Have we created The Perfect Oil Storm?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m an optimist by nature and a firm believer that ingenuity and determination can overcome almost any thing.

perfect oil stormWhile my environmental heart is broken, as someone geeky enough to enjoy watching the Robot Wars (though I’m not nearly geeky enough to build one) it is hard not to get caught up in the technological fun of submersible robots and undersea vehicles that are the workhorses of the deepwater oil and gas industry and are currently being used for spraying dispersants and trying to activate the blowout preventer.

Or getting intrigued by the various fixes – being developed, implemented and debated like the next American Idol contestant.  The most promising short term chance at a fix may come this weekend, when BP attempts to cover the biggest of the underwater leaks with a containment dome.

From Discovery News:

The concrete-and-steel structure is 40 feet tall, weighs nearly 100 tons and is outfitted with valves and pipes that will funnel the crude into a tanker. BP hopes to hook up the device to the ship over the weekend or perhaps as late as Monday.

While this may be the best chance at a fix and make for a news worthy weekend, it seems incredibly fraught with risk at 5,ooo feet vs it’s previous use during Katrina at 300 feet.  And one can’t help wondering, if it doesn’t work, will it make things worse?

Because along with all the BP oil that continues to stream to the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, are a few disconcerting pieces of information that keep bubbling up, that make me think that we may have created a monster that is well beyond the capabilities of modern technology.  And leaves us with a whole lot of questions to consider and what their answers might mean.

Especially whether the BP oil spill is just an unfortunate fluke or whether the political, government, environmental conditions are ripe for another Perfect Oil Storm?

Points to ponder:

When does a spill, stop being a spill and become a geyser?  Because a ten fold increase in oil – per day is no longer a spilled glass of milk.

From Washington Post:

Executives from oil giant BP and other energy companies, meanwhile, shared their own worst-case scenario in a Capitol Hill meeting with lawmakers, saying that if they fail to close the well, the spill could increase from an estimated 5,000 barrels a day to 40,000 barrels or possibly even 60,000 barrels.

What do we do when an oil geyser hooks up to an oceanic conveyer belt?

Also from Washington Post:

Three scientists in separate interviews Tuesday said the gulf’s “loop current,” a powerful conveyor belt that extends about 3,000 feet deep, will almost surely take the oil down through the eastern gulf to the Straits of Florida, a week-long trip, roughly. The oil would then hang a sharp left, riding the Florida Current past the Keys and north again, directly into the Gulf Stream, which could carry it within spitting distance of Palm Beach and up the East Coast to Cape Hatteras, N.C.

And  Discovery News:

The Gulf Loop Current acts like jet of warm water that squirts in from the Caribbean basin and sloshes around the Gulf of Mexico before being squeezed out the Florida Strait, where it joins the larger and more powerful Gulf Stream current. [snip]

Oceanographer George Maul worries that the current could push the oil slick right through the Florida Keys and its 6,000 coral reefs.

“I looked at some recent satellite imagery and it looks like some of the oil may be shifted to the south,” said Maul, a professor at Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Fla. “If it gets entrained in the loop, it could spread throughout much of the Atlantic.”

In fact, new animation from a consortium of Florida institutions and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, predicts a slight southward shift in the oil over the next few days.

While the President say BP will pay, what does the law say?  Particularly as it applies to the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund?

From the New York Times:

The federal government has a large rainy day fund on hand to help mitigate the expanding damage on the Gulf Coast, generated by a tax on oil for use in cases like the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Up to $1 billion of the $1.6 billion reserve could be used to compensate for losses from the accident, as much as half of it for what is sometimes a major category of costs: damage to natural resources like fisheries and other wildlife habitats.

Under the law that established the reserve, called the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, the operators of the offshore rig face no more than $75 million in liability for the damages that might be claimed by individuals, companies or the government.

And while Congressmen Menendez, Lautenberg and Nelson have introduced legislation they’re calling the “Big Oil Company Bailout Prevention Act” to raise the limit from $75 million to $10 billion, isn’t that a little like locking the barn after the cattle has already been rustled.

But for pure icing on the cake…

Would it surprise you to learn that there is one more agency that shunned oversight?

From Washington Post:

The decision by the department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) to give BP’s lease at Deepwater Horizon a “categorical exclusion” from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) on April 6, 2009 — and BP’s lobbying efforts just 11 days before the explosion to expand those exemptions — show that neither federal regulators nor the company anticipated an accident of the scale of the one unfolding in the gulf. [snip]

While the MMS assessed the environmental impact of drilling in the central and western Gulf of Mexico on three occasions in 2007 — including a specific evaluation of BP’s Lease 206 at Deepwater Horizon — in each case it played down the prospect of a major blowout.

In one assessment, the agency estimated that “a large oil spill” from a platform would not exceed a total of 1,500 barrels and that a “deepwater spill,” occurring “offshore of the inner Continental shelf,” would not reach the coast. In another assessment, it defined the most likely large spill as totaling 4,600 barrels and forecast that it would largely dissipate within 10 days and would be unlikely to make landfall. [snip]

The MMS mandates that companies drilling in some areas identify under NEPA what could reduce a project’s environmental impact. But Interior Department spokesman Matt Lee-Ashley said the service grants between 250 and 400 waivers a year for Gulf of Mexico projects. He added that Interior has now established the “first ever” board to examine safety procedures for offshore drilling. It will report back within 30 days on BP’s oil spill and will conduct “a broader review of safety issues,” Lee-Ashley said.

And even got into bed with the industry it was to oversee.

From The ProPublica Blog:

In 2008, we pointed out that MMS [Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service] was in quite a bit of trouble for ethical violations by its officials. The scandal involved sex, drugs and (quite literally) sleeping with the very industry it was regulating. …

The investigation also concluded that several of the officials “frequently consumed alcohol at industry functions, had used cocaine and marijuana, and had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives.” The investigation separately found that the program’s manager mixed official and personal business. In sometimes lurid detail, the report also accuses him of having intimate relations with two subordinates, one of whom regularly sold him cocaine.

That hasn’t been the end of MMS’s troubles. According to an audit earlier this month by the Government Accountability Office, the regulator has hardly been a straight shooter on offshore drilling and the risks involved. The GAO found that MMS withheld data on offshore drilling in Alaska from regional staff members at the agency involved in environmental analyses. The report also found that MMS lacked sufficient guidelines to properly analyze the risks of drilling in the region.

“We found considerable variation among MMS’s … regions in how they assess what constitutes a ‘significant’ environmental impact,” reads the report (PDF). And on the withholding of data: “Some of its own scientists have alleged that their findings have been suppressed.” (In a formal response to the report, the Department of the Interior said it “generally agrees” with the findings.)

How many more shoes are there yet to drop?

And do you think any of this has to do with the $15.9 million last year alone that “Big Oil’ spent lobbing to influence energy policy?

Do you think we’ve created The Perfect Oil Storm?


Cross posted at No Quarter

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