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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.

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

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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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.

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

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

***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.