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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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3 comments

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.

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

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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2 comments

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.

Conceivable and Precedented May 4, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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7 comments

***For newcomers: I have created a page of questions and answers about offshore drilling and this oil spill here.***

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

– BP spokesman Steve Rinehart

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

– BP spokesman David Nicholas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2010 Oil Spill Answers (Pt. 2) May 4, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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4 comments

***I have added a new page to this site to let you more easily find the answers to your oil spill questions.  It is the new “2010 oil spill/offshore drilling answers” tab next to the “about me” at the top of each page, or you can click here.***

In a previous post, I have addressed the following questions:

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

I also answered why BP is responsible for this spill/explained what blowout preventers are, and, just a few weeks before this all began, I wrote a detailed post explaining why offshore drilling is dangerous and not an energy solution.

In this post, I will address these questions:

  • What does this mean for people who live along the Gulf?
  • What does this mean for the wildlife in the Gulf?
  • How does this compare to the Exxon Valdez spill?
  • How is Halliburton involved?

Also, the New York Times has a well-done, simple day-by-day map tracking the spill here.

What does this spill mean for the people who live along the Gulf?

This ongoing spill is going to prove catastrophic for many people around the Gulf.  Not in loss of life, but through loss of livelihood.  It has been estimated that the Gulf of Mexico is responsible for $31.8 billion annually in sustainable activities such as fishing (commercial and recreational) and tourism.  As we have now seen, whatever money there is to be made from offshore drilling there, it completely jeopardizes the rest of the Gulf’s economic activities.

Unlike oil profits, which are extractive, one-time transactions that only enrich giant oil companies and their shareholders, the income from these other activities is sustainable and dispersed among millions of Gulf coast residents.  It is how thousands upon thousands of fishermen and shrimpers and tourism operators have supported their families for decades and were planning to do so this year and into the future.

The iconic Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska offers some insight about what to expect for the Gulf region.  21 years after that spill, crude oil still remains on or just under the surface of some of the regions beaches.  Fishing was out of the question for years.  Indeed, many Gulf fishermen have already brought in their last harvest for some time to come: fishing has already been suspended in large parts of the Gulf.  If fishery populations are decimated, those men and women might not be able to go to work for many years after we get the oil cleaned up.

That is what happened in Alaska after Exxon Valdez.  Unable to work, fishermen remained at home as their bank accounts and family lives became depleted. Alcoholism, bankruptcy, suicide, domestic violence, and divorce rates rose significantly in the area.  Men who have fished their entire lives and know how to do nothing else were suddenly powerless to provide for their families.  And for what?

What does this spill mean for the wildlife in the Gulf?

A picture is worth 1000 words...

The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee council estimated 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales died along with billions of salmon and herring eggs. Some species have recovered, some never did.

But the Gulf is not Alaska.  Louisiana is the 2nd largest seafood-producing state in the country (after Alaska).  In fact, much of the seafood served around the country, even in crab shacks along the Chesapeake Bay(!), is actually flown in from the Gulf.  That will now stop.  When such fragile ecosystems are disrupted so drastically, the effects can be very long-term.

The wetlands along the Gulf of Mexico, particularly in Louisiana, are not wildlife sanctuaries simply because they are a beautiful part of our country’s natural heritage.  Many oceanic fish lay their eggs in the protection of those marshes.  Crabs, shrimp, and oysters are completely dependent upon those coastal areas.  If toxic oil reaches them, we will likely see population crashes across the spectrum of marine wildlife.

But the oil has devastating effects in the open water as well.  The only living coral reef system in the continental U.S., fragilely situated along the Florida Keys, is imperiled.  This spill spells doom for everything from sport-fishers’ Atlantic tarpon to the already decimated bluefin tuna population, shrimp, endangered sea turtles, essentially all Gulf commercial fisheries, migrating sea birds and marine mammals.

For a more detailed look at the threat to the region’s wildlife, I suggest Dr. Sally Kneidel’s May 2 post.

How does this compare to the Exxon Valdez spill?

Regardless of what happens in the next few days or weeks, Exxon Valdez and Horizon Deepwater will be the two worst oil spills in American history.  As you may recall, the Exxon Valdez was an oil tanker that ran aground in Alaska, spilling nearly 11 million gallons of oil into the Prince Williams Sound.  That accident was caused by the negligence of a captain who was accused of being drunk at the time.  That is different from this situation.

However, the Valdez spill was also caused by a giant oil company’s refusal to adopt common-sense safety precautions that would cost a little extra money up front (although save the company literally billions by preventing oil spills), and in that respect, these two spills are very similar.  Exxon took the inexplicable position of refusing to use double-hulled tankers even as the rest of the oil companies adopted the practice as commonplace and even demanded by law around the world.

More about that situation and Exxon Valdez in general here.

What makes this spill so terrifying is that its not really a spill.  It is what’s known as a “blowout,” “gusher,” or sometimes a “wild well”: an uncapped well connected an oil reservoir under high pressure.  Because of that pressure, oil will flow, sometimes violently, from the well as long as it remains uncapped.  This brings us to the crucial difference between Exxon Valdez and this situation.

The Exxon Valdez was an oil tanker with a capacity of 1.48 million barrels of oil.  Don’t get me wrong, that is a lot of oil and capable of immense ecological damage, but there was a finite amount of oil that could be spilled from that tanker.  It is estimated that about 260,000 barrels spilled from the tanker.  But in the Gulf, we are dealing with an ongoing spill from an entire reservoir.

Instead of the Exxon Valdez’s 1.5 million barrels, the reservoir in question is estimated to hold 100 million barrels of oil (4,200,000,000 gallons).  These will continue to leak until the well is successfully plugged.  And there is legitimate concern that the rate of the leak could increase by a full order of magnitude such that as much oil as spilled from the Exxon Valdez would defile the Gulf every 2 days.  That is not a typo.

How is Halliburton involved?

Halliburton is the world’s second largest oilfield services corporation.  Outside of the drilling industry, it is most [in]famous for being the subject of several controversies involving the 2003 Iraq War and former Vice President Dick Cheney’s lingering involvement with the corporation following his retirement as Chairman and CEO to run in the 2000 election.

Halliburton has confirmed that it provided numerous services for the Deepwater Horizon rig.  Among them was a process known as “cementing”: plugging holes in the pipeline with cement.  This practice is supposed to prevent oil and natural gas from escaping from the well at the drill site (except through the pipe).

The investigations about what happened and who is at fault have only just begun and obviously are secondary concerns after stopping this disaster, but experts are already suggesting that a faulty cementing job by Halliburton could be the culprit. Faulty cementing has already been identified as a major cause of blowouts, and Halliburton has actually been implicated in the massive blowout off the coast of Australia last year!  I will be writing more about this and other blowouts later this week.  It is no surprise, then, that the company is already charged in some of the first law suits that have been filed so far.

A government report released in 2007 examined 39 rig blowouts in the Gulf of Mexico between 1992 and 2006. Improper cementing was determined to be a contributing factor in 18 of the incidents.


More updates and answers to come.

Why BP Deserves This May 3, 2010

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

***UPDATE: I have added a new page to this site to let you more easily find the answers to your oil spill questions.  It is the new “2010 oil spill/offshore drilling answers” tab next to the “about me” at the top of each page, or you can click here.***

As BP’s stock rightfully plummeted on account of the horrendous disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, CEO Tony Hayward said to fellow executives, “What the hell did we do to deserve this?

Since I have been taking the time to answer other questions about the oil spill here, I think I can spare a few minutes to answer dear Tony’s question as well.

BP CEO Tony Hayward doesn’t understand why this is happening to him. Fortunately, it’s pretty simple to explain.

Some might call the blowout that engulfed the Horizon Deepwater rig in flames, killed 11 workers, injured 17 more, and unleashed an entire oil reservoir on the Gulf coast, an act of god.  Instead, I would counter that this is one of the real, now realized, risks of offshore drilling.  But can BP truly be blamed for this catastrophe?  In short, yes.  On account of simple, deliberate negligence.

And it could just as easy have happened, or even happen AGAIN, to any of the big oil companies operating off of our shores right now.

If you have been following the spill coverage, you have probably heard about the “blowout preventer.”  Blowout preventers (BOPs) are giant valve structures that can weigh 500,000 lbs and stand 50 feet tall.  They are bolted in position on the sea floor at the wellhead, where the “riser” pipe to the rig above penetrates the earth en route to the oil reservoir below.  They are full of redundant systems and backups because they are the ultimate failsafe to prevent disasters like the one we are now experiencing.  In the event of a high-pressure situation, they are designed to clamp shut, closing the well to prevent spills and protecting the oil rig above.  The Deepwater Horizon’s BOP failed.

As this story spreads, the oil industry will paint BOP failures as rare.  They are not. The unclassified version of a 1999 government report found that BOP failures are actually fairly common.  There were a staggering 117 BOP failures in just a 2-year period on the outer continental shelf of the U.S. alone.  Think about that: the last line of defense for American coasts failed more than 58 times per year. A 2007 paper from the Minerals Management Service said that there were 39 actual blowouts (not just BOP failures) between 1992 and 2007.  Add another one to both of those tallies.

Knowing that this final failsafe mechanism was imperfect and the multibillion dollar costs of an oil spill, you’d think that oil companies would do everything they could to prevent blowouts.  Instead, Big Oil used their millions of dollars in annual lobbying to FIGHT blowout preventer requirements.

Blowout Preventers are a flawed fail-safe. It is negligent not to employ every measure to improve their function.

BOPs operate on a type of dead-man switch.  The default position is closed.  The valve is only supposed to remain open if it receives a continuous signal from the rig above.  If that signal stops for any reason, the valves are supposed to slam shut.  Simple enough in theory, but as we now know, that doesn’t always happen.

Major oil-producing countries like Brazil and Norway responded to this concern 17 years ago in 1993.  BOPs on offshore wells there are required to have acoustic triggers, which can be used to remotely activate the BOP if everything else has failed.   The U.S. considered requiring remote-controlled shut-off mechanisms several years ago, but the oil industry successfully lobbied against the restriction, citing excessive costs.

Let’s examine their math, shall we?  Acoustic triggers cost an additional $500,000 per rig.  That’s the cost.  Now let’s look at the benefits: the Deepwater Horizon rig will cost $560 million to replace.  On top of that, BP is spending $6 million each day to try to contain spill.  When the oil really reaches the shore, those costs will multiply.  Then there’s the cleanup operation.

Finally, there are the legal battles.  Suits have already been filed and many more will follow.  Overall, Exxon paid $4.3 billion for the Valdez spill, and it should have been much more: the Prince William Sound still has oil on its beaches, and conservatives on the Supreme Court slashed the punitive fines that Exxon ultimately had to pay by 90% in 2008.

It is this last point that explains why oil companies can and do continue with their reckless behavior at the rest of the country’s expense.  Exxon was able to defer payment for its egregious actions for literally decades, and ultimately owed just four days’ profit in damages. That’s not even a slap on the wrist.

If that pisses you off as much as it does me, you will be similarly thrilled to hear this: while BP is obligated to pay for all of the cleanup effort, our nation’s powerful oil lobby succeeded in shielding oil companies from any real legal liability for spills decades ago.

The first jury (before the lengthy appeals process that well-oiled industry lawyers were able to win) awarded Exxon’s victims $287 million in actual damages and $5 billion in punitive damages.  As I said, they ended up paying only about 10% of that and not until decades later.  So what about BP?  Their actual legal liability for damages is capped at $75 million.  That’s right, $75 million.  God bless America.

More on Exxon Valdez and a similarly twisted cost-benefit analysis for single- vs. double- hulled tankers here.

So, in conclusion, BP/Tony: you deserve this because you skimped on safety precautions you knew to be inadequate.  It is an unmitigated tragedy that so many millions of people and countless innocent animal lives will bear the TRUE costs of your failures.  The same way mining safety caught up to Massey Coal last month, drilling safety just caught up to you.  These events shouldn’t be called “accidents.” The term “inevitables” would be far more appropriate.  As long as we continue to allow these industries to determine their own safety standards, the public (and their employees) will continue to pay the price for their reckless gluttony.

This would segue nicely into a diatribe against…erm, discussion of the absurd Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, but there are more pressing concerns at the moment.

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

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

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

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

These are the questions answered below:

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

What was the rig doing?

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

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

What caused the explosion?

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

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

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

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

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

How much oil is spilling?

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

Where is the oil spilling from?

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

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

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

Can we stop the spill?  How?

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

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

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

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

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

Could the spill get any worse?

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

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

Happy Anniversary, Exxon March 31, 2009

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Offshore Drilling.
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6 comments

Imagine 11 million gallons of oil coating beaches from Massachusetts all the way down here to North Carolina.  As the Natural Resource Defense Council’s Kate Slusark points out, this is what the Exxon Valdez oil spill would have looked like had it occurred on the East Coast instead of Alaska’s Prince William Sound.  Last Tuesday marked the 20th anniversary of the country’s largest oil spill. Exxon Mobil, despite it close association with the poster child of environmental disasters, has not learned from its mistakes.

Oil pours into Prince William Sound

Oil pours into Prince William Sound

I cannot speak to whether Exxon still hires drunks to captain its supertankers, but the company has balked at a simple precaution to reduce the likelihood of another oil catastrophe.  In 1989, 100 percent of the oil supertanker fleet was single-hulled, including the Exxon Valdez.  Since then, the percentage has dropped to just 21% as that old design is phased out in favor of much safer double-hulled ships.

And that percentage will continue to decline.  Singe-hulled tankers will be banned from the United States in 2015, and a similar ban by the U.N. International Maritime Organization will go into effect next year.  France and Spain haven’t even allow single-hulled tankers within 200 miles of their shores since their own major spills in 1999 and 2002 respectively.  As a result, most Western oil companies have abandoned risky single-hulled tankers even ahead of the upcoming bans.  But Exxon has brazenly defied this logical trend.

The nation’s largest oil company remains the biggest Western user of single-hulled tankers.  And this is not just a function of its size: In 2008, Exxon hired more single-hulled tankers than the next nine largest companies combined.  Why?  The only apparent benefit is that the older, more accident-prone tankers cost about 20 percent less to rent.

Bloomberg estimates that choosing single-hulled tankers saved Exxon less than one cent per share in 2008.  Granted, that scales to a savings of about $18 million, but compared to the company’s record $45.2 billion in profit last year, that’s not even a drop in the barrel.   And if you consider the $3.8 billion cost for Valdez cleanup and damages to date, any cost-benefit analysis becomes even more absurd.

Such flagrant disregard for environmental safety reinforces the negative feelings many still harbor towards Exxon.  But they don’t seem to care.  The Exxon Valdez (repaired, renamed and sold) is banned from returning to the Prince William Sound.  But Exxon still operates the Valdez’s single-hulled sister ship, the SeaRiver Long Beach, and regularly sails it right through the scene of the crime.

All that the Valdez experience has taught Exxon is that the courts are their friends.  In repeated legal battles after the spill, Exxon was able to reduce its punitive fines by almost 90% and delay that restitution for literally decades.  After its Supreme Court victory in 2008, Exxon owed the equivalent of just four days’ profit in damages.  That’s not a deterrent, it’s barely a slap on the wrist.

In 1989, Exxon’s CEO predicted that the Prince William Sound would be completely restored in just a few years.  And earlier this month, the company claimed that the area has recovered with “no long-term damage.” This is patently untrue; oil can still found be on or under many of the sound’s beaches.

How can Exxon claim there is no long-term damage while oil still lies on miles and miles of beaches?

How can Exxon claim there is no long-term damage while oil still lies on miles and miles of beaches?

The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council recently found that 17 of the 27 monitored species have not recovered, especially the larger predators that suffer from the bioaccumulation of toxins.  For example, researchers say one of the two Orca pods in the sound is doomed with “no hope of recovery.”

And for those less sympathetic towards cetaceans, there are the missing schools of Pacific herring that used to support a profitable fishing industry.  Their absence impacts the families of local fishermen who used to rely on that fishery for half of their income.  The Exxon Valdez spill has undoubtedly caused long-term damage.

Obligatory.

Obligatory.

Although shipping spills have decreased with the post-Valdez regulatory improvements, its risks are intrinsic and will never be completely averted.  And offshore drilling poses similar threats with a whole host of new ones – especially during severe weather events.  Hurricanes Katrina and Rita alone caused 125 spills that dumped about 685,000 gallons of petroleum into our oceans.  Oil spills will inevitably continue as long to rely on this dirty, climate-altering fuel (as if we needed another reason to pursue alternative energy).

The transition from oil is a long-term goal, but it won’t become reality without short-term action.  And we can start down that road by removing the Bush II administration’s contributions: For example, in 2007, Bush opened the previously protected Bristol Bay to offshore drilling.  Such shortsighted policy must be overturned and prevented.  Even from a purely economic standpoint, this move jeopardizes $2.2 billion in annual fishing revenue for less than $8 billion in oil – over the next 20 to 40 years.  That’s just silly and a great place to start.

In the meantime, though, we need to hold companies like Exxon fully accountable for mistakes of such egregious magnitude.  We cannot afford to let them repeat their history, even if they refuse to learn from it.

A version of this post ran in The Chronicle at Duke University.