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BP’s Oil Mess: How Could This Happen?

That’s the video of the geyser of oil shooting out of the wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana. How on earth could this happen? Isn’t the government supposed to protect our country from disasters like this? Yeah, I know. Any thoughts like that should have gone out the window after Hurricane Katrina.

But isn’t this a Democratic administration? Wasn’t Obama an environment-friendly candidate? Well he gave a lot of speeches in which he claimed to care about the environment. And aren’t speeches what really counts after all?

So how did it happen? First, as you’ve probably all heard by now, Obama got lots of campaign money from BP employees.

BP and its employees have given more than $3.5 million to federal candidates over the past 20 years, with the largest chunk of their money going to Obama, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Donations come from a mix of employees and the company’s political action committees — $2.89 million flowed to campaigns from BP-related PACs and about $638,000 came from individuals.

On top of that, the oil giant has spent millions each year on lobbying — including $15.9 million last year alone — as it has tried to influence energy policy.

We thought we got rid of the oil men when Bush and Cheney moved out. But no, the new occupant of the WH is seemingly just as oil-friendly as those two.

Josh Green tells it like it is in The Boston Globe: Even an oil spill won’t move Washington

For months, a group of senators — Democrat John Kerry, Republican Lindsey Graham, and Independent Joe Lieberman — worked to craft an energy and climate bill that fell apart last week before it could even be introduced. Then came the Deepwater Horizon oil rig collapse. This should have prompted the Senate to look anew at the energy bill, which steers the country toward a cleaner, safer energy future.

But that’s not what has happened. Many early responders in both parties have defended, not condemned, offshore drilling….there’s no indication the disaster has prompted Obama or anyone else to reconsider his position. In the past, major disasters shifted the terms of debate. This time, nobody is budging. But the support for offshore drilling that the White House was willing to trade for reductions in carbon emissions — the crucial achievement in any climate bill — is no longer feasible. As Florida Senator Bill Nelson put it, any bill that includes drilling is “dead on arrival.’’

Perversely, the Gulf disaster has had the short-term effect of weakening the already tepid support for a Senate climate bill.

Because it’s all out in the open now. The elitist freaks in Congress couldn’t care less what we think about all this. It’s all about the money they will get from corporations looking to profit from cap and trade. I don’t believe for one minute the bill would have had any teeth. John Kerry, who worked on the bill with Leibermann, even wrote a sob-sister book about environmentalism. I don’t know how these people can live with themselves. The only explanation is that they are psychopaths.

Did Obama and his buddies care that BP had a long history of oil rig accidents and spills? Apparently not, because he “sheltered BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig from regulatory requirement”

Last year the Obama administration granted oil giant BP a special exemption from a legal requirement that it produce a detailed environmental impact study on the possible effects of its Deepwater Horizon drilling operation in the Gulf of Mexico…

…the Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) gave BP a “categorical exclusion” on April 6, 2009 to commence drilling with Deepwater Horizon even though it had not produced the impact study required by a law known as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)….

The exemption came less than one month after BP had requested it in a March 10 “exploration plan” submitted to the MMS. The plan said that because a spill was “unlikely,” no additional “mitigation measures other than those required by regulation and BP policy will be employed to avoid, diminish or eliminate potential impacts on environmental resources.” BP also assured the MMS that any spill would not seriously hurt marine wildlife and that “due to the distance to shore (48 miles) and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts are expected.”

In addition, according to the World Socialist Website,

In 2009, the Obama administration intervened to support the reversal of a court order that would have halted offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Obama’s Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who has long had close ties to the industry, specifically cited BP’s Deepwater Horizon operation as one that should be allowed to go forward, according to a group involved in the court case.

A Washington DC Appeals Court ruled in April 2009 that the Bush administration’s five-year plan for offshore oil and gas drilling (covering 2007 to 2012) was not based on a proper review of the environmental impact of the drilling. Only days before the ruling, the Obama administration had granted BP a “categorical exclusion,” exempting it from an environmental impact study for the Deepwater Horizon project.


According to a lengthy article posted today by science writer John McQuaid, this spill was An Accident Waiting to Happen

When such catastrophic mechanical failures happen, they’re almost always traced to flaws in the broader system: the workers on the platform, the corporate hierarchies they work for, and the government bureaucracies that oversee what they do. For instance, a study of 600 major equipment failures in offshore drilling structures done by Robert Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, found that 80 percent were due to “human and organizational factors,” and 50 percent of those due to flaws in the engineering design of equipment or processes.

Bea has worked as an engineer on offshore drilling operations and was also one of the leaders of an independent engineering study of the New Orleans levee failures during Hurricane Katrina. And the Gulf spill has some similarities to the 2005 flood, which was caused in large part by faulty floodwalls approved by the Army Corps of Engineers. The common threads between Katrina and the current oil spill, Bea wrote in an email, are “hubris, arrogance, ignorance… combined with a natural hazard.” [….] “The danger has escalated exponentially,” he said. “We’ve pushed it to the bloody edge in this very, very unforgiving environment, and we don’t have a lot of experience.”

Wouldn’t you think when there is this much danger of an accident and so little experience in this type of deep water drilling that our government would make sure to get a detailed, realistic environmental impact report and specific plans for what would happen if the worse happened. But the Obama administration not only laid down the red carpet for BP, it went to court to fight for BP’s right to despoil the entire Gulf coast of the U.S.!

We’ve heard about what the oil spill will do to birds, fish, and sea mammals; what about humans? Well it’s dangerous for humans in the vicinity of the spill too.

The list of potential threats runs from minor nuisances such as runny noses and headaches to nausea. While waiting to see how bad things will get, public health agencies are monitoring air quality, drinking water supplies and seafood processing plants and advising people to take precautions. [….]

In a possible hint of things to come, a foul stench drifted over parts of southwestern Louisiana last week. The oil probably was the culprit, said Alan Levine, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, whose office heard about dozens of complaints – even from state legislators in New Orleans, some 130 miles from the leaky undersea well.

If we can’t get the government to deal with BP, maybe their own shareholders will do it. The LA Times is reporting that some shareholders have already filed suit.

Tomorrow morning at 10, executives from BP, Transocean (the owner of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig), and Halliburton (they were involved in setting up the equipment) will begin testifying before various Senate Committees. There will be another hearing tomorrow at 2:30PM, and another at 10AM on Wednesday.

From an environmental blog, Earthjustice: Will Oil Execs Gush As Much As Their Gulf Oil Spill?

A gusher of information about the oil spill might explain a lot about how the accident occurred and how the federal government was convinced by British Petroleum that the risk was “insignificant.” The hearings may also help determine whether the Obama administration’s oil/gas leasing program — including exploratory drilling this summer in the Arctic — now on hold can go forward.

Earthjustice will be blogging live tomorrow when the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds its hearing.

I’ve said this many times before, and I’ll probable say it again multiple times, but even though I knew Obama was going to be an awful President, I really had no idea he would be this bad. I guess this is what happens when an inexperienced, but ambitious, narcissistic man is put into the most powerful job in the world.

Monday: Just How Bad is the Gulf Coast Disaster?

Good Morning Conflucians. I realize everyone else is talking about Elena Kagan’s nomination, but we’ve discussed that pretty extensively here. Today I want to focus on the oil spill down in the Gulf instead. I did quite a bit of reading on it yesterday, and I’m convinced that the mess down there is a lot worse than we are being told.

A number of experts are saying that the Coast Guard estimate that 5,000 barrels of oil a day are being released into the Gulf is wrong. On May 1, the Christian Science Monitor in reported estimates of “independent scientists” who said

that the renegade wellhead at the bottom of the Gulf could be spewing up to 25,000 barrels a day. If chokeholds on the riser pipe break down further, up to 50,000 barrels a day could be released, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration memo obtained by the Mobile, Ala., Press-Register.

As estimates of the spill increase, questions about the government’s honesty in assessing the spill are emerging. At the same time, pressure is building for the US to release worst-case scenario estimates so residents of the Gulf Coast can adequately prepare.

Five thousand barrels translates to 210,000 gallons, and these anonymous scientists quoted by CSM are saying five times that much is really being released–more than a million gallons a day.

The story also quotes and NO environmental attorney who wants to know why no worse case scenario estimates have been released.

“In the environmental arena, risk modeling is done day-in and day-out for every type of pollutant, whether going in the water, earth or air,” says Stuart Smith, an environmentl attorney in New Orleans, in a statement. “Why are BP and the Environmental Protection Agency not releasing such information to the public?

The Coast Guard–getting their information from BP–originally said there was no oil leaking after the explosion, then they put the number at 1,000 barrels a day on April 21. On April 29, they changed their estimate to 5,000 barrels a day and have stuck to that figure ever since.

I’ve read some pretty frightening scenarios around the ‘net, although I’m not knowledgeable enough to separate the wheat from the chaff, so I hesitate to post them. There are suggestions that the oil could spread from the Gulf into the Atlantic and then up the east coast, destroying fishing areas. See this April 30 report of a leaked government report at al.com.

A confidential government report on the unfolding spill disaster in the Gulf makes clear the Coast Guard now fears the well could become an unchecked gusher shooting millions of gallons of oil per day into the Gulf.

“The following is not public,” reads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Emergency Response document dated April 28. “Two additional release points were found today in the tangled riser. If the riser pipe deteriorates further, the flow could become unchecked resulting in a release volume an order of magnitude higher than previously thought.”

Asked Friday to comment on the document, NOAA spokesman Scott Smullen said that the additional leaks described were reported to the public late Wednesday night. Regarding the possibility of the spill becoming an order of magnitude larger, Smullen said, “I’m letting the document you have speak for itself.”

So according this this report, the leak could become 10 times as big as the current 5,000 barrels a day estimate.

The story also quotes an expert, Stephen Sears, who heads the petroleum engineering department at Louisiana State University.

“Typically, a very good well in the Gulf can produce 30,000 barrels a day, but that’s under control. I have no idea what an uncontrolled release could be,”

This alternative energy website consulted a U.S. army consultant in Alabama named Paul Noel. He gave them a lengthy description of the situation. Here’s just a bit of it (published on May 2).

By yesterday morning, the nature of the crude had changed, indicating that the spill was collapsing the rock structures. How much I cannot say. If it is collapsing the rock structures, the least that can be said is that the rock is fragmenting and blowing up the tube with the oil. With that going on you have a high pressure abrasive sand blaster working on the kinks in the pipe eroding it causing the very real risk of increasing the leaks.

More than that is the very real risk of causing the casing to become unstable and literally blowing it up the well bringing the hole to totally open condition. Another risk arises because according to reports the crew was cementing the exterior of the casing when this happens. As a result, the well, if this was not properly completed, could begin to blow outside the casing. Another possible scenario is a sea floor collapse. If that happens Katie bar the door.

Unfortunately, I’m not knowledgeable enough to know how reliable this information is.

This BBC story is very helpful, I think. The story lists the biggest oil spills around the world, and shows that the Exxon Valdez is not even in the top ten. However, the size of the spill per se isn’t a measure of how damaging it can be. The location is also extremely relevant.

…the potential for damage caused by Deepwater Horizon is apparent when looking at the events of June 1979 in the Bay of Campeche, also in the Gulf of Mexico.

In that spill, the exploratory oil well Ixtoc 1 suffered a blowout and wasn’t capped until more than nine months later, having released 461,000 tonnes of oil in total.


The biggest leaks are not necessarily the most environmentally destructive.

The tanker Exxon Valdez, which ran aground on Bligh Reef, Alaska, in 1989, caused serious damage to the environment, killing thousands of seabirds as well as seals, sea otters, whales and fish. The remote location in sheltered waters only accentuated the problems.

The overall impact of an oil spill cannot be measured solely on size; weather conditions, the type of oil and the time it takes to stem the flow are just some of the many factors that also need to be considered.

This story in The Economist from May 6 also emphasizes the uncertainty about how much oil is being released.

Ian MacDonald, a marine biologist at Florida State University who studies oil that comes out of natural seeps on the sea floor, estimates on the basis of pictures and maps from the coastguard that the rate may be as much as five times that. The largest accidental oil spill in history, which was also in the Gulf, was due to a 1979 blowout on a Mexican rig called Ixtoc-1 (see chart). Between June 1979 and March 1980 it released around 3.3m barrels. For comparison, the Exxon Valdez fiasco in Alaska in 1989, America’s most infamous oil spill, released just 260,000 barrels. At the coastguard rate the Deepwater Horizon leak would take years to match Ixtoc-1; at Mr MacDonald’s rate, months.

There’s that five times as much estimate again!

This Bloomberg story is pretty meaty. After pointing out that the oil is already threatening

some of the most productive and profitable shrimping and fishing grounds in the world, part of a Gulf industry that provides a quarter of the seafood in the U.S.

the authors, Peter Coy and Stanley Reed speculate on what could happen if BP’s efforts to stop the leaks are unsuccessful:

Should efforts to seal the well go awry, they could cause even larger volumes of oil to spill. In some scenarios, the Gulf of Mexico loop current could even carry the oil around Florida and up the East Coast. The unfolding environmental disaster might yet become the worst in U.S. history.

So, there is a possibility of the spill getting into the Atlantic and spreading up the coast, as I said above. What if the oil gets into the gulf stream? I wish I knew.

The Bloomberg story has a good description of what actually happened to the Deepwater Horizon rig:

The Deepwater Horizon accident occurred at the final stage of the job, as the rig crew was preparing to put a temporary seal on the well and move on to another site. The exact circumstances aren’t likely to be known for months, though it’s clear that pressurized natural gas was able to infiltrate upward, meaning the seal was imperfect. A 2007 MMS study found that cementing was a factor in 18 of 39 Gulf of Mexico blowouts over 14 years. The pressure surge from a gas bubble has a nickname: the kick.

Although there are procedures for recementing, those take time and money. Each extra day of leasing the drilling rig costs about $500,000. Halliburton Co. was in charge of cementing, under BP’s direction. Robert MacKenzie, a former cementing engineer who is now a securities analyst for FBR Capital Markets Corp., said he wants to know whether BP ordered a so-called cement bond-log test to evaluate the cementing. Such a test would have determined whether a remedial cement job was necessary. BP declined to comment.

There was a “blowout preventer” that was supposed to keep an accident like this from happening.

“We have found that there are some leaks on the hydraulic controls” of the blowout preventer, Bob Fryar, senior vice-president of BP’s exploration and production operations in Angola, in southwestern Africa, told the Houston Chronicle.

Hayward said he was mystified that the blowout preventer failed. The last-ditch shear ram is rarely tested under real conditions because of the destruction it causes. In a 2002 laboratory test for the MMS, researchers found that three of six shear rams failed. Seven other makers declined to be tested.

Isn’t that nice?

What do you guys think about all this? Maybe someone here has more knowledge than I do. But to me it sounds like BP and the U.S. government really don’t know how to stop this thing. It also sounds like if they don’t get it under control soon, it could blow again.

I’ll have another post later today about BP’s long history of accidents and the Obama administration’s role in allowing them to drill down into the the ocean floor at a a depth greater than the high of Mt. Everest.

For ongoing updates and information, here is the official Deepwater Horizon web page, and here is an information page set up by the Center for Biological Diversity. Reuters has a timeline of the spill here.

Treat this as a regular new post, and please tell us what you are reading today. Have a great Monday.

White House Shuts Barn Door After Horses Escape

Now that the gigantic oil spill has reached the Louisiana coast and now that we know the oil spill may be worse than the Exxon Valdez, the White House, in the person of senior advisor David Axelrod, has announced that no more offshore drilling will be approved until the cause of the leak is investigated.

“All he [Obama] has said is that he is not going to continue the moratorium on drilling but… no additional drilling has been authorized and none will until we find out what happened here and whether there was something unique and preventable here,” White House senior adviser David Axelrod said on “Good Morning America” today, defending the administration’s policy.

Axelrod said no new offshore drilling will go forward until “there is an adequate review of what happened here and what is being proposed elsewhere.”

According to Fox News, Axelrod:

…deflected comparisons with the government’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, telling ABC’s “Good Morning America” that such speculation “is always the case in Washington whenever something like this happens.”

The last time “something like this happened….”