Tragedy of Errors Sinks Oil Rig

By Roger Linnett,

The oil volcano (you can’t call it a “spill,” as that implies a known quantity) continues to spew crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  As of June 1 it has been doing so for 42 days. On May 29, British Petroleum officially announced that the “topkill” procedure was not going to work as the pressure coming from the well was too great to stop by this method.

Several strategies are being implemented to try to stop the gusher. This week, BP plans to cut the crumpled riser pipe, which may increase the outflow by as much as 20 percent. A snug-fitting cap, attached to a pipe leading to a surface vessel would suckk up most , but not all of the gusher. Also, second blow out preventer is going to be installed to replace the one that failed, and another containment dome is being readied to cover the wellhead.

None of these methods will completely stop the oil from leaking out into the ocean. The general consensus now is that only the two relief wells, which continue to be drilled, but are not expected to actually be functional until sometime in August, can definitely relieve the pressure that is the underlying cause of the upwelling.

Many new facts are coming to light through official hearings and news media reporting, regarding the series of decisions and incidents that led to the catastrophe. The most damning evidence comes from BP documents that show they chose the riskier of two casing procedures, which used only a single barrier at the wellhead, instead of two; the safer, and more expensive method.

According to the New York Times, “Workers from the rig and company officials have said that hours before the explosion, gases were leaking through the cement, which had been set in place by the oil services contractor, Halliburton. Investigators have said these leaks were the likely cause of the explosion.”

Additionally, problems with the casing and blow out preventer were observed back as far as 11 months prior to the explosion, and that, in March, BP officials had informed federal regulators that they were struggling with a loss of “well control,” according to a Sunday Times article.

The Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Services are holding hearings in Louisiana to investigate reports of a disagreement “between a BP well site leader and crew members employed by TransOcean, the rig’s owner, the morning of the blast,” the Times reports. A witness testified that, “the disagreement followed BP’s decision to replace heavy drilling fluid with lighter saltwater before the well was sealed with a final cement plug.”

Initially, BP estimated about 200,000 gallons, or 5,000 barrels, a day was gushing from the wellhead. It has now been reported that a government team, led by Dr. Marcia McNutt, director of the U.S. Geological Survey, has revised the estimate to as much as five times the original estimate, which works out to nearly 39 MILLION gallons to date! However, a recent report by the Deepwater Horizon Unified Response Command, a collaboration of BP, TransOcean, the Coast Guard and a dozen federal government departments and agencies, puts the upper limit at 10 million gallons less, or “only” 29 million gallons! Astoundingly, this disaster only ranks 19th on the scale of recorded oceanic oil spills since 1967.

Another determination by the feds, that ameliorates the extent of the damage, is that a fair percentage of the oil has been siphoned off through a pipe BP inserted into the wellhead, or has been skimmed off, burned or sprayed with dispersant on the surface. This still leaves a volume several times the amount spilled in 1989 by the Exxon Valdez loose and unbounded in the ocean.

One redeeming fact, if you can call it that, is that video analysis of the gusher shows a portion of the outflow is methane gas, instead of crude oil. Unfortunately, the methane simply rises to the surface and up into the atmosphere. It is a potent greenhouse gas, over 20 times more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, and usually remains airborne for approximately 12 years.

Most distressing of all is that, again per the Unified Response Command, as of May 27, BP had dumped over 850,000 of gallons of a highly toxic dispersant called “COREXIT9500” (which is banned in Britain) on the slick to sink and disperse some of the God-awful mess in an attempt, not to do something positive about the slick, but to make it less visible to satellites that have been following the spreading disaster, and the attendant photos and maps flashed around the world. Dispersants cause the oil to break up into tiny droplets and sink, settling to depths between 30 and 50 feet. These are the depths that many of the ocean’s major fish species inhabit, all of which are subject to poisoning from BP’s “accident.”

Between April and June, Bluefin tuna come to the warm Gulf waters each year to spawn. The Bluefin has only recently been taken off the endangered species list, and marine biologists fear that losing an entire generation may very likely doom the species. Besides Bluefin, Yellowfin tuna, swordfish and marlin also congregate in this part of the ocean, as do sperm whales, Bryde’s whales, several species of dolphins, as well as, sea turtles,manatees, sharks, barracuda, tarpon and other sport fish that inhabit the coastal waters plus the many seabirds that feed in the open ocean. All these animals feed on smaller “forage fish”, which are more apt to ingest the droplets created by the oil mixed with the dispersant, mistaking it for food. Making matters worse, the highly toxic dispersant is what is called a bioaccumulator, that is, it is passed up the food chain.

A real-time map of the Gulf, on the Times’ website, by The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admin., the Coast Guard and Sky Truth, shows that the effluvia from this underwater volcano has spread into the Loop Current, which circulates through the Gulf, and will carry it through the Florida Keys and into the Atlantic and the Gulf Stream Current. In the coming months we will, no doubt, be hearing reports from all over Florida and the Carolinas of tar balls and oil slicks despoiling their coasts, just like those now coming in from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Another disastrous side effect that is likely to be realized in the coming year concerns Florida’s water supply. Florida, it seems, is built upon fairly porous limestone, the remains of an ancient coral reef, which is the source of the hundreds of springs that percolate up all over the peninsula. Eventually, this toxic soup of crude oil and dispersant (which actually facilitates the oil leaching through the limestone), will eventually poison some, if not all, of Florida’s ground water. Florida, especially the fragile Everglades wetlands, may well become a “dead zone”, devoid of all plant and animal life, and people, for decades to come.

On Thursday, May 27th, President Obama held a press conference, the main thrust of which was that, he, the Coast Guard and the federal government have been on this thing from the beginning and have, in fact, approved every step BP has taken in plugging the wellhead, as well as, overseeing the cleanup efforts.

Troubling reports are coming in about fishermen, hired by BP to help with the clean up, suffering from respiratory problems, headaches, dizziness, nausea and other effects from exposure to chemical irritants rising from the polluted waters. Various sources are reporting that the fishermen were not given respirators or any other safety equipment, and were, in fact, threatened with firing if they used them.

An N.O.A.A. vessel, that had detected an oil”plume” ten miles long, three miles wide and 300 feet thick was ordered to withdraw from the area. Also, there have been reports of BP security contractors patrolling the beaches to keep unwanted photographers away from despoiled areas. Additionally, a Coast Guard cutter intercepted a boat with a CBS News crew on board, and told them to leave the area, and that they were acting on the authority of BP!

I leave it to you to make up your own mind as to whether all this flowed from the top, or not. I only wish the president had come out three weeks ago and told the country what he said on Thursday. While not as reassuring as I would have hoped, President Obama’s press conference has helped ease the anguish in my heart at the thought of the tragedy yet unfolding.

Categories: Environment, Roger Linnett