How BP's oil spill mess could be much worse

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By Kyle Thompson-Westra
Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill has been with us nearly three months, and the news just isn't getting better. Even when there's hope of a cleanup, an accident sends us back nearly to square one. The American public is incensed, the finger-pointing refuses to end, the U.S.-British "special relationship" is straining, an offshore moratorium is declared but overruled, and even as the blown-out gulf well was sealed Thursday, anxiety lingered about whether the cap would hold. It's a mess in every sense of the word.

But this could be far worse. Imagine if BP were a state-owned oil company. Instead of reasoning with an incompetent chief executive, we'd be reasoning with a protectionist prime minister. Regarding BP, this is a thought experiment. But there are plenty of state-owned companies drilling in U.S. waters and abroad. The next oil spill could be more than just an economic and environmental crisis. It could be a diplomatic one.

As it is, the BP spill has caused tension between the United States and Britain. President Obama has been accused by British media and officials of xenophobia, waging a campaign of hate, and general "Brit-bashing." British Prime Minister David Cameron, meanwhile, has been criticized for not taking a stronger stance in favor of BP. At a time when some are saying the "special relationship" is over, a tiff over BP isn't exactly what the friendship needs.

Humor me and picture what would happen if BP were owned by the British government. We would be facing a situation in which a foreign government would be directly responsible for the ever-worsening spill on our domestic shores. The United States and Britain have had arguments before, and the nationalistic vitriol coming from both sides would be 10 times worse as issues of blame, recovery costs, national pride, domestic security, and economic competition are endlessly debated between leaders, economists, and cable pundits.

That's still the rosy scenario, because at least Britain is an ally. There are plenty of countries that are not, and they happen to own their oil companies -- Venezuela, China, Iran, and Russia being among the biggest. These petroleum-rich countries are placing more importance on their nationalized oil companies as a way to ensure a steady supply to guard against growing domestic demand and changing market conditions.

The oil industry is dominated by state-owned companies. Multinationals might have more name recognition with the public -- ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Chevron -- but they have full access to 6 percent of worldwide oil reserves. Eighty-eight percent of reserves are held by national oil companies, which also represent the majority of worldwide production. (It's unknown the percentage of oil that state-owned companies get from outside their countries' shores.) Companies such as Aramco, Petrobras, Sinopec and Pemex aren't household names, but they will be as oil becomes scarcer and they can throw around their weight even more due to their dominance of existing oil reserves.

We're already seeing potential hotspots, and the United States isn't the only country that should be worried. Chevron and Rosneft (owned by the Russian government) will begin drilling in the Shatsky Ridge of the Black Sea at the end of 2011. The Black Sea is bordered by Russia, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine -- countries that, to put it lightly, don't always get along. Any substantial accident would be seen as a Russian oil company contaminating its oft-slighted neighbors. Cue the international crisis.

More potential trouble could happen in the South China Sea, where China-owned CNOOC continues to expand its operations. As many as 10 countries surround the South China Sea, and its importance as a major shipping zone and an area of ecological diversity cannot be overstated. It is already a geopolitical hotspot, and any disaster caused by a state-owned company might unravel any diplomatic progress being made.

Even the Gulf of Mexico might see trouble again. Brazil's Petrobras drills in the gulf, and has been ramping up its operations in the area for several years. Brazil has relatively good relations with its neighbors in the Americas, but a Deepwater Horizon-style disaster could significantly change the political dynamics of the region.

It doesn't have to be a blown offshore platform that changes everything. Accidents can happen at any point in the supply chain. A recent death at the Port Arthur, Tex., refinery (owned by Shell and Aramco) highlights the potential for more tension. A substantially destructive accident at any step of the oil extraction, refining or transportation process could stain relations as well.

If we can be sure of one thing in the aftermath of the BP spill, it's that it won't be the last. Countries have not used the BP oil spill to stop offshore development: Deepwater production is anticipated to increase by two-thirds within five years, and state-owned oil companies in general are poised to continue their strong growth.

Strides in renewable energy aren't happening quickly enough to substantially reduce global demand of oil. That oil isn't plentiful enough to be extracted as easily anymore, meaning companies are using more and more potentially dangerous methods to get at it. As BP has shown, danger can only be averted for so long.

Thompson-Westra is a research assistant at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. CSIS does not take specific policy positions, and the views expressed are the author's own.


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