The Gulf oil spill goes on, and on, and on.
We all wonder if it will ever stop. To bum us out even more as we begin our annual trudge through another long, nasty, brutish Alabama summer, word came late last week from some of them pointy-headed scientists working for the federal government that even more petroleum has spilled into the Gulf than we thought. Allow us, once again, to present our weekly Green Space oil spill update.
EVEN WORSE THAN WE THOUGHT: According to numerous press reports, government scientists said last Thursday that the British Petroleum (BP) Deepwater Horizon well has been giving forth as many as 40,000 barrels of oil per day. The flow estimates were released by Marcia McNutt, director of the U.S. Geological Survey. According to Richard Simon, Betina Boxall and Margot Roosevelt of The Los Angeles Times, this doubles earlier estimates. The spill is already the largest in U.S. history, with even the lowest estimates nearly four times the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. Simon et al reported that, based on the new flow estimates, 42 million to 84 million gallons of oil may have leaked into the Gulf of Mexico since the rig blew up on April 20. Some estimates go even higher. According to the Associated Press (AP) in a report last Friday, more than 100 million gallons may have leaked into the Gulf of Mexico since the spill began. That is more than nine times the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.
SPILL WILL BE EXPENSIVE: Not surprisingly, the new higher estimates regarding the total amount of oil shooting out of BP’s useless well are not good news for anyone—not for wildlife, not for Gulf residents and certainly not for BP’s bottom line. According to the AP, the company could face penalties under a variety of environmental laws, including fines under the federal Clean Water Act for each barrel of oil spilled. Based on the maximum amount of oil possibly spilled to date, that would mean a potential civil fine for discharge alone of $2.8 billion. If BP were found to have committed negligence or misconduct, according to the AP, the civil fine could be up to $4,300 per barrel, or up to $11.1 billion. “It’s going to blow the record books up,” according to Eric Schaeffer, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement office.
PRESSURE BUILDS ON BP: According to many press outlets, the Coast Guard demanded last weekend that BP get its collective ass in gear and do more to stop the spill before President Barack Obama’s visit to the Gulf, which occurred earlier this week. The Coast Guard sent a nasty letter to BP’s chief operating officer saying that the company urgently needed to pick up the pace and present a better plan to contain the spill. This is another sign of strained relations between BP and the federal government, both of whom are feeling the pressure from the public and the media.
BUCK UP, LITTLE CAMPERS: According to the AP, the Coast Guard’s love letter to BP was made public just a few hours before that BP COO himself, Doug Suttles, thanked hundreds of BP workers, government officials and contractors at the spill response command center in Schriever, La. Suttles didn’t mention the letter when he spoke, according to the AP, but admitted there were “big frustrations out there.” “It’s a huge challenge, we’re doing something that we hoped we’d never have to do, but we’re doing something that no one’s ever done before,” Suttles said. “And I want to say thank you. You guys are doing a tremendous job under horribly difficult circumstances.”
OIL GUY SLAMS BP: BP may not find much PR cover, even among responsible people in its own industry. Terry Barr, president of Samson Oil and Gas, in Lakewood, Colo., published a letter to the editor in The Wall Street Journal last week in which he blasted BP and it’s CEO Tony Hayward. Barr argued that the reason for the disaster was not just the failure of a fail-safe blow-out preventer, but the fact that BP did not follow best industry practices regarding well maintenance, including tests of well-bore integrity and the use of a dense mud system to help keep hydrocarbons in the reservoir. “This spill is about human failure and it is time BP put its hand up and admitted that,” according to Barr.
IT GETS WORSE: Blogger Andrew Sullivan pounced on a piece in the magazine Technology Review in which engineers contacted by the publication suggested that BP may have cut corners and saved money by installing a continuous set of threaded casing pipes from the wellhead down to the bottom of its well. The engineers say that this type of arrangement can be problematic in deep, high-pressure wells, for reasons you would have to be an engineer to understand. Sullivan notes that a full investigation is needed, but adds, “If this pans out, we need to see these corporate criminals in the slammer.”
HEY, THIS MIGHT WORK: For those of you thinking that surely BP can figure something out, don’t hold your proverbial breath. BP says its efforts to install a relief well are ahead of schedule. However, even this may not work. Experts tell the AP that the relief effort could be exposed to the same risks that caused the original well to blow out and, potentially, create a worse spill if engineers were to accidentally damage the existing well or poke another hole in the undersea oil reservoir.
OBAMA NOT OFF THE HOOK, EITHER: President Obama is under pressure to do something about the spill. One source of that pressure is Alabama governor Bob Riley, who expressed his frustration with the administration’s handling of the oil spill response during an interview on CNN with Candy Crowley. According to Riley, decisions are being made by “a committee” of different federal agencies. “You can’t continue to do that,” Riley said. “We’re going to have one person who makes the call on what we do and where.”
AN ICONIC PETROLEUM MOMENT? Politico.com discussed the efforts by Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of California and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) to force top oil executives to defend or condemn industry practices and profits in a series of congressional hearings. They suggested that televised hearings could “create an iconic Washington moment for the petroleum industry.” “I’m not sure the industry has grasped how much this is going to hurt them in the long run,” one energy lobbyist told Politico. “They’re still seeing this as a BP problem. That’s not a good place for them to be.”
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