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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.