Blowing Smoke on the BP Oil Well Blowout
by Mark Ramsey on July 7, 2010 at 1:08 PM
I get several emails per day by the federal administration’s “Unified Command” that purport to be making progress on the blowout. They fly two aircraft from Louisiana to Galveston with a cargo of brown pelicans. They open a wildlife refuge center. They give tours to the press. They announce upcoming visits by dignitaries. They announce meetings. They announce photo opportunities. They announce press conferences of various sorts. They announce “Administration Wide Response” efforts. They bring in blimps (I’m not making this up!). They advise the President on where to find and pickup tar balls on the beach. This weekend they announced “open houses” for the media.
Mostly they try to sound important.
The question is, are they really helping or hurting with the actual crisis at hand?
Myth: The administration is efficiently spearheading a massive effort to solve the problem, and helping all parties to do so.
Reality: The federal government, true to form, is slowing and shooting down efforts to solve the problem, and in many cases is actually making the problem worse by its involvement. Its stated “boot on the neck” management style has not been helpful.
- Example 1: After BP quickly connected sophisticated pumping systems to inject dispersant (the whitish liquid that looks and works much like Ivory™ dishwashing soap billowing with the oil in the ROV videos), the administration, being driven by environmental ideologues rather than science and engineering to solve the crisis, instructed BP to stop the subsea wellhead injection, since they had no long term data on what injecting dispersants deep would do! Maybe--but we DO KNOW what untreated crude oil does to wildlife when it reaches the surface AND we have been using dispersants successfully for decades. To BP’s credit, they objected. Then the feds told BP they had to use a less effective dispersant! Eventually more reasonable heads prevailed, but during the reduced use of dispersants, MORE untreated oil reached the surface and affected wildlife because of the feds’ interference. Finally, after over THREE WEEKS, the feds gave official permission to inject dispersants. Then, the first week of July, after this fiasco, delays and trying to shut BP’s wellhead injection down, the feds (EPA admin. Lisa Jackson) are now trying to say that she and the EPA made the right decision to use them.1 Outrageous.
- Example 2: In the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez, fire-rated boom was pre-positioned at strategic points around the USA and the world, including along the Louisiana Gulf Coast. This was mobilized almost immediately by BP and Louisiana responders. However, the feds were supposed to move boom from other pre-positioned areas such as Alaska to the crisis location (the Macondo well). Though these plans were ALREADY IN PLACE, the feds delayed THREE WEEKS in even trying to ship the boom to Louisiana.
- Example 3: The State of Louisiana wanted to construct artificial and sacrificial sand berms away from threatened sensitive areas such as beaches and swamps. Due to the irregular coastline, the Louisiana plan would have protected hundreds of miles of natural coast and swamps with only about fifty miles of artificial berms. The US Fish and Wildlife department refused to authorize the Corp of Engineers (remember the delays in authorizing the Corp of Engineers to fix levees during Katrina?). After MUCH pressure by the public and Louisiana officials up to and including Governor Bobby Jindal, the feds have relented and authorized a few miles of berm (less than 10), but have still not authorized the rest that would protect Louisiana beaches and swamplands.
- Example 4: No common sense is allowed. Other countries have offered technology since the first week in the way of “super skimmers” that are essentially full size ships that suck in vast amounts of liquid, separate the water, oil, and emulsion, and dump the water back to the ocean. (Some of the vast armada of 5000 boats do similar jobs, but on a smaller scale.) However, due to two factors, the administration has refused (for 78 days at this writing) to allow this technology to be used. The first factor is that unions have resisted the use of non-union workers (via the Jones’ Act) on these specialized ships. Since this administration seems beholden to anything the unions want, the unions take precedence over the environmental cleanup (and it seems, common sense). Second, and much more egregious, is that the foreign super skimmers, though highly effective and efficient, do not take 99.9985% of the oil out of the water…only about 95%, and so the EPA is objecting that the discharged water, cleaned of the vast majority of the oil and emulsion, would still be a pollutant and thus cannot be discharged. So the ideologues at the EPA, believing that 95% cleanup is not sufficiently good, will not allow the super skimmers. At last report, one of these vessels had sailed into Louisiana waters anyway, but did not yet have approval to go to work.
- Example 5: Environmental group demands for more hired and volunteer beach and swamp cleaners are nothing more than symbolism over substance, and actually conflict with well-known and peer-reviewed published science. When a massive spill occurred off the coast of France about three decades ago, (The Amoco Cadiz supertanker broke up--not a drilling accident), the French Academy of Sciences and many others did follow-up studies. What they found was that the “heroic” efforts to clean beaches and swamps actually did more harm than good. With the exception of gently removing loose oil on top of the water and beaches (e.g. with vacuums and non-chemical non-heated water deluge systems), the heroic efforts did more harm to the ecosystems than the oil itself did. An expert on the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound (again a supertanker--not drilling related) recently stated that ten years after the spill,
It was clear that the areas that had not been cleaned were faring a lot better in terms of their recovery. The areas that were cleaned were in much worse shape.”2The reason for this is that the heroic efforts tend to disrupt the ecosystem far more than the oil does, in some cases essentially sterilizing the area thus killing the helpful bacteria that would be degrading the oil, and in other cases disrupting soil and root systems.
- Example 6: Similar to the pre-placed fire-rated booms, there are skimming boats, barges and other spill clean-up equipment pre-positioned around the United States. As with the fire rated boom, this equipment could be mobilized to the Gulf Coast to augment the massive armada BP has already contracted there. The administration has thus far refused to do this, on the grounds that they might need the equipment somewhere else. Excuse me?
- Example 7: The moratorium on deepwater drilling, (which represents a flip flop from what even Obama said a month after the spill3), will not make drilling any safer in the Gulf or anywhere else, was fraudulently implemented, and is bad for the Gulf Coast Region and America in total. Even a sitting Federal court judge has now thrown out the moratorium in a scathing injunction that questions the very honesty
- of the Department of Interior moratorium process (questionable “probity” in the court’s words), and raises the issue of corruption in government agencies. 4 The moratorium is described in the injunction as “capricious”, “arbitrary”, and “punitive” (to businesses unrelated to the spill). Importantly, Judge Feldman observes that,
“An invalid agency decision to suspend drilling of wells in depths of over 500 feet simply cannot justify the immeasurable effect on the plaintiffs, the local economy, the Gulf region, and the critical present-day aspect of the availability of domestic energy in this country.”5
Additionally, the moratorium announcement falsely cited an oil industry expert panel as supporting the moratorium when, in fact, they did not. The moratorium was added after the experts’ recommendations which did not include the blanket six month moratorium, and they explicitly brought this to the Department of Interior’s (DOI) attention. In stunning contrast to what DOI falsely claimed, the expert panel’s letter to DOI says in part:
A blanket moratorium is not the answer. It will not measurably reduce risk further and it will have a lasting impact on the nation’s economy which may be greater than that of the oil spill.6
Clearly, DOI lied about the expert panel recommendations. DOI did not, of course, rescind the moratorium. Rather, after Judge Feldman’s injunction stopping it, Salazar indicated he would re-issue it in defiance of the judge’s clear ruling—raising the specter of contempt of court. Though Salazar has not yet made good on his threat, (the White House again this weekend said it would do so soon), just the threat itself clearly portrays a government as hostile to the oil industry as it is to the automotive, banking, insurance, and healthcare ones. The threat continues to have a “chilling effect” on future Gulf of Mexico activities.
At this point, even with Judge Feldman’s injunction against the moratorium, companies are declaring force majeure on contracts in the Gulf of Mexico and preparing to move rigs overseas, along with most of the rigs’ highly skilled and high paying jobs. The administration’s threat of another moratorium is a death sentence for jobs and businesses along the Gulf Coast, and these rigs and jobs will not return after a lengthy moratorium is over. If the administration cares about American energy needs and/or American jobs, it should immediately, clearly, unequivocally, and permanently put aside the illegal and ideology-driven moratoriums.
- Example 8: An innovative plan was developed by Louisiana to use combinations of vacuum barges, booms, and berms to protect sensitive beach, marsh, and swamplands. Though workable, it was STOPPED by the Coast Guard (operating under the vaunted “Unified Command”) on the grounds that there MAY not have been enough life vests on all of the barges, and the Coast Guard could not locate the owners of the barges! Couldn’t someone have used the common sense God gave them and sent a pickup truck to Walmart to buy them? Couldn’t someone in the Unified Command have thought that with thousands of boats on the water that a stockpile of life vests would be prudent?7
- Example 9: What to do with that pesky crude oil? The unified command was asked by an inquisitive reporter just what the next step would be if the relief wells did not work. Adm. Allen announced that the administration, led by the federal government’s New Mexico based Sandia National Laboratories (who have never drilled offshore), was considering producing the flowing oil into a pipeline, transporting it to a production platform, and then “actually pump that oil back down into reservoirs that have been depleted where it’s not a problem.”8 To state the obvious (to most of us), why wouldn’t that oil be refined into diesel, gasoline, and other beneficial products? To take tens or hundreds of thousands of barrels of captured crude oil and inject it downhole is profoundly ignorant, irresponsible and wasteful.
- Example 10: The first week of July yet another new “blue ribbon panel” was being pulled together by the administration. The “experts” are going to lead us to the Promised Land once more. Part of the requirement for serving on this particular expert panel is, and I’m not making this up, that the applicants:
be free of potential conflicts of interest, which would include business affiliations, associated with corporations that might be seen to gain from the outcome of the committee's report. Affiliations would include employment by, or consulting for, companies involved with some aspect of petroleum production. (emphasis added) 9
Hence, those very people who are most likely to understand the complex chain of events leading to the accident are excluded from participating. If the selected panelists have never worked in the petroleum industry, then how expert can they be?
The examples above underscore the wisdom of Ronald Reagan when he quipped that, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'"
1. As reported Sunday, June 27, 2010 in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, accessed online at: http://www.nola.com/news/gulf-oil-spill/index.ssf/2010/06/subsea_dispersants_the_ricght.html
2. NOAA advisor John Robinson, quoted by TriplePundit at: http://www.triplepundit.com/2010/05/oil-cleanup-cure-may-be-worse-than-disease/
3. New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 30, 2010, online at: http://www.nola.com/news/gulf-oil-spill/index.ssf/2010/04/president_barack_obama_stands.html
4. Hornbeck v. Salazar, as reported online by the Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/drilling0622.pdf
6. The Primary Recommendation in the May 27, 2010 report, “INCREASED SAFETY MEASURES FOR ENERGY DEVELOPMENT ON THE OUTER CONTINENTAL SHELF” Given by Secretary Salazar to The President Misrepresents our Position [red emphasis added], letter available online at: http://www.marinelog.com/DOCS/NEWSMMIX/2010jun00112.html.
7. http://abcnews.go.com/WN/bp-oil-spill-gov-bobby-jindals-wishes-crude/story?id=10946379 (with an excellent video report, too.)
8. Press Briefing by National Incident Commander July 2, 2010.
9. Email correspondence from National Research Council/National Academy of Science, June 27, 2010.