Gulf Oil Spill Update and Outlook
This post on the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico was last updated on September 20, 2010.
Pressure tests on the now permanently sealed Macondo (MC252) well in the Gulf of Mexico succeeded Sunday, Sept. 19, and the well is officially dead, the Joint Response Team has announced. The flow of oil into the Gulf was effectively stopped on July 15 more than three months after the explosion on April 20 and subsequent sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig on April 22, when a tightly-fitting cap was placed over the failed blowout preventer. The well was mostly cemented and sealed with help of the static kill procedure to inject mud and cement into the well, while the first of two relief wells neared completion. The first relief well intercepted the Macondo well at 4:30 CDT on Thursday, September 16, and BP then began injecting cement, completely sealing the well Saturday, September 18. A debate about the feasibility of testing and permanently sealing the thousands of dead oil wells that may be leaking in the Gulf of Mexico is underway.
BP had scaled back its cleanup operations after the cap succeeded in stopping the oil flow in July, but said its efforts to clean up the oil in the Gulf will continue until the area is fully restored. Some oil continues to wash ashore, but the toll on the Gulf’s ecosystem appears to have been mitigated by a reversal of the Gulf Loop Current, which kept the oil closer to Louisiana, and the use of controversial dispersants to break up oil before it reached the surface, the AP reported. According to that news story, there was a trade-off of known coastal impacts for unknown underwater impacts from the plumes of oil still present. Studies have found evidence of impacted microorganisms. While the true number of impacted animals will never be known, about 6,600 dead animals have been found.
BP released a report on its investigation of the accident on September 8, concluding that “a sequence of failures involving a number of different parties led to the explosion and fire.” The report may be an indication of BP’s legal strategy though more investigations will ensue led by the U.S. government and other companies involved, according to AP reports.
In an August 9th press release, BP said it had established a trust and made a $3 billion initial deposit of the previously-announced $20 billion escrow account to pay legitimate claims arising from the Deepwater Horizon incident and the resulting oil and gas spill. Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer for Exploration & Production, said at a press conference August 6 that BP’s future use of the MC252 reservoir is unclear while acknowledging that the location has bountiful oil and gas reserves. Indeed, a source told the AP that the reservoir will surely be tapped again someday.
Attempts to stop the leak and seal the well lasted nearly three months (see a recounting of these efforts below). The Joint Response Team, comprising oil industry and government experts based in Houston, had made contigency plans to disrupt well-drilling and cleanup efforts in the event of a hurricane before the first major storm of the Atlantic season, Hurricane Alex, reached Mexico June 30 and Tropical Storm Bonnie followed in late July.
BP announced July 26 after a board meeting that CEO Tony Hayward will step down in October and take a job with TNK-BP, the company’s joint venture in Russia, the Christian Science Monitor reported. His replacement will be Bob Dudley, who is currently overseeing BP’s oil spill response. Another casualty was the scandal-laden Minerals Management Service, which has been replaced by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE), comprising a division for Offshore Energy and Minerals Management and another for Minerals Revenue Management.
Attemps to Stop the Leak
BP undertook a series of well-capping attempts to capture most or all of the leaking oil and siphon it to ships on the water’s surface. These operations reached their peak in early July when two ships were collecting about 25,000 barrels of oil per day with the “lower marine riser package” cap (LMRP) in place. Even when the most successful cap was removed in order to install the final tightly-fitting cap, one ship was collecting about 8,000 barrels of oil per day. Various attempts to seal the broken blowout preventer by injecting mud and cement occured while the final solution — completion of one of two relief wells to close the BOP completely — was underway. The first relief wells was started May 2 and was expected to reach the well bore in early August and the second was started May 16. Experts had warned that it could take several attempts to close the well in this manner, NPR reported June 11 on All Things Considered. The second well was suspended at 15,963 ft in late July in order not to interfere with the first well and the first well was suspended briefly during the new cap installation and again July 23 because of the weather disturbance, but then drilling resumed.
BP Vice President Kent Wells explained in a technical briefing July 23 the static kill procedure to close or help close the blowout preventer, which began on August 3 since it was pushed back a few days by the effects of Tropical Storm Bonnie, the AP reported. This was dramatically different from the previous top kill effort because the well was sealed and the mud and cement could thus be injected slowly and testing on pressure levels can happen simultaneously.
Prior to removing the LMRP cap, BP had been capturing about 25,000 barrels (a little more than 1 million gallons) of oil from the broken blowout preventer, according to the Deepwater Response website. Another tanker ship, the Helix Producer 1, was supposed to be added to the siphoning operation by June 30, but was delayed by Hurricane Alex and subsequent stormy weather. Once in operation, the ship will increase the amount of oil capture by 20,000 to 25,000 barrels per day, McClatchy reported. Two vessels are currently collecting or flaring oil. The new containment cap was intended in part to meet the Obama administration’s requirement that BP capture 80,000 barrels of oil per day, McClatchy reported.
The LMRP Cap began collecting about 11,000 barrels of oil a day after being placed over the damaged blowout preventer June 3 and BP was able to increase collection capacity to the present rate. During the switch to the present cap, about 8,000 barrels per day were being collected by one ship. A mishap required the cap to be disengaged for one day on June 23 when it was bumped by a robot, the AP reported. About a third of the collected oil is being flared: on July 3, about 17,000 barrels of oil were collected, while 8,176 barrels were flared. As of July 4, about 584,400 barrels of oil had been collected or flared. The amount of oil collected fluctuated — the high collection amount having been reported as ca. 700,000 gallons or 16,600 barrels.
The new containment dome has proved much more effective than the insertion riser tube employed several weeks earlier that was collecting 5,000 barrels per day at its peak. During a technical briefing June 7, BP Vice President Kent Wells also cited two innovations to be employed in order to minimize the time that oil cannot be collected in the event of a hurricane: a ceiling valve on top of the well and a floating riser. A June 14 BP press release states that a more permanent and flexible containment system employing floating risers is being prepared.
BP’s promising “top kill” effort to cap the well proved unable to overpower the flow of oil over the May 21-23 weekend, Newsweek reported. Underwater robots had injected heavy drilling fluids into the mile-deep well from May 26-30. BP had said that the operation, which has never been attempted at such depths, had a 50-50 chance of success.
To prepare for the LMRP containment cap, robotic submarines sliced off the leaking pipe with giant shears after a diamond-edged saw became stuck, which risked increasing the flow by as much as 20 percent, AP reported. Then the LMRP cap was placed over the severed pipe. BP had captured some of the oil with an riser insertion tube attached to the wellhead in May. It initially was siphoning about 5,000 barrels a day of the leaking oil to a tanker at the water’s surface and BP had hoped the amount would increase, but then the amount significantly decreased.
BP initially tried to place a containment dome above the well to capture much of the oil and then a smaller two-ton “top hat” dome was positioned over the well. BP also tried ‘junk shot’ to close up the well by shooting debris at high pressure into the blowout preventer. Then came the riser insertion tube and “top kill”, then the LMRP cap and finally the new tightly-fit cap.
BP had come under increasing fire from the Obama Administration for its inability to stop the leak and was given 48 hours to come up with a better solution the weekend of June 11-13, the week before President Obama met with top BP executives. President Obama announced May 27 that his administration was in charge of the oil spill response, overseeing BP’s technical activities, the media reported. In a meeting with the President June 16, top BP executives agreed to provide a $20 billion trust fund for victims — on top of the $75 million liability for non-clean-up costs currently provided under the 1990 Oil Pollution Act. President Obama has visited the Gulf Coast four times since the spill began, most recently on June 14. BP has received criticism since the spill began for allegedly downplaying the amount of oil leaking and its inadequate response. BP allowed the live video feed several weeks into the spill in response to mounting public and government pressure. In early June, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced criminal investigations oft BP’s possible misconduct leading up to oil rig explosion. After President Obama pledged to hold BP accountable for the spill clean up and recovery in his oval office address June 15, BP CEO Tony Hayward was met with hostility at a Congressional hearing June 17 for the inadequate response to the leak and increasing evidence that BP knew of a defect in the blowout preventer and had ignored warning signals hours before the April 20 explosion.
Evaluation of Technical Advice
The company has received thousands of ideas from industry experts and inventors, which BP said were being evaluated, but some who had submitted ideas believed BP was ignoring them. Addressing a question about the value of suggestions during the June 7 technical briefing, Kent Wells said that all suggestions were being considered. In a follow-up story on technical advice for the oil spill, The Faster Times reported that BP had received 53,500 ideas as of June 4 and 247 were in an advanced assessment stage. One inventor featured in our follow-up article has set up a website for sharing ideas.
BP has reportedly decided to purchase 32 V-20 oil centrifuge separators from Kevin Costner’s company Ocean Therapy Solutions at $500,000 each. According to a July 8 press release at the OTS website, the “Ella G”, a massive platform supply vessel, is about to be deployed for oil spill cleanup operations. Its four centrifuge devices, the “TransRec 150 Skimmer” each capable of collecting 800 gallons of oily water per minute, can clean up to 800,000 gallons of oil per day — and the vessel is hoped to serve as a model for a new generation of rapid response to oil spills. Nine centrifuges are currently deployed in the Gulf (including the four on the Ella G) and the rest on order are hoped to be deployed in late August when manufacture is complete. As of mid-July nine oil centrifuge separators from OTS had been deployed to help clean up oil-polluted sea water. An oil industry insider also pointed out that one way to capture much of the oil on the water’s surface would be to use supertankers to suck up the oil, but said BP might be reticent to tie up its tankers in this way, according to this report. Asked about this point by The Faster Times, a BP spokesman said that the option had been considered but was determined to not be suitable to the situation in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Coast Guard announced a new method to sort and evaluate submitted ideas on June 4, but a BP spokesman explained to The Faster Times that this was a call for white papers that apply to the longer term. Four oil industry giants have also pledged 1 billion USD to develop equipment and procedures to better address oil spills in the future, the AP reported.
Size and Impacts
According to the AP, 172 million gallons of oil and millions of cubic feet of natural gas flowed from the well before it was sealed. The initial NOAA estimate of 210,000 gallons a day was soon discounted, while other estimates were considered more realistic: the McDonald’s Minimum of at least 26,500 barrels (1.1 million gallons) per day and the worst case estimate of 60,000 barrels (or 2.5 million gallons) a day. An AP article from June 4 puts it at between 500,000 to 1 million gallons per day. On June 15, scientists reported that the well had been leaking up to 2.5 million gallons (80,000 barrels) per day. A government panel of scientists estimated that the well was leaking anywhere from 35,000 to 60,000 barrels per day, McClatchy reported and adding the third ship to the collection operation would provide a more accurate estimate with a combined collection capacity of 40,000 to 53,000 barrels a day. For the latest estimate of its size, see this map of the size and density of the spill.
BP released dispersants to break up the oil into a less heavy substance so much of the oil remained under the water’s surface. With the toxicity of these substances under criticism, the EPA told BP on May 20 that it had to switch to a less toxic type of dispersant. The EPA posted BP’s response to this directive on May 22. BP had said it could not identify a less toxic dispersant than that in use — Corexit 9500. The EPA then began testing eight dispersant products on the National Contingency Plan Product Schedule (NCP-PS) and released information on the first round of testing June 30, according to a press release from the Unified Response.
On June 4th, the Coastal Response Center issued a report from a meeting of scientists, spill responders and various organizations on the use of dispersants in this oil spill. The report concludes, “It is the consensus of this group that up to this point, use of dispersants and the effects of dispersing oil into the water column has generally been less environmentally harmful than allowing the oil to migrate on the surface into the sensitive wetlands and near shore coastal habitats.”
In mid-May, the media reported that oil plumes were discovered underwater and it is thought that oil has already been caught in the Loop Current, which will bring it to the Atlantic. Scientists reported in late May that a large underwater oil plume may threaten sealife. A NOAA research ship arrived in the Gulf of Mexico June 6 for a nine-day study of how much oil is beneath the water’s surface and its potential impacts. An AP article from June 17 reported that sea life is moving toward Gulf coastlines apparently because their environment is no longer habitable. According to media reports, scientists were concerned that the flow of natural gas into the Gulf might deplete oxygen and kill large numbers of sea life.
Coastal impact was significant from the third week of May when heavy oil reached Louisiana marshlands. Oil tar balls and sheen had earlier washed ashore throughout the Gulf Coast states and oil had reportedly first reached Louisiana’s coastal islands the week of May 3. Reports indicate that Louisiana’s wetlands are thoroughly impacted by oil with many birds covered in oil and that tar balls are washing up on much of Florida’s coastline. The Louisiana Bucket Brigade maintained a map of affected coastal areas, which included areas of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has extended the area closed to commercial and recreational fishing in Gulf of Mexico federal waters. The closed area now encompasses 38,885 sq miles — about 17 percent of Gulf of Mexico federal waters, leaving 83 percent of Gulf federal waters still available to fishing (Sept. 3 figures). For more information, see this NOAA site on fishing closures and impacts on fisheries. NOAA also provides various forecasts on the oil spill’s trajectory in the Gulf and near the shoreline as well as numerous information sheets on the oil spill response and its impacts on sea life and ecosystems.
Since soon after the leak began, teams of responders placed booms in the most vulnerable areas — the mouths of bays, inlets and in sensitive areas all along the coast, but their ineffectiveness was heavily criticized. A Unified Area Command structure headed by the U.S. Coast Guard is still in place and BP is working out of a Shell vicinity in Houston, TX, with a team of experts from the oil industry and government, with about 500 people per day on duty, a BP representative told The Faster Times in June. BP had set up 17 staging sites for the response at its peak. The Unified Response website reported on its daily operations.
The Vessels of Opportunity program, which pays for the use of local commercial vessels to assist in oil spill cleanup, is currently employing 3,150 vessels, according to the Unified Response website. In a July 6 press release, BP announced improvements to be implemented in program operations based on feedback from participants.
The BBC’s World Today reported June 14 from the Gulf Coast that some fisherman are eagerly working for BP in order to restore their fishing environment — and that they are well suited to do so since they know the waters in that area, while for others it is a financial necessity since they can’t engage in commercial fishing. The BBC also reported that fishermen are being paid to lease their boats to BP, which some claim is intended to keep fishermen from taking journalists where they might see environmental damage, particularly animals being impacted by oil. The Faster Times has run several articles on the oil spill’s impact, including these on clean-up workers and oyster farmers.
In one example of the local responses underway, responders had been waiting for permits from the Army Corps of Engineers to build sand berms to stem the flow of oil around islands and marshes, according to one media report and the New York Times reported that officials doubted whether the berms, which result from using dredging equipment to extend a sand barrier outward from sensitive island areas, would be ready soon enough to make a difference and if they would withstand storms.
The world’s largest skimmer, a Taiwanese ship called “A Whale”, docked June 30 in Louisiana — after being modified for oil skimming in Portugal, but was allegedly delayed by the Obama administration’s refusal to waive restrictions on foreign vessels, McClatchy reported. After testing of its oil skimming capability in early July, it was reported that “A Whale” would not be used. Complaints keep mounting about the disorganized response that has failed to utilize numerous offers of assistance — domestic and foreign.
Political ramifications of the spill are ongoing with many calls for more stringent safety regulations of offshore drilling, the reimposition of the moratorium on expanded offshore drilling, and the splitting of the Minerals Management Service into separate units for its conflicting responsibilities. Many had hoped the oil rig accident would serve as a catalyst for boosting a clean energy revolution, but the Senate’s failure to pursue comprehensive climate legislation has been a disappointment. On May 22 President Obama named two people who will lead a 7-member commission to investigate the Deepwater Horizon accident and called for a report from the Department of the Interior (DOI) due 30 days after the incident occured. On May 27, Obama announced a continued moratorium on drilling permits for six months as well as a suspension on planned exploration drilling off the coasts of Alaska and Virginia and on 33 exploratory wells currently being drilled in the Gulf of Mexico, according to this CBS report. A federal judge ruled against this moratorium on June 22 and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the administration will appeal the decision. Revealing a potential conflict of interest, Mother Jones reported June 22 that Judge Martin Feldman, who made the ruling, held several thousand dollars’ worth of Transocean stock as recently as 2008. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar also announced a new 6-month moratorium on offshore drilling with more justifications, particularly emphasizing that the oil industry currently lacks the capacity to respond to another big blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, NPR reported.
Obama announced new safety regulations for offshore rigs and more stringent safety inspections based on the findings of the report due in late May from the DOI. Investigations have revealed that the blowout preventer had a leak in a crucial hydraulic system and the the well had failed a negative pressure test just hours before the April 20 explosion, according to Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA).
Raising the Liability Cap
The environmental havoc from the spill will be long lasting. The oil threatens destruction to wetlands and sea life as well as the livelihoods of fishermen and the health of clean-up workers. You might lose track of the number of birds shown in images, but the lawyers won’t because each oil-covered bird adds to the ultimate amount the polluter will have to pay.
Richard Charter of Defenders of Wildlife told The Faster Times in late April: “Every dead duck covered with oil has a value, but must be documented. Then, there’s a restoration fund. So, it’s going to be important to see who’s the designated spiller.” He explained that the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) is used to calculate the monetary damage from oil spills.
The law that assigns liability for oil spills is the 1990 Oil Spill Pollution Act, enacted in response to the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. But, first liability has to be established and that will take years, Charter said.
“The first thing you’re seeing unfold — because the liability to a company that is held responsible for something like this is enormous — so the first thing we see is BP and Transocean blaming each other. Everyone will be in court for the next 15-20 years. One of the things that will play out is who has the deep pockets? Who’s responsible for the families of those killed? What becomes important is who is the spiller. They become an open wallet to NOAA and the Coast Guard,” Charter said.
The White House asked Congress to raise the liability cap from $75 million to $1 billion for oil-spill damages beyond clean-up costs in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon accident, the AP reported. A bill sponsored by, among others, Senators Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) was blocked three times on the Senate floor and several Gulf state Senators offered counter-legislation that would raise the cap to $17 billion, The Hill reported. A May 25th press release from Senator Lautenberg’s office states “on three separate occasions – most recently today – Senate Republicans have blocked action on the Big Oil Bailout Prevention Liability Act (S.3305).”
Much has surfaced about BP’s safety record prior to the Deepwater Horizon accident, including BP’s lobbying in 2009 against more stringent regulations on offshore drilling (advocating instead for voluntary regulations) and several whisteblowing claims about safety deficiencies on offshore rigs. BP’s investigation into the Deepwater Horizon accident has revealed that BP continued operation of the rig despite warging signs in the hours prior to the accident, the Washington Post reported. BP had another accident at its Texas City, TX refinery in 2005, which killed 15 workers.
Lessons From Exxon Valdez
After the Exxon Valdez accident, ships were required to convert to double hull ships, but still given until 2015 for the transition. Riki Ott, a Marine Biologist who lived through the Exxon Valdez spill and wrote Sound Truth and Corporate Myths about the ongoing legacies of the 1989 spill in Prince William Sound, claims that since the legislation passed, the oil industry said it needed 25 years to phase out single-hulled ships, then spent 15 years lobbying to try to get the law overturned.
Several bills have been introduced in Congress to tighten regulations on oil transport since the 1990 bill, but only one has become law — a bill authored by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) that imposed stricter liability of oil transport. The Coast Guard Authorization Act, signed by President Bush on July 12, 2006, included provisions that pass greater costs to polluters for spills. By increasing liability, the legislation aims to provide sufficient incentive for oil companies to convert to double-hulled ships.
While some question whether double-hulled tankers would prevent oil spills in some accident scenarios, an investigation by the Coast Guard after the Exxon Valdez spill concluded that a double-hulled tanker would have spilled less oil than the 11 millions that escaped the single-hulled supertanker in Prince William Sound.
Riki Ott visited the Louisiana coast for several weeks in May. The Faster Times didn’t receive an answer to an email inquiry before posting this article, but wanted to find out what advice she will offer, especially to clean-up workers, who may suffer respiratory and other health problems later. It’s noteworthy that BP reportedly is having clean up workers sign liability caps for $5,000. TFT followed up with this article on Ott’s (and others’) criticism of BP’s response to the oil spill.
Ott’s January 21, 2001 article at the Huffington Post is instructive about what may lie ahead for regulatory reform. She describes how Regional Citizens’ Advisory Councils (established and empowered by the 1990 Oil Pollution Act) have served as vigilant watchdogs to ensure that safety measures were implemented, including conducting safety tests and purchasing extra tug escort and fire response equipment. Always, she writes, the oil companies resisted — and only upon the citizens’ council’s insistence were the rules followed.
She also wrote in her post that Alaska’s Senators had introduced a bill (already passed by the House) to require all tankers entering Prince William Sound to be accompanied by two towing tugs, which was one of the key things the Citizens’ Council had pressed for and which helped prevent a big spill in the Sound earlier this year. The last action taken on Senate bill (S.1041) sponsored by Alaska Senators Lisa Murkowski (R) and Mark Begich (D) was referral to the Senate Committee for Commerce, Science, and Transportation on May 5, 2009.
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