The Blowout Ends, but the Spill Goes On

Large amounts of oil remaining on surface as recently as July 28 (graphic: SkyTruth on Flickr)

Today [Friday], on Day 109 of the catastrophic BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the “static kill” of the blowout nears completion and the 3-month long disaster seems on the verge of moving into a new chapter. The final solution to stopping the blowout permanently is the “bottom kill” with one of the relief wells now within 30 meters of intersecting the failed well bore down at the top of the oil reservoir (4,000 m below the sea floor). That operation is expected to be conducted in the next 2 weeks, and if it is successful, then and only then will this historic blowout be over.

Hats off to the engineers who finally killed this blowout with the containment cap and static kill, and to those drilling the relief well that will finish the job once and for all later this month. But there is certainly no reason to celebrate.

An immediate question that remains is this: why and did killing the Macondo blowout take so long? If BP and the US government had truly anticipated and prepared for an offshore oil well blowout such as this, response equipment and procedures would have been engineered, built, tested, and ready to go on April 20. This disastrous blowout would have been killed in days, not months. This would have prevented at least 100 million gallons of oil from spewing into this rich ecosystem, and would have dramatically reduced the tragedy that eventually unfolded.

And while the flow of oil from this blowout may (I emphasize “may”) be over, the spill most certainly is not. It is important to recall that in the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, the oil outflow was over within a day, but the oil cleanup continued for 3 summers, and we are still dealing with the effects of the spill today – 21 years later.

But this week’s release of the U.S. government’s estimated fate of the spilled oil suggests the Obama administration wants to rush to hang the “Mission Accomplished” banner over this event, and move on. The U.S. government estimates that about 206 million gallons (4.9 million barrels) spilled, making this easily the largest accidental oil spill in history — surpassed only by the 1991 Persian Gulf spill in which Iraq intentionally spilled about twice this amount in retaliation. The U.S. government report estimates that 17% of the oil was recovered at the wellhead (by the various containment methods); 5% was burned, 3% skimmed, 8% chemically dispersed, 16% naturally dispersed, 25% evaporated or dissolved, and 26% remains in the water and shores. But there are many fatal flaws with this report.

At only 4 pages long (surprisingly thin for even a summary scientific report) the document astonishingly does not report any of the methodology used to derive the estimates. . . .


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The Blowout Ends, but the Spill Goes On

Today, on Day 110 [Saturday] of the catastrophic BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the “static kill” of the blowout nears completion and the 3-month long disaster seems on the verge of moving into a new chapter. The final solution to stopping the blowout permanently is the “bottom kill” with one of the relief wells now within 30 meters of intersecting the failed well bore down at the top of the oil reservoir (4,000 m below the sea floor). That operation is expected to be conducted in the next 2 weeks, and if it is successful, then and only then will this historic blowout be over.

Hats off to the engineers who finally killed this blowout with the containment cap and static kill, and to those drilling the relief well that will finish the job once and for all later this month. But there is certainly no reason to celebrate.

An immediate question that remains is this: why did killing the Macondo blowout take so long? If BP and the US government had truly anticipated and prepared for an offshore oil well blowout such as this, response equipment and procedures would have been engineered, built, tested, and ready to go on April 20. This disastrous blowout would have been killed in days, not months. This would have prevented at least 100 million gallons of oil from spewing into this rich ecosystem, and would have dramatically reduced the tragedy that eventually unfolded.

And while the flow of oil from this blowout may (I emphasize “may”) be over, the spill most certainly is not. It is important to recall that in the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, the oil outflow was over within a day, but the oil cleanup continued for 3 summers, and we are still dealing with the effects of the spill today – 21 years later.

But this week’s release of the U.S. government’s estimated fate of the spilled oil suggests the Obama administration wants to rush to hang the “Mission Accomplished” banner over this event, and move on. The U.S. government estimates that about 206 million gallons (4.9 million barrels) spilled, making this easily the largest accidental oil spill in history — surpassed only by the 1991 Persian Gulf spill in which Iraq intentionally spilled about twice this amount in retaliation. The U.S. government report estimates that 17% of the oil was recovered at the wellhead (by the various containment methods); 5% was burned, 3% skimmed, 8% chemically dispersed, 16% naturally dispersed, 25% evaporated or dissolved, and 26% remains in the water and shores. But there are many fatal flaws with this report.

At only 4 pages long (surprisingly thin for even a summary scientific report) the document astonishingly does not report any of the methodology used to derive the estimates. Thus, there is no way to judge the legitimacy or veracity of the estimates. In truth, no one really has any idea whatsoever of how much oil has gone where. As a Zen monk once said of an unrelated situation, this report is “painting eyeballs on chaos.”

The authors simply suggest that these are the best numbers they can come up with, and thus the public should assume them as scientific truth. In fact, if this federal “oil budget” report were turned in as a high school science paper, it would surely receive an “F”, as the authors did not give the readers any idea of how they derived their estimates, nor did they report original data. They are simply saying: “trust us.” I, for one, am no longer inclined to cede such blind trust to a government whose negligence contributed to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the first place.

As well, the report has largely been misinterpreted. The spilled oil fraction defined as “dispersed” is generally misunderstood to be “gone” from the environment, but even the report does not claim this. The report defines “dispersed” oil simply as oil droplets smaller than 100 microns (1/10 mm) diameter, but does not claim that this oil has degraded. It is dispersed and hopefully degrading, but certainly not entirely gone. In fact, the report states the following: “Until it is biodegraded, naturally or chemically dispersed oil, even in dilute amounts, can be toxic to vulnerable species.” Thus, if one adds the dispersed estimate (24%) to the residual fraction (26%), the report concludes that half of the spilled oil could still be in the ecosystem. Further, the dissolved component is known to be acutely toxic (with such compounds of benzene, toluene, xylene, etc.), increasing toxic exposure to pelagic organisms, and cannot be considered “gone.” We also know that oil that is highly emulsified with seawater – such as the Deepwater Horizon oil from 5,000 feet deep – undergoes much slower rate of evaporation and weathering.

Some of the reported oil fate estimates are reasonable. The 3% oil recovery rate is exactly what I had estimated earlier, and confirms the belief that the 35 million gallons of “oil/water mixture” recovered by skimmers was about 80% water, 20% oil. And, 3% recovery is indeed a very poor mechanical recovery rate from any oil spill, but to be fair, was due in part to the highly emulsified nature of the oil once it reached the sea surface from 5,000 feet deep. Take home lesson here: oil spill response does not work. Period.

But many of the other estimates in the report are simple imagination, and not at all credible. The estimate that chemical dispersants were successful at dispersing 8% of the spilled oil is, quite frankly, ludicrous. I have seen no data at all that suggest that the 2 million gallons of chemical dispersant used had much positive effect, and likely only added to the toxicity and exposure of pelagic organisms that otherwise may not have been so severely exposed. Further, the 5% burned estimate is almost certainly too high, and here we are relying simply on estimates given by BP spill contractors. There was no independent verification of these daily burn estimates, and they should not be trusted. And again, with no methodology reported as to how any of these numbers were derived, the public has no basis upon which to judge their legitimacy. But suffice to say – the oil has not gone away.

Further, even if not one drop of oil remained in the environment (which is certainly not the case) this would still represent a huge environmental disaster. The release of 200 million gallons of a toxic chemical into the northern Gulf of Mexico ecosystems has caused an enormous toxic shock to the system. Even if there was no more oil in the system, this ecosystem shock will reverberate for years, if not decades. Chaos theory predicts that small initial perturbations in complex systems can lead to extreme and unanticipated effects, and lead to very different furures for the system. The blow to the many fish and wildlife populations and habitats from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to will continue to have ripple effects, and the entire ecosystem will likely reform in a new stable state in the future. And of course, as even the U.S. government just acknowledged in their flawed oil budget report, 100 million gallons of oil may still be in the ecosystem, still causing damage. Even in releasing the report this week, the head of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) admitted that most scientists inside and outside of the administration agreed that environmental damage from the spill “will linger for years, and possibly decades to come.”

So why release such a misleading, easily misunderstood, and rosy “science” report now? The answer is politics. The Obama administration shares virtually the same political objective from this disaster as BP and the other offshore oil companies. They all want to get this behind them as quickly as possible, and to get deepwater and Arctic drilling back on track as soon as possible. This was a deal with the Devil made last year by Obama and many congressional democrats. In order to get a modest energy / climate bill, they needed to give on offshore drilling, nuclear energy, and coal. The oil companies want to return to deepwater drilling to return to their obscene profits (that our governments allow them to retain), while the Obama administration wants to clean up the spill’s political damage. The sooner they can hang the “Mission Accomplished” sign over the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the better will be the politics for the administration and congressional Democrats in tight mid-term elections this November. As well, all in the offshore oil business and the federal government were fundamentally shamed by the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and any suggestion now that this event ‘may not have been that bad after all’ would only help to redeem their lost honor.

But in the end, these sorts of discussions about the exact size of the spill, its impacts, how long it will take to recover, and so on, are a distraction from the real issue here.

So, once and for all, here is the final answer to some of the fundamental questions regarding the Deepwater Horizon, Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster: How large was the Gulf spill – too large. How much damage did it cause – too much. How long will the damage last – too long. What caused it: human error, equipment failure, corporate negligence due to greed, and lax government oversight. Next question please.

Once an industrial accident such as this reaches a certain threshold, it is a disaster. Cleary, the Deepwater Horizon is one hell of a disaster. It is in league with Chernobyl, Bhopal, Exxon Valdez, the Dalian spill in China, spills in the Niger Delta and Siberia, and the many other human-caused environmental disasters of history. Yet the discussion with the Gulf now seems to be going down the old rabbit hole of “how bad is bad?” What is the threshold for what we consider a disaster? Is it one or two dead oil workers or a dozen; a hundred dead pelicans or a thousand; 5 miles of oiled beach or 500 miles; a few lost coastal businesses or hundreds; a month of oil damage or 10 years; 26% residual oil or 50%?

From a policy standpoint, we already know enough about how bad the Deepwater Horizon disaster has been – bad enough. We need to do everything possible to prevent a repeat of this – absolutely everything. And we knew that on Day 1 – April 20, 2010 – with the loss of those 11 rig workers who lost their lives in the explosion.

It doesn’t really matter if, three months into the disaster, 25% or 24% of the oil has evaporated and dissolved, 5% or 6% was burned, 24% or 23% dispersed, 3% or 4% recovered, or whatever. That is irrelevant academic bickering. It is an enormous insult for anyone to intimate now that Deepwater Horizon disaster is over, or is not all that bad. Have we learned nothing? We owe it to the countless victims of our collective negligence – the rig workers, the shore side communities, the tens of thousands of birds and dolphins and fish and sea turtles, the countless other organisms who died and will die, the habitats damaged – to be more honest here, and to make this right.

Making this right will require that BP establish a $20 billion restoration fund to help the Gulf ecosystem recover; extending the moratoria on drilling in extreme environments (deepwater and Arctic) until we are assured it can be done safely; better blowout prevention and response methods, including better blowout preventers, alarm systems, simultaneous relief wells; and leaving environmentally sensitive and productive areas out of future oil leasing plans.

Finally, we are better than this. This is clearly no way to treat our one and only home planet. We know how to conduct our affairs in a much more responsible manner, and we need to do so. We know we need to transition to sustainable energy, and we know how. We know that the chronic, day-to-day, year-to-year degradation of our biosphere – deforestation, biodiversity loss, global warming, a human population approaching 7 billion – is cumulatively far more devastating than all the oil spills we can throw at ourselves.

This summer, as the Gulf oil disaster unfolds, the world is warmer than at any time in recorded history, people are dying from the heat, fires are raging across Russia, and the Arctic ice cap may reach a historic minimum next month. We know that, while 5 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico this summer, the U.S uses some 20 million barrels of oil each day, and wastes at least half that. That’s right, each and every day, we here in the U.S. waste more than twice the amount of oil that was spilled in the Gulf.

Our lives have been one hell of an oil spill, and out of sheer compassion for the many victims of the Deepwater Horizon disaster – human and non-human – isn’t it time to change?

Letter to BP: Establish a Gulf Restoration Fund

[Marine biologist Rick Steiner, whose earlier posts at FDL are here and here, writes this letter to BP asking for the second twenty billion dollars, for a Gulf Restoration Fund]

Letter from Rick Steiner to BP – 21 June 2010:

RE: Request that BP establish a $20 billion (USD) Gulf Restoration Fund

Dear Mr. Svanberg and Hayward,

First, I applaud BP for agreeing to establish the $20 billion (USD) BP Oil Spill Victim Compensation Fund. This will no doubt eliminate a great deal of difficulty in providing compensation to the people who have suffered economic losses from the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

In keeping with your professed spirit to provide full compensation for the disaster, I respectfully ask that BP also immediatley establish a $20 billion (USD) Gulf Restoration Fund, to provide urgent funding for the environment injured by the ongoing oil spill. Certainly the environment injured by the spill deserves prompt attention just as do the people harmed.

You know that President Obama announced last week that he has appointed the Secretary of the Navy to develop a Gulf Coast Restoration Plan. Implementing a comprehensive restoration plan for the region will require considerable financial resources. If one were to conduct contingent valuation studies to place “a price on the priceless,” I am confident the “value” of non-economic, environmental damage caused by the Gulf oil spill will easily exceed $20 billion.

As to the question of how to restore the Gulf ecosystems injured by the BP spill, we must first accept that there is little that can be done to directly restore the environmental damage caused by large marine oil spills. We just cannot fix a broken marine ecosystem like we can a broken car engine. To paraphrase the old nursery rhyme:

All the kings’ horses and all the kings’ men can’t put the Gulf of Mexico back together again.

But what we can, and must do, is everything humanly possible to give the Gulf of Mexico and its coastal ecosystems the best chance possible to recover. That must be the singular objective of the Gulf Restoration program.

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The Largest “Accidental Oil Spill” in History: Lessons of BP’s Deepwater Horizon Disaster, Day 60

Satellite view of BP oil spill in Gulf of Mexico, Jun 19, 2010. (source: NASA Earth Observatory)

[Rick Steiner is a marine conservation biologist from Anchorage who has been advising in the Gulf for the last two months. For his earlier FDL post “Lessons of the Deepwater Horizon” click here]

As the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico approaches its 2-month mark, there are a few points that deserve to be made, as update. The world is now starting to appreciate the enormity of this disaster, which is likely already the largest “accidental” oil spill in history.

Cause

The growing list of mistakes made by BP in managing the well just before it exploded points to the astonishing negligence of BP officials. There had been several gas kicks in the weeks before the disaster – ominous signs of problems – and one worker aboard the Deepwater Horizon described the Macondo well as a “nightmare well.”

As pointed out in their June 14 letter to BP CEO Tony Hayward, U.S. Congressmen Waxman and Stupak recited some of the details their investigation has uncovered five failures that likely contributed to the disaster:

1. A well design with few barriers to gas flow – no casing liner was used at the bottom of the wellbore, thus eliminating 2 of the potential seals for an upward gas kick;

2. The failure to use a sufficient number of centralizers to prevent channeling during the cement process – 6 instead of 21 centralizers were used in the last 1,100 foot section of the well. Centralizers would have helped to center the well pipe in the well bore allowing an even and thorough cement job. Using so few could have caused channeling of the cement, where it was much thinner and weaker in some places;

3. The failure to run a diagnostic ‘cement bond log’ to evaluate the effectiveness of the cement job (crucial to sealing the well from gas kicks) – no acoustic cement log was performed, which would have detected anomalies in the cement set up between the well casing and the outer wellbore. A crew from Slumberger was on the rig to conduct this cement bond log, but were told their services were not needed, and sent home (the day of the explosion);

4. The failure to circulate potentially gas-bearing drilling muds out of the well – the muds in the well stem were not circulated to detect and remove further gas pockets and impurities, as is suggested by the American Petroleum Institute; and

5. The failure to secure the wellhead with a lockdown sleeve before allowing pressure on the seal from below – there was no lockdown sleeve installed to secure the well casing at the wellhead on the seafloor.

These decisions may have saved a few days of time and a few million dollars in cost, but they almost certainly contributed to this epic disaster. It appears that BP rolled the dice, knowingly and willfully risked worker safety and the environment, and simply hoped for the best. This appears to be a strong case for gross negligence, which if proven in court would result in BP forfeiting the entitlement to limit their liability under U.S. law. Indeed just today, one of the other owners of the well, Anadarko Petroleum, claimed just that – that BP was grossly negligent in its drilling of the Macondo well.

Failure to kill the blowout

After the initial Pollution Containment Chamber failed due to methane hydrate crystals clogging the outlet, the Riser Insertion Tube Tool (RITT) collected a little of the oil for a time, but was suspended for the attempted “top kill” effort.

But with the failure of the “Top Kill” effort, the magnitude of the disaster increased exponentially. This was a historic revelation – that the offshore oil industry cannot kill a high-pressure, deepwater blowout at the seabed. (more…)

Lessons of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster

Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig on April 21, 2010. (source: US Coast Guard District 8 via Flickr)

[Ed. note: Guest contributor Professor Rick Steiner, Conservation and Sustainability Consultant, hails from Anchorage, Alaska  He is a member of the IUCN Commission on Environmental, Economic, and Social Policy.]

If one of the hallmarks of intelligence is the ability to learn from mistakes, we must not be looking very intelligent these days.

Time and again over the past few decades we have been presented with the hard, brutal facts about the costs of our addiction to oil – health impacts from air pollution, wilderness lost to drilling, wars to secure oil supplies in the Middle East, vast sums of money paid to oppressive oil-dictators, and the growing and devastating impacts of climate change. And of course, oil spills. As a former oil minister in Venezuela dubbed it, oil is indeed “el excremento del diablo” – the devil’s excrement. Despite the destructive effects of our oil addiction, we still don’t seem to want to seriously change our use of it. We are all junkies looking for the next fix. As many observers have said, we need an overwhelming, clear signal of the costs of oil in order for the public and political leaders to begin to break our century-long addiction to oil.

Today, as millions of gallons of toxic crude oil continue to spew uncontrolled from the mile-deep Deepwater Horizon blowout into the Gulf of Mexico, we are hopeful that this catastrophe will be the very catalyst we need. This may be looked at some day as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are to the nuclear industry. Indeed, the Deepwater Horizon disaster may provide our last best chance to hasten the switch to sustainable energy in time to avert global ecological and economic disaster.

This spill disaster from the Deepwater Horizon blowout at “Mississippi Canyon 252” is like no other humanity has dealt with – it is historic in its size, depth, and potential offshore impact. Here’s what we know so far.

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Cause:

While much still remains to be learned about causes for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, early indications are that like other disasters, it was caused by a combination of human error and mechanical failure. The drill rig had discovered a large oil reservoir about 18,000 beneath the sea floor, and were in the process of disconnecting and capping the well for a future production rig. In this process, many wells in the Gulf use a liner along with the cement casing around the well stem as it provides a better seal from gas kicks. But as this takes a little longer and costs more, BP did not install a liner in the MC 252 well. Although the rig had several dangerous gas kicks from the well in previous weeks, the rig workers were ordered to perform a dangerous procedure to expedite the disconnect. The workers removed heavy drilling mud from the well stem, and began replacing it with lighter seawater, before the concrete plugs were installed down the pipe near the top of the reservoir. Without the heavy muds and concrete plugs in place, the only safety backstop to a dangerous gas kick to the surface was the Blowout Preventer (BOP). The BOP was not built as designed, included some demonstration parts (a hydraulic ram intended to close an uncontrolled blowout), had a failed battery, and the design may not have allowed the shear ram to fully cut through the stronger well pipe.

And the well did kick gas and oil. The last entry in the well logs on the Deepwater Horizon ominously read: “10 PM 4-20-10, EXPLOSION AND FIRE.”

Stopping the blowout:

Although the BP Regional Oil Spill Response Plan for the Gulf of Mexico envisages a worst-case scenario similar to the Deepwater Horizon blowout, neither BP nor the federal government had planned for such. Blowouts are not uncommon in the U.S., and one federal study reported that 39 had occurred in a recent16-year period, half of which were caused by failed casing cement jobs. There have been catastrophic blowouts offshore as well: the 1979 Ixtoc-1 blowout in the southern Gulf of Mexico, the 1980 Funiwa No. 5 off Nigeria, the 1977 Ekofisk disaster in the North Sea, the 1980 Hasbah 6 blowout in the Persian Gulf, the Montara platform off northeast Australia just last summer, and of course the 1969 Union Oil platform blowout off Santa Barbara. And as deepwater drilling is so new (10 years or so), the reservoir pressures so high and geology so difficult, a catastrophic blowout was inevitable. (con’td.)

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