NewsHammer Exclusive 34 days and counting at the Deepwater Horizion Blowout. Just a stone's throw from the last major disaster to hit Louisiana, the FEMA/Bush relief effort before and after Hurricane Katrina rolled into New Orleans in 2005.

Apart from Obama's rhetoric which always sounds great, the biggest offshore oil spill since Mexico's IXTOC I, has blown away a big chunk of Obama's credibility, at least a million tons of media inspired paper since Yes We Can.

Obama Strikes Oil

Not only did the Obama Administration approve without any review, the BP permits for offshore drilling at the Deepwater site, a month before the BP accident Obama called for an end to the 20 year moratorium on offshore drilling in most US coastal waters. Or Blast foreign oil. Fire all torpedoes. Not the environmentally friendly Obama we expected, but the way out of left field way beyond more oil, the new let's go nuclear Obama. What? What happened? No nukes but go nuclear?

Time for a rethink. Here's half the answer, through the Wall Street backdoor to the dirty BP Meltdown in the Gulf of Mexico. Do we need the other half, a big bucks nuclear meltdown to stop being stupid about energy?

Back to square one: New offshore drilling on hold pending a 30 day review says Obama. Exciting turnaround, but a bit late for Deepwater spewing death in the Gulf. Then let's not get too serious in Washington when there's a slew of new permits to approve anyway, another 30 odd for more offshore drilling. Now granted according to The New York Times despite the new emergency moratorium. Not a real moratorium on drilling, just one for Public Relations purposes it seems. Frightening coming from the government, when as Obama said back at his Inauguration "Words mean something." Even old Deepwater-type do your own thing permits to be outlawed still handed out lately like candy thanks to the same loophole in permit regulations that covers exemptions like building outhouses from government scrutiny, that covered BP and Deepwater Horizon.

Shows you can't make policy when you don't know the industry in question. Whether it's Oil & Gas or nuclear. Same problem in Congress when lawyers and moneymen (the usual credentials for office) want to improve things or muddle into war. Worst of all, is the lame billions of dollars more of public money to be thrown at a nuclear renaissance because nuclear is the Green Option to energy independence and carbon capping. Wrong again, Mr President. Sorry. Stick to law on this one, like "certain unalienable Rights...Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

BP or MMS in Deepwater

Though the old Obama surfaced for awhile and kicked some ass at Mineral Management Service which collects Oil & Gas royalties for DOI (the #2 US revenue source after the IRS) while awarding permits for exploration like it did for Deepwater. Obviously a federal department based on conflict of interest, money or safety, should be split. Obama ready to swing the ax, got a bonus when the Head of deep sea oil exploration, Chris Oynes, rolled out of his MMS office on May 18, a month after Deepwater Horizon blew up. Now a followup report on MMS shows just how cozy the relationship to Big Oil was, with freebies and other incentives for some staffers, some resigning, some fired, others up for criminal prosecution.

Hope some of the guys at BP's Head Office noticed that for a disaster of this size, fallguys are mandatory. So far there haven't been any pleas of Mea Culpa at BP. No they're all doing their best. Always have, goes without saying. It's all over the BP corporate website if nowhere else. No one at BP seems to be remotely responsible for what happened in the best of all possible PR worlds. An "incident" or PR jargon for accident we're investigating. We're on it. We'll clean up every drop of oil. There's that at least. BP is doing everything it can (34 days later).

What is BP Doing?

"22,000 personnel deployed"

Says the BP website. Yeah? Where? Whose personnel? BP's? Has everybody in BP London or BP Houston been schlepped over to the wetlands of Louisiana in Wellington boots? Doubt it. Maybe if you count the Coast Guard, NOAA, maybe 800 or so crew on 10 BP ships and platforms at Deepwater now, maybe a thousand BP engineers world-wide on cell phones, but there's still a big shortfall. Well, add thousands of BP made redundant Louisiana fishermen donating their time to lay boom and contain the spill. I guess you've still got to add the Louisiana State Legislature and Congress too, plus a few thousand concerned citizens wringing their hands in the neighborhood. Oh yeah, and just how many rapid response 12 man teams from BP in the Gulf? One fat guy?

"1,100 vessels on site"

Says the BP website. That explains it, not BP vessels, not 22,000 BP personnel, but BP takes the credit. Terrific PR!

If BP has bleached its record clean on its website, past and present, and in soundbites for the media, Obama has been in Make No Mistake mode, knocking BP for lack of transparency and action. It's BP's oil spill and BP will pay. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar who might be the cowboy in charge of this BP mess, has his boot on BP's neck he said. But so far government heavy breathing hasn't been effective either on the oil spill or on BP. But Obama is gearing up for more effective invective with a new bipartisan commission to investigate BP. Good luck. Last time the EPA investigated BP in 2006 for negligence on the Alaska North Slope BP pipeline spill, BP buried the investigation with 62 million pages of documents. Blink, it's no typo. And that was for a small BP spill of 250,000 gallons.

EPA and BP: Clash of the Titans

According to CNN the other day, the EPA is on BP's case again, this time ordering BP to stop using a toxic dispersant that's been airplane sprayed over the gigantic oil slick, and injected by ship into the undersea plume, about 715,000 gallons so far. BP has disputed the order saying that Corexit is better than what the EPA has approved, yet BP had already purchased an EPA recommended substitute, Sea Brat 4. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of this less toxic dispersant are idling on the mainland in the hot sun, waiting for who knows what as the oil slick moves into the wetlands of Louisiana where it has already fouled 65 miles of shoreline there.

The injection by BP of Corexit into the undersea plume of oil, also ordered stopped by EPA, is potentially the more serious problem long term. BP has always minimized the amount of the spill, relying on surface oil slick and sheen to estimate the flow, ignoring the outflow from the ruptured riser and the Blow Out Preventer. That BOP malfunctioned and failed to stop the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform from exploding when a giant bubble of gas ruptured it and caught fire. The BOP a mile down on the seafloor still capping the wellhead still doesn't work. Otherwise it would have been possible to simply shut off the well.

Besides BP and the BOP, MMS is also in the loop for blame. It granted BP's drilling permit without any impact or safety study on a very deep well in very deep water, a mile down to the seafloor and drilling another 4 miles down to the oil. That's five miles of rock and water pressure on the BP oil under the seafloor.

BP's Top Kill Next

Stopping the leak with mud, cement and junk shot, what BP wants to do as early as May 26, chances are will only plug the BOP. Is that enough to stop an extremely high pressure leak? Probably not. It might reduce the flow. Though BP will try to go down deeper below the BOP and plug the well itself. If the well can't be filled with mud and cement, then a partial BOP cap could blow out of the water. Tremendous oil pressures, 5 miles of rock and water on the oil bed, could pop a few tons of plugged up BOP clean out of its way. Then we could have a much bigger eruption of oil, totally out of control. Deepwater could spew for months and destroy the the entire US Gulf of Mexico coastline.

The IXTOC I spill of 1979 in the Gulf of Mexico ruptured for 9 months before it was finally plugged. And it was a much easier to control 2 mile well in 160 feet of water west of the Yucatan. It wound up fouling Texas beaches 600 miles away.

Underestimating The Deepwater Spill

Initially BP claimed the spill was 1,000 barrels a day. Outflow based on surface water conditions analyzed by NOAA was revised to 5,000 barrels a day. BP disputed NOAA's figures. But BP said it was also impossible to measure the undersea flow, and the actual flow was irrelevant. Now BP is siphoning off about 2,000 barrels a day from the leaking well to a surface ship--and yet that's only sucked up a modest amount of what is still leaking out furiously. How wrong can you get BP? Try 50,000 barrels a day.

Other estimates in the NYT based on analysis of video of the leaks have gone as high as 100,000 barrels a day of oil/gas mix leaking, though as the flow seems to be about half gas/ half oil according to BP, the oil volume has been adjusted down to about 50,000 barrels of pure oil escaping into the Gulf per day or maybe twice the oil spill of IXTOC I.

So why does the still enormous spill look smaller on the surface water than it should be if we do have 50,000 barrels a day leaking? Enter Corexit. As a dispersant it acts on oil to break it down into small droplets by binding to the oil molecules. But Corexit is itself toxic according to the EPA. The resulting droplets although more easily biodegradable than liquid oil, are even more toxic to marine life breathing it in like fish do. Using Corexit doesn't reduce the amount of oil pollution. It's still there. Diluted oil should be less likely to foul shorelines and birds though it still does as we've seen from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal's presentations, fouling 65 miles of shoreline so far while BP and the Feds dither about what to do next. In an emergency you've got to have action as Katrina should have demonstrated. Instead according to Jindal there's a terrible shortfall in equipment needed while some resources available are tied up in approval procedures so committees can sit around calling for studies before they approve anything Jindal wants to do.

Dead Zones Underwater

If there's some surface benefit to dispersants, injected directly into the undersea plume of oil there are other effects. It's happily preventing more oil from reaching surface waters, but at the same time this oil is now trapped under the surface of the Gulf of Mexico where it may persist for a much longer time. Oil under water doesn't biodegrade easily, in the absence of sunlight, mechanical wave action and bacteria. Huge plumes of treated oil from Deepwater have been discovered underwater 20 miles away creating giant dead zones. They too could move into ocean currents while some of the oil may be settling on the seafloor contaminating shellfish.

This trapping of oil probably occurs even without dispersant applied, as the BOP leak is a mile underwater, the deepest oil spill yet. As oil/gas mixture rises in extremely cold water, the temperature is so cold and the pressure of water so high, that there is already a tendency for oil to congeal and in the case of gases like methane involved, for the methane and seawater to freeze forming methane ice or hydrates as they're calling them on the news. Hydrates formed in the containment cofferdam over the BOP in BP's first attempt to seal the leak and the cofferdam was abandoned.

The EPA did order BP to stop such injections of Corexit. But BP continues to use it underwater and on the surface spill. If the oil spill looks better that way, appearing to be a much smaller spill, all the spilled oil is still there underwater or on the surface except for some natural evaporation of volatiles like gasoline in the oil. By underestimating the flow and stubbornly refusing to measure the actual outflow from the leaks, by using a lot of dispersant, BP may be counting on not only better public relations fallout from a smaller looking spill, but less liability if it comes down to eventual court actions including possible criminal charges filed by the US government or by other claimants for damages. It's cover your ass time at BP and in Washington.

The BOP and BP's Safety Record

Fixing blame might never happen. Who did what? Besides BP, Transocean the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig that was destroyed in the accident, Halliburton which did the cement work on the well and the maker of the failed BOP, Cameron International, are blaming each other. Yet it's clear from the recent House subcommittee investigation of the accident that there were many defects in the BOP, from poor modifications to it to improper maintenance. Its failure has to be the main cause of the explosion and fire that killed 11 workers, and for the continuing disastrous oil spill as well.

There's a lot of anger and grief too as the oil washes into wetlands and birds, potentially a greater tragedy in the wings if the oil isn't stopped soon. So far BP has been getting all the heat, partly because of warnings before the Deepwater Horizon fireball and their US corporate record on maintenance and safety, the worst by far in the entire industry.

BP makes more money than 90 Oprahs in a bad year. $19 Billion profit in 2005, $25.59 Billion in 2008 and $13.96 Billion in 2009. It has pursued an aggressive expansion of its business and has never been much impressed with government meddling in its affairs. Being big is good and drowning in money helps. Its PR machine and army of lawyers are up to any environmental challenge as BP has demonstrated twice over the last 5 years.

Besides the 2006 Alaskan North Slope BP pipeline spill due to maintenance issues, BP's Texas City refinery explosion and fire of 2005 killed 15 people and injured another 180. BP negotiated a settlement with the Bush Justice Department of $20 Million for the first accident, and $50 Million for the second. Chump change, considering the seriousness of the violations that the lead EPA investigator Scott West wanted to pursue for the BP Alaska spill. At that time the EPA was considering damages of $672 Million from BP plus possible felony charges against some BP executives just for the Alaska spill.

If that was then and this is now, here's what the BBC reported recently on Deepwater:

In BP's 2009 exploration plan for the well, the firm suggested an oil spill was unlikely or virtually impossible, AP news agency reports.

Breaking News

CNN reports that 51 minutes before the Deepwater Horizon explosion April 20, there were several warnings of trouble on the rig. Witnesses said there were 3 ruptures of fluid and pressure on the drill pipe "unexpectedly increased".

Read The New York Time's account of the Deepwater Horizon's last troubled hours, based on reports from the Congressional Committee investigating.

In the Los Angeles Times, Kent Wells a senior BP Vice President said that the Top Kill could start Wednesday May 26 or later this week.

See the CNN animation of the Top Kill for what to expect if it works.

Live BP video of the Top Kill attempt, in some doubt until Capitol Hill pressure was applied, will be available on the BP website and CNN Live.

--Alan Gillis


  1. Jim Tank // May 30, 2010 at 4:05 PM  

    Good article, and the following is also interesting I think.

    According to [1], criminal charges in the BP spill are likely, causing BP's legal liability to raise from a $75 million cap on civil liability, to twice the cost of environmental and economic damages resulting from the spill.

    To put these numbers in some context, according to the Huffington Post [2], "The cost per day of the oil spill to BP so far has been $16 million. That number is dwarfed by the $66 million per day the firm made in profit in the first quarter of this year. Indeed, in 2009 BP's total profits were $14 billion. As CNN's Christine Romans notes, even if the cleanup costs were to rise to $14 billion, it would simply mean that BP went one year without make a profit, let alone losing money."