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Sen. Landrieu: The Gulf, the Gulf, the Gulf is on fire… May 21, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Media, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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The Gulf is literally burning, BP’s lies are slowly being exposed, and containment attempts have been delayed again.  Just another day after Deepwater Horizon.  I wasn’t going to write anything today until I saw this:

“Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) is urging the Obama administration to lift the shallow-water moratorium on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico established after the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon began a massive oil spill.” E&E Greenwire, 5/20/10 (subscription required).

You know how if you accidentally touch a hot stovetop, you pull your hand away before you even think about it or feel the pain?  That’s a spinal reflex.  Your body acts before the info even gets to your brain because the appropriate response is just that simple, obvious and necessary.

Mary Landrieu just responded to a burning hand by throwing her face down on the stove next to it.  Oh, and she’s throwing ours down too.

I wrote yesterday that crises like the ongoing oil catastrophe are also rare opportunities for needed legislative reform.  Landrieu agrees:

“This is the time to ask the country to understand the need for revenue sharing.” E&E Greenwire, 5/20/10 (subscription required).

No. No. No.  As I explained last week when a House Republican made this same despicable proposal, “revenue sharing” is the legislative mechanism through which Big Oil buys off coastal states, with taxpayer money, so that they will accept the now obvious risks of offshore drilling. Unless such proposals explicitly require that all “shared revenue” (federal money gifted to states in leiu of Big Oil paying them off personally) will be earmarked for disaster mitigation or preparedness, it is a grotesque money grab and coup for the oil industry.

"...we don't need no water..."

But Landrieu takes it a step further.  She may try to add the proposal to the emergency supplemental appropriations bill scheduled for next week so that these needless billions of dollars could be exempt from pay-go restrictions.

Just so we’re clear, Landrieu is trying to bribe coastal states with taxpayer money to accept more offshore drilling – AND make sure that those bribes increase the deficit.

Yesterday I was concerned we might waste this opportunity.  Sen. Landrieu is trying to make sure we actually exacerbate the problem.

Landrieu is acting as if our country must offset its halted deepwater drilling with shallow water production.  This is not at all the case.  I have said this before, but if we are going to have this national conversation again, it is imperative that we use the FACTS this time:

  1. Domestic drilling CANNOT lower oil or gas prices.
  2. We just don’t have enough domestic oil to make a difference.
  3. Offshore drilling is ALWAYS a dirty, dangerous risk.
  4. Drilling is NOT a short-term venture (“drill now” is deceitful).
  5. “American” oil does not help America.
  6. “All of the above” is not a solution.

A cited, detailed description of each of these FACTS is available here.

Finally, in the interest of fairness and balance, the blighted dogma of modern journalism, allow me to present Landrieu’s defense:

“The ban on deepwater drilling — in water deeper than 1,000 feet — should continue while the incident is investigated, Landrieu said. But she sees no reason to block shallow-water drilling, and she says it’s hurting smaller oil and gas companies.” E&E Greenwire, 5/20/10 (subscription required).

Those poor mom and pop oil companies.  It is supposedly on their behalf that Senate Republicans continue to block higher oil spill liability caps.  Sadly, the Obama administration has backed them on this.  I don’t exactly support (or really care about) consolidation in the oil industry, but if a company of any size cannot clean up after its potential mess, it shouldn’t be engaging in that activity.  If companies can be empowered with the same rights as people, they should have the same responsibilities as well.

I’m glad we’re dealing with Blanche Lincoln.  Can Mary Landrieu be next?

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.

A Crisis We Cannot Afford to Waste May 19, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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Regardless of BP’s lies, this spill is already well over double the size of Exxon Valdez.  The surface slick is entrained in the Loop Current headed through Florida to the East Coast, and vast additional plumes of toxic oil are lurking in the water column travelling who knows where.  This is an historic environmental disaster and it will get much worse before it gets better.  That is a given.

While the human and animal suffering of this catastrophe have only just begun, and even though we are not yet close to even stopping the spill, one must also ask, “What happens next?”

Tom Friedman wrote an excellent op-ed on Tuesday with which I completely agree.  The first line reads, “President Obama’s handling of the gulf oil spill has been disappointing.”  The two following paragraphs are important:

“I say that not because I endorse the dishonest conservative critique that the gulf oil spill is somehow Obama’s Katrina and that he is displaying the same kind of incompetence that George W. Bush did after that hurricane. To the contrary, Obama’s team has done a good job coordinating the cleanup so far. The president has been on top of it from the start.

No, the gulf oil spill is not Obama’s Katrina. It’s his 9/11 — and it is disappointing to see him making the same mistake George W. Bush made with his 9/11. Sept. 11, 2001, was one of those rare seismic events that create the possibility to energize the country to do something really important and lasting that is too hard to do in normal times.” -NYT, 5/18/10.

The world is constantly changing.  Obviously, we as a country need to adapt to meet the challenges of that changing world.  Anyone who pays attention to Washington knows that that this needed change does not happen every day, week, year, or even decade.  Fundamental, systematic changes occur rarely, but they are critical to America’s continued prosperity.

Given the inertial nature of our legislature and public sentiment, most of these significant changes occur not out of educated foresight but rather in retrospective response to major crises.

For example, our financial regulations clearly did not keep pace with the changing world of investment banking.  Only now, after a major crisis, can we finally attempt to implement the necessary, long-overdue changes.  This is how our country progresses.

Punctuated Equilibrium: How Regulations Evolve

There is a scientific analogy to be made here.  In 1859, Darwin postulated that evolutionary change occurs at a slow and steady pace.  Over time, enough consistently occurring minor changes add up to allow an organism to survive – to keep up with a slowly, constantly changing environment.

In 1972, with the benefit of modern geological knowledge and a much more complete fossil record, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge realized that this isn’t quite what happens.  Instead of slow, constant evolution, there are long periods of time in which there is very little change.  These extended intervals of stasis are interrupted by brief, revolutionary periods in which major changes occur rapidly.   This model is known as punctuated equilibrium.

Our country operates in a punctuated equilibrium.  Even while the world changes around us, we continue in our old ways until a situation becomes intolerable, then we act; we don’t turn on the air conditioner until the temperature reaches 100 degrees.

America has survived so far because even though we don’t normally take steps to prevent the biggest conflicts between our old ways and a new world, we have always acted after that first, major catalyzing event.  Before the problem became incurable.

A Proper Disaster Response: The Cuyahoga River

Our country’s history with environmental regulation follows this pattern.  When the Industrial Revolution began in America, it was common practice to dump polluting wastes into a nearby river.  It carried them away, caused no visible problems, and factories were so scarce that their pollution didn’t pose much of a health risk.

As you might expect, as factories became bigger and more common, polluted waterways became more of a problem.  But even when rivers in industrial areas went far beyond undrinkable, became completely lifeless, and the water turned different colors each day depending on what a factory produced, we did not act.

The Cuyahoga River, which runs through Cleveland, Ohio, was one of these dead, oily industrial rivers.  Locals joked that, “in this river you don’t drown, but decay.”  It was so polluted it actually caught fire in 1868. And 1883.  And 1887, 1912, 1922, 1936, 1941 and 1952.  Still, we did nothing to address water pollution.  The long period of inaction continued, even after the need for change had become apparent.

On June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga caught fire the 13th time.  It burned from bank to bank, causing millions of dollars in damage to boats, a railroad bridge, and even an office building that ignited next to the river.  Finally, the situation was intolerable.  The opportunity for action had arrived, and we seized this opportunity.  In the aftermath of the Cuyahoga fire, Congress passed sweeping regulations in the form of one of the most important pieces of regulatory legislation in history: the Clean Water Act.

The Cuyahoga River Fire in 1969 provided the opportunity to pass the Clean Air Act.

Yet the impact of the Cuyahoga River Fire transcended legislation.  This event helped incite the Environmental Movement as a whole; the first Earth Day was held the very next year.  The fire vividly demonstrated a major, needed change, but it also happened to occur when other events were pushing in the same direction: for example, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had galvanized the country about dangerous pesticide use just a few years before, and the threat of toxic waste disposal would come to light a few years later in Love Canal, New York.  People were mobilized into action by these events, and they followed through.

What Not to Do: The Aftermath of Exxon Valdez

Just as evolution was not predestined to create humans, the occurrence of environmental disasters does not guarantee that the proper safeguards will be established in the aftermath of such catastrophes.  Necessary change will not occur if the public is complacent and allows Congress to revert to its status quo protecting special interests who, unlike the public, pay lobbyists to apply constant pressure on our elected representatives.  The equilibrium will continue, unpunctuated, even if the need for change is strong.  Indeed, that is the trend of the more recent past.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill is a case study of how these opportunities can be eviscerated by special interests or even lost altogether.  The Exxon Valdez, unlike many (but NOT ALL) supertankers today, has only one hull.  When pierced, its toxic oil can spill out freely.  After that spill, the transition to double-hulled tankers should have been swift.  Elsewhere in the world, it was.  In America, it was not – in fact, it has not even happened:

“You would think the change would have been almost automatic after such a disaster. But the oil industry was so powerful that Congress gave it until 2015 — 25 years — to comply. Even now, single-hulled oil tankers like the Exxon Valdez, which now operates as an ore carrier in Asia, can ply U.S. waters.”  -Kris Hundley, St. Petersburg Times 5/9/2010.

Our response was so gutted that Exxon has since sailed the Valdez’s identical, single-hulled sister ship straight back through the scene of the crime!  And they will continue to be able to do so legally for 5 more years!

More information about Exxon, single- vs. double-hulled tankers, and how America’s response differed from international responses here.

A Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste

“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”  This phrase was coined by Stanford economist Paul Romer, NOT Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.  Conservatives made Emanual’s utterance of this phrase the Fox News fake Obama scandal du jour, but the sentiment is actually important for our country.  If we don’t act when rare opportunities arise, our country will fail to meet its future challenges.  And as I’ve explained above, such opportunities normally arise only in the wake of crises.  Recall that even Obama’s election, with his vaunted “mandate for change,” did not prove to be an actual opportunity for legislative reform.

My earlier air conditioning analogy is accurate in a number of ways.  Our planet is warming.  Climate change is undeniable and every month of this year has been the hottest on record.  On top of that, oil is a finite resource that needlessly jeopardizes our national security.  And then there are the real, unavoidable risks of domestic drilling (which is not an energy solution anyways).  Our energy supply is an intolerable situation.  Especially in regard to climate change, if we do not act now, the problem will soon be incurable.

This oil spill will prove truly catastrophic.  When all is said and done, we will need to do more than make figure out who will foot the bill; we must treat this particular symptom, but the only real course of action is to cure the disease.  Our heavily subsidized oil addiction is archaic, unsustainable and deeply damaging to our country.  It must end.

We developed these old habits when oil was cheap, plentiful, and not used enough to warm the planet.  The world has changed, but our habits are so entrenched, and the oil industry is so well protected, that we cannot break the cycle without a major crisis.

That crisis is here.  So now we face a choice: will Deepwater Horizon be a revolutionary Cuyahoga River event for change or a squandered Exxon Valdez event for stasis? It is up to us to decide…but it’d be a lot easier if the President decided with us.

I’ll hand it back over to Tom Friedman to take us home:

“In the wake of this historic oil spill, the right policy — a bill to help end our addiction to oil — is also the right politics. The people are ahead of their politicians. So is the U.S. military. There are many conservatives who would embrace a carbon tax or gasoline tax if it was offset by a cut in payroll taxes or corporate taxes, so we could foster new jobs and clean air at the same time. If Republicans label Democrats “gas taxers” then Democrats should label them “Conservatives for OPEC” or “Friends of BP.” Shill, baby, shill.

Why is Obama playing defense? Just how much oil has to spill into the gulf, how much wildlife has to die, how many radical mosques need to be built with our gasoline purchases to produce more Times Square bombers, before it becomes politically “safe” for the president to say he is going to end our oil addiction? Indeed, where is “The Obama End to Oil Addiction Act”? Why does everything have to emerge from the House and Senate? What does he want? What is his vision? What are his redlines? I don’t know. But I do know that without a fixed, long-term price on carbon, none of the president’s important investments in clean power research and development will ever scale.

Mr. President, your advisers are wrong: Americans are craving your leadership on this issue. Are you going to channel their good will into something that strengthens our country — “The Obama End to Oil Addiction Act” — or are you going squander your 9/11, too?” – NYT, 5/18/10.

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.

All Aboard! Oil Reaches the Loop Current May 18, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Media, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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Recent satellite imagery shows that the oil slick appears to have reached the Loop Current, the warm water flow that is now taking oil through and around the Florida Keys and on up the East Coast.

Surface oil appears to have been caught in the Loop Current. Source: SkyTruth

Click for bigger.

Only the surface slick is visuble; it is possible that massive subsurface oil plumes have been in the current for several days already.  Indeed, tar balls began washing ashore in the Florida Keys this morning.

There will certainly be more on this later.

In related news, BP’s math does not add up.

“BP’s Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles told CNN that about 1,000 barrels of oil per day is being suctioned up by the tube, out of about 5,000 barrels that the company believes is gushing out daily.” –AFP, 5/17/10

By now, you have probably heard the legitimate doubt expressed about BP’s weeks-old 5,000 barrels per day (bpd) estimate.  Based on satellite imagery and analysis of the small video clip that was finally released, experts place the flow rate at about 70,000 bpd (3,360,000 gal/day), well over a full order of magnitude greater than BP’s lie and equivalent to an Exxon Valdez spill every 4 days.

BP refuses to update their estimate.  In light of that, scientists have repeatedly asked to use their own sophisticated instruments on site to determine the actual flow rate:

The answer is no to that, a BP spokesman, Tom Mueller, said on Saturday.We’re not going to take any extra efforts now to calculate flow there at this point. It’s not relevant to the response effort, and it might even detract from the response effort.”

They won’t even release more of video footage, analysis of which enabled the recent independent estimates above.  This is an unnecessary and even unjustifiable suppression of information that an administration-controlled response could clear up.

To be fair, 5,000 bpd was the last Coast Guard estimate as well.  However, they stopped making estimates about 3 weeks ago and acknowledge that the rate is certainly higher than 5,000 bpd.  USCG officials promptly stopped quoting that figure; when you stop estimating, it makes no sense to continue to use that obsolete estimate.

BP, on the other hand, has a different strategy.  They have not only refused to revise their estimate and are actively blocking others from the information they need to accurately calculate the flow, they continue to tout that false figure as “the most recent estimate”.  Many media outlets, with no other authoritative source to turn to, have been dutifully trotting out that lie for weeks.

Yesterday, BP’s COO Doug Suttles was even bold enough to assert that their tube was capturing 1/5 of the leaking oil!  In reality, that’s more like 1/70.  If the total flow rate is “not relevant,” then stop citing your false estimate of it.

“This morning we were producing over 1,000 barrels of oil into the drill ship. So it’s good progress.” –AFP, 5/17/10

“PRODUCING.”  Not “diverting,” or “capturing” or “sparing the Gulf’s wildlife and coastal residents,” producing.  Even nearly a month into this epic catastrophe that they caused, BP has the gall to point out that this containment strategy is producing viable oil.

I could be accused of overanalyzing diction here, but this terminology is symptomatic of a broader problem: BP is not viewing this as a paradigm-shifting event.  To them, it is a minor setback.  And if we don’t alter their liability, that is all it will ever be.

BP’s daily profits dwarf the daily cost of spill response, and at the current rate, the company could cover the entire cost of cleanup thus far in just under four days of profits. –ThinkProgress, 5/11/10

4 days’ profit.  Does that sound familiar to anyone?  It should – that’s all that Exxon ended up paying for the Valdez spill: 4 days’ profit.

Congress must raise oil company spill liabilities (and stop offshore drilling).  Those who do not learn from history…

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.

Oil Spill Stunner: BOP had dead battery, leaking hydraulics and 260 design flaws May 13, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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As it turns out, the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing was much more interesting than its Senate counterpart.  Chairman Bart Stupak (D-MI, of abortion amendment fame) unleashed a blistering assault in his opening statement with some stunning new information.

It has been discovered that the Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer had:
  1. A dead battery;
  2. Leaks in the hydraulic system that would activate the pistons in the [“unforeseeable”] event of an accident;
  3. By design, 260 different failures that could require the BOP’s removal and replacement;
  4. A useless test component installed, and;
  5. Cutting tools that were not strong enough to shear through 10% of the joints in the piping.
To clarify #5, the BOP is installed on the wellhead and the drill/piping are all threaded through it on their way into the subsurface.  In the event of a blowout, one or more of the pistons (this BOP has 5, 4 excluding the useless test installation) are supposed to drive a cutting tool to shear through whatever piping is currently in the BOP, sealing the well.

In this well (and who knows how many more off our shores), our self-regulated oil industry decided it was an acceptable risk to use piping through which the BOP could not cut; rendering even a perfectly-functioning BOP ineffective; if an accident occurred while that piping was in the BOP, it would be guaranteed not to work.  This is one explanation for what has happened.

There is more to say, but it has already been said better than I can:

Oil Execs Testify Before Congress…Technically May 11, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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In case you didn’t have the pleasure of watching executives from BP, Halliburton and Transocean testify before Congress Tuesday afternoon, I have compiled some highlights and thoughts below.

The testimony in the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources was revealing in how little it revealed.  If we are to learn from and respond to this tragic event, people will have to start changing their tunes.  As of today, they have not.  I mean that in respect to both the oil executives and many of our U.S. senators.  We’ll do the Big Oil execs first, then get into the senators.

First, the Big Oil execs:

If you have watched this kind of congressional testimony before, you know it is the world’s most boring dance.  Senators ask questions, and those testifying carefully choose their words to convey as little as possible – or claim memory loss.  Sometimes a senator will pursue an answer, but rarely does that actually extract the desired truth.

The only questions Big Oil actually answered today were those that Google could just have easily have answered, such as “is your company the largest offshore drilling contractor?”

Corporate legal teams carefully prep their executives to legally dodge the most damning questions.  That preparation, which largely defeats the purpose of these hearings, was on notable display twice this afternoon.

For over a week now, BP has said it is prepared to pay all legitimate claims.” They’ve been talking a big game about how they plan to repay their victims.

Conveniently, BP has yet to define exactly what claims it considers “legitimate.”  They are unlikely to do so until they are taken to court.  In his testimony, when pressed on this question, BP America President Lamar McKay did nothing but repeat that deliberately ambiguous phrase.

When general prodding from several senators went unanswered, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) finally tried to hold BP accountable.  She went down a list of likely claims against BP.  McKay’s response was the same nearly every time: “all legitimate claims.”

“1) Shrimpers who can’t earn their livelihoods?”

“We will pay all legitimate claims.”

“2) Beaches spoiled, tourism ruined?”

“All legitimate claims.”

“3) Children sickened by oil fumes?”

“All legitimate claims.”

Ad nauseam.

To top it off, McKay had the gall to follow up this laughable interaction with a preposterous assurance: “this is not about legal words, it’s about getting it done and getting it done right.”  No, sir, this is PRECISELY about legal words.  Please refrain from lying under oath, Mr. McKay.  It’s frowned upon.

The second most odious exchange of the hearing was when Transocean President and CEO Steven Newman was asked if this type of spill had happened before.  He replied that the only incident he could recall was the Ixtoc spill. To his credit, that spill was the worst of this type, but this answer is incredibly deceitful.

You’re trying to tell me that that Steven Newman, presumably a lifelong oilman, the president and CEO of an offshore drilling company that specializes in deepwater drilling, has to go back 31 years to recall an incident like this one?  I’ve never worked in the oil industry and even I know that THIS TYPE OF SPILL HAPPENED 8 MONTHS AGO (Halliburton is suspected to have caused that one too)!  In fact, even the photographers in that hearing room knew about the Montara spill: Sen. Menendez brought it up earlier in this very hearing!

Note that the response was deliberately and delicately phrased (“the only incident I can recall“) so as to avoid committing perjury.

Even as oil is gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, the oil industry and their congressional allies are STILL trying to cast offshore drilling as a safe practice.  This spill was not unconceivable and not unprecedented.  Senators and oil executives repeatedly called this accident “unique.”  The only thing unique about this oil well was that it was in even deeper water and even deeper underground than usual, so all the real risks associated with drilling and the complications of containment and cleanup for spills were MAGNIFIED!

It is also worth mentioning the conduct of the senators present:

The oil executives weren’t the only ones choosing their words carefully.  When I tuned in, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) had the microphone.  She was going to great lengths to avoid saying the words “oil” or “spill.”  She even referred to the Exxon Valdez “incident.”  This type of disingenuous wordplay is normally reserved for company spokespeople.  Sadly, this is par for the Murky course.

Lisa Murkowski (R-AK): It is difficult (although sadly, not THAT difficult) to find a U.S. senator doing LESS for the American people and more for industry special interests.

Murkowski is often derisively labeled as (R-OIL) because of her industry ties.  It is her “dirty air” amendment in the Senate that is attempting to strip the EPA of its authority (and indeed Supreme Court-issued mandate) to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act.  It came as little surprise when news broke early this year that the amendment had not been written by the senator’s staff but rather by oil industry lobbyists themselves. She was merely their mouthpiece.  The things money can buy.

In her opening statement, Murkowski, the ranking minority member of the committee, explained why we need domestic oil drilling: “for the sake of our nation’s economy, for the sake of our national security, and this incident not withstanding, for the sake of our world’s environment.”  The economic and national security impacts of domestic offshore drilling have long been shown to be literally negligible, but I am genuinely curious to hear how this congressional oil flack would spin drilling as anything short of toxic for “our world’s environment.”  Too bad Murkowski wasn’t under oath too.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) also took the opportunity to extol the virtues of domestic offshore drilling.  I would tell you more about his questioning, but I really don’t think I could.  When he had the microphone, I almost felt sorry for the industry executives; he never really put together a coherent sentence.  The inflection in his voice was raised when he stopped talking, and he clearly expected them to respond, but I didn’t even understand what he expected of them.  How fortunate, then, that the executives were coached not to give actual answers anyways.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) was talking tough for her state.  She is in a fierce primary against a much more liberal opponent, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.  But all her barking is election-year antics.  No congressperson receives more money from the oil industry than Landrieu, and she continues to push the lie that offshore drilling is vital to our country – even as oil begins to wash up on Louisiana beaches.  Her priority is making sure BP pays her voters quickly enough that she will be reelected to continue to act against our country’s best interests.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) were on point and champions.  They asked piercing questions and did their best to take the executives to task and get actual answers.  Yet there is only so much one can do within this broken system.

Having watched some testimony before, I know that these proceedings were not that unusual.  To me, this is not a defense of what transpired today but rather more proof that business as usual must change if we to move forward as a country, both in the context of this tragedy and more broadly.  Congress is an inertial body, but a catastrophe of this magnitude demands action.

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.

Conceivable and Precedented May 4, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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***For newcomers: I have created a page of questions and answers about offshore drilling and this oil spill here.***

BP did not build containment devices before the disaster because it “seemed inconceivable” that the blowout preventer would fail.

– BP spokesman Steve Rinehart

“The sort of occurrence that we’ve seen on the Deepwater Horizon is clearly unprecedented.”

– BP spokesman David Nicholas

These are lies.  Both of them.  And I can prove it:

Blowouts aren’t inconceivable, they are actually fairly common.

I have already explained in detail how blowout preventers (the last line of defense against catastrophes like this) are known and even quantifiably proven to be woefully inadequate last lines of defense against this sort of disaster.  A U.S. government report found 117 blowout preventer failures in just a 2 year period!  And the oil industry knew this; each data point on that report’s survey was an actual blowout on an oil company’s offshore rig!

It is true that not every blowout leads to a catastrophic oil spill like this.  Yet it doesn’t take an imagination to plot out a disaster scenario when highly pressurized, obviously flammable fuels come hurtling out of the ground with explosive force towards an oil rig.  And  the second lie is even more damning.

This “sort of occurrence” (the euphemism of the day) is not at all unprecedented: a similar blowout, oil rig fire and massive oil spill occurred off the northern coast of Western Australia just 8 MONTHS AGO. I want to swear here so badly.

Before I get into the more recent spill, I have to say that there have been plenty of significant offshore blowouts and oil spills (list here). The worst in history started on June 3, 1979.  An exploratory well in the Bahia de Campeche (600 miles south of Texas) experienced a blow out.  The oil and gas ignited, lighting the platform and soon causing it to sink.  Unfortunately, that platform fell on top of the wellhead, severely hindering efforts to activate the failed blowout preventer (I know what you’re thinking: “failed blowout preventer?  Those are the last line of defense!  They never fail!”  If you don’t understand that sarcasm yet, please read this).

The blowout preventer was ultimately closed, but it had to actually be reopened to prevent its complete destruction when some valves began to rupture.  Between 10,000 and 30,000 barrels of oil gushed from that well every day for nearly 10 months until they finally capped the well on March 23 of the next year.  3.5 million barrels (147 million gallons) of oil were released.

As BP well knows, the precedent for this type of spill is well established. This oil well gushed for nearly 10 months from 1979-1980.

There have been many more blowouts since then, but lets jump to the most recent: a blowout on the West Atlas rig in the East Timor Sea created a gusher on August 21 just last year.  Shockingly enough, a fire sparked.  The spill continued for 74 days through November while it took crews 4 attempts to drill a relief well like they are now trying to do in the Gulf.

The “Montara” oil spill, as it was called, released an estimated 9 million gallons (Exxon Valdez = ~12 million gallons) into one of the world’s most pristine oceanic areas, but went largely unreported because of its remoteness.

The East Timor Sea was home to some of the world’s most iconic and endangered species including 15 species of whales and dolphins, at least 30 species of sea birds, and five species of sea turtles (it’s been an especially bad year for them).  Furthermore, 10,000 communities and 7,000 fishermen rely on the area for their survival. Residents of villages in the region report skin problems and diarrhea from eating contaminated seafoodFish catches have been reduced by 80%.

The Montara spill gushed for nearly 3 months. Look familiar?

The Montara spill and the current crisis have a lot in common. The rigs involved were 2- and 3-years old, state-of-the art and reportedly safe.  In both cases, early flow-rates were obviously understated.  Both occurred in areas of vital ecological and even economic importance.

Yet all indications suggest that the Gulf spill will be far, far worse.  The West Atlas rig didn’t sink.  The flow rate in the Gulf is already much higher.  And the Montara spill occurred in only 600 feet of water.  The Deepwater Horizon rig spill is under more than a mile of water, and the oil deposit is more than twice as deep underground.

Recall that is took Australian crews 4 tries to drill a relief well.  In case it hasn’t been made clear, that process involves drilling down to depth and then a long distance horizontally towards the first, leaking well.  The goal of this extensive drilling is to locate and bore into the original pipeline, which is less than a foot across (at least for the East Timor pipe).  So in the Gulf, crews will have to drill through 18,000 ft of sea floor beneath more than 5,000 of water.  Then they have to drill laterally to find the pipe and pierce it from miles away. There is a reason this project is expected to take literally months, with barrels and barrels of oil leaking the whole time.

The biggest similarity between the two, however, is that the causes may have been identical.  I wrote yesterday about Halliburton’s involvement in the “cementing” process for the Deepwater Horizon rig, and how experts believe that cracks in a faulty cementing job could be responsible for the current disaster in the Gulf. Interestingly enough, although the inquiry into the East Timor spill is not complete, investigators have identical suspicions about the cause of that spill.  And I bet you can guess who was working on the cementing for that rig too – Halliburton.

Halliburton is still looking into the Montara spill.  If we get the Gulf spill plugged, I would imagine they’ll start looking into this as well (although they won’t have to bother – we surely will).  As Charlie Cray put it, “It’s starting to look like the only thing Halliburton can cap tightly is its own mouth.”

To be fair, BP’s lies are consistent with their actions.  While they actively fought safety regulations that might have prevented this disaster, internal documentation suggests that their surprise at this incident is genuine.  Stultifying and much closer to the actual meaning of inconceivable, but genuine.

In their 2009 exploration plan and Environment Impact Statement (EIS) for this well, BP wrote that it was virtually impossible for a major oil spill to occur that would cause serious damage to beaches, fish and mammals.  They write repeatedly that it is unlikely that an accidental surface or subsurface oil spill would occur from the proposed activities.”  You know, because oil spills are virtually unheard of.

Even if a spill did occur, “due to the distance to shore (48 miles) and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts are expected.”  And that’s it.  Having said that, they made no plans about how they would respond if there was an “inconceivable” oil spill.  Because what are the chances, really?

"Don't worry about our back-up plan. We don't have one. The rig will be 50 mi offshore, what could go wrong?"

That such a ridiculous EIS was accepted is further proof (not that any was needed after last year’s sex and drugs story broke) that industry is way too close with government regulators.  No reasonable, independent citizen of this country would approve a drilling application that, instead of having a worst-case scenario response plan, simply said “that’s really unlikely, and we don’t think it will happen.”  Incredible.

2010 Oil Spill Answers (Pt. 1) May 3, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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1 comment so far

Since the explosion on the Transocean Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico, many people are trying to understand what happened.  Traffic to this page has spiked significantly because I recently wrote about the dangers and strong cases against offshore drilling in general.  But I have not yet addressed the current crisis.

This post and those to follow shortly will explain what has happened and is happening.  Below, you will find basic questions about this disaster and answers to them.  I will add additional questions and answers later today, but I want to get this out as soon as possible.  If any of you have additional questions, please add them as comments and I will try to address them.

These are the questions answered below:

  • What was the oil rig doing?
  • What caused the explosion?
  • How much oil is spilling?
  • Where is the oil spilling from?
  • Can we stop the spill?  How?
  • Could the spill get any worse?

What was the rig doing?

The oil rig in question was drilling an exploratory well called “Macondo” to see if that site could be used for large, commercial-scale production.  Signs were promising, and the attempt was soon to be labeled a success.  That has changed, but the site will definitely still make it into the history books.

This was a deepwater operation, even riskier than shallower “normal” offshore drilling, but at this point, the world’s oil companies have tapped all the easily accessible resources.  At that site, the ocean floor was nearly a mile beneath the surface.  The oil formation was another 3 miles underground.

What caused the explosion?

The exact causes have yet to be determined, but educated guesses can and have been made.  You may recall old time footage or photos of oil geysers shooting into the air after big oil finds in Texas.  Many oil formations are pressurized such that if a drill pierces the geological formation, the oil escapes under its own power.  This is a cheap way to get oil out of the ground since it comes up on its own.  Rigs like the iconic grasshopper oil derricks you may have seen around the country must be used if the pressure is not high enough.  For offshore drilling, the pressure is always high enough.

Anything that lies 4 miles beneath the surface of our planet exists at very high pressures.  To visualize this, imagine a huge, full water balloon encased in a block of cement.  Imagine that cement casing fits so tightly, that the balloon is squeezed beyond the bursting point but is unable to release its water because the cement is solid and there’s nowhere for the water to go.  Now imagine somebody drilled into the cement block.  When that drill pierced the chamber with the water balloon, that water would shoot back up through the tunnel the drill bored.  Depending on the pressure involved, it might do so explosively.

In the case of this oil rig, we are dealing with pressures that are hard to visualize.  What is less difficult to visualize is that instead of water, this rig had pierced a balloon full of highly combustible oil.  Furthermore, the company had been warned that this reservoir likely held pockets of volatile natural gas.

The exact cause is unknown, but we do know that in a matter of seconds, a huge blast of oil and gas shot up through the 4 miles of pipe and shot clear through the floor of the rig.  One spark lit all that fuel and suddenly the Deepwater Horizon was engulfed in a massive fireball. Drilling Ahead has a well informed and richly presented explanation of the ordeal those workers went through.

The state-of-the-art Deepwater Horizon rig goes up - and then down - in flames.

How much oil is spilling?

The ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is worsening at an exponential rate.  BP’s initial lowball figure (and likely lie) pegged the spill rate at 1000 barrels/day. 1 barrel = 42, gallons, so 1000 barrels/day = 42,000 gallons/day.  Government officials examined the data and quickly realized that the rate was more like 5,000 barrels/day (210,000 gallons).  Since then, the spill pattern suggests that the rate is increasing rapidly.  On May 1st, experts determined that the oil could be spilling at a rate of 25,000 barrels per day (1.05 million gal/day). Unfortunately, this is only the beginning and this catastrophe stands to get far, far worse (See “Could the spill get any worse?” below).

Where is the oil spilling from?

It appears that there are three leaks: 2 from the crumpled remains of the pipe that ran from the ocean floor to the rig at the surface, and one from the point on the ocean floor where the subsurface pipe connected to that pipe that rose through the water.  It is this third site that presents the greatest problem.

Where the pipe meets the ocean floor, there is a giant valve called a “blowout preventer.”  In the event of a gusher or other dangerous, high-pressure event, the valve clamps shut, protecting the rig.  It is built with many redundancies as the last line of defense against this very kind of event.  Somehow, that valve failed, and is still leaking a high volume of oil from the reservoir.

There are 2 efforts underway to stop the spill. One has failed; the other will take months. Image Credit: Times/Picayune

Can we stop the spill?  How?

This is the question that makes this situation so dire.  A crashed oil tanker like the Exxon Valdez has a limited amount of oil that can spill.  A tapped reservoir like this has massive amounts of oil to release – it is estimated that this block could contain as much as 100 million barrels (3.1 billion gallons).  As the diagram above demonstrates, there are 2 efforts underway to stop this spill.

1)   Remotely operated submarines are attempting to engage the blowout preventer.  So far, they have been unable to do so.

2)   Another rig has moved into place to build a “relief well.”  To do this, it must drill down to the ocean floor, through the 18,000 feet of sea floor, and then they will attempt to drill into the subsurface pipe laid by the original rig.  If they succeed in doing that, they can stop the oil flow.  But this could take 2-3 MONTHS.

3) A final approach is to build a kind of dome to place over the spill site to funnel the oil up where it can be collected.  This has only been tested in shallow water.  As oil companies and the rest of the world now know, deep water is a whole different ball game.

If the current estimates are correct (and don’t get worse), within 2 months this spill will dump 6 times as much oil as was spilled by the Exxon Valdez.  In 3 months, there would be nearly 100,000,000 gallons of oil floating in the Gulf of Mexico, if not beyond.  And that’s assuming this spill rate doesn’t get continue to increase.

Could the spill get any worse?

Yes.  The blowout preventer isn’t closing like it is supposed to, but it is creating an artificial bottleneck and reducing the amount of oil that can escape at a time.  However, there is concern that behind that valve, the high pressure is circulating a mixture of water, hydrocarbons, and sand.  That sand is moving with considerable force and may be scouring the area behind the valve.  If a part of the valve or the support structure were to give way, the rate of the spill could increase by several orders of magnitude, experts say as much as 150,000 barrels/day (6.3 million gallons).  That would be an Exxon Valdez EVERY TWO DAYS.

More answers to come.  Check back later today and as this crisis develops.