May 31, 2010

Oil Spill - Get Back Jo Jo

by Diane V. McLoughlin

May 30, 2010:  The Deepwater Horizon oil well platform, situated some forty miles off the Southern U.S. coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico, exploded on April 20, 2010. The oil well pipe, we were told, broke a mile-deep in the Gulf of Mexico, two days later. 

There are four principle players:  BP (British Petroleum), Halliburton, Transocean and the MMS - U.S. Minerals Management Service - the government department principally tasked with overseeing safe operation of oil drilling endeavors.  The proper functioning and the reputation of the MMS has suffered due to issues of corruption and mismanagement.[1i]

The highest estimate on the flow-rate of oil coming out of the broken twenty-one inch diameter pipe came from Steven Wereley, a Purdue University associate professor of mechanical engineering. Wereley estimated, from viewing the initial (thirty whole seconds!) of underwater video released from BP, that up to 70,000 barrels' worth of oil could be spewing out of the broken mouth of the pipe into the Gulf, per day - fourteen times BP's estimate of 5,000 barrels.  (Props to those news peeps, I got that info from watching CNN's superlative oil spill coverage.)  *August 6, 2010 update:  BP releases total estimate that 4.9 million barrels of oil were spilled into the Gulf.

At 42 gallons to the barrel, that is almost three million gallons of crude pouring into the Gulf per day. Today being Sunday, May 30th, the thirty-eighth day, that would add up to one-hundred million gallons of oil  (I rounded down by one-hundred and fourteen thousand gallons.)  100,000,000 - that's a lot of zeros.

The government's high-end estimate is much lower - up to four times BP's original estimate - in the ball-park of thirty-two million gallons of oil, to date.

The ongoing Deepwater Horizon oil spill may end up vieing for first-place on the list of worst oil spills in history.

The 1991 Gulf War oil spill is/was the one to beat, at an estimated eleven-million barrels, or over four-hundred million gallons, apparently dumped by Iraqi forces into the Persian Gulf as some sort of military move, according to Wikipedia (which makes little sense to me, so I question that explanation, but whatever.)  [1a]

From the same Wikipedia page, on the long-term environmental impact to the Middle East's Persian Gulf:

'The salt marshes which occur at almost 50% of the coastline show the heaviest impact compared to the other ecosystem types after 10 years. Completely recovered are the rocky shores and mangroves. Sand beaches are on the best way to complete recovery. The main reason for the delayed recovery of the salt marshes is the absence of physical energy (wave action) and the mostly anaerobic milieu of the oiled substrates. The latter is mostly caused by cyanobacteria which forms impermeable mats. In other cases tar crusts are responsible. The availability of oxygen is the most important criteria for oil degradation. Where oil degrades it was obvious that...intertidal fauna such as crabs re-colonise the destroyed habitats long before the halophytes. The most important paths of regeneration are the tidal channels and the adjacent areas. Full recovery of the salt marshes will certainly need some more decades.' - Dr. Hans Jorge Barth, 2001 research report. [1a]

The top-kill and junk-shot efforts to shut Deepwater down have failed. The next move by BP will be to try to put a type of cap on it, which reportedly would take approximately from a week to a month to get in place.  At time of writing I must admit that I am not clear on this spread between days versus weeks. [1c]

 If that fails, and any other ideas do not solve this crisis, then the next option to stop this oil spill is something called a relief well, which BP has also started but nevertheless is not expected to be complete until, earliest, mid-August.  If that is what happens, take the numbers above on estimated oil spilled and multiply by four.

Even mid-August may be optimistic.  Like finding a needle in a haystack, they have to drill down and sideways.  The drilling begins a mile beneath the surface of the Gulf.   No human can work at that depth, even in a submersible.  The environment at those depths is weird - extreme underwater pressures; extreme cold; perpetual darkness; presumably there is also at least some ocean current.

The aim of the drilling is to meet the broken pipe with new pipe - pipe that is only twenty-one inches wide, with oil and gas forcing through it at immense pressure from deep within the earth, if they fail to cap it. In the middle of hurricane season.

Meteorologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (better known as NOAA, pronounced 'Noah') are forecasting 'an active to extremely active' hurricane season; up to twenty-three named storms, up to seven of which could be Category 3 or greater hurricanes.  Hurricane season begins June 1st and doesn't officially end until November 30th.[1b]

To paraphrase a line from an old torch song, we've got it bad - and that ain't good.

Scanning the night's news channels, Canada's CBC reports 25% of the Gulf's fisheries are now closed. 23,000 fishermen are out of work.

Britain's BBC reports that BP's market capitalization has dropped in value by 27%.

U.S.'s CNN reports nine workers hired to do oil clean-up have been sickened enough to go to hospital.  BP's CEO Tony Haywood suggests it is food poisoning.  CNN checks with a food poisoning expert with the workers' symptoms  - doesn't sound like food poisoning to them.

Out-of-work fishermen hired to work their boats in oil clean-up efforts complain that no protective masks are provided.  A BP spokesperson says they test the air quality, there is no need for masks but if the fishermen want to supply masks themselves 'as long as they know how to use them properly' - according to CNN - they can wear them.  The fishermen's response? When they asked to use masks they were told that if they brought masks to use, they'd be fired. 

Masks are mentioned in the data safety sheet noted below, page 4. If you can decipher that gobbledegook it's official - you're a genius. [2]

Retired Lt. General Russell Honore, remembered fondly for his work as commander of Joint Task Force Katrina, tells CNN that the nation must declare 'all-out war!', on the oil.  Get local officials in charge, they are most familiar with local needs - get BP out of the way. 

In contrast, Wednesday, June 2nd, President Obama is hosting a whoop-dee-doo for ex-Beatle 'Sir' Paul McCartney.

Really. You can't make this stuff up. 
Anyway, I believe we all want answers. Can we bomb the gusher? What else could we try?  Quickly.

We want action.  Deploy all hands, boats, super-tankers, interested parties and other countries to suction as much of the spilled oil in the Gulf as we can. This oil could spread to Mexico, the Caribbean, Canada, Europe and beyond.  This is a growing, potentially international problem.  Yes, we must take responsibility for it. But we must ask for and allow others to help here before oil drifts over there.

Efforts must be made to watch for and stop as much oil as possible in the Yucatan Channel and the Straits of Florida - the two means of progress out of the Gulf of Mexico.

Get the meanest, smartest, most independent, stubborn governmental son-of-a-bitch (or daughter-of-) up the noses of BP's soon-to-be-former command center. It's a government command center - right?

I nominate Lt. General Honore. Striding purposefully in, I know one of the first things our commander will do is rip down the spy pics of CNN reporter Anderson Cooper, Parish President Billy Nungesser, taken from a helicopter circling overhead as they floated in on a boat to inspect for themselves - and to show viewers at home - the condition of the oil-soaked Louisiana wetlands.

Oil dispersant COREXIT 9500:   A quick analytical review is urgently needed on the effect of millions of gallons of chemically diluted oil mixed with a million gallons of soap-like stuff on the ocean environment - keeping in mind that you cannot skim, siphon, absorb, or suction oil that you chemically disperse.[2] [3]

Soap is bad for fish eggs and it must be bad for the slime of fish protective coatings. I would be surprised if it wasn't harmful to the bottom rung of the food chain that every living creature in the ocean depends on for sustenance - tiny lifeforms called phyto and zoo plankton.

Interestingly, compare Nalco's reassuring statement [3]:

'Based on modeling using US EPA software (as part of the EPI Suite v4.0, 2009), none of the COREXIT product components pose a risk of bioaccumulating [sic]';

With this, from Nalco's Safety Data Sheet [2]:

Component substances have a potential to bioconcentrate.'

So there you go.  Clear as drilling mud.

On a ridiculously stupid-sounding bright note, an active hurricane season might churn the water in the salt marshes, getting oxygen in there; increased oxygen in the water would help bacteria break down oil, as noted, previously, above. 

(Is it just me or is it all made that much worse, more exhausting, by our destroyed trust in anybody telling us the truth - on anything?)

On the coastal economy:  If I have gleened this correctly, the coastal economy is roughly divided in half - the oil industry contributing roughly 50% to the Gulf's economy  -  the other 50% coming from the bounty of the natural environment along with tourism dollars. 

It is a tough call.  But it seems to me that Gulf communities would want to discuss how they prefer to see the future unfold, in light of this disaster. Ocean oil will run out.  Yet while it lasts it has the capacity to destroy the other 50% of the economy, the sustainable part of the economy, as long as oil companies continue to get the green light to drill for it.

As for efforts to plug the gusher, the question continues to be raised whether or not there is any theoretical prospect of nuking this oil well to block it.  The Russians have apparently used nukes in the past to shut down oil well fires - not quite the same thing, true.  A risk-benefit analysis on attempting to use explosive - conventional or nuclear - would seem a reasonable suggestion; share the pros and cons with the public so that we know that it has been at least considered.  Get somebody out front with charts and graphs - tell us what's going on.

As for President Obama, there is a deeply disturbing disconnect between the dire urgency of the oil spill versus Obama's tepid actions.  Unless Paul McCartney has the ability to part the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, it's safe to say Obama could postpone such visits without any great offense taken. Frankly, borrowing from the NYT's Bob Herbert, I wouldn't give a rat's whiskers if there was.

I believe it's true that a moment of crisis can also be a moment of opportunity - to reevaluate, reflect and reassess our charted course - and change it if logic, common sense, values, morality and survival demand.

The world is the only home we have, yet we have rendered it a precariously fragile place.  It cries out for a renewed spirit of international cooperation, infused with a bedrock commitment to human rights. 

Opportunity?  Meet biggest environmental catastrophe in U.S. history. Turn the page. All hands on deck.

[1i] 'MMS's troubled past'; Juliet Eilperin and Madonna Lebling; May 28, 2010; Washington Post ;

[1a] Wikipedia Gulf War oil spill ;

[1b] NOAA Expects Busy Atlantic Hurricane Season; May 27, 2010

[1c] 'BP Abandons 'Top Kill' Plan That Failed to Cap Leak'; David Wethe; May 29, 2010; ;

[2] Material Data Safety Sheet COREXIT 9500 - PDF ;

[3] 'Nalco releases additional technical information about COREXIT' ;

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