Impact Story: BP Spill — Using Science to Hold BP and Federal Regulators Accountable

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Within a day of the April 20, 2010 explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon drill rig in the Gulf of Mexico, we began our high tech surveillance of the spill. Examining satellite images and aerial survey data, SkyTruth quickly became a leading source of independent, unbiased information on the size and scope of the disaster.

It was the largest oil spill in the nation’s history, releasing almost five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. As bad as it was, it could have been even worse. Had BP continued to downplay the extent of the disaster, delaying mobilization of the appropriate response, it may have taken even longer than the 87 days it took to cap the well. Our work challenged the official story, spurred government science agencies to get off the sidelines,  and opened a public dialogue about the magnitude of the risk posed by modern offshore drilling..

Throughout the spring and into mid-summer of 2010, as BP’s disabled well continued to pump oil into the Gulf, SkyTruth president John Amos was quoted in hundreds of news reports, and his interpretation and analysis of the raw imagery helped policy makers, the press and the general public make sense of events as they unfolded.

SkyTruth also played a vital watchdog role. One week after the accident, we raised concerns that the amount of oil spilling into the Gulf was likely much higher than the 1,000 barrels-a-day estimated by BP and repeated by government officials. The New York Times and other media outlets picked up the analysis published on the SkyTruth blog on April 27. The next day, government officials publicly broke ranks with BP and raised its estimate to 5,000 barrels a day, the amount we had initially calculated.

John and other independent experts kept the issue in the headlines by presenting new estimates of 20,000 and then 26,500 barrels per day as new images and data became available, leading the public to question whether BP was low-balling the spill rate. On May 4th, the company privately acknowledged the possibility that the well was likely gushing as much as 60,000 barrels of oil a day, 10 times more than the government had previously estimated.  (Later, the government’s scientific teams concluded that the higher estimate was closer to the truth; they estimated that 53,000 barrels were leaking each day immediately before the well was capped on July 15.)

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While NASA and the governments of several foreign countries made their satellite images freely available, without organizations like SkyTruth to interpret those images, the public may have never known the true impact of the spill.

Equally important, we invited people directly into the conversation. Tens of thousands visited our website, blog, Twitter and Facebook pages. During the first ten days of June, for instance, our Blog received more than 70,000 visits – 25,000 in a single day. Meanwhile, our Oil Spill Tracker site, deployed on the fly in the first days of the spill, allowed Gulf residents to act as citizen journalists posting commentary and observations, as well as photos and videos of oil awash on the beaches and petroleum-drenched wildlife.

Oceanographer Ian R. MacDonald, who collaborated with the organization during the three-month Gulf spill and an earlier one in Australia’s Timor Sea in 2009, likens SkyTruth’s mission to that of “a fire truck.”

“When there’s an emergency, SkyTruth is there,” says MacDonald, a professor at Florida State University and one of the world’s foremost experts in remote sensing of oil slicks. “From the beginning of the BP spill to the end, SkyTruth was a public source of very timely raw satellite images and interpreted products, as well as a thoughtful commentary that pulled in the views of other people.”

2010 BP Spill in Gulf of Mexico – How Big Was It?

Final moments of the doomed Deepwater Horizon drill rig, April 22, 2010.

A judge in New Orleans is now pondering a big-money question: how big was the 2010 BP oil spill?  Exactly how much oil gushed into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico throughout the relentless summer of the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil (and gas) disaster?  The Summer of Spillcam? 

Thar she blows:  BP spill cam, May 30, 2010.

Despite the government shutdown, lawyers from the federal Department of Justice are duking it out in court against a team of BP attorneys.  At stake: billions of dollars in fines levied under the Clean Water Act, which are calculated based on the amount that was spilled.  The feds say BP spilled 4.2 million barrels (176.4 million gallons); BP says it was much less, about 2.45 million barrels (102.9 million gallons).  If the judge rules that BP has to pay the full $4300 fine per barrel for gross negligence, that’s a whopping difference of $7.5 BILLION.  Congress passed a law called the RESTORE Act that will send 80% of the fine to the affected Gulf states, in part to conduct ecosystem restoration projects to repair damage from the spill; if BP’s lower number prevails, that’s $6 billion less for restoration work.

SkyTruth played a part during the spill to shed light on how bad it actually was.  When the Deepwater Horizon exploded in flames, we began collecting and analyzing daily satellite imagery, and publishing maps of the growing oil slick.  A Gulf oceanographer, Dr. Ian MacDonald (then at Texas A&M, now at Florida State), saw our images and slick-size measurements and suggested that BP and Coast Guard estimates of the flow-rate of oil from the well must be far too small to result in such a large and rapidly expanding oil slick. On April 27, 2010 – three days after the Coast Guard announced the Macondo well was leaking – we published on this blog our first estimate that the flow rate was at least 20,000 barrels (840,000 gallons) per day: 20 times greater than BP and the Coast Guard were saying.

Here’s a timeline of the flow-rate estimates made for the Macondo well in the first two weeks of the spill (some of the links to news accounts may no longer work). 

  • 4/22 – Deepwater Horizon rig sinks; Coast Guard estimates “up to” 8,000 barrels per day (bpd) is leaking – source
  • 4/23 – Coast Guard reports no leaking at all from the damaged well – source
  • 4/24 – Coast Guard reports well is leaking, estimates 1,000 bpd – source
  • 4/25 – BP repeats 1,000 bpd estimate – source
  • 4/27 – 1,000 bpd still the official Coast Guard and BP estimate – source
  • 4/27 – SkyTruth and Dr. Ian MacDonald publish first estimate that spill rate is 20,000 bpd – source
  • 4/28 – NOAA weighs in and raises the official estimate to 5,000 bpd based on aerial surveys “and other factors”; BP disputes this higher estimate – source
  • 4/29 – Coast Guard and NOAA repeat their estimate of 5,000 bpd – source
  • 4/29 – BP’s Chief Operating Officer admits new estimate of 5,000 bpd may be correct; “He said there was no way to measure the flow at the seabed and estimates have to come from how much oil makes it to the surface” – source
  • 5/1 – SkyTruth and Dr. Ian MacDonald publish revised estimate of at least 26,500 bpd – source
  • 5/1 – Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen “acknowledged there was no way really to know the extent of the leak” – source – and stated that “Any exact estimate is probably impossible at this time” – source
  • 5/1 – Coast Guard and NOAA cease estimating the rate of the spill. BP continues to use 5,000 barrels per day as their estimate of the spill rate.

On May 19, NOAA and the USGS convened a panel of scientists, dubbed the Flow Rate Technical Group, to measure the flow rate using several different approaches.  On May 27, more than one month into the disaster, they issued their first preliminary estimate of the spill rate.  Subsequent estimates were much greater; their final estimate was a flow rate of 62,000 barrels per day at the beginning of the spill, tapering back to 53,000 barrels per day by the time the well was finally capped on July 15, 2010.  Some, including scientists on the Flow Rate Technical Group, claim even these numbers are too low.  

So watch closely. The judge will be bombarded by highly technical expert-witness testimony from both sides.  The complexity, and lack of absolute certainty with any indirect measurement technique, favors BP: it’s likely the judge will ultimately make some kind of compromise, and the final for-the-record number will be based on a mix of politics, confusion and fatigue more than on actual science. 

Why BP Should Go On Trial For Gulf Oil Spill

The federal trial to determine accountability and penalties for the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil and gas disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was set to begin in New Orleans this morning, but has been delayed by one week to allow more time for BP, the feds, and other stakeholders to reach a settlement.

Deepwater Horizon rig sinking on April 22, 2010.

We appreciate that the many businesses and families harmed by this massive industrial accident may want to receive compensation sooner rather than later. A trial and the inevitable appeals would likely stretch on for years, with the outcome uncertain.

On the other hand, a quick settlement is the best outcome for BP, because they may avoid having to pay the higher $4,300-per-barrel-spilled fine for “gross negligence,” and would only face the much lower automatic fine of $1,100 per barrel.  Given a total spill of 172 million gallons (4.1 million barrels), that’s a very big difference: $4.5 billion instead of $17.6 billion.  Even a company as large as BP, which earned profits of $23.9 billion in 2011, would feel some pain from the gross negligence fine.  And unless they feel real pain, the offshore drilling industry is likely to continue doing business as usual, making another massive deepwater spill a near certainty.

More important than meting out sufficient punishment: there is bipartisan legislation in play called the RESTORE Act that would specifically allocate 80% of the fine to the Gulf states affected by the spill, rather than the general treasury. We assume (optimistically) much of the money would be used by those states to fund social, economic and ecosystem revitalization projects.  If the Act does get passed by Congress, the additional $13.1 billion yielded by a determination of gross negligence could make a huge difference to Gulf communities.

Most interesting to us: if settlement talks fail and this case goes to trial, we expect federal prosecutors will attempt to paint BP as a “rogue” operator that took unusual risks, to convince the judge that the spill resulted from gross negligence.  BP, to defend itself, will likely claim that their operations, well design, and decisionmaking were not so unusual, and were consistent with industry-wide practices.  To make that case BP will have to present lots of information about the offshore drilling industry as a whole, including the safety record, accidents and near-misses experienced by other companies that we never hear about.  None of the official investigations of the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill looked at the industrywide record, leaving many of us wondering:

Just how risky is modern offshore drilling?

A trial may be the only way to answer that question, so we can make better-informed decisions that minimize the likelihood and impact of the next big spill as industry moves steadily forward with deepwater drilling.

Fire Reported in Gulf of Mexico – Part Deux?

Location of fires in the Gulf recently reported to the National Response Center in the general vicinity of the Na Kika deepwater development project operated by BP and Shell. Platforms are orange dots; seafloor pipelines are orange lines. Location of Deepwater Horizon wreckage shown for reference.

Once again an airline pilot (or observant passenger) has reported seeing a fire in the Gulf of Mexico.  This was reported to the National Response Center at about 8:19 pm on November 6, at a location in the deepwater Gulf about 12 miles southeast of the site of last year’s BP oil spill.  It’s also about 11 miles north of a fire reported on September 26 that we covered in this blog.

Both reports are in the general vicinity of the Na Kika offshore development project operated by BP and Shell.

We think these observers may be seeing flaring of natural gas during drilling operations.  We’re not sure what, if any, drilling activity is occurring here right now (if you know, please let us know!). If they are flaring “commercial quantities” of natural gas, that could be illegal – Shell got busted for doing this a few years back in the Gulf at their deepwater Auger platform about 140 miles offshore, and got fined to the tune of $49 million by the US government.

We don’t know if that’s what is happening here.  But we wonder if anyone at BOEMRE is paying attention to this.

Friday Night Appearances!

If you’re in the Shepherdstown, WV area this Friday evening November 4, come on out to the Shepherdstown Opera House for a screening of the film The Big Fix, ‘a comprehensive investigation into the massive BP Deepwater/Horizon spill in the Gulf which digs deeper to reveal a darker more unsettling truth about the world we live in today. By exposing the root causes of the spill, filmmakers Josh and Rebecca Tickell uncover a vast network of corruption that not only caused one of the greatest environmental catastrophes of all time but may also lead to something that could be even more damaging to life as we know it; an inevitable global currency collapse.’

The film will be followed by a panel discussion with none other than our own SkyTruth president, John Amos, as well as Doug Inkley of the National Wildlife Federation and Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post.  Joel is also author of a riveting book about the spill, A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea.

As if that wasn’t exciting enough, if you DO come out to the Opera House, don’t forget to set your DVR’s and Tivo’s for the SkyTruth interview with West Virginia’s PBS. Our segment will be shown on Friday night’s episode of This Week In West Virginia, which will be airing at 8:00 p.m. If you miss that airing, don’t fret! Another airing will be shown on Sunday, November 6 at 6:00 p.m.