Post-wellcapping reports of "missing" oil contributed to message failure by giving the impression that Obama's administration simply wanted the oil to vanish from media attention, and was therefore declaring "Mission Accomplished." The White House certainly could have done better. Steadily-climbing spill estimates should have been avoided by coming up with two or three scenarios and publicly crossing fingers. Widespread reports of BP harrassing, intimidating, and banishing reporters from beaches invited all the wrong comparisons to Katrina and Bush.
It really wasn't a fair fight. BP has practiced this scenario many times in the global south: corporate message-makers deny, minimize, and suborn state agencies. The EPA is in such a state of deep capture after three decades of anti-government governance that it lacked power to stop BP from inserting a Corexit spout directly into the flow of oil. BP also had the tools, personnel, and resources to deal with the blowout, whereas the United States government did not. Without any real way to produce results in the Gulf, White House message-men took advantage of the Beltway preference for narrative over things like fluid dynamics and chemistry. The facts?! Who cares...
And so we all wonder about missing oil instead of learning anything. See how that works? Much more after the jump and this very non-metal video:
Simmons said the US government should immediately take the effort to plug the leak out of the hands of BP and put the military in charge.
"Probably the only thing we can do is create a weapons system and send it down 18,000 feet and detonate it, hopefully encasing the oil," he said.
His idea echoes that of a Russian newspaper that earlier this month suggested the US detonate a small nuclear bomb to seal the oil beneath the sea. Komsomoloskaya Pravda argued in an editorial that Russia had successfully used nuclear weapons to seal oil spills on five occasions in the past.
No, see..."probably" isn't going to cut it for me.
That video is a pretty decent overview of how the Russians have tackled blown wells with nuclear devices, but it doesn't really look at the ecological price attached to detonating a nuclear device in an ecologically sensitive area, or how to contain the toxic waste generated by such an explosion.
That's how Phillipe Cousteau, Jr. described the situation under water in the Gulf. He and ABC reporter Sam Champion shot the footage above about 25 miles off the Louisiana coast in the center of the oil slick that has reached the surface.
One of the reasons for the dive was to see if BP's application of the dispersant Corexit was effective or more harmful. I'm not sure that question was answered, but there's no doubt left about the toxicity of the area. It's dangerously toxic to any living thing. Cousteau and Champion had to be hosed off and "degreased" before removing their hazmat suits. Lucky them. Unfortunately, marine life and birds don't have a similar option.
The Corexit website claims the dispersant works by breaking the oil into tiny droplets. From their front page:
When the COREXIT dispersants are deployed on the spilled oil, the oil is broken up into tiny bio-degradable droplets that immediately sink below the surface where they continue to disperse and bio-degrade. This quickly removes the spilled oil from surface drift…reducing direct exposure to birds, fish and sea animals in the spill environment. By keeping the oil from adhering to wildlife COREXIT dispersants effectively protect the environment.
Oil clearly adhered to Champion and Cousteau, so I'm a little confused about that claim, even though they had hazmat suits and not feathers. But even more than that, Cousteau has a point when he says that breaking up the oil into droplets means it has more points of entry into the fish and other wildlife than it might otherwise.
Nalco, the manufacturer of Corexit, has responded to claims of environmental Armaggedon with a special statement about the properties of their dispersant. In the long run, history will prove the truth of their claims, I expect.
Top Kill: Working or not?
As I write this at 4:30pm, BP has stopped their Top Kill effort because more mud is escaping along with oil than they expected.
The more I read, the less optimistic I am about this technique working.
A 2004 Texas A&M Study (PDF) commissioned by the MMS looked at the problem of a deep water blowout where oil is flowing outside of the blowout preventers. It's interesting to note that they didn't even consider a catastrophic failure of the blowout preventer itself, as is the case here. They're not very optimistic, at least in their intro:
In failure scenarios where there has been a catastrophic failure either of the surface equipment, the wellhead system or high casing, or at almost any point where influx is flowing outside of the blowout preventers, options become very rapidly non-existent. Even higher-horsepower ROVs can do little but stay outside an area of turbulence, and visibility could well be reduced anyway. Mudline mechanical intervention becomes an impossibility at this point with present tools and techniques. Specifically, there are no tools available which can hold station in a blowout with influx moving through the desired intervention area. ROVs also do not possess the horsepower required to consider some of the work tasks involved in a given scenario, particularly when affecting repairs on damaged blowout preventers.
The authors have a pretty dim view of the "Top Kill" technique, calling it the "least desirable of the blowout control alternatives (p.195). If the mixture isn't set in the right place, it won't be effective and the only solution will be to drill a relief well to relieve the pressure, which would take months.
We're all locked in a battle where fear fights to overtake hope. It's a horrible situation, and BP is looking worse than ever.
At the end of the Texas A&M report section on blowout simulation, there's a blunt reality for BP.
Causes for blowouts vary widely, however there is a constant. The majority of blowouts can be attributed to complacent, careless drilling practices.
Careless drilling practices. Outdated technologies. Drilling on the edge of the precipice of the Continental Shelf. Arrogant regulators working in a system where regulation was something to scoff at, not take seriously. As usual, the victims are many, from dolphins to the humans who lost their lives on that rig.
It is, indeed a nightmare. I just hope it's not a recurrent nightmare.
Rachel's segment on the 1979 Ixtoc I oil spill was instructive. It follows the same conclusions I've seen in my research; namely, solutions for stopping undersea oil leaks haven't changed much over the years. Not only haven't they changed, they're as destructive to the environment as the spill itself.
Even though the Ixtoc spill occurred in 200 feet of water, it is on record as the second worst oil spill in history. The worst in history was the intentional destruction and dumping of oil resources in the Persian gulf by Saddam Hussein at the end of the first Iraq war. Despite studies and simulators, there is very little new technology to fight an out-of-control oil leak. Here are the options:
Isolate the well - This is the "top hat" method that didn't work on the Deepwater Horizon spill, where a cement dome was to be lowered onto the leaking pipe.
Plug the hole - This is the "top kill" method BP is using now to stanch the flow of oil until they can encase the opening in cement and finish drilling relief wells to pull the pressure away from this one. This method failed in the Ixtoc spill effort.
Drill relief wells - This is the best and most effective measure to stop the flow. It's also the longest-term solution. It took months for the Ixtoc relief wells to take effect and stop the flow from the blown well. In the best case, the "top kill" method will buy enough time for relief wells to come online and control the leakage.
I've been struggling to understand all the nuances of the debate in front of us with regard to offshore drilling. It's easy to frame it as Big Oil versus the Environment, but there's more to it than that. Jobs, state economies, and even our national economy can rise or fall based upon oil prices and availability. If we were to stop drilling in the Gulf tomorrow, the economic impact would likely devastate an already-fragile economic truce.
And yet, there is an unmistakable arrogance to the studies I read about the relative safety of drilling offshore. Many of these studies refer to "better safety measures" and "environmental protection". I don't see it. The same methods and technology are being used to drill wells today as were used 30 years ago. Go no further than the video at the top of the page for evidence.
If we have to accept offshore drilling, it seems to me it should be on our terms, not theirs, for a finite period of time, and with a goal of making a scheduled shift with defined benchmarks to alternative energy sources.