jump to navigation

BP’s Oil Spill Fines Might Not Help the Gulf December 3, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Media, Offshore Drilling.
Tags: , , , , ,
add a comment

In addition to BP’s compensatory fund, the company must pay a per-barrel fine for its gratuitously spilled oil.  Under current law, that money is paid into the federal treasury instead of funding restoration efforts.

The Obama administration tapped former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus to compile a report on how best to enact a long-term Gulf restoration plan.  One of the major recommendations in the Mabus Report was to pass a law directing funds from BP’s fines straight to Gulf restoration efforts.  Seems simple enough, but even obvious baby steps require prodding in this obstructionist legislative environment.

Read the full post at Change.org.

Is the Underwater Oil Gone? August 25, 2010

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

Conflicting reports claim that the giant underwater oil plume in the Gulf of Mexico is both still there and gone.  Yet a closer look at the recent research reveals a potential explanation for this apparent contradiction – and an important new species.

On August 4th, the White House released an official report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) detailing where the millions of barrels of BP’s spilled oil ended up.  Its conclusion that virtually none of the oil remains suspended in the water column generated some warranted skepticism and justified criticism, particularly in regard to transparency.  Part of the problem was that NOAA considered dispersed/dissolved oil harmless and “gone,” which is how researchers at the University of Georgia could soon after conclude that at least three quarters of the oil is still underwater.  Additional questions have been raised about the peer-review process with which the administration has attempted to fend off these attacks.

Last week, researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute published their results from tests conducted in the Gulf on the underwater plume of dispersed oil.  According to their observations, the microbes dispersing the oil were acting very slowly and would likely take months to degrade the full plume.

So it was surprising when researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory announced this week that the oil plume has vanished.   Especially because they reported that the oil was gone because that extra oil had in fact drastically increased microbial oil decomposition.  But how could that be true?  Don’t these studies contradict each other?  As it turns out, not entirely.

It is well established that many types of aquatic microbes can digest oil and already inhabit areas near the thousands of natural oil seeps around the world.  In fact, when the spill first began, some experts were concerned that large amounts of spilled oil could result in a population explosion of a certain toxic species of oil-feeding bacteria that could cause a plague in the Gulf region (E&E News, subscription required).

These two studies both measured microbial activity but arrived at opposing conclusions.  So how can they both be correct?  Was there an orgy of oil-eating microbes or not?  That isn’t yet clear, but it is possible that neither study was wrong.

Bacteria near an oil droplet. Image from Science via Wired.com

It comes down to the methodology, how each study chose to measure microbial activity.  When microbes are exposed to a high concentration of the food they need, they go into metabolic overdrive,  eating and reproducing rapidly.  For these microbes, that food is oil, so an oil spill is a feast.  However, when “aerobic” microbes that use oxygen go into a feeding frenzy, their populations explode and rapidly use up the available oxygen in the water.  Eventually, that area can no longer support aerobic life, including those microbes.  (Side note: this lack of oxygen, called “hypoxia,” is what causes aquatic dead zones at the mouths of most major rivers because they are filled with fertilizer runoff from farms.)

As this excellent Wired.com article explains, the first study measured oxygen levels in the water to gauge microbial activity because if there had been a lot of aerobic oil-eating microbes, the water in the oil plume should contain less oxygen.

The second study used a different approach.  Instead of measuring oxygen levels, they extracted microbial DNA from their water samples and sequenced the genes to see what they do.  These researchers found “large proportions” (which I assume means a high concentration) of genes that create oil-degrading enzymes and, more importantly, discovered a new strain of oil-eating microbe.

This previously undiscovered species is important because it is “anaerobic” – it doesn’t consume oxygen.  It can break down oil without deoxygenating the water around it.  So in the context of that first study, you could consider this new microbe a “stealth” oil-eater; the method employed by first researchers could not have detected its presence.  Additionally, because its growth is not limited by the amount of oxygen in an area, this new species should be more effective and degrade oil more quickly than the aerobic microbes we already knew about.

But just because something is possible does not mean it happened.  Most scientists are wisely urging us not to jump to conclusions.  After all, the oil plume could have just drifted to a different location undetected.  Additional studies are necessary to verify that the oil is in fact gone.

The takeaway message here is that we have an imperfect understanding of underwater oil degradation.  That is part of the reason why BP used all those dispersants – not only did they keep oil-soaked beach/wildlife photos to a minimum, they kept most of the oil dispersed and underwater, where we do not know for sure how much is there or what damage it will cause in the decades to come.  It’s hard to sue a company for unknown damages.

So let’s take this study as some welcome good news, but keep our hopes in check until we can confirm these results.  And figure out how dangerous dispersed oil is.

Those who do not learn from oil spills… August 7, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Media, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

Last week, the Senate failed to pass even an anemic oil spill response bill.  The oil industry learned a lesson from this episode, and it’s not the lesson we’d hoped to teach them.

The bill that was pulled contained commonsense measures to prevent oil spills.  Simple ideas like making oil companies fully liable for the damage they cause.  “You break, you buy” is not a tough concept, and the oil industry has zero goodwill with the public right now.  This should have been simple.

Yet for all of BP’s technical incompetence and possibly criminal negligence, they have thus far succeeded in minimizing the regulatory blowback from this terrible, preventable catastrophe.  Their formula is simple:

1)     Lie to downplay the spill size;

2)     Deny media access so that nobody can disprove the lie;

3)     Spend a tiny fraction of profits on lobbying; and, inevitably,

4)     …Repeat

We know that BP has consistently downplayed the size of the spill.  They used dispersants to keep oil underwater and then chose to measure the spill rate solely by the size of the surface oil slick.  That’s willful deception.

Yet because BP withheld video footage and denied reporters access, nobody could authoritatively challenge their claims (except maybe the government, but that’s another story).

And finally, over the last few months, the big five oil companies (BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell) have spent $18 million lobbying to kill the oil spill response bill.  Compared to their $21.7 billion in combined profits over the last quarter alone, that is a tiny investment.

And it worked.

Surely this legislative gridlock is influenced by the toxic political climate in Washington, but the industry has taken note of BP’s success.  In fact, we have already seen tactics from this new playbook employed elsewhere.  (Which means, unfortunately, that we have already had more oil spills since Deepwater Horizon…we didn’t pass this oil legislation how?)

In Michigan, there are numerous reports that Enbridge Inc. is denying media access to areas damaged by its recent oil spill.  In China, the amount of oil spilled when a pipeline exploded is suspected of being massively downplayed.  This pattern is not going to stop on its own.

Oily shoreline in Dalian, China, where BP's spill response tactics are already being replicated.

During future oil spills, what incentive does a company have to be honest or transparent about the damage it is causing?  None.

Not only have we failed to hold the oil industry accountable for unacceptable damage and deplorable safety records, we have taught them how to get away with it even when, for a few weeks, the whole country actually cares about the environment.

The oil industry has not learned from its mistakes.  Why should they?  It’s much cheaper to pay for lobbyists.  With limited liability, taxpayers and victims pay for much of the damage oil spills cause.

Case-in-point: despite the looming phase-out of single-hulled tankers like the Exxon Valdez, Exxon still hires more of these risky supertankers than the next 10 biggest oil companies combined.

Failing to pass this weak bill will be even worse than having done nothing.  It will let Big Oil know they can bully and buy their way out of any transgression, no matter how heinous.   Those who do not learn from their oil spills are doomed to repeat them.

And right on cue comes news that in Alaska, just thirty miles from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, BP is gaming the system to loosen restrictions and oversight on a new drilling project…

Deepwater Drilling Moratorium Version 2.0 July 14, 2010

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

Last month, as most of you know, the Obama administration’s first deepwater drilling moratorium in response to the ongoing BP oil spill was overturned in a logically unsound and ostensibly political decision by U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman.

This week, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced a second moratorium on new deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico through November 30th.  It is designed to address the “concerns” raised by Judge Feldman (download here).

I have said this before, but it must be repeated in any discussion of a deepwater drilling moratorium:

-Fact: We do not yet know what caused the blowout that sank the Deepwater Horizon rig.

-Fact: We do not have adequate prevention or containment methods for a deepwater blowout, so a massive oil spill is guaranteed if a blowout occurs.

-Fact: A massive oil spill is unacceptably destructive.

-Conclusion: Deepwater drilling must be halted AT LEAST until we know how to prevent and/or recover from deepwater blowouts.

This, in and of itself, ought to sufficiently justify a moratorium.  However, without addressing this issue, Judge Feldman somehow found the following items troubling enough to take the extreme measure of overturning the moratorium:

The original moratorium alluded to but did not explicitly describe the devastation caused by deepwater blowouts.  Judge Feldman did not think the moratorium followed logically from the 30-day safety report on which it was based.

The original moratorium covered oil rigs drilling in more than 500 feet of water.  Judge Feldman felt this depth-based cutoff was arbitrary (it’s not – in Feldman’s own words, it is “undisputed” that to drill beneath that depth, floating rigs are required to conduct the more dangerous, deepwater drilling).

The oil industry has also cited a bogus job-loss argument that I refuted in my original defense of such a drilling moratorium.  Yes, temporarily halting drilling does temporary reduce the number of drilling jobs available.  But when one considers the job loss beyond the oil industry as a result of oil spills (in nature-driven sectors such as fishing and tourism), it is clear that oil spills destroy far more jobs than a temporary halt in drilling.

This new moratorium addresses Judge Feldman’s stated concerns.

First, it essentially makes the case I have made above: it cites the oil industry’s inability to identify the cause of and thus prevent another blowout of this type.  It catalogues the utter inadequacy of every oil company’s cleanup and containment procedures in the event of a deepwater blowout.  It spells out what the rest of us already know.

Second, it removes the depth-based determination of which wells must halt their drilling.  Instead, this moratorium applies only to oil rigs “using subsea blowout preventers (BOPs) or surface BOPs on a floating facility” regardless of depth.

In regard to the scope of the moratorium, this different language appears mainly to address Feldman’s flimsy yet prohibitive criticisms of the original moratorium; it seems that the moratorium will still apply to the same 30 or so deepwater rigs currently in the Gulf.

It is true that BP was operating its rigs more recklessly than others in the oil industry.  Interestingly enough, one oil industry group (that usually spends its resources on important things like funding climate denial) has turned its guns inward on BP as the rest of the industry tries to distance itself from BP.  They released the graphic below detailing BP’s shortcomings:

BP was extra reckless with the Deepwater Horizon well, but deepwater drilling has intrinsic risks that cannot be fully negated. Click for larger.

But even the oil industry conceded during Congressional testimony that the risks of deepwater drilling cannot be avoided:

“When these things happen, we are not very well equipped to deal with them, and that’s why the emphasis is always on preventing these things from occurring.” -Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson

For the first time in my life, I agree with Rex; that, in one sentence, explains why the drilling moratorium is in place.

Some members of the presidential commission investigating the oil spill have concerns about the economic impacts of the moratorium and have changed their minds to oppose it.  However, until I hear a response to the three facts and conclusion laid out at the beginning of this post, I will support a moratorium.

Commission co-chairman Bob Graham compared the situation to Boeing’s treatment of its fleet when a defect was discovered in the cockpit glass of 1,200 planes. “They didn’t wait until all 1,200 had been examined to release the first one,” he said.  He feels that because there are only 36 or so rigs in question, we should simply be able to inspect each one, and allow them to continue drilling if and as soon as they pass inspection.

This is not an analogous situation.  The Boeing technicians knew what they were looking for; we don’t. Until you have diagnosed a problem, you cannot fix it.  An inconclusive doctor’s visit does not ipso facto cure an undiagnosed disease.

Until we know what happened, a drilling moratorium is the right move.  That’s why the European Union’s top energy minister has called for a similar moratorium on deepwater drilling as well – pending the results of an investigation of the Deepwater Horizon accident.

We cannot skimp on safety precautions just because the oil industry has a stranglehold on the Gulf economy.  Whatever economic losses may accompany a halt in drilling are still BP’s fault.  If BP is compensating fishermen who not work as a result of their recklessness, they should be compensating their own employees who cannot work because of their recklessness.

The oil industry is using its drilling jobs as leverage to threaten us into prematurely lifting our moratorium.  It is perverse to cave to their demands before we have even stopped this ongoing catastrophe.

Check out this post at Grist that gives some scale to the cleanup effort.

Deeply Flawed Ruling Overturns Deepwater Drilling Moratorium June 24, 2010

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

***UPDATE: Rachel Maddow has reported more information about Judge Feldman’s oil-related investments here.***

On Tuesday, Judge Martin Feldman granted a preliminary injunction brought by the oil industry against the Obama Administration’s 6-month moratorium on floating offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.  That ruling lifts the drilling ban.

First of all, it is significant that Judge Feldman has reported extensive investments in the oil industry including both Halliburton and Transocean. Shockingly enough, his ruling does not read like it was penned by an impartial arbiter.  He uses phrases like “the government admits that the industry provides relatively high paying jobs” (p. 5-6).  Like that has anything to do with the safety of offshore drilling.

In describing the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Feldman even uses the exact same analogy trotted out by conservative pundits; “Are all airplanes a danger because one was?” (p. 19).  He also adds a few more analogies, including my personal favorite: “[Are] all tankers like Exxon Valdez?” (p. 19).  YES, FELDMAN, ALL THE SINGLE-HULLED TANKERS IN THE WORLD ARE JUST LIKE EXXON VALDEZ.  That’s why we’ve switched [embarrassingly slowly] to using double-hulled tankers!

Judge Martin Feldman. One of the 37 out of 64 active or senior judges in key Gulf Coast districts that have ties to the oil and gas industries.

Having read Feldman’s 22-page ruling, I am less than compelled by his arguments.

As I explained in my earlier defense of the moratorium, the logic for temporarily suspending deepwater drilling operations is very clear:

-Fact: We do not yet know what caused the blowout that sank the Deepwater Horizon rig.

-Fact: We do not have adequate prevention or containment methods for a deepwater blowout, so a massive oil spill is guaranteed if a blowout occurs.

-Fact: A massive oil spill is unacceptably destructive.

-Conclusion: Deepwater drilling must be halted AT LEAST until we know how to prevent and/or recover from deepwater blowouts.

Nobody has presented a counterargument to this logic.  This ruling does not contain one.  I don’t believe that one exists.

The oil industry and indeed Judge Feldman argue that the moratorium is a punitive action against innocent oil workers and that it would cause excessive job loss.  This is false.   Judge Feldman writes:

“Oil and gas production is quite simply elemental to Gulf communities” (p. 6).

As nice as that non sequitur would look on an oil billboard, all that says is that these communities need to diversify.

Employment has nothing to do with the justification for this moratorium. Even if it did, I have shown that blowouts such as this cause far more job loss in sustainable industries such as fishing and tourism than the moratorium would temporarily cost the drilling industry.

I find further faults in Judge Feldman’s ruling.

From a legal perspective, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act instructs the Secretary of the Interior to prescribe regulations,

“for the suspension or temporary prohibition of any operation or activity, including production…if there is a threat of serious, irreparable, or immediate harm or damage to life (including fish and other aquatic life), to property, to any mineral deposits (in areas leased or not leased), or to the marine, coastal, or human environment.” (p. 7-8).

This oil spill meets EVERY ONE of these conditions, ANY ONE of which justifies a moratorium.

Now, that same piece of legislation also preserves the right of any person “having a valid legal interest which is or may be adversely affected” by such regulations to sue to stop them (p. 8).  But those adversely affected workers do not make our oil rigs any safer or in any way reduce the threat that validates the moratorium.  If they have suffered financial burdens, make BP and friends compensate them.  Case closed.

The Administrative Procedure Act cautions that an agency action may only be overturned if it is “arbitrary” and “capricious”.  Lo and behold, Judge Feldman found this moratorium both arbitrary and capricious.

This moratorium is anything but arbitrary and whimsically impulsive.

Feldman contends that the government did not examine alternatives to the moratorium.  But until we know what caused the spill, there is no other effective preventative measure than not drilling (aside from blindly hoping it doesn’t happen again before we figure out what happened, but that’s not what I consider “effective”).

Feldman explains his ruling with the contention that the MMS report outlining the proposed drilling reforms “makes no effort to explicitly justify the moratorium: it does not discuss any irreparable harm that would warrant a suspension of operations” (p. 4).  Seriously Feldman?  Are you joking?  Have you read the news in the last two months?  You live in Louisiana for crying out loud.  Oh! I know, check the performance of your oil stocks.  Notice anything different?  Ya, something big happened.  It has consequences.

Feldman goes on to condescendingly demonstrate Secretary Salazar’s “pattern” of implying the catastrophic effects of deepwater drilling without explicitly stating them.

Instead of explaining the most convincingly implied point I have ever come across, I will take this moment to explicitly proclaim Judge Bubby Boy either decidedly dim or of integrity as oily and compromised as a deepwater blowout preventer.  Take your pick.

The points of contention continue.

Feldman repeatedly refers to the Administration’s “blanket” moratorium on offshore drilling.  If you’ve been following the oil spill, you may recall an earlier “mini-scandal” when the moratorium was announced: Secretary Salazar assembled a panel of experts to review the proposed safety reforms.  Those experts approved  – among many other reforms – a six-month moratorium on exploratory wells deeper than 1000 feet.  The final report proposed a six-month moratorium on exploratory wells deeper than 500 feet.  Everyone freaked out about DOI’s “blatant misrepresentation” of the experts’ recommendations (of which the moratorium was a small fraction).

Now, aside from sounding so far from impartial as to seem personally offended by these events, Judge Feldman wrote:

“[Eight of the experts] have publicly stated that they “do not agree with the six month blanket moratorium” on floating drilling.  They envisioned a more limited kind of moratorium, but a blanket moratorium was added after their final review, they complain, and was never agreed to by them.  A factor that might cause some apprehension about the probity of the process that led to the Report.” (p. 3)

First off all, that last sentence sounds like the script for a Fox News anchor.  My complaint here is for those experts that oppose the moratorium as well: just what kind of moratorium would you propose?  500 feet is the switchpoint between rigs that rest on the ocean floor and floating rigs.  That is, in Judge Feldman’s own words, “undisputed” (p. 18).

The oil industry (in this case, including Judge Feldman) isn’t angry that the Department of the Interior changed the moratorium depth by 500 feet.  They’re angry that it was implemented at all.  People talk about this “blanket moratorium” as if Obama tried to stop all offshore drilling.  In fact, he attempted to do nothing of the sort.

Feldman writes that he “is unable to divine or fathom a relationship between the findings and the immense scope of the moratorium” (p. 17).  Recurring oil spill delusion aside, “immense scope?”  Let’s look at what we’re talking about here.

The term “blanket” moratorium by itself is misleading.  The moratorium applied only to floating oil rigs drilling exploratory wells in depths deeper than 500 ft.  Existing production at those depths continued unaffected.  Shallower offshore drilling (the vast majority of offshore drilling) was unaffected.  The moratorium only applied to 33 oil rigs out of the ~4500 currently drilling in the Gulf!

How much more limited could the moratorium get? Should it only apply to deepwater wells owned by BP?  Only deepwater wells cemented by Halliburton? Only deepwater wells operated by Transocean rigs?  How about only those deepwater rigs that are about to explode and sink?

WE DON’T KNOW WHAT CAUSED THE BLOWOUT; how could we possibly refine the moratorium further? “Immense scale?”  This is the loosest-weave “blanket” moratorium in history.

Judge Feldman himself wrote that, “It is well settled that “preliminary injunction is an extraordinary that should not be granted unless the party seeking it has clearly carried the burden of persuasion” (p. 13).  That has not happened.  Yet Judge Feldman today rejected the government’s appeal to his Tuesday ruling. In doing so, he refused to delay his lifting of the drilling moratorium.    Why? For “the same reasons” given in his prior ruling. God bless America.

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.

Why the Drilling Moratorium Makes Sense June 9, 2010

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

-Fact: We do not yet know what caused the blowout that sank the Deepwater Horizon rig.

-Fact: We do not have adequate prevention or containment methods for a deepwater blowout, so a massive oil spill is guaranteed if a blowout occurs.

-Fact: A massive oil spill is unacceptably destructive.

-Conclusion: Deepwater drilling must be halted AT LEAST until we know how to prevent and/or recover from deepwater blowouts.

We have instituted a 6-month moratorium on deepwater drilling in this country.  Makes sense, right?  Well politics take no heed of logic, and this drilling moratorium has plenty of critics, many of whom live right on the Gulf Coast:

“…the administration’s deepwater moratorium is a major mistake. Simply put, it will cost us more jobs and economic devastation than the oil spill itself.” -Sen. David Vitter (R-LA).

No, David, it won’t (read on for proof).

Texas-based Anadarko Petroleum Corp., one of the world’s largest independent oil exploration and production companies, announced that it is closing 3 of its exploratory wells in the Gulf and moving the rigs to drill elsewhere.  Other companies are following suit.  And that is strengthening the moratorium critics.

You read that correctly: Oil companies are successfully creating political leverage against the moratorium on the oil industry.  And their political contributions are paying off.

Oil state politicians are attempting rhetorical acrobatics as they decry the oil spill and renounce the drilling moratorium in the same breath.  I would say they were walking a fine line if such a line existed, but one cannot rationally rail against and advocate for the same industry simultaneously.

That being said, here are their arguments:

“Shutting down the outer continental shelf, all that’s going to do is raise energy prices and cost American jobs,” Rep. Joe Barton* (R-TX).

*Barton is quite possibly the most scientifically challenged member of our legislature now that Ted “Internet = A Series of Tubes” Stevens has…“retired.”

The last thing we need is to enact public policies that will certainly destroy thousands of existing jobs while preventing the creation of thousands more.”  Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA).

In my opinion, the LAST thing we need would be to go through this ordeal again.  Or potentially even at a second site concurrently before we cap this first one.  But that’s a risk Bobby is willing to take.

Some even argue that we need the drilling jobs now more than ever because the fishing industry is dead.  To them, I would say that the enemy of your enemy may be your friend, but the problem of your problem is not your solution.

Now, the first argument, oil prices/energy security, is just false.  As I’ve previously explained in more detail, U.S. offshore oil reserves are so insignificant compared to world oil production that we cannot affect supply-side prices (which are determined on the global market) by more than a few cents if even that.

An energy consultant estimated that the moratorium could reduce domestic oil production by 80,000 barrels per day in 2011.  That may sound like a lot on its own, but not when compared to the 19,498,000 barrels of oil we consume everyday.  Bear in mind, this moratorium applies to deepwater drilling only.  We are talking about up to 33 deepwater rigs leaving from among the approximately 4,500 total rigs currently in the Gulf.  This argument does not hold any oily water.

So what about the second argument – jobs?  Conservatives are gleefully pushing this point on account of our sluggish economy, but they are doing so in a decidedly dishonest manner.

It takes a remarkable amount of self-imposed tunnel vision to view such a massive catastrophe through the single lens of employment.  But if you’re going to do it, you have to include the whole picture.  This moratorium was not imposed out of arbitrary spite.

Yes, offshore drilling creates jobs.  You know else does?  Fishing and tourism.  Offshore drilling has at least temporarily destroyed these sustainable industries in the Gulf region.

Halting deepwater drilling for 6 months may cost 40,000 jobs around the Gulf.  Louisiana will be hardest hit, so let’s take a look there:

The moratorium could cost Louisiana 20,000 jobs if all the deepwater rigs currently off its shores leave.  Ok, but many jobs did deepwater drilling cost the fishing and tourism industries?  There are 13,000 commercially licensed fishermen in Louisiana, not including deck hands and crew.  None of them can work.  Louisiana’s nine coastal parishes supported nearly 15,000 tourism-related jobs.  Do you know anyone planning any trips to coastal Louisiana right now?  I sure don’t.  So that’s well over 28,000 jobs within just Louisiana that are likely gone for at least immediate future because of this oil spill (as promised above, this proves Sen. Vitter is wrong,).

Tourism in the Gulf region is responsible for more $100 billion annually, or roughly 46% of the Gulf economy.  Even more is generated through fishing, both recreational and commercial; the Gulf of Mexico accounts for more than 50% of U.S. recreational fishing and 40% of the seafood harvested in the contiguous U.S. (including 85% of our shrimp and 60% of our oysters – but most of the seafood we eat is imported).

Unlike temporary, one-time oil revenues, the billions generated by fishing and tourism can be relied upon to sustainably support families along the Gulf year after year after year.  But not if the beaches are covered in oil, and not if the fisheries are poisoned or destroyed altogether.  Thanks to offshore drilling, all the jobs that generated all that money are threatened.

The oil industry is fond of touting the one-time benefits of its extractive drilling while completely ignoring the recurring, sustainable benefits of the industries jeopardized by drilling.  In 2007, President Bush decided to reopen Alaska’s Bristol Bay to offshore drilling (it was protected in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill).  Industry spokespeople and their congressional allies explained that opening the bay offered compelling arguments both financially and for energy security.

I have previously explained how offshore drilling helps only oil companies, not America, and does not improve our energy security.  So let’s look at the financial argument: opening the Bay offered an estimated $8 billion in oil – over the next 20 to 40 years.  Meanwhile, sustainable fishing in that area brings in $2.2 billion ANNUALLY.  In just 4 years, fishing in Bristol Bay generates more money than decades of drilling there would.  And as BP is vividly demonstrating, that fishing is threatened by offshore drilling.  (Obama restored protection to Bristol Bay as part of his offshore drilling plan in April.)

Why would we trade sustainable revenue for one-time drilling that threatens that sustainable future?  Because it enriches oil companies that spend millions on lobbying.

By now you have probably heard some of the metaphors conservatives are using to [mis]characterize the moratorium:

Halting air travel because of one plane crash. –Sen. Vitter (R-LA).

Halting car production because of a 100-car pile up. –Lee Hunt, President of the International Association of Drilling Contractors.

You get the idea.

I’ll respond to ridiculous analogies with a ridiculous hypothetical: During World War II, the U.S. economy was as close to full employment as is likely possible.  We set historic lows for unemployment (~1% in 1944) that we will probably never reach again.  Was ending WWII wrong?  It caused unemployment to rise.  It cost millions of people their jobs as soldiers and workers in war-related industries.  Should we start World War III now?  It would solve our persistent unemployment problem (in more ways than one).  This argument makes sense if all you care about is employment.

Even ignoring the environmental devastation, the jobs argument for offshore drilling is not compelling if you consider even the broader jobs situation.  In some situations, there are other valid considerations beyond local job loss in one sector.  This is one them.

Besides, if we pass a climate bill, we’re going to need a lot of people to help build wind turbines and install solar panels.  Many of those wind turbines will likely go offshore…job training programs would be an appropriate component of either a Gulf recovery package or the climate bill.

In lieu of that, I hear there’s a big clean-up project ramping up in that area.

My research for this post was disheartening.  If you want to know what subtle media bias looks like, read this poor excuse for journalism courtesy of Fox News’ more reputable cousin, the Wall Street Journal.  This article presents startlingly narrow, one-sided coverage of the topic at hand, but most readers will never even know it.  Rupert Murdoch’s media outlets do an unfortunately effective job of dressing up spin to look like news.

To be clear, I do not object to anyone’s right to make this argument.  Or even to present only half of it as they have done.  But to allow such slanted coverage to be considered “fair and balanced” and to parade under the guise of objective journalism is nothing short of intolerable.

Full list of oil spill questions/answers here.

The Case Against Sand Berms June 3, 2010

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

As it becomes more and more clear that the multi-month relief wells are the only permanent solution, it becomes more certain that the Deepwater Horizon oil gusher will flow for months to come.  Containment may be or may not be successful and we know there is a lot of oil traveling beneath the surface, where it cannot be skimmed or burned and oil booms cannot even attempt to stop it.

In light of this situation, some have proposed building “berms,” giant levees of sand, in front of miles of sensitive coastline.  Even underwater oil cannot go beneath a berm.

Last week, the administration approved plans for six berm sites in the Chandeleur Islands aka Brenton National Wildlife Refuge. It has only committed to funding one so far, waiting to see if the $16 million project it worth replicating.  The money will come from either BP or the Federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.

Note: the House recently passed legislation to raise the tax that feeds that trust fund from 8 cents/barrel to 32 cents/barrel.  The Senate has yet to act (shocking).

First, some background on barrier islands, courtesy of the wonderful blog ThroughTheSandGlass (which ironically linked my blog while I was literally writing this), written by geologist Michael Welland:

“Barrier islands are perhaps the most dynamic and ephemeral landforms on the planet, and imagery of the Chandeleurs vividly illustrates this. Even under natural conditions, the architecture and position of barrier islands are constantly changing – maps and charts are out of date by the time they are printed. The fundamental architecture and features of barrier islands is illustrated here (from the University of Texas glossary).

The complexity results from the interactions of tides, both coming and going, waves, currents, storms, sand supply and so on. And, as in the case of the Chandeleurs, this complexity is only enhanced by human interference – the need for constant dredging of shipping channels in the Mississippi Delta has essentially starved the islands of sand.

…The Chandeleur Islands have had a torrid history and today are but a shadow of their former selves.”

In principle, building sand berms should work. It is much easier to clean oil off of sand than out of marshes. Similar plans (for different purposes) have been planned for years and small-scale projects have been successful in the past.

So what have we been waiting for?  Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.  Since state officials submitted the plan on May 11, experts have expressed significant concern:

I understand that time is of the essence, but I really think that we’re taking a gamble here.” -Dr. Gregory Stone, director of the Coastal Studies Institute at LSU.

The Plan:

On May 27, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued an emergency permit authorizing the construction of 45 miles of sand berm.  Original proposals sought 128 miles of barriers, and additional sections may be authorized pending the success of the first phase.

These berms will be 300 feet wide at the base, narrowing as they rise up to a height 6 feet above the water and 20 feet across the top.

This graphic was published on My 22 so it is not entirely accurate for the approved proposal, but it does give you a sense of the scope for this project.


The application estimates the cost of the project at $3.8 million per mile, or $171 million for the initial 45-mile phase.  This is a deceptively low number; including the money that has already been spent mobilizing for a similar project to rebuild the Chandeleurs, the total price tag is likely closer to $500 million.

BP has agreed to pay an estimated $360 million for sand berm construction.

Will it work?

Below is an excerpt from a June 3 post at Yale’s e360 blog:

“A project that could cost as much as a half-billion dollars should warrant serious review. Yet it has been very difficult to find a public record or details of the proposed project design and how it was vetted. Obviously, there was never any intention to solicit public comment. This may be appropriate in an emergency, but it begs the question: Who designed the project? Have they used the best available science? And will it work as advertised?

The state of Louisiana has a wealth of fine coastal scientists who have been working on the coastal restoration of the Louisiana delta region for decades. Yet those who I have spoken with have indicated that they have not been consulted on the project. I have yet to speak to a scientist who thinks the project will be effective. The Corps of Engineers gave agencies, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), less than a day to submit comments on the proposal after it was presented to the agencies during a teleconference on May 17. Certainly, the agencies had very little time to scientifically evaluate the potential environmental impacts of such a massive project, but in their brief submissions the agencies expressed major concerns.

The Department of Interior indicated that “we do not think the risks inherent in proceeding without more environmental study and knowledge are acceptable.”

The EPA directly questioned the proposed berm’s effectiveness, suggesting there is no evidence that the project will stop oil from entering the marshes and estuaries because it is constructed only in front of the barrier islands and will not block the inlets and deepwater passes. In addition, EPA questioned whether a project that will take at least 6 to 9 months to build would be completed in time to have any impact on the spill.”


This is a massive undertaking. Dredging up this much sand takes a long time. The EPA projected that this plan may not be completed for at least 6-9 months, and oil is already onshore. Even if we had started on Day 1, this project would not have been completed in time to protect the Mississippi Delta.

Additionally, erosion is expected to wear the wall away within months.  And that could happen even sooner if tropical storms come through the area, which I’m pretty sure they have been known to do.

Hurricane Forecast: [Bleak]

Incidentally, NOAA’s hurricane forecast was released on the same day that this project was approved last week.  They are expecting an “active to extremely active” season:

  • 14-23 Named Storms (top winds 39+ mph)
  • 8-14 Hurricanes (top winds 74+ mph)
  • 3-7 Major Hurricanes (category 3-5)

That includes a 95% chance of 2 Gulf hurricanes and a 50% chance of a Gulf hurricane in June or July.  Not good.

Sand Resources:

To build all the sand berms Louisiana officials have demanded, it has been estimated that the project would require 56 million cubic yards of sand – enough to fill 11.2 Superdomes.

And remember, that sand is coming from a river delta starved of sediment:

“Just think of digging 11 Superdome-sized holes in the delta you’re trying to save.  It seems counterintuitive.”  -Dr. Len Bahr, a coastal expert who founded the LaCoastPost blog.

Since we’ve been throwing huge numbers around for over a month now, let’s put that in the context of the oil spill.  56 million cubic yards of sand would fill nearly 270,000,000 oil barrels with more than 10 trillion gallons of sand.

The sand placed in these berms, while effective at stopping oil for a a few months, would be quickly eroded by normal wave action.  Berm lifetimes will be drastically reduced if struck by a hurricane.

Once sand is washed away from these berms, it cannot be used again for restoration purposes. Sand for these projects can only be dredged from certain places that have the right concentration of high-quality sand and that are far enough offshore that the dredging and deepening of waterways will not cause excessive damage (dredging destroys benthic life on the seafloor and deepening waterways can affect hydrology and even strengthen hurricanes and storm surges if conducted too close to shore).  Sand that washes off of berms is unlikely to end up in an area where it can be recaptured.  Additionally*, any sand that comes in contact with oil will be unusable in the future.

*Update: Thanks yet again to Mr. Welland at ThroughTheSandGlass for confirming the previously undocumented first point and offering the second explanation as well.

Louisiana’s limited sand resources present an additional problem because there have been longstanding plans to properly rebuild the Chandeleur islands (as opposed to dropping sand in front of them) that could be blocked by this project:

“If we use the good sand that we have for this quick-and-dirty berm, and a storm comes in and spreads it around, we’ve lost the major sand resource that we wanted to use for barrier-island restoration. We could compromise the long-term restoration of the coast for a short-term gain.” –Dr. Denise Reed, wetlands ecologist, University of New Orleans.

If even that.

It has been difficult to evaluate this plan because it has been changing constantly since its submission.  As submitted, the plan called for sand to be dredged from just one mile directly in front of the islands themselves.  Geologists and several government agencies objected because those trenches could actually accelerate land loss through not one, but two different mechanisms!

Obviously, this sudden tragedy demands swift action, but reckless plans can do more harm than good.  If this is the kind of planning that went into this proposal, I am very glad the Corps took some time to review and amend the plan.

The approved plan has identified six potential “borrow areas” (a euphemistic misnomer, because that sand will never be returned) that are 20-100 miles from the berm sites.  This is no quick project.

Water Flow:

Barrier islands such as the Chandeleurs form with wide natural channels between them. This is what allows inland bays and wetlands to fill and drain each day with normal tidal action.  In order to fully protect the marshes from oil, these passes would have to be closed off entirely, but that would wreak havoc on the region’s hydrology.

Closing off those channels would greatly harm many of the species the berms seek to protect. Many of these animals’ lifecycles demand that they move into and out of the coastal wetlands through those channels, and their daily lives revolve around tidal rhythms.

So why not just close a few of them?  This is what will be done, but it presents its own problems.  If just sand were used to plug those channels, it would be washed away immediately, so the channels will have to be lined with rigid structures.  As the openings narrow (or become fewer in number), the massive influx of tidal water through smaller openings will cause more powerful currents to form; if any oil does enter through these openings, it will be sent shooting much further inland towards/into sensitive estuaries.  Oil could even become trapped there, with its exit out of the estuary blocked by berms.  There is additional concern that the altered water flow may send oil east into the Mississippi Sound.

Political Considerations:

Two Republicans, Plaquemines Parish president Billy Nungesser and Lousianna Gov. Bobby Jindal (famous for his role as Kenneth the Page on NBC’s 30Rock), have been the loudest cheerleaders for this project.  Since the beginning of the spill, these two have been stomping their feet and demanding sand berms.  Critics accuse them of political grandstanding:

“We could have built 10 miles of sand boom already if [the feds] would have approved our permit when we originally requested it.” –Bobby Jindal.

“The federal government has got to move on this and BP has got to pay for it. Without closing as many gaps as possible, we’re going to get oil in the marshes.” –Billy Nungesser

I feel like I’m chastising children, and only partially because of their names: Bobby, blindly rubberstamping permits for large projects in the Gulf  is what got us into this mess.  The Army Corps of Engineers was not twiddling its thumbs, just letting your proposal sit there.  It was reviewing it as best it could and they caught a number of significant errors.  It is justifiable to exercise caution when considering a massive project with uncertain effects.  Billy, “closing gaps” in the barrier islands comes with its own concerns (outlined above).  Now run along and play nice.

Louisiana state officials have been trying to secure federal funding to rebuild the Chandeleur Islands since Hurricane Katrina literally destroyed them in 2005.  Jindal et al. are tapping into existing support and, to be fair, preparation for a much broader restoration plan for those barrier islands. Denise Reed at UNO put it, “There are six words to describe what people in [coastal Louisiana] want: barrier islands, barrier islands, barrier islands.”  But Reed is quick to clarify, “This [proposal] is not barrier island restoration.

The Chandeleur Islands before and after Hurricane Katrina. Louisiana officials have been planning to rebuild them in a similar manner for years, but that project and this temporary berm project are different and possibly even mutually exclusive.

The current, temporary berm proposal and the goal of long-term barrier island restoration have been largely conflated in the local, populist push for action.  But they are quite different. Especially because these temporary berms could use up valuable sand resources upon which the restoration project relies.

States’ Rights

While the Army Corps investigated actual policy concerns, Louisiana officials resorted to a different type of rabblerousing: they turned this into a states’ rights issue.  LA Attorney General Buddy Caldwell sent a letter to the Army Corps telling them Louisiana was within its rights to build the berms because the federal government does not have the legal authority do deny a state its right to conduct emergency operations.

As I understand it, the federal government wasn’t stopping Louisiana from doing anything at all – it was withholding federal money from a project that they weren’t sure was a good investment yet.  Jindal’s tantrum wasn’t about him not being able to act, it was about him not being able to get someone else to pay.  That’s not quite as presidential.


Gloria Borger wrote a column yesterday entitled, “We got the president we elected.

“He was elected because he is cool, calm and analytical. That’s what we wanted to see after George W. Bush, so we made him president. But now the disaster in the Gulf has made many of us want to see someone else — with plenty of anger, emotion and bravado. We want him to yell at BP. We want him to loudly tell us he’s whipping the cleanup effort into shape.

We can’t tell BP ourselves, so we want him to do it for us.

Fair enough. But that’s not the person we elected.”

We don’t yet know the whole story of the administration’s internal response to this catastrophe.  It certainly appears from the outside like they were slow to react and fully engage.  In this case, though, I think they got it right in waiting to approve the plan.  I hope they waited long enough.  Time will tell.

If sand berms prove to be an effective bulwark against oil for the wetlands of Louisiana, I will wholeheartedly support this project.  But this plan has many unknowns – not just about its efficacy but even in regard to the ecological systems it seeks to protect – so caution was and is the correct course.

It is nice to be able to say that we are doing something, but I hope that it is the right thing to do and not action for action’s sake.  I am not convinced that this is the case.

The following is an excerpt from the Army Corps permit itself (thanks to Mr. Welland at ThroughTheSandGlass for pointing it out) :

“We understand that the BP oil drilling disaster is a disaster of unprecedented proportions. However, we are concerned that Louisiana is proposing to have such a large project covered under a general permit (NOD 20). General permits are intended to have negligible impacts individually and cumulatively, however this project will certainly have impacts that would normally require a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). While we acknowledge that this disaster requires regulatory flexibility, general permits were never intended to address massive projects with potentially significant environmental impacts. We find the precedent set by this action disturbing.

This is a big gamble.  For half a billion dollars, even of BP’s money, we better have more to show for this project than wasted sand beneath the waves and oil in the wetlands.  I would imagine $500 million could buy a lot more oil mitigation progress in other ways.

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.  Check this out for more information on oil-eating bacteria.

Send BP’s Spokespeople Home May 31, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Media, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
add a comment

“There aren’t any underwater [oil] plumes.” – BP CEO Tony Hayward.

Why not?  Because Tony says so.  End of story.  At least as far as the mainstream media are concerned.

The oil is on the surface,” Hayward said. “Oil has a specific gravity that’s about half that of water. It wants to get to the surface because of the difference in specific gravity.” –Tony Hayward, 5/30/10.

Duh.  Oil rises in water? Thanks for that expert analysis, Tony. But even a 23-year-old with an Internet connection can figure out why the oil isn’t just rising here, so that statement is a baldly transparent lie.  Hint: it has to do with the incredible amounts of toxic dispersants that YOU YOURSELF ordered injected into the well.

There is no question about the existence of these plumes.  Scientists from at least 4 different universities so far have independently found underwater oil plumes by analyzing images, video, and water samples.  They have even piloted submarines through the plumes.

Yet Tony Hayward is successfully combating scientific research in the media simply by saying that BP has found “no evidence” of such plumes, with zero elaboration on what testing they did.  BP claims to have 30 aircraft searching for signs of oil, but as I understand it most airplanes are confined to the air.  Perhaps they found no evidence because they didn’t look underwater.  Tony didn’t say and evidently was not asked.  How could anyone let him make that claim and not ask the follow up question?

This is what is wrong with our country.  I mean it.  Public accountability no longer exists It is not “gotcha” journalism to call out a public figure for a baseless lie or contradiction. That is not “media bias” or “unbalanced reporting” or any of those things.  It is JOURNALISM.  It is their jobs.  It is the reason why the media are protected in our country; democracy cannot function without objective news coverage.

As an aside, this is exactly what has happened in the politicized “debates” about climate change, healthcare, financial reform…you name it.  There are facts in this world.  Simply saying something is wrong does not ipso facto disprove its factuality or even call it into question.  And to dutifully report that “controversy” in the fanatical pursuit of “balance” is a loathsome perversion of objective journalism.  This was the subject of my honors thesis.

I still believe that BP has a compellingly strong financial incentive to lead the efforts to kill this well; there is no cost-benefit analysis that can be done in which BP benefits from having this well flow a single day longer than it has to.  Even in a scenario in which they are trying to save the well for future exploitation, the broader damage done to the company and even the industry by even a marginally larger, ongoing oil spill vastly outweighs any benefit they could gain from skimping on containment efforts.

It is worth mentioning again, however, that a similar, seemingly obvious economic argument should have compelled Exxon to use only double-hulled tankers after Exxon Valdez, but it has not.

Unfortunately, BP has another financial incentive as well.  As I pointed out last week, our biggest complaints with BP’s response are not about their containment actions, they’re about dishonesty, lack of transparency, and constantly downplaying of the scope of this disaster.  They’re about spin.

Following the blowout itself, which was obviously an engineering failure, how many critiques have you seen of BP’s engineers?  Not many.  They probably should have figured out methane hydrates would form in the first containment dome.  But our biggest problems have been with BP’s spokespeople (and executives operating in that role).  BP is doing literally as much damage control as it can.  And that is the real problem here.

BP has two, simultaneous damage control operations in action: one to protect the Gulf, and another to protect BP. One is trying to staunch the flow of hydrocarbons, the other is trying to staunch the flow of legal liability and corporate backlash.  One is taking place underwater, the other is taking place in the media.

We need this type of damage control. We could do without the other.

That Tony Hayward and BP continue to be able to make these claims is despicable.  But we have let it happen.

As one of many examples, recall the 5,000 barrel per day flow estimate.  For over a month, BP was able to low-ball the spill rate and nobody could authoritatively contest the claim.  They controlled the information.  BP barely backed down when caught in essentially Orwellian doublethink, on the day they claimed to be siphoning 5,000 bpd off of a 5,000 bpd spill.

This weekend, Carol Browner, Director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change, finally conceded what the rest of us have been saying all along about the spill estimates: “BP has a financial interest in these numbers.”

And they have looked after that interest.  It is a huge boon to BP that this spill occurred offshore and at such great depth.  It might as well have happened in space.  In today’s world journalists can even embed in the military to cover wars in person, yet no journalist can independently corroborate any claim about this oil spill.  We couldn’t even see the spill until BP was forced to share the video feed.  In the absence of any other source of information, the media have trotted out BP’s statements verbatim.

New information about the spill is released almost exclusively by BP spokespeople, pre-spun and told from their perspective.  We have let them control this story, and it shows.

Tony Hayward’s fallacious denial of the underwater plumes should be everywhere.  It’s not.  I found it on the front page of the Huffington Post and buried in the 24th-27th paragraphs (out of 27) in a Washington Post article.  Thank goodness the AP also published a story.

I have been among many others to document lie after lie released by BP and covered in the media.  So let’s put an end to it.  Here’s my proposal:

The administration may well be correct in its assertion that BP is better equipped to handle the containment of this gusher.  Obviously, the government has additional resources to bring to bear, especially for the clean up operation, but BP has both the equipment and expertise that the physical solution to this problem requires.  They should continue that endeavor.  However, the administration should have assumed control of the information flow weeks ago, at the first signs of BP’s dishonesty.

If we really want to see results, we should muzzle BP’s executives and spokespeople.  Send them home.  Better yet, put them to work cleaning the despoiled beaches of Louisiana.

Currently, regardless of what happens, BP gets to spin its own story first.  This is a privilege they do not deserve and have repeatedly abused.  So let’s strip them of it.

Tony Hayward: “There's no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.” Oh cry me a river. Take it, you duplicitous menace. Go home. Your work here is done.

Instead, have BP report their updates to the administration (or an independent body of experts, if you are concerned about more propaganda). Let someone less concerned about BP’s future synthesize the progress and inform the media.

I understand the desire to grill these executives and make them stew, and that time will come.  But we must start getting objective, unfiltered information about this catastrophe.

This would not only penalize BP for its actions, it would offer them another incentive to stop this spill.  If they are not allowed to spin their story, the only way they can get good coverage is to make their success self-evident.  No more excuses.

If BP cannot control its oil wells, we cannot let them control this story.  What have they done to deserve that courtesy?

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.

Natural Oil Seeps vs. Oil Spills May 26, 2010

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

Back when this all first started, after explaining that Deepwater Horizon had been sabotaged by militant environmentalists, everyone’s favorite conservative radio host had the following to say about America’s worst oil spill:

“The ocean will take care of this on its own if it was left alone and left out there.  It’s natural.  It’s as natural as the ocean water is.”  -Rush Limbaugh, 5/3/10.

Before we dive into the content, I must correct a misconception on display: “natural” does not equal “good.”  It can, and in advertisements it always does, but in reality, the two words are not synonymous. There are a lot of terrible things in nature: Ebola; Infanticide (e.g. in lions); Rape (e.g. in dolphins); Murder (e.g. in chimps); Cannibalism (e.g. all over the place). All natural, but not good.  Sorry, pet peeve.

Back to oil, Limbaugh has also made the claim that more oil seeps into the Gulf of Mexico naturally, every year, than has spilled from Deepwater Horizon.  As it turns out, this claim is actually true.

Oil seeps are fairly common around the world both underwater and aboveground.  Oil seeps occur when enough cracks and fissures form above a reservoir to enable a small quantity of oil to escape naturally.  The La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles (pictured below) are a large terrestrial oil seep, and oil seeps have long been used to help identify submarine oil reserves.  Oil seeps are prevalent in many bodies of water, and the Gulf of Mexico is no exception.

Oil seeps are common both aboveground and underwater.

A satellite survey published in January of 2000 counted at least 600 natural oil seeps within the Gulf.  And they release a lot of oil.

As you know if you’ve been following this tragedy, it is difficult to calculate underwater spill rates.  Especially for 600+ sites.  So the numbers here are pretty wide ranges, but the scale of the estimates is impressive.  A 2003 National Academies study estimated that about 980,000 barrels of oil, or about 41 million gallons, seep into the Gulf – every year.  Recall that the Exxon Valdez is estimated to have spilled about 250,000 barrels.

This link will take you to a table of annual petroleum releases into U.S. waters by source, but it is confusing to read.  If you are willing to wade through the paper, though, the pages that follow do explain each of the individual sources.

So if that much oil seeps out every year, why isn’t the Gulf covered in oil slicks?  It actually is. You just can’t see them (and it doesn’t really matter).  Oil can spread out very, very thinly.  In fact, a gallon of oil can spread out to cover more than a full square mile, forming the tiniest film on the surface, one-hundredth of a millimeter thick.  At that dose, oil is not dangerous.  However, when larger volumes are introduced, that spreading is unable to occur.  In an oil spill, a lot of oil is released into the same place at the same time.  All that oil is hydrophobic and wants to sit on top of the water, so it forms a thicker slick in higher and more dangerous concentrations.

While invisible up close, microscopic oil slicks from natural seeps are visible from space because cohesion between oil molecules flattens wave action to form smooth areas on the water.

Close up. Image Source: Jesse Allen, NASA.

Because seeps are dispersed and oil only seeps from them instead of gushing, areas around seeps are still able to support thriving biological communities. Scientists don’t even think the animals living near seeps have needed to evolve any adaptations;* seeping oil simply doesn’t have that great an effect.

*One cool exception to this statement: you may have seen pictures or videos of the giant red tubeworms etc. that live near deep ocean hydrothermal vents.  Those vents don’t just expel superheated water; some are actually gas seeps too.  The chemosynthesis that supports those ecosystems actually uses methane as a feedstock.  So those animals have not adapted to natural gas as a toxin they can tolerate, they’ve adapted to natural gas as a food source they can eat, and gas seeps as a habitat they need to survive!  …but oil spills are bad!

Large oil seeps can lead to increased microbial productivity (as bacteria break down more abundant oil) and result in some local hypoxia (lack of oxygen) on the ocean floor, but not to the point of causing large dead zones.  Further, individual seeps are not always active and the release rate can even vary considerably during a single day and from day to day.  As a result, only a small area around a seep is ever actually exposed to “fresh,” un-degraded oil, and that is when it is most toxic.

What we know as “oil” is actually a varying combination of thousands of different compounds.  Many of these react differently and have different fates when released into the water: some evaporate, others degrade in sunlight (aka “photolysis”), some dissolve in seawater, some get eaten by microbes, and others sink and end up in sediments.  That is, if they don’t wash up on a beach or become entrained in the biosphere first.

A study published in May 2009 found that oil from natural seeps normally stays in the water for between 10 hours and 5 days.  In that time, those molecules that easily can be broken down are, leaving behind the remaining, heavier oil – consisting mostly of larger compounds that are more difficult to dissolve, evaporate or be digested by microbes.  These molecules sink to the floor.

Oil from natural seeps stays in the water for less than 5 days.

An analysis of sediment samples from different areas around a natural seep revealed a consistent rate of hydrocarbon loss in the oil that eventually sank.  This indicates that there is an upper limit to how much oil can be broken down by natural forces in the ocean.  This appears to be the key finding for us.

The question we are trying to answer here is, “how are oil seeps different from oil spills?”  Oil seeps occur constantly, throughout the Gulf.  Although they do release a lot of oil together over time, their individual spill rates are far, far lower than the Deepwater Horizon gusher.  What’s more, these much smaller seeps are dispersed around the Gulf, so each seep’s oil can be degraded quickly.

That is not what happens in an oil spill.  It is true that the amount of oil that has spilled from this gusher so far is less than the ANNUAL AGGREGATE of all 600+ seeps in the Gulf.  But it’s all coming out at the same time, in the same place.  The water in one location can only degrade so much oil at one time; an oil spill goes far beyond overwhelming the ocean’s natural oil-coping mechanisms.

And remember, the oil from all those natural seeps escapes year-round.  Yes, the Gulf can degrade small amounts of oil within 5 days, continuously.  But that oil-disposal capacity is always already in use, year-round.  So any additional oil spilled does not follow that time line.  It lasts much longer and has a much greater impact.

So, in conclusion, the Gulf has a limited ability to deal with oil that seeps out slowly and is widely dispersed.  But those capabilities are constantly in use.  This spill is gushing massive amounts of oil into one place.  Marine ecosystems cannot cope with that assault.  And don’t forget the toxic dispersants that are accompanying the toxic oil, and the fact that most of the oil is still underwater, where it remains “fresh” (which, like “natural,” does not mean good here) longer because it weathers more slowly there.

This spill is and will continue to be devastating.  There’s a reason why one gambling website is already letting users bet on which Gulf species will go extinct.

Rush Limbaugh and friends are using true facts to reach false conclusions.

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.

No Obama Takeover of Spill Response May 26, 2010

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

On Sunday, Interior Secretary Salazar stepped up the rhetoric, and the long-awaited administration takeover of the spill response seemed inevitable:

“If we find that they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, we’ll push them out of the way appropriately.

However, on Monday, Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen, who is the point person for the federal response, flat out rejected the notion of pushing BP aside:

To push BP out of the way would raise a question, to replace them with what? They just need to do their job.”  He added that the federal government has neither the expertise nor equipment to stop a deepwater leak.

And in response to Salazar’s previous statement?

“That’s more of a metaphor.”

So that’s it. No takeover planned. The government reportedly conferred with another unnamed oil company to check that BPs actions to date had been exhaustive.  That company said that in their place, they would follow “the same sequence of events.”  And that was that.

Much of the country is calling for the White House to take over.  The pleas for presidential leadership are growing louder, from both Democrats and Republicans.  Heavy hitters like James Carville have been overtly critical.  Just yesterday, without even searching, I stumbled across pieces by David Gergen and Andrew Revkin demanding the White House step in.

The President has the legal authority to take over.  In fact, he may even have the obligation to take over.  Yet he has not.

The President’s supreme reluctance to take the reins is very telling.

To me, Obama’s refusal to take over is every bit as frightening as yesterday’s unconfirmed reports that the casing finally failed and new leaks have opened up in the seabed. It says that this situation is actually hopeless.

I’ve been trying to figure out the President’s response.  Let me play devil’s advocate here for a minute:

Let us pretend, as economists do, that everyone acts rationally in their own self-interest.  What if BP is doing everything they can?  Because what if that everything is really nothing?  The only established solution to a deepwater gusher is drilling a relief well.  That takes 3 months.  Every other “containment method” has seemed like political theater…what if it is?

Think about it. BP chose to put off other containment plans (top kill, top hat, junk shot etc) to try siphoning a bit of the oil off.  No amount of siphoning can stop the leak because, at best, it just reduces the amount of escaping oil. Why would they delay viable containment methods in favor of siphoning if those other methods had any real chance of success? Siphoning produces a small amount of marketable oil, but that oil is certainly not more valuable to them than would be preventing more months of this spill.  So maybe trying to minimize the amount of oil released is literally their best option while they wait for the relief well.

Barack Obama is a good politician, by which I mean he understands politics.  Good politicians know how to preserve their political careers.  Yet shirking such a broad call for leadership would seem to be a political liability.

Again, let’s assume that he acts in his own rational self-interest.  Let’s also assume that in a national emergency, POTUS has access to the best information available – the stuff we don’t hear.  If there was any hope of stopping this leak before the relief well, or that better leadership could help end this crisis sooner, don’t you think the President would get more involved?  If there were any hope of success, Obama should dive right in; saving the day tends to help a political career.

So why would the President stay on the sidelines?  Look at it from his perspective.  Being “in bed with Big Oil” is not a good enough answer.  This would be a unique opportunity to get out of bed without any political sacrifice; he could trade industry support for that of a very grateful nation.  He could win bipartisan praise and then move his legislative agenda.

Isn’t it the simplest answer that there is just no alternative to the relief well? The President’s actions would make sense if there are no real options left, and no amount of leadership can stop this spill for at least two more months.  Everything going on in the meantime could be a feeble attempt to distract us, to make it look like they’re trying.  But there are no decisions to be made.  The only thing the leader of the spill response gets is more blame.

In this scenario, the President’s best personal course of action would be to dispatch resources and personnel (as he has done) but to remain at an arm’s distance, even while the country calls for his involvement.  This might not be the noblest response, but it would at least make some sense.  Is this an improper application of Occam’s razor?

Now, BP has certainly mishandled the response.  But what have our complaints really been about? Transparency.  Honesty.  Downplaying the scope of the devastation. Obviously they are suppressing information and lying for the selfish sake of legal liability.  Yet barring accusations of improper booming and discussion of the nuclear option, which is both risky and politically unlikely, I don’t think I’ve heard any technical complaints about BP’s actual containment response. Except, you know, that everything has failed.  But maybe it was never expected to succeed.

“They’re exhausting every technical means possible to deal with that leak,” Commandant Allen said Monday.

What if they’re not lying?  What if there just isn’t anything else that can be done?

Pat Campbell, a blowout control expert working in BP’s Houston command center, is remarkably confident in their upcoming efforts.  I am not.

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.