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Keep asking: Why did the BP spill happen, and what’s next?

ASK THIS | June 10, 2010

Questions for scientists, for the Obama administration, and for BP. There’s a lot the experts just don’t know. For example, how adaptive is the fish life cycle? And, based on past spills, how likely is it to recover?

By Ken Ringle

The catastrophic BP oil spill, now in its second month, is, of course, all over the news. But reporting on it too often resembles the old story about the blind men and the elephant. You remember that one: one blind man touches the elephant’s leg and says the elephant is like a tree. The one touching the elephant’s side says the beast is really like a wall. One touches his trunk and says the elephant is like a snake, and so on.
Reporters and commentators, most of whom evidence little or no knowledge about oil or its environment and too many of whom show a marked aversion to boning up on the subject with even rudimentary research, rush from “expert” to “expert” for enlightenment. But too often they’re interviewing blind men: the engineers who know about drilling may know nothing about wetlands. The wildlife experts concerned about oiled birds know nothing about ocean currents. The oceanographers who know about ocean currents may know nothing about biodegradation of oil. And so on.
The scientists are balkanized in their specialties and even environmentalists, who should have a comprehensive understanding of the whole picture, usually know little or nothing about oil field engineering. Sensing a chance to make political points against their Big Oil nemesis, they too often ignore the scientific studies of past oil spills and project their apocalyptic fears as facts.
Journalists are rightly skeptical of pronouncements from BP, which looks negligent in its engineering and like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight in its repair efforts. Yet this journalistic skepticism appears distinctly one-sided. Does any reporter worthy of the name really think that a spokesman for Greenpeace speaks without an agenda? That a government biologist, however qualified and well-intentioned, doesn’t sense more research money for his agency the worse he makes this crisis appear? There’s nothing really wrong with that. It’s human nature. But reporters should resist the temptation to be stampeded emotionally by either side and ask the hard questions that will help root out the truth about this very serious disaster and help make clear-eyed judgments and remedies possible.
Here are a few:
For the scientists:
Q. As anyone can discover with a little on-line research, scientists long ago discovered some 600 natural oil seeps in the Gulf of Mexico. You can download NASA photos of them taken long before the BP spill. Each year they spout far more deep oil into Gulf waters than the BP spill has so far. Presumably they have been doing so for thousands of years. Marine life in the Gulf would seem to have evolved in its presence. What happens to this oil? Do fish and shrimp caught in the vicinity of these seeps show ill effects? Or is the area around these seeps largely a dead zone? Or is the key factor the rate at which the oil is leaking in a given area?
Q. Crude oil contains a galaxy of compounds ranging from benzene to asphalt. At least half of these are volatile and will normally evaporate from the surface in a warm-water, warm air environment like that of the BP spill. Does the use of dispersants on the much colder ocean floor make it less likely the oil will reach the surface to evaporate?
 Q. As anyone who owns and operates a Diesel engine knows, microscopic creatures not only live and breed in but feed on oil. To clean a Diesel fuel filter is to encounter a jelly-like mousse of these creatures remarkably similar to what is washing onto Gulf beaches today. If these microbes feed on oil and encourage its degradation aren‘t they the ultimate solution to cleaning up the spill? Aren‘t there pollution control measures that employ these microbes in vast quantities? Why has so much debate been heard on the effect of dispersants on birds and fish and so little on their effect on these microbes? Aren‘t the microbes both more valuable and more vulnerable?
Q. Almost all oil spills are harmful. But the three largest in history – the Kuwait disaster in the first Gulf War, Mexico’s 1979 Ixtoc I well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, and the 1979 Agean Captain-Atlantic Empress supertanker collision off Trinidad – all spilled far more oil than BP has so far, yet they left far less long-term damage behind than forecasts at the time predicted. And unlike the oft-cited Exxon Valdez spill in the much colder and less forgiving Alaskan waters, these three occurred in warm water environments similar to that of the BP spill. How much have the apocalyptic forecasts of the current spill’s long-term effects been based on worries and fears and how much on fact? Why has so little attention been paid to reports like the 1993 study by UNESCO, the United States, and Arab countries which found that the vast 1991 Kuwait spill – the spill extended more than 4,000 square miles – did “little long-term damage”? Weren’t seabirds nesting safely in the spill area the following year? What factors make the BP spill different? (Later reports, emerging after the BP spill, said the 1993 study understated effects. One said there has been heavy impact along coastal marshes. Another focused on the lack of clean-up efforts, which is unlikely to be a problem this time.)
Q. Many scientists and engineers say the key factor in the BP spill is the depth from which the oil is leaking, and the mile-long column of oil dispersing from it in the cold and pressure of the deep Gulf. Both scientists and BP engineers have been quoted as saying, “We’ve never encountered anything like this. It’s a whole new ball game.” Yet the natural oil seeps in the Gulf have been spewing oil columns from the same depths or deeper. How and why is the BP spill new and different? Shell, Chevron and other companies have brought in wells more than twice as deep as the BP well without incident. Did they have access to better science or engineering?
Q. Much attention has been focused on the famous “loop current” which normally gyres around the Gulf of Mexico and flows down the west coast of Florida to join the eastward-flowing Gulf Stream near the Florida Keys. Many scientists and environmentalists have forecast a scenario in which oil from the BP spill is caught in this current and not only flows to the Keys but is carried up the East Coast to pollute Atlantic Beaches. NOAA makes public daily computer modeled charts showing the route of the loop current and oil plumes from the BP spill. While no one would dispute the existence of the current itself, won’t any BP oil caught in it necessarily be more and more biodegraded and broken down the further it travels? Doesn’t oil from the Gulf’s natural seeps get caught in the loop current also? And if any oil carried on the current is as toxic as forecast, how can coral reefs and shrimp beds have prospered for centuries in the Keys and the Florida coast? Granted we may see fingernail-sized tar balls on Atlantic beaches at some point, but aren’t they always there anyway from natural oil seeps on the Atlantic floor? Don’t occasional small tar balls turn up regularly on beaches from Daytona to Martha’s Vineyard? How much further impact on such areas is the BP oil really likely to produce?
Q. The impact on the Gulf Coast seafood industry from the BP spill will unquestionably be enormous, particularly the impact on the spawning cycles and larval forms of shrimp, crabs and other marine life. But underwater cameras show small fish swimming back and forth through the oil plumes, apparently unharmed. Surely these fish are affected in some way. Will they likely die shortly or live to reproduce? And if they reproduce what will be the effect on their offspring? In other words, how adaptive is the fish life cycle? And, based on past spills, how likely is it to recover?
Q. In the wake of Mexico’s 1979 Ixtoc I well blowout, which flowed unchecked for nine months, the fish harvest in the Bay of Campeche reportedly dropped by 50 per cent. But it rebounded sharply in succeeding years because the reduced pressure from fishing came close to balancing the short term impact of the pollution. Is there any way to predict a similar bounce after the BP spill? Or are the fisheries of the Louisiana coast, with the mix of oyster beds, crab nurseries and other wetland habitats much more complex than those of the Mexican coast?
For the Obama Administration
Q. The U.S. oil industry has pioneered offshore drilling techniques in the Gulf of Mexico for more than half a century without any major accidents. There are presently more than 4,500 shallow water wells and nearly 600 deep wells in the Gulf of Mexico, some of the deep wells more than twice the depth of the BP well. As various companies push the envelope of technology in this unforgiving environment, how can government regulators possibly assure safety in new and untried conditions?
Q. The U.S. Navy has long had extraordinary capabilities in the deep sea, many of them highly classified. How much interaction, if any, has there been and should there be with the oil industry in making deep water drilling and production safer and more capable?
For BP
Q. A number of reports have disclosed that, during the last 24 hours before the BP well accident, the Deepwater Horizon rig was visited by representatives of Schlumberger, a major well-known oil field subcontractor tasked with performing the final technical tests on the BP well. According to the industry reports, the Schlumberger representatives found the well “bucking” alarmingly from oscillating gas pressure despite the concrete installed in the riser and directed BP to shut down the well immediately. When BP refused to do so, the Schlumberger representatives asked for a helicopter so they could leave the rig. When none was provided, Schlumberger radioed ashore for their own helicopter and flew ashore at their own expense. Six hours later the well blew. Assuming this report is basically correct, how often does BP or any other oil company reject such a ecommendation? Are there occasions when contractors like Schlumberger are over-cautious in their judgments? What factors influence these judgment calls by BP and other oil companies and contractors?
For Schlumberger 
Q. Your representatives apparently believed that the BP was in major danger of blowing when they left the rig. Did you contact any higher BP executive or any state or federal official to report your findings? If not, why not? Did you not have a moral and ethical duty to do so?

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