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Anatomy of an Oil Plume May 24, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Last week’s discovery of massive underwater plumes of oil, drifting beneath the surface, was widely reported.  But how does that happen – doesn’t oil rise in water?  Turns out it’s not quite that simple.  I found a few sources to help explain this seemingly improbable phenomenon and theorize what is happening now.

Big bodies of water are not homogenous, they are layered, or “stratified.”  Even in the same location, there may be great differences in water temperature and salinity depending on the depth.  Those factors, along with the temperature, phase, and density of the gas and oil itself, have an impact on how water and hydrocarbons interact.

The Phases of an Underwater Oil Spill

There are three distinct stages in oil’s rise to the surface from a pressurized, underwater spill:

Image Source: a 2003 National Academies report entitled “Oil in the Sea III.” Much of the information in this post that is not individually cited/linked is from this report. Pages ~60-120 are the most directly relevant.

1) Jet Phase: In the initial phase of a high-pressure underwater leak, oil and gas are forcefully expelled from their pressurized confinement in a narrow, expanding cone.  Within about a meter of the breach, the oil forms into tiny droplets, barely millimeters across, and natural gas forms into tiny bubbles.  The higher the exit velocity, the smaller the droplets and bubbles are.  This droplet size impacts buoyancy – larger droplets rise faster and more easily than smaller ones (discussed below).

2) Plume Phase: The momentum from all those little droplets shooting upward from the jet together entrains large amounts of nearby seawater, dragging it upwards as well.  The rate at which plumes rise can vary; if large amounts of gas are leaking, the plume rises more quickly.  A plume can also stop rising altogether – plumes can become suspended in the water column at “terminal layers” (explained below).

3) Post-terminal Phase: Above the final terminal layer, hydrocarbons rise to all the way to the surface solely under the power of each droplet’s own buoyancy.

Hydrate Formation: You may have noticed that Gas Hydrates appear on the chart but not in the plume.  At depths of at least 300 meters, methane can form hydrates, a crystalline slurry of natural gas and water that is similar to ice.  We know hydrates are forming at this site because they are what caused the containment dome to fail.

Active hydrate formation could help explain why so much oil is still suspended in the water column: natural gas is responsible for much of a plume’s buoyancy.  When hydrates form, they settle out of the plume and sink, depriving the plume of much of its upward momentum.

Terminal Layers: At depths of over 200 meters, the ambient seawater is relatively dense.  In a deepwater blowout, enough of this dense water eventually gets entrained in the plume that the suspension loses its relative buoyancy and begins to “mushroom” at a given depth, called a “terminal layer”.  If heavier components sink out of the suspension, the plume may reform and begin to rise again past that terminal layer.  This process, known as “peeling,” can happen numerous times en route to the surface.

Under certain circumstances, rising oil can “mushroom” and end up suspended at depth for an extended period instead of just rising.

As much as I hate to credit UNC for anything, the video above is an excellent demonstration/visualization of how a high-pressure jet can result in mushrooming.  The first :50 shows how fine droplets sprayed from a jet can get trapped at depth instead of rising to the surface.  The final :40 shows how bigger droplets rise straight to the top, just as you’d expect.

Dispersants Increase Oil Suspension

The high pressure of this spill is creating smaller droplets that can get suspended at depth instead of rising right to the surface.  On top of that, though, the dispersants that BP is injecting into the well work by decreasing oil droplet size.  That’s causing even more suspension.

BP’s flow estimate is so much lower than everyone else’s because they refuse to measure the flow at the seabed.   Instead, BP is calculating the flow rate solely by the size of the surface slick. This is particularly odious, because it overtly and intentionally omits all the oil “successfully” dispersed by the hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals BP is also injecting into the Gulf.

Rising Plumes can be Delayed and Disrupted

There are circumstances in which the plume dynamic can be disrupted.  As pictured above, currents can bend or even transport the plume long distances, and especially strong current action can prevent the formation of a plume altogether.  Emulsification poses a more pertinent scenario.

Oil and water normally don’t mix. However, under the right circumstances, they can emulsify into a stable mixture.  Emulsified oil is much more dense and less buoyant than oil on its own, so it rises through the water more slowly.  When oil is broken up into tiny droplets, this emulsification is far more likely to occur.

Oil Can Sink in Water

Like any other substance, oil will sink in water if it becomes more dense than the water around it.  One way this can happen is if oil incorporates enough suspended sediment from the water column.  This happens through adsorption, a process by which a liquid or gas forms a film around the surface of some other substance.  So in this case, I assume that oil forms a coat around tiny clumps of floating sediment, and the whole new oily clump sinks.

So What’s Happening with Deepwater Horizon?

A polymer scientist and technology entrepreneur named Roger Faulkner has a very technical explanation of what is happening underwater.

His theory is as follows: in this ultra deep well with high methane content, conditions (~15,000 psi) are such that the oil and gas can actually mix in a “supercritical solution” until they exit the pipe.  They cannot separate until the pressure is reduced.  According to this hypothesis, there should be four subsurface separations (3 of which will rise as plumes):

1)    As the oil begins to rise, the first separation should occur between the heaviest oil elements and the rest of the mixture.  It should begin somewhere between the reservoir (18,000 ft beneath the sea floor) and the sea floor, but the pressure in the pipe is probably high enough to sweep the separated elements up and out of the pipe.  This first separation should be complete within 40 feet of the sea floor.  Faulkner did not explicitly say this, but I think this plume will be the slowest in rising of the three.

2)    There is a very large pressure drop passing through the partially sealed BOP (~9000 psi to ~2250 psi).  Within the first second after exiting the pipe, the natural gas should begin to separate.  At first, it will still be hot enough to mix well with lighter oil components.  As it cools it will decompose in two ways.  Some of it will stay mixed with some heavier oil liquids saturated with methane.  The rest will end up in the third plume.

3)    The remaining mixture will become a dense gas solution with most of the gasoline and light oil as well as some heavy oil.  This is where most of the methane will be, so it will be the lightest and fastest rising of the plumes.

4)    As natural gas separates from the light oil in Plume 3 to cool and expand, it will form methane hydrate.  These hydrates are slightly denser than water at this depth, and will slowly sink to the floor.

Faulkner describes this as “sort of a doomsday scenario” that can only happen because of the unique, gradual and stepwise pressure reduction as the oil first leaves the reservoir into the pipe, then goes through the BOP, then goes into the downed riser pipe, then enters the pressure gradient that is the deep ocean.

According to these predictions, MOST OF THE OIL IS STILL UNDERWATER BUT WILL SURFACE EVENTUALLY. Of the technical pieces of writing I’ve read before, none other has ever included the phrase “God help us.”

Tests Predicted Underwater Plumes

It is also worth mentioning that the possibility of underwater plumes was not unexpected.  It has long been theorized that a blowout at deepwater depths would produce some unusual fluid dynamics behavior.  Indeed, tests have been conducted to confirm and model the phenomenon.

In 2001, the now-embattled MMS conducted an experiment with 23 oil companies to try to see what would happen in the event of a deepwater blowout (note: the mere existence of this test provides FURTHER proof that such an occurrence was neither “inconceivable” nor “unprecedented”).

To test this, different mixtures of natural gas and oil were released half a mile underwater off the coast of Norway to simulate a blowout.  Additional, related research was conducted in a pressure chamber at the University of Hawaii.

These projects confirmed that plumes of oil that do not immediately rise to the surface can in fact form in the event of a deepwater blowout.

The Deepwater Horizon spill has flowed for over a month now.  And we may only just be getting started.

BP – and Oil – Sinks to New Lows May 24, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Media, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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***TWO UPDATES: 1) The EPA may be backtracking a bit?  I do not see why.  2) BP has revised its earlier claim of having siphoned 5000 barrels per day (bpd) from the spill.  It was actually 2,200.  BP spokesman John Curry: “The flow changes, it’s not constant.”  Neither is your story.***

As you may know, the EPA recently ordered BP to discontinue its use of the dispersant Corexit 9500 on account of its toxicity.  They gave BP 24 hours to choose one of the 18 other readily available and less toxic dispersants, and gave them 72 to stop using Corexit.

BP has refused.  Why?  We don’t even know. BP has actually threatened to invoke “trade secrets” to stop the EPA from showing its written response to the public!  On top of all that oil, BP had pumped 715,000 gallons of toxic dispersant into the Gulf as of Sunday, and they want to continue.

So just what do these dispersants do?  They break apart the oil into smaller droplets.  When dispersed into smaller droplets, oil is slower to rise in the water column – it may stay suspended for weeks or even sink.  This can protect some beaches for a while, but it greatly increases the impact on the aquatic ecology.

During the 1988 Nestucca spill in Canada, oil appeared on 100 miles of shoreline two weeks after the spill.  Oil does naturally degrade, but submerged oil weathers more slowly than surface oil.  As a result, relatively fresh oil can travel hundreds of miles from the spill.  There is also no good technique to remove submerged oil because skimming is impossible.

Aside from trying to keep oil off beaches, breaking the oil into smaller droplets facilitates its degradation by aquatic bacteria.  However, even when this process works, the added activity of those microbes sucks all the oxygen out of the water, leaving it a hypoxic dead zone incapable of supporting life anyways, even if it is less oily.

I’m not saying that dispersants don’t have the potential to reduce some of the environmental damage.  It is a tradeoff in the lose-lose scenario oil spills are.  But the only certainty here is that BP, not the environment, benefits most from the use of dispersants.

Fighting poison with poison: toxic dispersants are sprayed on a toxic oil slick.

A growing group of conservative figureheads, including Rush Limbaugh and Brit Hume, are rapidly earning the title “oil spill denier.”  They have been challenging the reported scope of the ongoing oil spill (even though it is without a doubt being underestimated) with one simple question: “where is the oil?

The oil slick isn’t as big as it ought to be.  The size of the surface spill does not match any realistic estimates of the spill rate.  And that won’t change on BP’s watch.

We have known for over a week that this apparent discrepancy is explained by vast quantities of oil discovered lurking suspended in the water column.  However, these plumes are difficult to monitor and impossible to measure.  The only way to truly know how much oil is there is to know how much was released.  That would mean accurately measuring the flow rate of the spill.

More on oil plumes and what’s happening underwater here.

BP says it is impossible to measure that flow.  This is false.  In BP’s own regional plan for offshore oil risks, page 2 of 583 reads: “In the event of a significant release of oil, an accurate estimation of the spill’s total volume…is essential in providing preliminary data to plan and initiate cleanup operations.”

That’s on paper.  In practice, we know that BP has not only refused to make that measurement itself, it has tried (and largely succeeded) to block scientists from making the calculations themselves.  Additionally, in direct hypocrisy with its own plan, BP spokesman Tom Mueller explained that no further efforts to estimate the rate would be undertaken because “it’s not relevant to the response effort and it might even detract from the response effort.”  Lies.

It is astounding to me that in this day and age, anyone could even consider attempting to withhold this kind of information and lie so boldly.  What is more infuriating is that so far BP has succeeded.

Since the first few days of this spill, BP has stuck to its 5,000 bpd (barrels per day) estimate even while all other sources indicate the spill may be as many as 24x greater than that.  BP only admitted they maybe their estimate is a LITTLE low when they siphoned 5,000 barrels from the spill in one day – without capturing anywhere near all of the escaping oil.  Go figure.

Yet they still assert that that figure is largely accurate.  How?  Because BP has decided to estimate the spill rate by the size of the surface slick.  This is why BP loves its dispersants: to BP, every gallon of oil that remains beneath the surface is a gallon of oil that NEVER SPILLED. And until the Obama administration allows them to control what information is released, their estimate (in the media’s eyes) remains the most authoritative.

Low-balling the spill estimate is not just a PR victory for BP. A low estimate of this spill’s size could save BP millions in court.  Even uncertainty helps them in that regard.  The industry learned lessons from the Exxon Valdez spill too, and the inability to precisely measure how much oil was released limited the damages that could be assessed.

I was wrong – it is now clear that BP has a conflict of interest in nearly every facet of this containment effort. They are unfit to lead this effort and must be removed.  Such action cannot release them of ANY responsibility for what has and will still happen, but they cannot lead any longer.

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.

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.
Tags: , , , , , ,

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.

New Oil Spill Legislation May 13, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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It looks like I missed one relevant Senate bill in my sweep yesterday: S. 3309.  On May 6, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) cosponsored legislation with Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) that would raise the tax on oil producers that feeds the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to 9 cents/barrel (ooooh, 9 whole cents!).

Then, having made her token gesture of rebellion against her oil industry sponsors, Murkowski (R-OIL) single-handedly blocked the vote for Sen. Menendez’s bill that would raise oil company spill liability from $75 million to $10 billion.  Way to look out for everyday Americans/Alaskans, Lisa.

For a second there I thought I might actually have to praise Murky for taking a small step in the right direction.  Dodged that bullet.

Original Post:

As slowly as Congress acts, 11 relevant pieces of legislation have been introduced since the Deepwater Horizon rig sank on April 22, 4 in the Senate and 7 in the House of Representatives.  I have compiled a list of these bills and their stated purposes beneath this post (legislative text is not yet available).

The most significant bills are the three House bills seeking offshore drilling bans, one to protect the entire Pacific coast, one to protect all of the Atlantic and [whatever will be left of] the Gulf of Mexico, and one to prohibit new offshore drilling anywhere in U.S. waters.

Three more bills (2 Senate, 1 House) attempt to raise the liability cap on what oil companies can be made to pay for the oil spills they cause.

Two more bills fall under the “disaster response/assistance” category (the latter being sponsored by Sen. Landrieu to aid cleanup because that is the only aspect of this disaster that matters to the Senate’s “Handmaiden to the Oil Industry”.

Two more bills essentially penalize the oil industry.  I could phrase that more delicately, but I think it’s justified (and, given their current, monstrous subsidies, Big Oil still comes out way ahead).  One bill proposes a fee on all oil leases to create a fund that will be used for pollution control and “to reduce our dependence on oil” which presumably would fund research or renewable energy.

The other, called the “USE IT Act,” puts a “production incentive fee” on idle leases that oil companies hold but don’t drill on.  This seems like a great idea and has been suggested before 75% of all offshore leases lie unused. Between 2004 and 2008, oil and gas companies received 28776 permits on public land.  They drilled 18,954 of them. During Bush’s second term, Big Oil stockpiled nearly 10,000 leases.  That is why calls for more lease sales are so ridiculous; Big Oil is sitting on plenty of untapped reserves.  Each additional sale is just a land grab.  Why not incentivize them to develop the reserves we have given them?

If you’ve been counting, you know that leaves 1 remaining bill.  To paraphrase Sesame Street, “one of these bills is not like the others.”  Only one of these bills was sponsored by a Republican.  And it shows. Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao (R-LA) introduced a slightly twisted bill on Wednesday.  In a letter explaining his bill, he calls upon Congress and the administration not to repeat Bush’s mistakes and mount an effective response to this threat:

“Five years ago, the federal government failed us during Hurricane Katrina.  I will not stand by and let the government fail us again.”

So far so good.  Then he makes a questionable leap:

“An effective response will require both short-term emergency action and long-term investment. That is why I am drafting legislation to call for accelerated oil revenue sharing with the federal government.

When he says, “sharing WITH” he really means “sharing FROM.”  Revenue-sharing is the legislative mechanism through which Big Oil buys off coastal states (with federal money) so that they will accept the now obvious risks of offshore drilling.  I understand the argument that the states, in foolishly accepting these risks, may deserve a cut of the leasing money.  That is not my primary point here.

Unless this bill explicitly stipulates that transferred oil revenues will be earmarked for disaster mitigation or preparedness, it is a pretty despicable money grab and decidedly untimely gift to the oil industry. The only definite impact of this bill will be to shore up the currently threatened political support for offshore drilling in Gulf states.

The underfunding of state governments is not what will make this disaster so catastrophic.  BP has claimed it will foot the bill and all available state and federal resources are already being brought to bear to do what can be done.  I could be reading this wrong, but this seems pretty low.

Finally, I have not yet written about the new Senate climate bill, but I would be remiss not to mention here that champions like Sen. Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. Nelson (D-FL) made it clear that they will not support a climate bill if it supports offshore drilling.  The current draft allows states to veto federal plans within 75 miles of their shores.  It also allows neighboring states to veto the project IF a government study concludes that an oil spill could cause them “significant adverse ecological harm,” which looks pretty likely now, doesn’t it?  This, at least, is a good sign.  (Source: E&E Climate Wire, subscription required).

Also, Gov. Crist is calling for a special session to discuss a proposed constitutional amendment to ban offshore drilling off Florida’s coast.  This move is part of his recent dive to the left now that he is running as an independent, but it would be an important move regardless of his motivations.

These are the bills that have been introduced so far:

Drilling Bans:

  • West Coast Ocean Protection Act of 2010” (H.R. 5213): to amend the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to permanently prohibit offshore drilling off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington.  Introduced by John Garamendi (D-CA) May 5.
  • No New Drilling Act of 2010” (H.R. 5248): to amend Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to prohibit new OCS leasing for any drilling or mining.  Introduced by Frank Pallone (D-NJ) May 6.
  • H.R. 5287: to amend the OCS Lands Act to permanently prohibit offshore drilling on outer continental shelf in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.  Introduced Corrine Brown (D-FL) May 12.

Raising the Liability Cap:

  • S. 3345: to remove the cap on punitive damages established by the Supreme Court in Exxon Shipping Company v. Baker.  Introduced by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) May 11.
  • S. 3346: to increase the limits on liability under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.  Introduced by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) May 11.
  • “Big Oil Bailout Prevention Act of 2010” (H.R. 5214): to require oil polluters to pay the full cost of oil spills.  Introduced by Rush Holt (D-NJ) May 6.

Drilling Penalties:

  • S. 3343: to direct the Secretary of the Interior to establish an annual fee on Federal offshore areas that are subject to a lease for production of oil or natural gas and to establish a fund to reduce pollution and the dependence of the United States on oil.  Introduced by Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) May 11.
  • USE IT Act” (H.R. 5102): to direct the Secretary of the Interior to establish an annual production incentive fee on onshore and offshore lands that are leased but where production is not occurring.  Introduced by Edward Markey (D-MA) Apr 27.

Disaster Response/Assistance:

  • S. 3337: to establish a program to provide technical assistance grants for use in assisting individuals and business affected by Deepwater Horizon.  Introduced by Mary Landrieu (D-LA) May 11.
  • H.R. 5241: to establish a commission to investigate the causes and impact of Deepwater Horizon and evaluate and improve the response to such disasters. Introduced by Lois Capps (D-CA) May 6.   More info here.

Republican Bill:

  • H.R. 5267: to accelerate the amount of Gulf of Mexico oil and gas lease revenues shared with States.  Introduced by Anh Cao (R-LA) May 12.

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.

Could Be [Even] Worse: 2 Real Oil Spill Scenarios May 10, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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The failure of BP’s containment dome Sunday offers some dark certainty to an ongoing catastrophe rife with questions: at least now we now know that oil will continue to gush into the Gulf of Mexico for at least the next few months.  No more false hope that this will be short-term.  That’s something, right?

This oil spill is already worst in America’s history – 2 times over.  The latest estimate (Sunday, May 9th) put the spill, conservatively, at 21 million gallons total with 1.1 million more gallons gushing each day.  At that rate, by the end of Monday, May 10th, BP will have lapped Exxon Valdez’s 11 million gallons spilled.  And at this rate, another Exxon Valdez will be spilled approximately every 11 days until they can get this well under control.

As the multi-month relief well is drilled, there are two scenarios to watch for that could actually make this spill even more devastating:

1)   Oil reaching the Florida Keys and the East Coast via the “Loop Current”

2)   An unchecked gusher

East Coast Oil Outlook

You may have heard that the oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico could actually reach the East Coast.  Let’s call this “nightmare scenario #1” (as if the realized prospect of a multi-month oil spill wasn’t bad enough).  For what its worth, it is unlikely that oil will reach the East Coast in the next few weeks, but it becomes a very real threat now that we know this spill will continue for months.

The Gulf of Mexico’s “Loop Current” is a warm water current that flows north between the Yucatan peninsula and Cuba.  It flows up through the Gulf, down and around the Florida Keys, and then up the Eastern seaboard past Cape Hatteras, NC.  Were oil to enter the current, it could definitely flow around to the East Coast.

The Loop Current could carry oil up the East Coast if the spill gets pushed far enough south.

At the moment, the southern edge of the spill is about 100 miles northeast of the Loop Current.  It would take the spill at least 2 days of strong winds from the north to reach the current. It’s hardly a blessing, but the winds that are expected to blow the oil ashore this week are blowing the spill further from the current.  Current current forecasts (hah) suggest that this won’t happen for at least the next 10 days.

The good news is that as summer moves in, the chances of sustained winds from the north decrease.  Meteorologist Dr. Jeff Masters, whom I have to thank for my understanding of this phenomenon, says there is a 40% chance that the cold front required for those winds could move into position by the end of June.   It is probable that such a cold front will not arrive until October.  But we are not in the clear.

A tropical storm or hurricane could push the oil slick into the Loop Current: if a tropical storm hits the panhandle of Florida, this scenario will likely become reality with counter-clockwise storm winds sweeping down off the coast to the west of the storm’s eye and pushing the oil we now know will be there further south.  Long story short, Dr. Masters only predicts a 20% chance of such a storm in June, but drilling a relief well takes at least 2-3 months, so we will likely have plenty of oil around after June.

Especially if nightmare scenario #2 takes hold.

An Unchecked Gusher

A leaked confidential government report dated April 28 and referred to as “report No. 12” first raised concerns about this scenario.

Obviously, this wellhead is out of control, but even the failed blowout preventer, stuck with its valves open, is restricting the flow of escaping oil by creating a bottleneck.  Think about all the water in huge water main beneath the streets compared to how little comes out of your faucet even with it all the way open.

Additionally, there are purportedly kinks in the pipeline that are likely to be further reducing the amount of oil that is escaping.  This is not to say that projections are overestimating the amount of oil escaping (the opposite is in fact likely). Rather, the flow would be considerably greater were those restrictions not there.  And this scenario is possible.

The current flow rate is estimated to be 26,500 barrels/day (1.1 million gallons/day). Unfortunately, there is concern that if this spill continues for an extended period of time (as we now know it will), the wellhead could actually fail.

Recall that this oil and gas is under so much pressure that when the blowout preventer first failed, those hydrocarbons shot to the surface in seconds with enough force to blow through metal.  That pressure is still there.  The liquid that is moving through the pipe and blowout preventer as it gushes is moving very quickly and forcefully, and it is also carrying sand.  The sand particles shooting through the pipes are constantly wearing them down, eroding them like a sandblaster.  As the metal gets essentially sanded down, the longer this spill goes unchecked, the greater the likelihood is that some critical piping will fail altogether.

Losing a wellhead, unlike having a failed blowout preventer cause a huge oil spill, actually IS unprecedented.  However, it is thought that were this nightmare scenario to occur, the spill rate could increase to 150,000 barrels (6 million gallons) or more each day.  At that point, we would be facing 4 Exxon Valdez’s each week, again, for literally months.  If that happens, it seems to me that oil ends up on the East Coast no matter what we do.  Let’s hope it doesn’t come to this.

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.

Containment Failed: America’s Worst Oil Spill to Worsen May 9, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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BP reluctantly announced that its short-term containment attempt failed on Sunday.

The 100-ton metal dome that was supposed to control the gushing oil by funneling it up to a ship above was foiled by large quantities of “methane hydrates” (aka “methane clathrate” or “methane ice”), a crystalline slurry similar to ice that forms when natural gas mixes with water at high pressures and low temperatures.   These methane hydrates both clogged the funneling mechanism and made the containment dome too buoyant to effectively sit on the ocean floor over the gusher.

Joe Romm raises an excellent point: “if BP or any other major thought 1) this type of disaster was conceivable and/or that this dome stragey was particularly plausible, then they would have pre-built and pre-positioned one in the Gulf years ago.”  This was a long shot from the beginning, but as good a PR move as any because it allowed BP to appear active while the spill continues.

BP will spend the next 48 hours determining if the dome effort can be salvaged, but even BP’s spokespeople are more subdued.  And with good reason.  If this effort remains a failure, the outlook for the Gulf is decidedly bleak.

The only remaining containment option is to drill a “relief well.” As I’ve written, this process involves drilling down to depth and then a long distance horizontally towards the original, gushing well.  The goal of this extensive drilling is to locate and bore into the original pipeline, which is less than a foot across.  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. During the eerily similar Montara oil spill in Australia just 8 months ago, it took crews 4 tries to successfully drill the relief well.  There is a reason this project is expected to take literally months, with thousands more barrels of oil spilling each and every day.

The exact spill rate is impossible to pinpoint.  The Coast Guard actually quit updating the official spill rate estimate days ago (which still stands at 5,000 barrels/day).  That is not a huge surprise, and it is true that their energies are better spent on clean up and remediation efforts.

However, nongovernment organizations have the time and manpower to continue to project the size of the spill.  SkyTruth, a tiny nonprofit out of West Virginia that analyzes satellite imagery with one paid staffer, has led the charge in this endeavor.  The most recent estimate calculates the spill rate at about 26,500 barrels/day (1.1 million gallons/day).

SkyTruth satellite analyses have confirmed this to be the worst oil spill in American history.

The Exxon Valdez spill is conservatively estimated to have released 11 million gallons into Alaskan waters.  As of May 8th, SkyTruth estimated that at least 18 million gallons of oil have gushed into the Gulf of Mexico. Even by May 1st, just 11 days after the spill began, they quietly announced that their projections showed at least 12.2 million gallons of oil had spilled.

It is time to start calling this what it is: the worst oil spill in American history. And it now seems that this will continue for months at the rate of at least an Exxon Valdez every two weeks.

The calm weather conditions that have aided surface containment efforts and largely spared coastal areas from oil so far are about to end:

These winds will threaten to bring oil to a large portion of the Louisiana coast, including regions of the central Louisiana coast west of the mouth of the Mississippi River. The Mississippi and Alabama coasts will also be at risk next week, but the risk to the Florida Panhandle is lower.

-Dr. Jeff Masters

Americans have been able to hold this ongoing crisis at arms length because it has largely stayed offshore so far.  This week, that will likely change.

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.