Thursday, May 20, 2010

Oil Spill: It's Bigger Than the Exxon Valdez

It's not official but there can be no doubt at this point that the oil spill from Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico exceeds what happened in 1989 with the Exxon Valdez. And the oil is still leaking.

No one knows exactly how much oil is flowing into the ocean but it far exceeds the 210,000 gallons a day that has been estimated so far. Here's the first story by way of the Los Angeles Times:
BP's success at drawing oil from a leaking pipe has proved that official estimates of the size of the Gulf of Mexico spill have been too low.

The company effectively admitted as much Thursday when it said that a tube inserted into the broken pipe connected to its blown-out well is collecting as much as 5,000 barrels of oil and 15 million cubic feet of gas a day, even as a live video feed shows large volumes continuing to billow into gulf waters.

The government has underestimated the size of the spill. Then again, BP has done almost nothing to help gauge the size of the disaster it caused. I have personally seen NOAA do a terrific job of handling a small oil spill but that was back in the 1990s, before President George W. Bush watered down some of NOAA's effectiveness (I once sat through a boring speech by a Bush appointee who prattled on about Ronald Reagan who was not exactly a friend of NOAA). Like many agencies, NOAA suffers the same problems as many corporations: people who are competent are overseen by people with an agenda. Maybe this disaster will make it clear to President Obama that real reform cannot occur while bending over backwards to please Republicans who are not interested in reform—or reality.

Here's another story, this one from the Houston Chronicle, which has done a reasonably good job of reporting:
BP said on Thursday it is capturing 5,000 barrels of oil a day from a leaking pipe in the Gulf of Mexico — a double-edged progress report that showed that the company and government have been understating the scope of the spill for more than a month.


BP would not estimate how much oil is still evading a collection tube inserted into the larger of two breaks on the riser pipe that once connected the Macondo well to the Deepwater Horizon rig a mile above.

BP has said the larger break is believed to be gushing 85 percent of the oil escaping from the ruptured well 40 miles off the Louisiana coast.

The oil spill in the gulf has not happened in a vacuum. Less than two years ago, Republicans like Sarah Palin were shouting: "Drill, baby, drill."

In recent years, there have been three kinds of Republicans: opportunists, pragmatists and know-nothing right-wingers like Sarah Palin. Republican pragmatists used to arrive in Washington in larger numbers but they are having a hard time staying in office because they are under assault by the know-nothings and the opportunists.

The Republicans, of course, have no monopoly on opportunists since Democrats have them too. However, in Congress, Democratic pragmatists far outnumber Republican pragmatists, who seem a bit shy about asserting themselves these days. For once, a little progress in Washington is being made, but not fast enough.

The big problem in Washington and the country is the coalition of Republican opportunists and know-nothings who try every trick in the book—don't hold your breath—to make sure Congress and anyone else in government does as little as possible. Why would they do that? Because they receive a lot of money from companies like BP as well as other oil companies, coal companies, chemical companies and anyone else looking for a favor or an administration willing to look the other way. This, of course, has to change or we will have even more oil spills like the one at Deepwater Horizon. Why? Because oil has become expensive and there are certain people in the world who, despite the risks, cut corners. The bigger the risks and the bigger the profits, the more chance there is that someone will cut corners on a project like Deepwater Horizon. Keep in mind that deep sea oil drilling is high technology. It is expensive and there is little margin for error.

I don't know precisely what kind of Republican Bobby Jindal is. Maybe he's the opportunistic kind. Maybe not. Maybe he's just doing his job. Here's a New York Times article on the oil now coming ashore:
Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana said Wednesday that sheets of heavy crude oil from the offshore spill had seeped deep into the delicate marshes around the mouth of the Mississippi River. He called on the federal government to approve a plan to build sand berms to protect the bayou country.

“These are not tar balls, this is not sheen, this is heavy oil,” Mr. Jindal told reporters on a pier here, holding up a plastic bag full of sticky brownish liquid, after taking a helicopter and boat tour of the area. “What we are seeing yesterday and today is literally this heavy oil coming into our wetlands.”

Finally, here's a link to pictures of the oil spill and reactions in other places courtesy of The Huffington Post. I have no doubt we will be seeing many more pictures.

If the reader notices that some of these sites seem progressive or at least not conservative, they're right. A number of conservative news outlets are still in denial about what is happening or engage in silly theories as the oil rolls ashore and spreads deeper and deeper into the Gulf of Mexico. Such conservative news outlets are useless as a source of reliable information.

I want to say it one more time: this is not a 'tiny' spill as BP CEO Tony Hayward suggested a few days ago. No one knows how much the oil spill will cost us. But we now know that the oil spill is much larger that we thought just a couple of days ago. For now, it is still growing.

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Size of Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

This is a quick look based on combining two NOAA graphics (click on the map to get a larger view):

If this looks like a patch job, it is. It's a combination of this NOAA file near Louisiana and this NOAA file covering a larger area of the Gulf. The total picture is a forecast for Thursday, May 20, 2010.

The blue represents the mapped areas of the oil spill and the larger area enclosed by the dark line represents possible areas currently affected by the oil spill but it's not known for certain where else the oil may be, either on the surface in thin patches or below in thicker plumes.

Regardless of what BP says, this is a large spill and although there are signs that the spill is no longer growing at the pace it has been, it is in fact still growing for now.

Here's an updated map that was not available earlier.

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Friday, May 14, 2010

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Continues

No one knows for sure how much oil is spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. But pictures of the size of the spill show the impacted area growing every day. If 210,000 gallons a day are leaking from the well at Deepwater Horizon as BP says, we already have a spill of over 5,000,000 gallons. Keep in mind that a number of scientists believe the spill may be much larger.

No one knows when the leaking oil will be capped. But the oil executives—who seem to get to the top based on their public relations skills—are getting egg on their faces as they point fingers at one another and trip over their feet as more and more mistakes, blunders and misguided shortcuts are revealed. And then there's Tony Hayward, CEO of BP who told us the other day than fighting the oil spill is a bit like landing at Normandy. But now, according to The Guardian, he's telling a little different story:
Tony Hayward, the beleaguered chief executive of BP, has claimed its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is "relatively tiny" compared with the "very big ocean".

In an bullish interview with the Guardian at BP's crisis centre in Houston, Hayward insisted that the leaked oil and the estimated 400,000 gallons of dispersant that BP has pumped into the sea to try to tackle the slick should be put in context.

"The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume," he said.

Hayward is apparently an idiot who receives a very large paycheck every year. One has to be amazed at these things. Here's a graphic from NOAA that shows the size of the oil spill (bigger maps are available on NOAA's webpage):

That's a spill that potentially stretches along half the Louisiana coast, all of Mississippi's coast and as far east as Mobile, Alabama. The blue areas, the core of the spill, just continue to grow every hour.

Now Tony Hayward says that the gulf is very big and the spill is rather tiny. Let's take a look at the Gulf of Mexico:

The first thing I notice is that the water of the Gulf of Mexico is surrounded by land—lots of it. Along the shore are beaches, marshes, shipping, breeding grounds, hatcheries, fishing marinas, industry and lots and lots of wildlife and habitat. Hayward is a fool and doesn't know what he's talking about.

Unfortunately, the longer the oil spill goes on, the more potential there is for enormous damage. As a news story from Reuters reminds us, hurricane season is approaching:
Meteorologists say that climate conditions are ripe for an unusually destructive hurricane season, the storm-prone period that runs from June 1 to the end of November in the Gulf. Oceanographers say that could hurt the clean-up.

"If a storm comes into this situation it could vastly complicate everything," said Florida State University oceanography professor Ian MacDonald.

"All efforts on the shoreline and at sea, the booms and structures and rigs involved in clean-up and containment, could stop working."

One doesn't have to be a scientist to see the potential problems. If nothing else, a hurricane can shove oil ashore. But no doubt the public relations departments of the oil companies—as well as their Washington lobbyists—will continue to be 'bullish' about the clean-up and the future of offshore drilling.

In reality, though, it doesn't take much homework to discover that the big oil companies know truths that many Americans would rather not know. The simplest truth is that oil is no longer cheap. The second truth is that beyond the next ten to twenty years, the oil companies have no business plan to maintain worldwide oil production and they have no solution to the diminishing reserves of oil throughout the world. The third truth is that it will take ten to twenty years to develop a robust infrastructure for renewable green energy. The fourth truth is that the American taxpayer is paying to subsidize the obscene profits of the oil companies when those tax dollars should be spent protecting our future with a huge investment in green technology.

Admittedly, some oil companies are slowly getting into alternative energy. But I would not be comfortable letting the Tony Haywards of the world be involved in the new economy we need to build. In fact, that would be a mistake. In the last three years, Wall Street, the big banks and big oil have shown us how not to do business. We need change. Maybe Obama is finally understanding that change is not a political slogan but a necessity.

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Friday, May 07, 2010

Republicans: Drill, Baby, Drill

The title for this post might seem a bit unfair. But no one is more associated with "Drill, baby, drill," than Sarah Palin. The Countess of Wasilla, alas, is just as dim as ever. She seems to be upset with the 'foreigners' who created the mess. Here's the Daily Telegraph story in The Vancouver Sun:

Sarah Palin has added to growing anti-British sentiment over the Gulf of Mexico oil rig disaster by saying "foreign" oil companies such as BP were not to be trusted.

The former Alaska governor and potential presidential candidate attacked the British oil company over the recent Deepwater Horizon spill and a previous one in her state in 2006.

She made the comments despite the fact that her husband Todd worked for BP for 18 years as a production supervisor. He left the company last year.

The hypocrite from Wasilla fails to note that many Americans as well as a number of American companies have been involved in the project, including Dick Cheney's old company, Halliburton. The idea that American companies are somehow exempt from oil spills is a fantasy. During Hurricane Katrina, it's estimated that at least a million gallons of oil were spilled along the Louisiana coast and out among the oil rigs.

Now BP is certainly not exempt from blame. For some years they have benefited from a green image that was not exactly justified. For example, they did a poor job of maintaining pipelines in Alaska (hey, maybe Todd can tell us about that!). I know enough about the oil business (I've been fortunate to know a handful of people who know a great deal more) to have an idea of the kind of people involved. Like many other fields, there are people who know what they're doing (usually the oil workers, specialists, geologists and most engineers), people who push the envelope in pursuit of the bottom line (usually alpha types or narcissists who bend the rules and don't care much what happens if things go wrong, largely because they have the last group on their side) and finally the bullshitters who are skilled at talking their way out of difficulties (usually amoral lawyers and public relations flacks).

Now I don't know much about Tony Hayward, the chief executive of BP, but here apparently is a taste of how he talks, at least according to Clifford Krauss of The New York Times:
"It’s only one of the battle fronts,” said the chief executive, Tony Hayward, as his leased Sikorsky helicopter hovered 1,000 feet above the spot where the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded...


Mr. Hayward said he was convinced that his oil company would eventually get the growing spill under control using a variety of tools, from a flotilla of skimmers to the spraying of chemical dispersants and the drilling of relief wells to plug the leaks on the sea floor. “This is like the Normandy landing,” he said. “We know we are going to win. We just don’t know how quickly.”

Normandy? It's not difficult to figure out which type Mr. Hayward represents, is it?

As of Friday night, May 7, no one really knows how big the oil spill is. The main attempt to seal one of the leaks is going on as I write, but no one knows if this attempt will work or how long it will work or how much oil it will stop from leaking if it does work. What is going on at Deepwater Horizon is deep water technology and that technology is just as much art as it is science. My hunch is something like this has simply been waiting to happen for some time. No doubt mistakes were made but every project like this seems to have a series of mistakes that are made, just not enough to create a major oil spill.

The BBC has a graph showing the different sizes of various oil spills over the last 43 years. It claims the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is small compared to other oil spills—well, so far. The number they give is 7,000-10,000 tonnes of oil. That's equivalent to somewhere between 2 million to 2.86 million gallons of oil. The spill from the Exxon Valdez was over 10,000,000 gallons and that spill is still regarded as one of the smaller oil spills. But much depends on what an oil spill does. The Exxon Valdez damaged one of the richest biological areas in the world and the damage is still visible to this day.

The Vancouver Sun carries a Reuters story that suggests that BP's spill is much larger:
The Gulf of Mexico oil spill may already be bigger than the massive Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 and could have dumped as much as 13 million gallons (49 million litres) of crude into waters off the U.S. coastline, a Florida oceanographer said on Friday.

Ian MacDonald, a biological oceanographer at Florida State University, said official estimates that 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons/795,000 litres) have poured into the Gulf each day since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded two weeks ago were much too conservative.

The real flow rate from the undersea well, based on aerial images of the oil slick and estimates of the thickness of the oil itself, is probably closer to 25,000 barrels (1,050,000 gallons) per day, MacDonald said in an interview.

I'm sure other figures are probably around. If we only take the figures from the BBC and Reuters, the spill is somewhere between 2 million to 13 million gallons. No matter how you cut it, that's a lot of oil. The truth is that 2 million gallons of oil can do considerable damage and the effects should not be minimized, particularly since the oil is still leaking. But if it's 13 million gallons, the damage along the Gulf coast is going to bite for at least a couple of decades.

Now it's been several days since the leak started. What bothers me is that there's good methods and protocols for measuring the size of an oil spill (and it worries me that the oceanographer above is probably aware of those methods). We need hard numbers and I'm curious why it's been so hard to get those numbers. Warnings from BP that the numbers might be larger are not reassuring.

Now what about future offshore drilling? Let's first state the obvious before I proceed: oil is getting costly and will continue to get more costly. There are alternatives, solar and wind being the most obvious choices in addition to major improvements in the efficiency of the technology we already use. But even if the United States took on a Manhattan-sized project to produce 80% of our energy through green technology, it will probably take 15-20 years to accomplish. And it probably cannot be done without burning oil to fuel the transition. We have a problem.

If we drill for oil the way Republicans want to drill, without bothering with green technology, and without bothering to regulate the oil companies more tightly, our economy will go into the ditch rather quickly because we simply cannot overcome the fact that U.S. oil production will continue to fall. We use too much of the stuff. The world uses too much of the stuff. And this says nothing about the effects on the world climate. And nothing about using dirtier and dirtier fossil fuels.

We will have to continue to drill. But hopefully with tight regulation of the oil companies and slowly enough so that we can measure what drilling is doing not just to our environment but to us as well. And also slowly enough to allow green technology to thrive.

Whether we like it or not, oil is subsidized. It costs considerably more than what we pay at the pump. Republicans and oil states in general are all too happy to have the government pick up the tab. The government has been bailing out the oil companies for decades and that's a fact. Here's another fact: alternative energy is now very competitive with oil, but this requires understanding that oil has become far more expensive than anyone on Wall Street, in Washington or in Houston is willing to admit. The age of oil is slowly coming to an end and we need something to replace it. And because we have dawdled for more than thirty years, we have no choice but to continue to burn oil to pay for the transition to green technology.

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