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Steiner: BP oil spill response did not work

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 06 August 2010

As the BP oil leak crisis appears to be coming to an end in the Gulf of Mexico, marine conservation biologist Professor Rick Steiner, writing for Channel 4 News, asks why did killing the Macondo blowout take so long?

As the BP oil leak crisis appears to be coming to an end in the Gulf of Mexico, marine conservation biologist Professor Rick Steiner. writing for Channel 4 News, asks why did killing the Macondo blowout take so long?

Deepwater Horizon blowout nears end, but the spill goes on. On Day 109 of the catastrophic BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the "static kill" of the blowout nears completion and the three-month long disaster seems on the verge of moving into a new chapter.

The final solution to stopping the blowout permanently is the "bottom kill" with one of the relief wells now within 30 metres of intersecting the failed well bore down at the top of the oil reservoir (4,000 m below the sea floor).

That operation is expected to be conducted in the next two weeks, and if it is successful, then and only then will this historic blowout be over.

Hats off to the engineers who finally killed this blowout with the containment cap and static kill, and to those drilling the relief well that will finish the job once and for all later this month. But there is certainly no reason to celebrate.

An immediate question that remains is this: why did killing the Macondo blowout take so long?

If BP and the US government had truly anticipated and prepared for an offshore oil well blowout such as this, response equipment and procedures would have been engineered, built, tested, and ready to go on 20 April.

This disastrous blowout would have been killed in days, not months. This would have prevented at least 100 million gallons of oil from spewing into this rich ecosystem, and would have dramatically reduced the tragedy that eventually unfolded.

And while the flow of oil from this blowout may (I emphasize "may") be over, the spill most certainly is not. It is important to recall that in the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, the oil outflow was over within a day, but the oil clean-up continued for three summers, and we are still dealing with the effects of the spill today – 21 years later.

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The US government's "oil budget" report
This week's release of the US government's estimated fate of the spilled oil suggests the Obama administration wants to rush to hang the "mission accomplished" banner over this event, and move on.

The US government estimates that about 206 million gallons (4.9m barrels) spilled, making this easily the largest accidental oil spill in history - surpassed only by the 1991 Persian Gulf spill in which Iraq intentionally spilled about twice this amount.

The US government report estimates that 17 per cent of the oil was recovered at the wellhead (by the various containment methods); five per cent was burned, three per cent skimmed, eight per cent chemically dispersed, 16 per cent naturally dispersed, 25 per cent evaporated or dissolved, and 26 per cent remains in the water and shores.

But there are many fatal flaws with this report. At only four pages long (surprisingly thin for even a summary scientific report) the document astonishingly does not report any of the methodology used to derive the estimates. Thus, there is no way to judge the legitimacy or veracity of the estimates.

No one really has any idea whatsoever of how much oil has gone where. As a Zen monk once said of an unrelated situation, this report is "painting eyeballs on chaos."

The authors simply suggest that these are the best numbers they can come up with, and thus the public should assume them as scientific truth. In fact, if this federal "oil budget" report were turned in as a high school science paper, it would surely receive an 'F grade', as the authors did not give the readers any idea of how they derived their estimates, nor did they report original data.

They are simply saying: "trust us." I, for one, am no longer inclined to cede such blind trust to a group of people whose negligence gave us the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the first place.  

Clearing up after the Gulf oil spill (Credit: Getty)

Has the oil really 'gone'?
The report has largely been misinterpreted. The spilled oil fraction defined as "dispersed" is generally misunderstood to be "gone" from the environment, but even the report does not claim this.

The report defines "dispersed" oil simply as oil droplets smaller than 100 microns (1/10 mm) diameter, but does not claim that this oil has degraded. It is dispersed and hopefully degrading, but certainly not entirely gone.

The report states the following: "Until it is biodegraded, naturally or chemically dispersed oil, even in dilute amounts, can be toxic to vulnerable species."

Thus, if one adds the dispersed estimate (24 per cent) to the residual fraction (26 per cent), the report concludes that half of the spilled oil could still be in the ecosystem.

Further, the dissolved component is known to be acutely toxic (with such compounds of benzene, toluene, xylene, etc.), increasing toxic exposure to pelagic organisms, and cannot be considered "gone."

We also know that oil that is highly emulsified with seawater - such as the Deepwater Horizon oil from 5,000 feet deep – undergoes much slower rate of evaporation and weathering.

Some of the reported oil fate estimates are reasonable. The three per cent oil recovery rate is exactly what I had estimated earlier, and confirms the belief that the 35m gallons of "oil/water mixture" recovered by skimmers was about 80 per cent water, 20 per cent oil.

And, three per cent recovery is indeed a very poor mechanical recovery rate from any oil spill, but to be fair, was due in part to the highly emulsified nature of the oil once it reached the sea surface from 5,000 feet deep.

Take home lesson here: oil spill response does not work. Period.

But many of the other estimates in the report are simple imagination, and not at all credible. The estimate that chemical dispersants were successful at dispersing eight per cent of the spilled oil is, quite frankly, ludicrous.

I have seen no data at all that suggest that the two million gallons of chemical dispersant used had much positive effect, and likely only added to the toxicity and exposure of pelagic organisms that otherwise may not have been so severely exposed.

Further, the five per cent burned estimate is almost certainly too high, and here we are relying simply on estimates given by BP spill contractors.

There was no independent verification of these daily burn estimates, and they should not be trusted.

Oil still floating on surface of water (Credit: Getty)Again, with no methodology reported as to how any of these numbers were derived, the public has no basis upon which to judge their legitimacy. But suffice to say – the oil has not gone away.

Even if not one drop of oil remained in the environment (which is certainly not the case) this would still represent a huge environmental disaster. The release of 200 million gallons of a toxic chemical into the northern Gulf of Mexico ecosystems has caused an enormous toxic shock to the system.

The release of 200m gallons of a toxic chemical into the northern Gulf of Mexico ecosystems has caused an enormous toxic shock to the system. Even if there was no more oil in the system, this ecosystem shock will reverberate for years, if not decades.

Chaos theory predicts that small initial perturbations in complex systems can lead to extreme and unanticipated effects in the system's future.

The blow to the many fish and wildlife populations and habitats from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will continue to have ripple effects, and the entire ecosystem will likely reform a new stable state in the future.

And of course, as even the US government just acknowledged in their flawed oil budget report, 100m gallons of oil may still be in the ecosystem, still causing damage.

Even in releasing the report this week, the head of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) admitted that most scientists inside and outside of the administration agreed that environmental damage from the spill "will linger for years, and possibly decades to come."

The politics of 'mission accomplished'
So why release such a misleading, easily misunderstood, and rosy "science" report now? The answer is politics.

The Obama administration shares virtually the same political objective from this disaster as BP and the other offshore oil companies. They all want to get this behind them as quickly as possible, and to get deepwater and Arctic drilling back on track as soon as possible.

This was a deal with the Devil made last year by Obama and many congressional democrats to get a modest energy/climate bill they needed to provide offshore drilling, nuclear energy, and coal.

The oil companies want to return to deepwater drilling to return to their obscene profits (that our governments allow them to retain), while the Obama administration wants to clear the spill's political damage.

The sooner they can hang the "mission accomplished" sign on the Deepwater Horizon disaster; the better will be the politics for the administration and congressional Democrats in tight mid-term elections this November.

But in the end, these sorts of discussions about the size of the spill, its impacts, how long it will take to recover, and so on, are an absurd distraction from the real issue here.

Protesters gather to demonstrate against BP (Credit: Reuters) What lessons for the future?
As well, all in the offshore oil business and the federal government were fundamentally shamed by the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and any suggestion now that this event 'may not have been that bad after all' would only help to redeem their lost honour.

So, once and for all, here is the final answer to the fundamental questions regarding the Deepwater Horizon, Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster: How large was the Gulf spill - too large. How much damage did it cause – too much. How long will the damage last – too long. What caused it: human error, equipment failure, and lax government oversight. Next question please.

Once an industrial accident such as this reaches a certain threshold, it is a disaster. Clearly, the Deepwater Horizon is one hell of a disaster. I believe it is on par with Chernobyl, Bhopal, Exxon Valdez, the Dalian spill in China, the Niger Delta, Siberia, and the many other human-caused environmental disasters of history.

Yet the discussion with the Gulf now seems to be going down the old rabbit hole of "how bad is bad?" What is the threshold for what we consider a disaster? Is it one or two dead oil workers or a dozen; a hundred dead pelicans or a thousand; five miles of oiled beach or 500 miles; a few lost coastal businesses or hundreds; a month of oil damage or 10 years; 26 per cent residual oil or 50 per cent?

From a policy standpoint, we already know enough about how bad the Deepwater Horizon disaster has been – bad enough. We need to do everything possible to prevent a repeat of this – absolutely everything. And we knew that on Day one – 20 April 2010 - with the loss of those 11 men who lost their lives in the explosion.

It doesn't really matter if, three months into the disaster, 25 per cent or 24 per cent of the oil has evaporated and dissolved, five per cent or six per cent was burned, 24 per cent or 23 per cent dispersed, three per cent or four per cent recovered, or whatever. That is irrelevant.

It is an enormous insult for anyone to intimate now that Deepwater Horizon disaster was not all that bad, or is almost over. Have we learned nothing?

We owe it to the countless victims of our collective negligence – the rig workers, the shore side communities, the tens of thousands of birds and dolphins and fish and sea turtles, the countless other organisms who died and will die needlessly, the habitats damaged – to be more honest here, and to make this right.

Making it right will require that BP establish a $20bn restoration fund to help the Gulf ecosystem recover; extending the moratoria on drilling in extreme environments (deepwater and Arctic) until we are assured it can be done safely; better blowout prevention and response methods, including better blowout preventers, alarm systems, simultaneous relief wells; and leaving those environmentally precious areas out of all future oil leasing plans.

Finally, we are better than this. This is clearly no way to treat our one and only home planet. We know how to conduct our affairs in a much more responsible manner, and we need to do so.

We know we need to transition to sustainable energy, and we know how. We know that the chronic, day-to-day, year-to-year degradation of our biosphere – deforestation, biodiversity loss, global warming, a human population approaching seven billion – is cumulatively far more devastating than all the oil spills we can throw at ourselves.

This summer, as the Gulf oil disaster unfolds, the world is warmer than at any time in recorded history, people are dying from the heat, fires are raging across Russia, and the Arctic ice cap may reach a historic minimum next month.

We know that, while five million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico this summer, the US uses some 20 million barrels of oil each day, and wastes at least half that.

That's right, each and every day, we here in the US waste more than twice the amount of oil that was spilled in the Gulf.

Our lives have been one hell of an oil spill, and out of sheer compassion for the many victims of the Deepwater Horizon disaster – human and non-human – isn't it time to change?

Professor Rick Steiner is a marine conservation biologist based in Anchorage Alaska.

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