As more oil reaches shore and closes more fishing grounds, Gulf residents are becoming understandably more outraged that nothing seems to be happening. The response effort is focused on three basic areas: stopping the leak, containment and cleanup, and accountability and regulatory reform.
Most of the efforts appear focused on stopping the leak. Federal officials are entirely dependent on the expertise of BP and their contractors, who so far have not been successful. The incident commander says they have more capability to address the containment and cleanup effort, but local and state officials say resources are not being brought to bear. As for accountability, BP is already admitting mistakes that may amount to criminal negligence, and myriad regulatory failures are coming to light. President Obama is set to announce another temporary moratorium on drilling permits and stricter regulation going forward.
I said the other day that Adm. Thad Allen appeared to be the right person for the job of national incident commander. Local and state officials are now saying he is not being responsive and that in fact it appears no one is in charge, except maybe BP. They are calling for President Obama to put the entire operation under federal control and to get personally and directly involved. The administration and other federal officials say their role is to oversee the response and that they are doing everything they can according to law, and that they do not have the expertise or equipment to stop the leak.
In fact, it appears there is a failure of leadership at least in terms of a "big picture" strategic response plan. While the current command structure is focused on stopping the leak, the already leaked 200,000 barrels of oil are starting to come ashore and there doesn't appear to be any coordinated effort to stop it. Suggestions that have been made and ignored include building a temporary "artificial barrier island" berm around critical areas and commandeering oil tankers to skim off surface oil.
As the head of the Louisiana Fish and Wildlife department said yesterday, what they're seeing right now took a month to reach shore and there's a whole lot more out there. It also appears that efforts to stop the leak may not be successful for quite some time or at all. This would suggest that the federal response should immediately shift to an all-out effort to contain the oil, keep it offshore, and recover it, and to plan on doing this for many more months or possibly years on the worst-case scenario assumption that BP may not be able to stop the leak.
President Obama seems to be taking a low key approach as if everything is under control. He may be getting bad advice and information, but he is definitely turning a tin political ear to the situation. This is his Katrina, in slow motion. It was predictable, like Katrina, and, like Katrina, some aspects may have been preventable. But there has been plenty of time to act on the containment and cleanup response so there's no excuse for not being out in front of it. Unfortunately for President Obama, he let events get ahead of him and he will now be remembered for presiding over the latest "worst environmental disaster in U.S. history."
Stopping the leak:
BP's latest effort to plug the leak is underway. The "top kill" procedure to pump "mud" (a heavy synthetic material) into ports on the blow out preventer is intended to create downward pressure on the gusher so it can eventually be sealed with a concrete plug. It may be another 12 hours before they know if it's working. Experts watching the live video feeds are noticing disturbing leaks of the mud material suggesting that the blow out preventer is structurally compromised, which raises concerns that this procedure may not work and could further damage the BOP making the leak worse.
If this doesn't work, the next plan is to sever the riser and attempt to place another dome on top of it to capture the flow. If that doesn't work, another plan is to sever the riser and place a second blow out preventer on top of the existing one and attaching a valve to cut off the flow. Any option to sever the riser raises concerns that the amount of oil flow could increase significantly until the repair is completed.
The long term plan is to drill one or more "relief wells" to intercept the failed well bore and pump in mud and concrete to seal it. This is widely perceived as the "ultimate solution" if all else fails, but it will take months and isn't necessarily a sure thing. The procedure involves drilling a new well 5000 feet below the surface through 13,000 more feet of rock and hitting a seven inch wide pipe dead on. It has never been done at these depths. The procedure was used to kill an offshore well in Australia last year. It took five tries. The Australian well was in 250 feet of water.
There remains a possibility that the well cannot be capped at all. In that case it will continue to bleed out, so to speak, until the tremendous underground oil reservoir pressure relieves itself naturally. This could take months or even years.
Containment and cleanup:
Several things have already been tried, including controlled surface burns and dispersants. There does not appear to be any coordinated effort to contain and recover the oil before it reaches shore. The depth of the leak contributes to the problem. One report suggests there's a ten mile plume of oil undersea before it ever reaches the surface where it can more easily be contained and recovered.
State and local officials in Louisiana suggested deploying dredgers to build a berm, or artificial barrier island, to protect sensitive areas. Federal officials say they need to study what other environmental damage that might cause and they don't want to divert resources and manpower to an effort they think will take too long. State and local officials are demanding that the Corps of Engineers issue a permit or they will proceed on their own without one.
A former president of Shell and others have suggested that the federal government commandeer oil tankers and deploy them on the scene to skim off oil. There doesn't appear to be much discussion about whether this is being considered and why or why not.
A reading from official press releases does not appear to propose any comprehensive plan other than releasing statistics about how many feet of boom and how many gallons of dispersant have been deployed. The fact that BP is paying for it may be part of the problem, because a) they are preoccupied with stopping the leak, and b) they're paying for it. Maybe it's time to bring in all available resources and send BP the bill.
Accountability and regulation
BP has released a statement to Congress admitting to "fundamental errors" leading up to the disaster. There are rumors of a confrontation between BP officials and inspectors on board just before the blowout. It is suggested BP was in a hurry to get the drilling rig off the site so they could position the production rig to start pumping oil, and every day the Deepwater Horizon was out there it was costing them millions. Whistleblowers are coming forward with reports of shortcuts and company pressure to complete the well. There is already talk of criminal negligence, and the U.S. Department of Justice has ordered BP and its contractors to preserve all documents related to the incident.
Further, the Department of Interior gave BP "categorical exclusion" from preparing an environmental impact statement for the Deepwater Horizon project in 2009 because the company assured federal agencies there was little or no risk. An Interior Department Inspector General report contained shocking revelations of corruption and misdeeds at the Minerals Management Service, the agency charged with overseeing offshore drilling. Ironically, MMS officials were on the rig to present BP and their contractors a safety award just before the blowout. The Bush administration and Dick Cheney helped set the stage for disaster by eliminating a requirement for blow out preventer failsafe devices.
As usual, there are numerous bad actors to blame, with corporate greed and government corruption at the core. There will be blue ribbon commission reports and Congressional hearings. It will be in the courts for years or decades to come. It remains to be seen if any real regulatory reforms will come of it. As long as we are dependent on oil, the safe bet is that the cozy relationship between big oil and regulators will continue, and disasters such as these will be written off as a cost of doing business.
It has become tragically obvious, however, that the oil companies, who are supposed to have all the expertise and answers, do not have a clue on how to contain a deepwater drilling disaster such as this. They have some impressive technolgy and equipment to drill the well, but the operating environment is so foreign and hostile it might as well be on the Moon when trouble occurs. So the safest thing is to just not allow it.
• What caused the Deepwater Horizon disaster? (Ed. note: This is a fascinating failure analysis by independent oil industry engineers and geologists based on reconstructed log data from the Deepwater Horizon. Some of the comments are even more interesting, although highly technical. More ongoing coverage at the site.)
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