest producers, Venezuela and Mexico, falling due to mismanagement of their otherwise ample resources, Brazil's output could be a key factor in oil prices in this decade and beyond.

Brazil is poised to become a major oil exporter, but Petrobras can't take on the scale and risk of this opportunity on their own, without foreign partners. It's not that they lack the technology; Petrobras is a leader in deepwater development. However, if they have to go it alone because the government's response to this event scares off its potential partners, they will be forced to reduce the size of their program, and oil prices will end up higher than they would have otherwise. While I'm entirely sympathetic to the sentiment behind a "zero-tolerance" attitude towards oil spills, whether from oil platforms, tankers or pipelines, I'm afraid it belongs in the same category as a zero-tolerance toward plane crashes: a standard to aspire to, but not one on which national development policies with global consequences can realistically be based.

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