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More Drilling Ahead in the Arctic, We Still Don’t Know the Current Spill Rate

The US government as a total body may be completely foolhardy and tone deaf. In the wake of the Horizon disaster, sadly, a Federal court has allowed Shell to move forward on drilling in the Arctic without a murmur from the Congress or White House. Even as a semi-submersible (a la the Horizon) Venezuelan gas rig has sunk to the bottom of the sea the US government is moving forward with legislation that will allow new offshore oil drilling to proceed. Two rigs sinking in one month is not warning enough for the Federal government on the dangers of oil drilling, even as one of the disasters continues to pour an unknown amount of oil into the water. It is clear that, between the courts, the executive branch, and the Congress, that there will be no move to halt offshore oil drilling. The US as a body will move forward on more drilling even as poll after poll shows that the public opposes this environmental menace and wants development of clean, green energy sources. The prospect of the failure of BP’s containment dome – the best hope for a near-term response to greatly mitigate the worst well leak – simply does not hold sufficient weight with the heavily lobbied US government.

Marine life has begun to confuse oil refuse with its natural habitat in another sign of continuing impact of the oil leak on the Gulf environment.

With the release of a single video clip depicting the larger of the two Horizon well leaks for a brief period of time, larger, difficult-to-verify estimates of greatly enhanced leak rates have emerged on top of the previous large measurement reported by a Florida a researcher. Certain facts remain:

  1. None of the estimates produced to date has closely agreed with any of the others.
  2. None of the differing estimates produced to date has explained why the other measurements are wrong.
  3. None of the measurements produced countering the figures currently released by BP, the Coast Guard, and NOAA have been produced by people specifically in the oil industry.

In fact, some researchers have embarassed themselves:

… Eugene Chaing, a professor of astrophysics at the University of California, Berkeley, got a similar answer just using pencil and paper.

Without even having a sense of scale from the BP video, he correctly deduced that the diameter of the pipe was about 20 inches. And though his calculation is less precise than Wereley’s, it is in the same ballpark.

"I would peg it at around 20,000 to 100,000 barrels per day," he says. …

— Professor Chaing has apparently confused astrophysics, where results as vague as "20,000 to 100,000" can be characterized as "pegging" anything, with Earthly disasters, where we need precision. The error bars on his measurement are larger than the various estimates emerging from various parties.

BP reminds Professor Chaing that not everything is at it appears in a brief video clip:

… Instead, BP prefers to rely on measurements of oil on the sea surface made by the Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Those are also contentious. Salvin also says these analyses should not assume that the oil is spewing from the 21-inch pipe, called a riser, shown in the video.

"The drill pipe, from which the oil is rising, is actually a 9-inch pipe that rests within the riser," Slavin said …

Professor Chaing will need to readjust his calculations.

Some point to the hypothetical as if it is a fact:

… With a spill this deep, the oil starts off extremely dense and under pressure. Some of it breaks up or dissolves into the water on the way up, and some of it makes it all the way to the surface. But some will "stabilize in the water column" maybe as low as 200 to 300 meters off the seabed, Steiner said. "Then it starts drifting with the current."

"I’m virtually certain that a lot of this oil hasn’t even surfaced yet," he said. "What we don’t know is the trajectory and direction of this subsurface toxic plume."

That’s critically important information, both in order to assess what sorts of habitats the oil may be wiping out, and because "this stuff can pop up in surprising places, weeks if not months from now," he said. …

— a hypothetical underwater oil plume that has not been seen nor have any consequences of it been seen is what we should fear – Dark Oil, like Dark Matter, got it. We are all astrophyicists now.

Lost in the hysteria surrounding numerical estimates of the spill volume to date is a singular and overriding question: why was an oil company willing to invest a half-billion dollars in an oil rig allowed to start drilling without proving they had a technique for measuring leak rates under deep water?

The fact that this question can be asked – along with the fact that Minerals and Management Service representatives did not directly oversee safety test certifications on BP blowout preventers – is clear evidence that the Federal government and industry together failed completely to plan for easily predictable disasters – such as a ruptured or severed riser pipe at depth spewing oil. The first things a good response plan would need in terms of information would include a concrete measurement of spill rate and it is clear BP was not forced to produce a technique to do this in the creation of an otherwise very costly oil rig. The result is a spill of large, broken extent, and difficult-to-know volume, and a search for Dark Oil plumes deep underwater.

BP spends hundreds of millions of dollars per year on technical R&D. Why was there not a requirement for BP to be able to prove that it could measure a leaky pipe under deep water conditions?

In the current Senate hearings underway, the focus has been on industry figures. Perhaps it is time for the Minerals and Management Service figures of the previous and current Presidential administrations who allowed BP to move forward without sufficient disaster planning to testify as well, perhaps even before Shell begins drilling in the Arctic.

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Seymour Friendly

Seymour Friendly

Quasi-leftist Seattle resident, which is kind of like saying "wet rain". There ain't no dry kind of rain ...