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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.

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

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

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.

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.