BP / Deepwater Horizon Oil & Gas Disaster – What’s Changed?

The Deepwater Horizon’s final hours, April 22, 2010. Photo courtesy New York Times. More here.

One year ago today, after an explosion and fire that killed 11 workers and injured 17 others, a technological marvel — the Deepwater Horizon semisubmersible drill rig — slipped beneath the waves and sank in 5,000′ of water, 40 miles offshore in the deep Gulf of Mexico. The rig had drifted and burned out of control for nearly two days following the catastrophic blowout of BP’s ill-fated oil and gas well, named Macondo, that triggered the blast at 10pm on April 20.

Oil-burning operations in the Gulf, June 2010. Photo courtesy FSU / Dr. Oscar Garcia-Pineda

We didn’t know it at the time, but this was the start of what would become the world’s worst accidental oil spill. Before the well was finally brought under control and capped on July 15, it had gushed 172 million gallons of crude oil, and billions of cubic feet of natural gas, into the cold, dark waters at the bottom of the sea.

The Gulf’s resiliency has proven some of the gloomiest of doom-sayers wrong; this is a naturally “oily” ecosystem, with hundreds of known natural oil and gas seeps in deep water, and a microbial defense system that reminds me of the white blood cells in our own immune systems. The Gulf hasn’t died, but it almost certainly has changed; the jury is still out on the short- and long-term environmental damage this spill has wrought. Independent scientists and those involved in the official Natural Resources Damage Assessment process suggest it may be years before the full account can be written.

Likewise, the full impact of the spill on other culturally and economically important industries in the Gulf region and beyond, like seafood and hospitality, may take a few years to understand. So will the human health effects of the spill.

Meanwhile BP itself is once again booking strong profits, moving forward with ambitious new drilling plans, and appears to be thriving. Polls show the public strongly favors more offshore drilling. The federal government is issuing new permits to drill in deep water, based largely on their faith in two new well-containment devices that would take weeks to assemble and deploy in the next emergency, allowing tens of millions of gallons to hit the water before these untested devices even arrive on the scene. I’d like to say we’ve got totally retooled oil spill cleanup plans and capabilities to deal with the inevitable next spill, but sadly that is not the case. Apparently the industry and our government have decided this is good enough for the people of the Gulf:

Cleanup workers wiping oil from marsh grass. U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Derek W. Richburg.

As time goes by it’s looking less likely that the well-researched recommendations of the National Oil Spill Commission are going to be implemented, meaning offshore drilling will continue to be a high-risk activity. Why is this? I’ll turn it over now to a couple of writers who sum it up far more eloquently than I could. David Jenkins of Republicans for Environmental Protection blasts the inaction by Congress in the wake of this historic disaster in The Spill Washington Forgot. And Carl Cannon puts the politics and policy in context in this compelling analysis, Political Partisanship and Earth Day.

Now for the good news: We’ve made real progress here at SkyTruth, forming a space-water- air SWAT team with SouthWings and Waterkeeper Alliance. The Gulf Monitoring Consortium leverages the skills and expertise of our organizations to help us efficiently and effectively evaluate, investigate and document oil pollution incidents in the Gulf of Mexico. We’ll keep you updated as the Consortium grows, builds new information tools, responds to future incidents, and publishes our findings.

Announcing: the Gulf Monitoring Consortium

Today, SkyTruth, SouthWings, and Waterkeeper Alliance launch the Gulf Monitoring Consortium: an innovative partnership that is systematically monitoring oil pollution in the Gulf of Mexico with satellite images and mapping, aerial reconnaissance and photography, and on-the-water observation and sampling. This unique effort led by three non-profit organizations will collect and publish images, observations and sampling data of the Gulf of Mexico to rapidly respond to reported and suspected oil pollution incidents.

Read the full news release.

At SkyTruth we’re always looking for ways to get reliable and timely ground truth information to accompany our satellite images; it helps the images tell a fuller story. Working with SouthWings, we can get pilots and observers up in the air to investigate spill reports and corroborate indications of pollution on satellite imagery. Waterkeeper can mobilize folks on the coast and the water, in coordination with satellite overpasses and aerial overflights, to get up-close documentation and samples of suspected pollution.

This newly formed alliance will actively bear witness to current, ongoing, and future oil pollution to fill the information gap exposed since the tragic BP / Deepwater Horizon explosion one year ago. During the BP spill SkyTruth, SouthWings and the Waterkeeper Alliance detected and documented an unrelated, chronic leak from a platform destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. And you probably recall that for several days following the oil spill that came ashore March 20 in Grand Isle, Louisiana, government officials provided little information to the public on the source or severity of the pollution. Concerned citizens, NGOs and the media scrambled to figure out what was happening, and requested help from our organizations. And the more we look into it, the more we find that official government pollution reports, in many cases submitted by the polluters themselves, are internally inconsistent and dont match what we observe on satellite images.
Damaging rumors and speculation take hold in the absence of good information, leading people in Gulf communities still reeling from the BP disaster to fear the worst whenever oil comes ashore: another major offshore spill. That’s why we’ve formed this alliance with SouthWings and Waterkeeper, to systematically and efficiently evaluate reported or suspected pollution incidents in a coordinated approach from space, from the air, and on the water, so we can fill this critical information gap.

The Gulf Monitoring Consortium is a rapid response alliance that collects, analyzes and publishes images and other information by space, air and water in order to investigate and expose oil pollution incidents that occur in the Gulf of Mexico. We’re actively seeking partner organizations to join us in this effort.

BP Hoping to Resume Drilling in Gulf of Mexico This Summer

BP is in discussions with federal officials at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) to get permits to resume deepwater drilling in its existing oil fields in the Gulf, perhaps as soon as this summer. The timing might be unpredictable but federal approval seems inevitable since BP holds many leases in the Gulf and is one of the top global players in offshore oil production. Besides, we want them to survive so they can pay all the bills they owe from the world’s worst accidental oil spill.

I hope BP takes this opportunity to become the safest player in the Gulf, and to lead the oil industry – in cooperation with state and federal regulators – to go well beyond what is or will be required by the letter of the law. BOEMRE’s response has been downright disappointing, issuing new deepwater drilling permits that rely on old pre-2010 oil spill response plans that failed us miserably last summer, and continuing to place faith in a last line of defense – the blowout preventer – that is now recognized to be fundamentally unreliable.

BP could choose to voluntarily set a much higher bar for this industry by demonstrating to their shareholders and to regulators that they are determined to be the gold standard in safety — even if that means sacrificing some short-term profitability to invest in continuous long-term improvements in energy efficiency, drilling procedures, spill response, and spill remediation.

Transocean: Here’s an Idea – Give Your Bonuses to Charity

At this point our award for Worst Bedside Manner in 2011 has to go to Transocean. The year is young, and they may yet be unseated, but that’s hard to imagine. By now you’ve probably heard that, in their annual proxy statement sent to shareholders, Transocean declared 2010 “the best year ever” for safety at the company.

If the name rings a bell, it should. Transocean owned and operated the Deepwater Horizon drill rig that exploded, burned and sank last April, killing 11 workers and injuring another 17. And kicking off what became the world’s worst accidental oil spill, possibly due in part to actions taken on board the rig that doomed it to go down, plundering the pockets of fishermen, hotel and restaurant workers, and countless businesspeople throughout the Gulf region and beyond.

Statistically speaking, they may be correct that 2010 was their best year for safety: this is a big multinational company operating a global fleet of more than 130 drilling rigs. But the optics sure are appalling. The company has apologized for their “insensitive” word choice, but makes no apology for the huge cash bonuses awarded to the CEO and to other execs. All the while continuing to be less than fully cooperative with investigators looking into the causes of the spill.

We have a suggestion: let’s make this apology more substantial than just a pro-forma statement from an anonymous PR person. Transocean execs, why not donate all of your 2010 bonus money to vetted charities that are helping Gulf-area residents get back on their feet.

What do you say?

Shrimp Trawling Re-Suspending BP Oil?

Way back last autumn I had a nagging thought: once oil impacted areas of the Gulf were re-opened to fishing in the wake of the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill, would shrimp trawlers repeatedly churn up oil that had settled on the seafloor?

Google Earth panoramic image showing sediment plumes raised by bottom-trawl fishing for shrimp along the Louisiana coast. More images here.

As the federal government proceeds with a long and complicated legal and scientific process, the Natural Resources Damage Assessment, they are holding a series of public meetings to get input and comments from affected Gulf-area residents. At a meeting last week in Biloxi, Mississippi,

Vietnamese shrimpers said they have pulled up nets full of oil from the seafloor and have had to decide whether to report the oil to the Coast Guard, which would mean dumping their day’s catch, or pretend they don’t see the oil.

John Lliff, a supervisor with NOAA’s Damage Assessment Remediation and Restoration Program, said no one knows how much of the seafloor is covered in oil.

Until the oil totally disappears, it seems highly likely that this will continue. But we don’t have a clue how long the oil will linger, or what the impacts of this would be on the health of fishermen, the recovery of the Gulf ecosystem, or the safety of seafood.

Meanwhile, some of our politicians seem to be ignoring the fact that the world’s worst accidental oil spill happened here in our own back yard less than a year ago, and are intent on returning to business as usual without assuring the public that drilling is any safer than it was last April. Does anybody else see this as a recipe for another disaster?