BP Oil Disaster–Where is the oil?

Yesterday we reported the official estimate  that almost 5 million barrels of oil have been released into the gulf, yet, everyone seems to be asking the same question: Where did it all go?  A couple of interesting sources are available to address this quandary.

First, a Louisiana based television station took a camera and reporter out to a barrier island to investigate reports of oil beneath the sand. The beaches appeared clean, however, just walking in the sand provided hints to the trouble below as oil oozed up in the footprints, and many dead sand crabs littered the beach.

Secondly, another blog written by the University of Georgia Department of Marine Science, simply entitled “Gulf Oil Blog” also asked the question:  Where has the oil gone?  Their Aug. 1 blog posting attempts to quash rumors that the oil has just magically evaporated and/or been eaten by microorganisms. From that posting:

Should we be relieved?  Is this disaster over?

On the whole, I believe the answer to both questions is no.  It is a relief that the volume of surface oil is reduced, as this lowers the probability of oil-fouling of coastal beaches and marshes.  However, it’s likely that a great deal of oil is still out there in the Gulf of Mexico’s waters, it’s just no longer visible to us.

While some of the oil has most certainly evaporated, much of it was dispersed and this oil is still floating around, invisible to our eyes, within the ocean’s water column.   Some of the oil has probably sedimented to the seafloor, where it is also invisible to our eyes.  The fact that this oil is “invisible” makes it no less of a danger to the Gulf’s fragile ecosystems.  Quite the contrary, the danger is real and the danger is much more difficult to quantify, track and assess.

The Gulf Oil Blog also addresses the question of how to determine the long-term impacts from all of the dispersants used in this response. Although official tests have pointed to no more toxicity than oil alone (per yesterday’s EPA report), some scientists seem to be unconvinced. This Huffington Post article, originally posted on July 29 is entitled: “Scientist Find Evidence that Dispersant Mix are Making Their Way into the Food Chain“. The scientist they quote are from the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory and Tulane University.

Clearly there is much to learn, and this disaster will be with us for many years to come.

Thanks again to Claire for letting me blog, Kim.

BP Oil Spill–New Spill Estimates: almost 5 million barrels

New spill estimates released August 2 suggest that 4.9 million barrels of oil (give or take 10%), or 205,000,000 gallons have been released from the Deepwater Horizon oil well.  Of that, they estimate that about 16%, or 800,000 barrels (33.6 million gallons) has been captured. For comparisons sake, the Exxon Valdez spilled 750,000 barrels (31.5 million gallons), and this spill now exceeds the former-largest spill, the 1979  Ixtoc I, which released 140,000,000 gallons.  How they achieved this new estimate is described on the  Deepwater Horizon Unified Command page:

The installation of a new containment cap and the subsequent well integrity testing procedure provided the opportunity to calculate the flow by measuring the pressure at the top of the well as the choke and kill valves were manipulated after the main containment valve was closed to trap hydrocarbons.

Also of interest on the Deepwater Unified Command page was the EPA’s release of the results from toxicity testing on “mixtures of eight oil dispersants with Louisiana Sweet Crude Oil.” The result: “dispersant-oil mixtures are generally no more toxic to the aquatic test species than oil alone.” A link is provided on their page to the tests results.

On other note, the spill is having an impact as far north as Canada. According to the Ontario Star newspaper, as fall approaches the issue of migratory birds that winter in the Gulf Coast region has come into focus. Of major concern are white pelicans, which just came off the endangered species list, but many other birds could be “flying to their demise”. This is impacting many segments of Canadian society:

Scientists aren’t the only ones concerned about the impact the spill may have on Canada’s migratory birds. Aboriginal groups who have for centuries hunted ducks, geese and other waterfowl to feed their families are urging Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama to get involved.

The article mentions a program established by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service which has set up the “Migratory Bird Habitat Initiate” in an effort to mitigate this problem. They are paying farmers in portions of eight states to flood their fields in order to “enhance habitat for migratory birds”.

The Diva will be back from vacation tomorrow. Claire, thanks for letting me stand in for you!

Guest Blogger, Kim Stephens

Oil Spill Disaster–BP Muzzling Scientist?

Chairmen Waxman and Markey Question BP on Scientific Suppression

The Committee on Energy and Commerce seems to be just as concerned as we are regarding the suppression of scientific research from experts hired by BP. Last Thursday, July 29, a letter was sent to BP requesting their appearance on Aug. 6 to address the matter. From the Committee’s page:

Following recent reports indicating that BP has hired academic experts to study the oil spill and imposed confidentiality agreements on the independent scientists, Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-CA) and Edward J. Markey (D-MA) requested full disclosure of the contracts today from BP.

“Mitigating the long term impact of the oil spill will require an open exchange of scientific data and analysis,” write Reps. Waxman and Markey to BP America CEO Lamar McKay.  “Any effort to muzzle scientists or shield their findings under doctrines of legal privileges could seriously impede the recovery.”

The  two congressmen ask BP to brief the Committee on Energy and Commerce by August 6, 2010, on the matter, and provide “copies of all contracts that BP has executed with any third party consultant, scientist, or academic, from the period April 20, 2010, to the present, relating to assessing the environmental and health impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill or restoration efforts in the Gulf of Mexico.”

See also this article from the LA Times.

Oil Spill Disaster-More Conflicts in Regulatory System

David Dykes — the federal regulator now leading his agency’s investigation of the BP oil spill — has spent five years as a senior investigator and office chief enforcing oil industry safety in the Gulf of Mexico. For much of that time, his brother was a top executive at an energy company with significant activities under Dykes’s purview. But David Dykes did not formally recuse himself from matters involving his brother’s company. No rule required him to do so. Unlike many federal agencies that make employees distance themselves from matters involving friends, relatives or former bosses, the nation’s chief oil regulatory agency had no such policy.
Now, in the wake of the BP disaster, Congress is pressing the agency formerly called the U.S. Minerals Management Service to clamp down on potential conflicts of interest. The case of David and Rodney Dykes highlights the challenges of the task. The oil industry of the Gulf Coast is an insular world in which rig foremen and the federal inspectors charged with regulating them sometimes work side by side, or grew up in the same towns and even homes.

Also in the news this weekend–BP’s use of dispersants. From the LA Times on Saturday, July 31 read Gulf oil spill: Did Coast Guard allow excessive toxic dispersants?

From the article:

Documents released by a congressional committee Saturday show that the U.S. Coast Guard appeared to flout a May 25 Obama administration directive that sought to limit the use of chemical dispersants on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to “rare cases.”

“BP carpet-bombed the ocean with these chemicals, and the Coast Guard allowed them to do it,” said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House energy and environment subcommittee. “After we discovered how toxic these chemicals really are, they had no business being spread across the gulf in this manner.”

Oil Spill Disaster – July 30 – commercial fishing to resume

Two news articles about the resumption of fishing off the LA coast: Commercial fishing east of Mississippi River could reopen this week; and another account in Bloomberg News. The decision to resume fishing was supported by the U.S. Food and Drug Admin. [Thanks to Laura Olson for pointing out these articles.]

On the dark side, today’s NY Times has an article titled Gulf of Mexico Has Long Been a Sink of Pollution, NYT, July 30.  Here are some excerpts:

The gulf is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the hemisphere, a stopping point for migratory birds from South America to the Arctic, home to abundant wildlife and natural resources. But like no other American body of water, the gulf bears the environmental consequences of the country’s economic pursuits and appetites, including oil and corn. There are around 4,000 offshore oil and gas platforms and tens of thousands of miles of pipeline in the central and western Gulf of Mexico, where 90 percent of the country’s offshore drilling takes place. At least half a million barrels of oil and drilling fluids had been spilled offshore before the gusher that began after the April 20 explosion, according to government records.

The article then goes on to discuss the latest addition of oil to the waters, saying the Gulf region has been a “sacrifice zone” for the past 50 years. Some additional quotes:

All along the coast, people speak of a lack of regulatory commitment and investment in scientific research on the gulf by state and federal lawmakers.

Some of the strongest resistance to tough regulation, as well as the most permissive attitude toward industry and property development, has come from the Gulf States themselves.

The last line in this article is as follows: “You can fool people, but you cannot fool the fish.”

Another commentary, this one from the environmental community: Deception by dispersal; the great Gulf oil tragedy.

Trust. That’s a feeling severely lacking in the fishing community here. No one trusts anyone after three months of anxiety and depression, watching wave and wave of oil pour into their fishing grounds. They don’t trust BP, the Louisiana fish and wildlife agencies, the EPA or virtually every politician who parades through these communities with false promises and grandstanding accusations. They’ve seen it before during Katrina. Now they’re seeing it again. Some people who are connected are making good money off the misfortune of others. Most are just trying to get by.

Oil Spill Disaster – July 29 – followup on scientific research

After talking to two officials at the National Science Foundation, it is clear that the federal government is sponsoring essential research regarding the oil spill disaster. For details of their efforts, see the Gulf Oil Spill page on the NSF website. Attached is a recent list of NSF funded project — NSF-Funded Gulf Oil Spill RAPIDs — so that you can see the work that is, or soon will be, underway.  There are more than 40 awards for a total of about $5M.  Note that the NSF gives researchers full latitude to share their results. [Thanks to Dr. Josh Chamot of the NSF for this information.]

One example of an interesting website that provides details on the impacts and consequences of the Gulf Oil Spill is the work of Prof. James Corbett at the Univ. of DE.

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Oil Spill Disaster – Day 100 – issues re science research

The issue of the sharing of scientific findings is discussed in the July 27 in a Washington Post opinion piece titled Research on gulf oil spill shouldn’t take a backseat to litigation. Plus the article raises a new topic, that of the need for a comprehensive and strategic look at the research needed for such a major disaster event; I would argue both hard science and social science research should be included in such a comprehensive plan.

Our nation needs a comprehensive science plan to learn from and respond better to this tragedy. Those working in academia, federal and state government, nongovernmental organizations, and industry need to be consulted and included. The federal government must also make funding available, apart from the NRDA process, to enable independent, peer-reviewed science to be undertaken.

Also related to the topic is a recent statement by the American Assoc. of University Professors regard BP’s impact on academic freedom following the Gulf oil spill. See attached file titled  ACADEMIC FREEDOM.  One quote from that statement follows:

Perhaps this is the time to reexamine the increasing role corporations are playing in funding and controlling university research. Universities should work with faculty to set ethical standards for industry collaboration that champion the public interest and discourage faculty members from selling their freedom of speech and research to the highest bidder.

Thanks to Bill Cumming for bringing this statement to my attention. It is a timely addition to the topic discussed in today’s post.

CNN has posted an interesting summary of the effects, on the 100 day anniversary of the spill. See this article. And CNN also has posted some dramatic graphics of the spill since day 1.

Oil Spill Disaster – July 27 – more second thoughts

Could Oil Spill Debacle be Fatal to NIMS/ICS? Opinion piece in Emergency Management, July 20. Experienced responders comment on whether or not NIMS and ICS were used as intended for the oil spill disaster response  (Thanks for Bill Cumming for point out this article.)

Risky Decisions led to Oil Spill. July 25, Wash. Post.

The calamity, the evidence now suggests, was not an accident in the sense of a single unlucky or freak event, but rather an engineered catastrophe — one that followed naturally from decisions of BP managers and other oil company workers on the now-sunken rig.

A deeper look at the human toll provides some serious indicators of trouble ahead.  In Gulf oil disaster, cameras can’t capture the human toll
CNN July 26. Some highlights of that story:

* Forget about oil, wildlife, the economy and environment; think about people, communities
* Early signs show rise in depression, domestic violence, substance abuse and more
* “Corrosive communities,” marked by distrust, emerge from manmade disasters, expert says
* Stops along Gulf show how residents cope, or fail to, and what insiders say people need

Oil Spill Disaster – July 26- Hearings reveal a litany of problems

Once again, we are getting the message that a series of Risky Decisions Led to Oil Spill. July 25, Wash. Post.

The calamity, the evidence now suggests, was not an accident in the sense of a single unlucky or freak event, but rather an engineered catastrophe — one that followed naturally from decisions of BP managers and other oil company workers on the now-sunken rig.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster can be attributed to “an organizational culture and incentives that encourage cost-cutting and cutting of corners — that reward workers for doing it faster and cheaper, but not better,” an academic advisory panel of scientists, chaired by Univ. of CA/Berkeley professor Robert Bea,…. “We know that in a very large number of cases, the seeds for failure are sown very early in the life of a particular system — during the concept development and design phases (e.g. the design of the Macondo well). These seeds are then allowed to flourish during the operation and maintenance phases, and, with the system in a weakened or severely challenged condition, it fails,” the panel’s report states.

And there may be lessons here for anyone involved in a complex and difficult venture. People tempted fate, hoping for the best while failing to insure against the worst. They did not take care of the little things. And then the big thing — the Macondo well — didn’t take care of itself.

Oil Spill Disaster – July 24 – evacuation order reveals underlying distrust

No wonder no one trusts anyone. Here are two examples of problems: one with local public officials and the second with scientists in connection with BP.

Tension Among Officials Grows as Storm Nears, NYT, July 24. The complicated job of evacuating residents and workers in LA reveal great distrust of BP and federal officials.

At the end of the day, it’s my job and the parish president’s job to look out for what’s best for residents of St. Charles Parish,” said Scott Whelchel, the director of emergency preparedness for a parish that lies on the southwestern banks of Lake Pontchartrain. “The simple fact is, I wasn’t elected to take care of BP’s equipment.”

Once again a statement by BP about the oil spill plumes does not turn out to be correct.

Researchers link undersea oil plumes to BP spill. LA Times. July 24.

“… two studies confirm what in the early days of the spill was denied by BP and viewed skeptically by NOAA’s chief — that much of the crude that gushed from the Deepwater Horizon well stayed beneath the surface of the water.