“I’ve never seen this kind of attitude, where safety doesn’t seem to matter.”

“Very big fish and very prized fish are moving in to spawn — it’s a critical time of the year … Larvae from the fish may end up eating droplets of oil.”

This post continues Deep Water Drilling – What Can Go Wrong?

Oil continues gushing from the Deepwater Horizon well. The big questions are still: what exactly happened, what is being done about it, and where is the oil going? Keep in mind that regardless of what safeguards or prohibitions the United States puts on deep water drilling in its own coastal waters, it still wants the drilling to continue and expand around the world, and so do all the world’s oil consumers. What is happening in the Gulf of Mexico could happen all along the Gulf of Guinea, and in increasingly numerous locations all around the world. Would governments be able to hold the oil companies to account for timely fixes and for damages? So far the US government is doing a poor job of protecting or investigating. There are lessons and warnings in the US Government’s approach to analysing and cleaning up following the spill.

I saw the satellite view of the spreading oil spill from May 4. The oil sheen nearest the leaking well, at the bottom of the picture, looks like a horse leaping out of the ocean and towards the gulf coast. The shape is not necessarily significant, but I certainly found it apocalyptically evocative, you can see in the detail and the original below.

Detail of the oil slick spreading in the Gulf of Mexico from a satellite picture taken May 4, 2010, and posted by SkyTruth on Flickr. The shape of the slick nearest the well looks like a horse leaping from the ocean and charging towards the Gulf coast

Oil slick spreading from the Deep Water Horizon oil well on May 4, 2010, flickr.com/photos/skytruth/4579765702/

60 Minutes interviewed a survivor of the Deepwater Horizon blowout. Based on information in that program, it looks like BP was reckless and irresponsible.

Williams says there was an accident on the rig that has not been reported before. He says, four weeks before the explosion, the rig’s most vital piece of safety equipment was damaged.

What strikes Bea is Williams’ description of the blowout preventer. Williams says in a drilling accident four weeks before the explosion, the critical rubber gasket, called an “annular,” was damaged and pieces of it started coming out of the well.

Here’s why that’s so important: the annular is used to seal the well for pressure tests. And those tests determine whether dangerous gas is seeping in.

“So if the annular is damaged, if I understand you correctly, you can’t do the pressure tests in a reliable way?” Pelley asked.

“That’s correct. You may get pressure test recordings, but because you’re leaking pressure, they are not reliable,” Bea explained.

Williams also told us that a backup control system to the blowout preventer called a pod had lost some of its functions.

“What is the standard operating procedure if you lose one of the control pods?” Pelley asked.

“Reestablish it, fix it. It’s like losing one of your legs,” Bea said.

This is a detail of the blowout preventer from the PDF: media.nola.com/news_impact/other/oil-cause-050710.pdf

You can see the complete diagram with a link to the PDF at Diagram of what happened. There is also a graphic that shows how leaking oil well might be plugged by the ‘top kill’ method. This has only been done on land before, not under the pressures at 1 mile deep.

There is an even larger potential danger from BP looming in the Gulf discussed in the 60 Minutes report:

Now, there is new concern about another BP facility in the Gulf: a former BP insider tells us the platform “Atlantis” is a greater threat than the Deepwater Horizon.

Ken Abbott has worked for Shell and GE. And in 2008 he was hired by BP to manage thousands of engineering drawings for the Atlantis platform.

They serve as blueprints and also as a operator manual, if you will, on how to make this work, and more importantly how to shut it down in an emergency,” Abbott explained.

But he says he found that 89 percent of those critical drawings had not been inspected and approved by BP engineers. Even worse, he says 95 percent of the underwater welding plans had never been approved either.

“Are these welding procedures supposed to be approved in the paperwork before the welds are done?” Pelley asked.

“Absolutely. Yeah,” Abbott replied. “They’re critical.”

Abbott’s charges are backed up by BP internal e-mails. In 2008, BP manager Barry Duff wrote that the lack of approved drawings could result in “catastrophic operator errors,” and “currently there are hundreds if not thousands of Subsea documents that have never been finalized.”

I’ve never seen this kind of attitude, where safety doesn’t seem to matter
(NYT)

Additionally:

Costly, time-consuming test of cement linings in Deepwater Horizon rig was omitted, spokesman says

BP hired a top oilfield service company to test the strength of cement linings on the Deepwater Horizon’s well, but sent the firm’s workers home 11 hours before the rig exploded April 20 without performing a final check that a top cementing company executive called “the only test that can really determine the actual effectiveness” of the well’s seal.

And what is happening to the oil, where is it going?

Scientists are finding enormous oil plumes in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, including one as large as 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and 300 feet thick in spots. The discovery is fresh evidence that the leak from the broken undersea well could be substantially worse than estimates that the government and BP have given.

There’s a shocking amount of oil in the deep water, relative to what you see in the surface water,” said Samantha Joye, a researcher at the University of Georgia who is involved in one of the first scientific missions to gather details about what is happening in the gulf. “There’s a tremendous amount of oil in multiple layers, three or four or five layers deep in the water column.”

The plumes are depleting the oxygen dissolved in the gulf, worrying scientists, who fear that the oxygen level could eventually fall so low as to kill off much of the sea life near the plumes. (NYT)

For wildlife offshore, the damage from a spill can be invisible but still deadly (click to enlarge enough to read)

Spills Effects Underwater

In addition to measuring the amount of oil, researchers need to study the effect on fish larvae and bacteria, he said. “Very big fish and very prized fish are moving in to spawn — it’s a critical time of the year,” he told HuffPost. “Larvae from the fish may end up eating droplets of oil.

Steiner said NOAA is not only failing to fully measure the impact of the spill, but, he said, “if they rationally want to close and open fisheries, then they need to know where this stuff is going.” (Huffington Post)

The highly toxic chemicals BP is pumping in at the leak and using on the surface to disperse the oil could have an even more toxic effect on sea life, and up the food chain, than the oil. The government is now started thinking about this: Gulf oil spill: EPA orders BP to use less toxic dispersant and the White House has asked BP to be more transparent. I doubt asking, even from the White House, will make a big difference.

The US Government looks like it is using the Niger Delta as a model for its response. BP and the Coast Guard turned away CBS news and threatened them with arrest. BP Attempts to Block Media From Filming Extent of Oil Spill Disaster.

As concerns about the growing devastation the BP oil spill has inflicted on Gulf Cost communities increase, reports have surfaced that BP is blocking members of the press from filming the extent of the damage. A CBS news crew attempted to film a beach in South Pass, Louisiana, obscured by a thick coat of oil, and was barred from doing so by BP contractors and two coast guard officers aboard a boat who threatened to arrest the film crew. When asked why filming along the beach was not permitted they were told, “This is BP’s rules, it’s not ours.”

This is not the first report of such an incident. There have been other reports of camera and video equipment being confiscated or banned.

… After a boat tour of the affected areas along the coast, Jindal stated “the day that we have all been fearing is upon us today. This wasn’t tar balls. This wasn’t sheen. This is heavy oil in our wetlands. It’s already here but we know more is coming.”

The amount of oil sweeping the coast has caused many to believe that BP has misled the white house, government officials and the public by alleging that only 5,000 barrels of oil a day are leaking from the Deepwater Horizon. In fact, some scientists believe that approximately 25,000 barrels of oil could be leaking a day. Some reports have quoted a number as high as 80, 000 barrels of oil a day. These numbers have prompted Congressman Edward Markey to send a letter to BP asking the question that has been on everyone’s mind: “how much oil is leaking into the Gulf and how much oil can be expected to end up on our shores and our ocean environment?”

The fact that the Coast Guard is assisting BP in blocking the public’s right to know is particularly worrisome. Using Nigeria as a model, in the Niger Delta we have seen repeatedly the Nigerian government and the oil companies pointing at each other and saying we can’t do anything, our hands are tied, they are the only ones with the authority/ability/responsibility to act.  Anyone who tries to observe or investigate is subjected to arrest or worse. And nothing gets done for environmental protection or infrastructure development. In fact we can look at the Niger Delta to see the environmental effects when enormous amounts of oil are spilled on coastal wetlands.

Up to 13 million barrels of oil have spilled in the Niger Delta ecosystem over the past 50 years, representing about 50 times the estimated volume spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska in 1989. Niger Delta Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Project, PDF.

The EPA is saying BP is collecting the data, and they can’t compel BP to publish it, BP withholds oil spill facts — and government lets it.

WASHINGTON — BP, the company in charge of the rig that exploded last month in the Gulf of Mexico, hasn’t publicly divulged the results of tests on the extent of workers’ exposure to evaporating oil or from the burning of crude over the gulf, even though researchers say that data is crucial in determining whether the conditions are safe.

As Cynthia Kouril points out:

The EPA, the Coast Guard and OSHA don’t need anybody’s permission to take air or water samples. They don’t need anybody’s permission to ask those shrimp boat captains to wear a second air quality monitoring patch and turn those back to OSHA for analysis. They don’t need anybody’s permission to send their own remote cameras or submarines down to take pictures of the plume—at least NASA seems to “get” this, the space station folks have been taking photos of the oil spill without waiting for BP’s blessing.

BP may control the data from the patches on the shrimp boater’s sleeves and it may control its own data — which could still be pried loose with either an administrative or criminal subpoena, and probably should be — but nothing prevents the government from doing its own sampling. The notion that the federal agencies responsible for environmental, health and safety are somehow helpless bystanders is just nuts, or bullpucky. In fact, EPA, like NASA has already begun its own efforts.

The oil is now on its way out of the Gulf:

More oil than is already visible could be entering the Loop Current, which could carry it past the Florida Keys and up the Atlantic coast.

MODIS/Terra satellite image taken May 17, 2010, shows oil slick being entrained in the Loop Current, with a broad conveyor-belt-like extension of the slick sweeping in a gentle arc to the southeast and reaching 222 miles (357 km) from the location of the leaking well. Slick and sheen covers 10,170 square miles (26,341 km2), almost 100% larger than was visible in the 5/14 radar image.

The Loop Current that sometimes forms in the Gulf of Mexico connects to the Florida Current that is part of the Gulf Stream system. On the average, the inner edge of the Florida Current is within 10 miles of Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, FL. In this illustration of the Loop Current and the Florida Current, the colors on the color wheel correspond to the directions of the currents, blue, red, cyan, yellow for north, south, east, and west.

“The fact that NOAA has missed the ball catastrophically on the tracking and effects monitoring of this spill is inexcusable,” said Rick Steiner, a University of Alaska marine conservationist … “They need 20 research ships on this, yesterday.”

Steiner explained: “This is probably turning out to be the largest oil spill in U.S. history and the most unique oil spill in world history,” on account of it occurring not on or near the surface, but nearly a mile below.

“They should have had a preexisting rapid response plan,” he told HuffPost. “They should have had vessels of opportunity — shrimp vessels, any vessel that can deploy a water-column sampling device — pre-contracted, on a list, to be called up in an event that this happened. And they blew it. And it’s been going on for a month now, and all that information has been lost.”

“I think that should be one of our biggest concerns, getting the technology and the research to try to understand how big this amorphous mass of water is, and how it moves,” he said.

It’s like an iceberg. Most of it is below the surface. And we just have no instruments below the surface that can help us monitor the size, the concentration and the movement.” (Huffington Post)

Envisat ASAR radar satellite image (black and white) taken May 18, 2010, shows oil slick entrained in the Loop Current and spreading out to the southeast. Slick and sheen covers 15,976 square miles (41,377 km2), about 50% larger than seen in yesterday's MODIS image and about twice the size of New Jersey. Image courtesy CSTARS. flickr.com/photos/skytruth/4622687873/

Here is more detail on the Gulf Loop Current:

The Gulf Loop is a strong current in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. It can be a short loop or stretched very long. When it is long, it often pinches off a spinning body of water called an eddy . These eddies drift westward over many weeks. They slowly lose energy in the western Gulf. This cycle repeats itself several times a year.

graphic of a 3D model of the Loop Current in the Gulf of Mexico

1. Warm water from the Caribbean Sea enters the gulf.

2. A “Loop Current” gradually forms in the eastern gulf. Eventually, the loop breaks off and forms an eddy.

3. The eddy has a core of warm water, and rotates clockwise as it moves west across the gulf. Clockwise-rotating eddies in the northern hemisphere are called anticyclones.

4. Smaller eddies spin off the warm anticyclones. These rotate in the opposite direction, and are called cyclones.

A. In an anticyclone, warm water converges in the eddy center and is pushed toward the seaþoor [sic, sea floor]. Anticyclones contain few nutrients to support plant and animal life. They can be thought of as “ocean deserts.”

B. Cyclones draw cold, nutrient-rich water from the deep gulf up toward the surface. Near the surface the combination of sunlight and plenty of nutrients creates an “ocean oasis,” with abundant plankton for marine animals to eat.

When the oil gets into the ocean currents it can begin to travel the entire globe. If it is possible for some rubber ducks to travel the globe on the currents, it will certainly be possible for this vast volume of oil. Of course, just like the rubber duckies, oil does break apart and biodegrade. Below is some description of global ocean currents:

At the earth’s poles, when water freezes, the salt doesn’t necessarily freeze with it, so a large volume of dense cold, salt water is left behind. When this dense water sinks to the ocean floor, more water moves in to replace it, creating a current. The new water also gets cold and sinks, continuing the cycle and creating the Global Conveyor Belt.

The global conveyor belt begins with the cold water near the North Pole and heads south between South America and Africa toward Antarctica, partly directed by the landmasses it encounters. In Antarctica, it gets recharged with more cold water and then splits in two directions -- one section heads to the Indian Ocean and the other to the Pacific Ocean. As the two sections near the equator, they warm up and rise to the surface in what you may remember as upwelling. When they can't go any farther, the two sections loop back to the South Atlantic Ocean and finally back to the North Atlantic Ocean, where the cycle starts again.

The global conveyor belt moves much more slowly than surface currents — a few centimeters per second, compared to tens or hundreds of centimeters per second. Scientists estimate that it takes one section of the belt 1,000 years to complete one full circuit of the globe. However slow it is, though, it moves a vast amount of water — more than 100 times the flow of the Amazon River.

In addition to the Global Conveyor Belt there are a variety of great gyre currents in the world’s oceans. All the currents and their feeders, spinoffs and eddies have the potential to carry the oil.

Circular wind patterns create spiral ocean currents called gyres. Five major gyres flow both north and south of the equator: the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, South Pacific and Indian Ocean gyres. Smaller gyres also exist at the poles, and one circulates around Antarctica. Short-lasting, smaller currents often spin off both small and large gyres.

The currents may work to clean up the spill as well as spread it around. This article from Nieman Watchdog points out:

  • Crude oil is a natural substance, composed of a galaxy of hydrocarbon compounds, ranging from gasoline to tar. Compared to infinitely more toxic refined oil products like Diesel fuel, it is unstable and tends to disintegrate into volatile compounds.
  • Much of it will evaporate, given the right conditions.
  • What won’t evaporate will be attacked by oil-eating microbes in the sea water.
  • The degree of evaporation and the success of the microbe attack will depend upon several factors:
    1. The chemistry of the crude oil in question.
    2. The temperature of the air and of the water.
    3. The dynamic action of sun, wind and waves at the spill site.

  • The BP spill is unquestionably a calamity. There will be enormous costs, including costs to fish and wildlife interests. There will be some wetlands damage. But many of the same factors that ameliorated the Tobago spill are at work off the mouth of the Mississippi. Strong southeast winds have been spreading the spill and encouraging its evaporation. Air temperatures in the 80s water temperatures in the 70s and plenty of sun have encouraged the attack of oil-eating microbes.

    The month before the oil spill in Tobago [July 1979] the Mexican oil company Pemex had its Ixtoc I rig blow out in the Bay of Campeche, 600 miles south of the Texas coast. That resulted in one of the largest oil spills in history. The drilling platform burned and collapsed in an accident intriguingly similar to that of the BP rig off Louisiana. The well leaked from 10,000 to 30,000 barrels of oil a day for eight months before it was capped. Yet resulting coastal damage was minimal.

    How much oil there is, how widespread the damage, and how long it will take to recover are all still unknown. And the federal government does not seem to be in a hurry to learn. Wildlife and human beings will suffer, how many, how much, and how long are all still unknown.

    ________

    Update: May 24:

    How Much Oil’s Spilling? It’s Not Rocket Science


    Once one converts all the units and multiplies these numbers, the calculations show that a bit more than 70,000 barrels of oil have been leaking out of the pipe daily. He’s [Wereley] since upped his estimate by another 20,000 barrels a day because of other smaller leaks.

    Wereley said that the leak may be 20 percent more or less than his best estimate, but it’s still far, far above the 5,000 barrels per day that BP kept proclaiming until very recently — about 20 times as great.

    And from John Robb at Global Guerrillas

    LEAKING LEGITIMACY

    … prominent oceanographers [are] accusing the government of failing to conduct an adequate scientific analysis of the damage and of allowing BP to obscure the spill’s true scope… The scientists point out that in the month since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, the government has failed to make public a single test result on water from the deep ocean. …

    Over the last month, it’s become increasingly clear that there is a coordinated information operations campaign in place to downplay the impact of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The US government and British Petroleum have imposed a scientific and media blackout to prevent the gathering of the information on the oil leak needed to generate precise estimates …

    Why is this effort in place? To reduce the political damage to both the government and BP. …

    Of course, this type of behavior is extremely bad over the longer term. Why is it so bad? For an increasing number of people it is yet another example of an approach, reinforced by ongoing global financial disasters, that uses media manipulation and confidence boosting as a substitute for real solutions. It fails to punish bad behavior due to the need for collusion between the government and the offending corporations to construct the information campaign. It fails to construct real solutions since the facts are not known and the number of people able to address the problem is extremely limited. Also, since these people are the same people that caused the crisis, real solutions are avoided to prevent adverse publicity. Most importantly, it is yet another body blow to the nation-state and the global market system as legitimate organizational constructs.

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