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.

(snip)

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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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The matter of estimating the oil flow rate has been approached in the media with utter cowardice. BP has stuck to its 5000 bbl or 210 gal per day figure from the start, and the media, all of them, have repeated those figures. None have even once used another set of numbers.

In the meantime many have advanced different estimates on perfectly convincing grounds. These figures go an order of magnitude (10x) and more above the BP numbers. In spite of some news coverage for these higher estimates, and in spite of some media attention to the people making them, to their methods, and to their efforts generally, the original 5,000/210,000 reference remains at center stage.

Why? I don't know. Perhaps some time we will learn that BP or others with pockets to line have profited by sticking with this number.

What is shameful and disappointing is that not one news organization, nor even one interest organization, from those serving conservation to those watchdogging the petroleum industry, have come forward with any force -- or success (perhaps those are now equivalent) -- to say, "The BEST ESTIMATE anyone can make is between 'x' and '10x' -- or 100x since such estimates must be imprecise for now.

My estimate is that the raw flow has to be AT LEAST 1,000,000 to over 3,000,000 gallons per day, FIVE to FIFTEEN TIMES the BP figures.

Here is my math, numbers rounded to facilite in-the-head computation:

20 inches = diameter pipe;
flow velocity (guessed from video) = AT LEAST 2 feet per second (may be double this or more)
value of pi rounded DOWN to 3

Ok: 10 inches (radius of pipe, 20 inches divided by 2) squared = 100 square inches; 100 (square inches) x 3 (pi) = 300 square inches (the area of the pipe cross section); 300 (square inches) x 23 (inches per second flow rate) = 6900 (cubic inches per second oil flow); 6900 (cubic inches per second) ÷ 230 (cubic inches per gallon) = 30 (gallons per second oil flow).

30 gallons per second adds up to 108,000 gallons per hour, OR 2,592,000 gallons per day OR just shy of 62,000 BARRELS per DAY.

More than TEN TIMES the BP figures. BP is lying on the face of it but the rest of us are either lazy or stupid to take those numbers without standing right up and demanding that more reasonable ones be repeated, be cited in contexts related to the response and reparations we expect, and so on.

--BT

6:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The matter of estimating the oil flow rate has been approached in the media with utter cowardice. BP has stuck to its 5,000 bbl or 210,000 gal per day figure from the start, and the media, all of them, have repeated those figures. None have even once used another set of numbers.

In the meantime many have advanced different estimates on perfectly convincing grounds. These figures go an order of magnitude (10x) and more above the BP numbers. In spite of some news coverage for these higher estimates, and in spite of some media attention to the people making them, to their methods, and to their efforts generally, the original 5,000/210,000 reference remains at center stage.

Why? I don't know. Perhaps some time we will learn that BP or others with pockets to line have profited by sticking with this number.

What is shameful and disappointing is that not one news organization, nor even one interest organization, from those serving conservation to those watchdogging the petroleum industry, have come forward with any force -- or success (perhaps those are now equivalent) -- to say, "The BEST ESTIMATE anyone can make is between 'x' and '10x' -- or 100x since such estimates must be imprecise for now.

My estimate is that the raw flow has to be AT LEAST 1,000,000 gallons per day, FIVE TIMES the BP figure.

Here is my math, numbers rounded to facilite in-the-head computation:

20 inches = diameter pipe;
flow velocity (guessed from video) = AT LEAST 2 feet per second (may be double this or more)
value of pi rounded DOWN to 3

Ok: 10 inches (radius of pipe, 20 inches divided by 2) squared = 100 square inches; 100 (square inches) x 3 (pi) = 300 square inches (the area of the pipe cross section); 300 (square inches) x 23 (inches per second flow rate) = 6900 (cubic inches per second oil flow); 6900 (cubic inches per second) ÷ 230 (cubic inches per gallon) = 30 (gallons per second oil flow).

30 gallons per second adds up to 108,000 gallons per hour, OR 2,592,000 gallons per day OR just shy of 62,000 BARRELS per DAY.

More than TEN TIMES the BP figures. BP is lying on the face of it but the rest of us are either lazy or stupid to take those numbers without standing right up and demanding that more reasonable ones be repeated, be cited in contexts related to the response and reparations we expect, and so on.

--BT

7:25 AM  

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