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

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Media, Offshore Drilling.
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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.
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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.

Deepwater Drilling Moratorium Version 2.0 July 14, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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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.

Why the Drilling Moratorium Makes Sense June 9, 2010

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

Natural Oil Seeps vs. Oil Spills May 26, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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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.

A Crisis We Cannot Afford to Waste May 19, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Punctuated Equilibrium: How Regulations Evolve

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

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

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

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

A Proper Disaster Response: The Cuyahoga River

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Not to Do: The Aftermath of Exxon Valdez

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

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

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

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

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

A Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.

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

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

Recent satellite imagery shows that the oil slick appears to have reached the Loop Current, the warm water flow that is now taking oil through and around the Florida Keys and on up the East Coast.

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

Click for bigger.

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

There will certainly be more on this later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.

Oil Execs Testify Before Congress…Technically May 11, 2010

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

In case you didn’t have the pleasure of watching executives from BP, Halliburton and Transocean testify before Congress Tuesday afternoon, I have compiled some highlights and thoughts below.

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

First, the Big Oil execs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We will pay all legitimate claims.”

“2) Beaches spoiled, tourism ruined?”

“All legitimate claims.”

“3) Children sickened by oil fumes?”

“All legitimate claims.”

Ad nauseam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2)   An unchecked gusher

East Coast Oil Outlook

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

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

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

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

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

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

Especially if nightmare scenario #2 takes hold.

An Unchecked Gusher

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.

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

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

BP reluctantly announced that its short-term containment attempt failed on Sunday.

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

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

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

The only remaining containment option is to drill a “relief well.” As I’ve written, this process involves drilling down to depth and then a long distance horizontally towards the original, gushing well.  The goal of this extensive drilling is to locate and bore into the original pipeline, which is less than a foot across.  So in the Gulf, crews will have to drill through 18,000 ft of sea floor beneath more than 5,000 of water.  Then they have to drill laterally to find the pipe and pierce it from miles away. During the eerily similar Montara oil spill in Australia just 8 months ago, it took crews 4 tries to successfully drill the relief well.  There is a reason this project is expected to take literally months, with thousands more barrels of oil spilling each and every day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Dr. Jeff Masters

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

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.