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Getting Angry About Offshore Drilling

President Obama’s planning to “get mad” today at his partner BP over the continued Gulf oil gusher. This comes as we learn that oil is spurting out of the seabed much faster than estimated, perhaps by a factor of 14.

Steven Wereley, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, analyzed videotape of the seafloor gusher using a technique called particle image velocimetry.

A computer program simply tracks particles and calculates how fast they are moving. Wereley put the BP video of the gusher into his computer. He made a few simple calculations and came up with an astonishing value for the rate of the oil spill: 70,000 barrels a day — much higher than the official estimate of 5,000 barrels a day.

The method is accurate to a degree of plus or minus 20 percent.

Given that uncertainty, the amount of material spewing from the pipe could range from 56,000 barrels to 84,000 barrels a day. It is important to note that it’s not all oil. The short video BP released starts out with a shot of methane, but at the end it seems to be mostly oil.

BP has consistently lied about the scope of the disaster from the very beginning. First the explosion caused no leak, then it maybe was leading to 1,000 barrels a day, then 5,000, and now 70,000, the amount of the Exxon Valdez every four days. Yeah, I’d be angry too.

I’d be angrier at my own regulatory agency, which has been apparently collecting salaries for nothing these past several years.

The federal Minerals Management Service gave permission to BP and dozens of other oil companies to drill in the Gulf of Mexico without first getting required permits from another agency that assesses threats to endangered species — and despite strong warnings from that agency about the impact the drilling was likely to have on the gulf.

Those approvals, federal records show, include one for the well drilled by the Deepwater Horizon rig, which exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers and resulting in thousands of barrels of oil spilling into the gulf each day.

Forget regulatory capture, this is a regulatory kidnapping. The MMS practically doesn’t exist, or they’re a tour guide to oil companies, offering their expertise in how to evade every environmental regulation. I mean, the managers at the agency actively deep-sixed the reports of their own scientists:

Managers at the agency have routinely overruled staff scientists whose findings highlight the environmental risks of drilling, according to a half-dozen current or former agency scientists.

The scientists, none of whom wanted to be quoted by name for fear of reprisals by the agency or by those in the industry, said they had repeatedly had their scientific findings changed to indicate no environmental impact or had their calculations of spill risks downgraded.

“You simply are not allowed to conclude that the drilling will have an impact,” said one scientist who has worked for the minerals agency for more than a decade. “If you find the risks of a spill are high or you conclude that a certain species will be affected, your report gets disappeared in a desk drawer and they find another scientist to redo it or they rewrite it for you.”

So I’d say there’s good reason for anger. But there’s better reason for action. It’s time to channel that anger and restore the total moratorium on offshore drilling so we don’t have any more catastrophes like this. And not just on the West Coast, like recent legislation introduced in the Senate, but everywhere. We all share the same planet, I’m told.

UPDATE: Here’s some video for Obama to set his anger to.

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David Dayen

David Dayen