Hollywood loves a villain with an English accent. After the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it was inevitable American commentators would deride BP as British Petroleum and its CEO as Tony Wayward. But even as residents of the Gulf Coast despair and BP fumbles from one seat-of-the-pants engineering "solution" to another, Americans should realise the company has done them a huge favour.
It may seem grotesque to suggest an upside given the scale of this human tragedy and unfolding environmental disaster: the 11 dead and their grieving families; the potentially devastated wetlands and the sub-sea plumes of crude and toxic dispersant; the lost livelihoods of Louisiana fishermen; and the $30bn hit to BP shareholders – that's anyone with a pension in this country. But there may be benefits.
It is easy to understand American hostility to BP, but it is fundamentally misplaced. Never mind that Transocean and Halliburton were also involved and it seems there is plenty of blame to go round. Never mind that more oil is spilled every year in the Niger Delta, where Shell and Exxon are the big operators, and which supplies 40 per cent of US oil imports, without a peep of American protest. Never mind that despite the hyperventilation the slick is still relatively small by historical and international comparison. The plain fact is BP is not uniquely culpable, just unlucky.
Oilmen tell me the US Gulf of Mexico has always been loosely regulated compared to world leaders Norway and, since Piper Alpha, the British North Sea. But now we discover the safety regime is not just slack but also profoundly corrupt. First-hand testimony reveals drug- taking government inspectors from the Minerals Management Service routinely accepted gifts from operators, and allowed them to fill out their own safety reports in pencil to be inked over by officials later. It would make a Banana Republic blush, and means it is unlikely any operator was working to higher operational and safety standards than BP. In other words, it was an accident waiting to happen and it could have happened to anyone.
That doesn't make it all right, of course, but it does mean the scale of the disaster is not due to any particular incompetence of BP's – though where is their much-vaunted technology now? – but to the enormous depths at which the industry is forced to operate.
The fact that BP was drilling for Macondo – a tiny field under a mile of water containing less than 12 hours' global consumption – tells us all we need to know about the state of oil depletion. Deepwater production – anything under more than 500 metres of sea water, far too deep for divers to work should anything go wrong – has quadrupled from less than 2 million barrels per day (mb/d) in 2000 to 8 mb/d today, precisely because onshore and shallow offshore supplies are running down. The industry only drills at such extreme depths because there are very few alternatives – the Canadian tar sands and Iraq are equally unpalatable – and it is a clear sign of impending peak oil.
Ironically one impact of the BP spill, the US moratorium on deepwater drilling, is likely to hasten and worsen the effects of the global production peak. One analyst forecasts the ban could deprive the world of an additional one million barrels per day from 2016. City forecasts of $175 per barrel by mid-decade may now prove conservative. So, how is any of this good news?
First, it could have been so much worse. Had BP suffered a similar accident while drilling for Tiber, a three-billion-barrel field it discovered in the Gulf of Mexico last year under two miles of water, reservoir pressures and oil volumes would have been far higher, and there would be many fewer remotely operated submarines capable of working at this depth. Likewise, had such a spill occurred in the remote Arctic, galvanising a speedy response would have been still harder and impacts yet more devastating. Now at least regulations will be tightened, making such accidents less likely.
More important, the spill may finally spur Americans, who make up 5 per cent of the world's population but guzzle 25 per cent of the oil supply, to get serious about cutting their consumption. America has always been an obstacle to international progress on climate change, but the problem is no longer the country's leadership, as it was under President Bush, but popular opinion. In a poll taken after Climategate, almost half of all Americans said they believe there is no scientific consensus around climate change or that it is not happening. But the images of the devastation caused by the slick may finally force them to confront the real costs of their own way of life – the more so when dolphins begin to be washed up on Florida beaches – if President Obama can frame the debate correctly.
For over a month Obama has been caught uncharacteristically flat-footed by the spill. But last week he finally started to heed the old maxim about never wasting a perfectly good crisis. During a visit to a solar power plant in California, he said: "With the increased risks, the increased costs ... We're not going to be able to sustain this kind of fossil fuel use".
Obama conceded to expanding offshore drilling to buy off Republican opposition to his much watered down Climate Change Bill. He now has an opportunity to outflank the "drill baby, drill" brigade using the calamitous results of their own moronic credo. It is also the perfect opportunity to ram home that American "energy independence" is a fantasy when based on fast-depleting oil, but entirely feasible with a shift to electrification of ground transport and massive investment in renewables. To pull it off, the President will have to resist the temptation to succumb to a xenophobic blame game, but if he does, and uses the slick to steer America towards a more sustainable energy policy, we should all be thanking BP.
David Strahan is the author of "The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man" www.lastoilshock.com