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The Largest “Accidental Oil Spill” in History: Lessons of BP’s Deepwater Horizon Disaster, Day 60

Satellite view of BP oil spill in Gulf of Mexico, Jun 19, 2010. (source: NASA Earth Observatory)

[Rick Steiner is a marine conservation biologist from Anchorage who has been advising in the Gulf for the last two months. For his earlier FDL post “Lessons of the Deepwater Horizon” click here]

As the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico approaches its 2-month mark, there are a few points that deserve to be made, as update. The world is now starting to appreciate the enormity of this disaster, which is likely already the largest “accidental” oil spill in history.


The growing list of mistakes made by BP in managing the well just before it exploded points to the astonishing negligence of BP officials. There had been several gas kicks in the weeks before the disaster – ominous signs of problems – and one worker aboard the Deepwater Horizon described the Macondo well as a “nightmare well.”

As pointed out in their June 14 letter to BP CEO Tony Hayward, U.S. Congressmen Waxman and Stupak recited some of the details their investigation has uncovered five failures that likely contributed to the disaster:

1. A well design with few barriers to gas flow – no casing liner was used at the bottom of the wellbore, thus eliminating 2 of the potential seals for an upward gas kick;

2. The failure to use a sufficient number of centralizers to prevent channeling during the cement process – 6 instead of 21 centralizers were used in the last 1,100 foot section of the well. Centralizers would have helped to center the well pipe in the well bore allowing an even and thorough cement job. Using so few could have caused channeling of the cement, where it was much thinner and weaker in some places;

3. The failure to run a diagnostic ‘cement bond log’ to evaluate the effectiveness of the cement job (crucial to sealing the well from gas kicks) – no acoustic cement log was performed, which would have detected anomalies in the cement set up between the well casing and the outer wellbore. A crew from Slumberger was on the rig to conduct this cement bond log, but were told their services were not needed, and sent home (the day of the explosion);

4. The failure to circulate potentially gas-bearing drilling muds out of the well – the muds in the well stem were not circulated to detect and remove further gas pockets and impurities, as is suggested by the American Petroleum Institute; and

5. The failure to secure the wellhead with a lockdown sleeve before allowing pressure on the seal from below – there was no lockdown sleeve installed to secure the well casing at the wellhead on the seafloor.

These decisions may have saved a few days of time and a few million dollars in cost, but they almost certainly contributed to this epic disaster. It appears that BP rolled the dice, knowingly and willfully risked worker safety and the environment, and simply hoped for the best. This appears to be a strong case for gross negligence, which if proven in court would result in BP forfeiting the entitlement to limit their liability under U.S. law. Indeed just today, one of the other owners of the well, Anadarko Petroleum, claimed just that – that BP was grossly negligent in its drilling of the Macondo well.

Failure to kill the blowout

After the initial Pollution Containment Chamber failed due to methane hydrate crystals clogging the outlet, the Riser Insertion Tube Tool (RITT) collected a little of the oil for a time, but was suspended for the attempted “top kill” effort.

But with the failure of the “Top Kill” effort, the magnitude of the disaster increased exponentially. This was a historic revelation – that the offshore oil industry cannot kill a high-pressure, deepwater blowout at the seabed. They pumped thousands of tons of heavy drilling mud, and several “junk shots” of golf balls and shredded tires etc., down the kill and choke lines of the blowout preventer (BOP), yet the well kept flowing uncontrollably. We could see early on in this attempt that it wasn’t working. Although the outflow of oil slowed during top kill and was replaced by muds, the outflow rate did not appear to slow at all. Given the reported pressure readings below the BOP of 8500 psi, the muds were blowing back out as fast as they were being pumped in. As well, it has been reported that there may be a “loss of well integrity” – a break – a thousand feet or so below the seabed wellhead, and some of the muds are thought to have exited the wellbore there, resulting in too little mud weight in the wellbore to counteract the high upward pressure of the blowout.

The failure of top kill meant that the only way this well was going to be killed is with the relief wells now being drilled. The first of these – the Development Driller III mobil offshore drilling unit, stationed about 1 mile away from over the blowout site – is now reported to have their drill 10,000 feet beneath the seabed. This is only 3,000 feet above the reservoir, and they will reportedly intersect the failed wellbore down near the top of the oil reservoir sometime next month. This is when the bottom-kill can be attempted, where drilling muds will be injected up into the well (along with the upward flow), and then followed by cement to hopefully cap the well deep near the reservoir. The second relief well, by the Development Driller II, is about 5000 feet beneath the seabed at present.

Until then, the only thing BP can do is to try to collect as much of the oil as possible coming from the blowout at the seabed. The cap and riser system is reportedly collecting about 25,000 barrels / day now (but these numbers may be suspect), and they intend to raise that capability to as much as 80,000 bbls/day by the end of July by connecting to the choke and kill lines of the BOP (which they have already begun), and then a tighter fitting cap. They should certainly try everything possible in this effort, but given their failures to date, I seriously doubt they will be able to collect a projected 80,000 bbls/day from the blowout, if indeed that much is actually flowing. Internal BP documents suggest that if the BOP were removed from the wellhead, the well could flow at 100,000 bbls / day, but the plan is to not remove the BOP until the relief wells kill the failed well.

As well, this is hurricane season, and when the first hurricane comes through the region, they will need to disconnect and suspend the relief well drilling, and likely suspend the blowout containment effort. The other impact of a hurricane through the region now would be that oil in the water and sediment will be transported along with the storm surge, wherever it goes. Thus, inland areas that were previously unoiled may become oiled. Oil in the water and on the sea surface will be dispersed by severe turbulence deep into the water, perhaps 100-200 m deep. As well, sediment that is suspended by the turbulence will combine with the oil in the water, and once the storm subsides, this sediment / oil droplet mixture will settle to the seabed, oiling large areas of seabed habitat.

Environmental Impact

While almost no environmental damage results have been reported as yet – due to “litigation sensitivity” – the impacts are clearly manifesting much as we feared. The impact of this spill will be extremely serious. The environmental damage is occurring in 4 ecosystems – the offshore waters, inshore coastal waters, the seabed, and shoreline wetlands and beaches. In the offshore waters, it is virtually certain that substantial portions of the 2010 year-class of many pelagic fish species has been killed or otherwise injured by the spill. Many species – blue fin tuna, sailfish, marlin, etc. – were spawning pelagic eggs at the time in the same area and time as the spill, and many of those have undoubtedly been killed. Additionally, many of the adult fish have been dosed with oil, and while some will have died already, many others will suffer sub-lethal injury that will persist for years. Other impacts offshore include the many sperm whales that have been seen surfacing in the oil. One young sperm whale was recovered dead last week, and is being sampled at present.

In inshore waters, the oil is distributed throughout the water column, and certainly into the inshore seabed sediments. This will have affected much of the coastal shrimp and menhaden populations, which form the basis of the two largest fisheries in the region. As well, the images of oiled seabirds, particularly pelicans, have become the face of this disaster to the world. The birds are nesting on coastal islands at present, and many of these islands have been heavily oiled.

The State of Louisiana lists some 600 species at risk from this spill – 445 species of fish, 45 mammals, 32 reptiles and amphibians, and 134 bird species.
And here is the body count for the large animals as of today, Day 60:

Birds – total collected 1550, of which 885 dead

Sea turtles – total collected 469, dead 363

Marine mammals (mostly bottlenose dolphins) total collected 47, dead 44

And this is only the count of the ones that have been collected. As we’ve learned from most spills, particularly offshore spills, most of the dead animals simply sink and are never recovered or counted. One can assume for an offshore spill such as this that perhaps only 10% of the large animal carcasses will be recovered, and thus multiply the observed mortality by a factor of 10.

Further, the damage in the water column will only be detected by methodical research, which has been slow to deploy. Nonetheless, it has certainly been enormous.

The damage to inshore wetlands and marshes will, as predicted by a federal government study in 2000, cause “severe adverse impacts” – some of them permanent. There will be a permanent loss of island habitat due to vegetation dying as a result of being oiled, and thus the accelerated erosion of the islands.

Obama Oval Office speech June 15, 2010

First, I feel compelled to mention that during the Exxon Valdez spill 21 years ago, many Alaskans pressed for then President George Bush senior to come to Alaska to see the disaster up-close. He never did, nor did he deliver an Oval Office speech. Bush Sr. did send VP Dan Quayle to Alaska though, whom I personally asked about using that disaster to forge a progressive energy policy for the nation that cut our reliance on fossil fuel (a lot of good that did!). Bush senior was an oilman, and wanted desperately to minimize the political damage of the Exxon Valdez by paying it little presidential attention. So regardless of all other shortcomings of the Obama response here, at least he has visited the scene of the crime four times so far. And that he chose to deliver an Oval Office speech on the disaster, the first in his presidency, attests to the level of attention he is giving the issue.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much new in the President’s Oval Office speech this week. The only things new were the announcement of the Gulf Coast Restoration Plan, strangely under command of the Secretary of the Navy, and the $20 billion claims fund. On the restoration program, it legally must be developed and conducted by the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) Trustee agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of the Interior (more on this below).

I am continually troubled by the reference to shores and coasts (e.g., “this is an assault on our shorelines”), while ignoring the offshore pelagic ecosystem. The offshore ecosystem is where most of the damage has occurred, and will continue to occur. But the continual reference only to the beaches and shorelines is, it seems, a strategy designed to distract public attention away from the enormous offshore damage, in the water column, and the fact that NOAA fumbled the scientific response to understand the offshore damages (e.g., subsurface plumes).

Mostly, I was disappointed that the President discussed in only general terms the need for clean, sustainable energy, without any action item whatsoever. We needed to hear exactly what he will propose to move us to the transition quicker as a result of the Gulf spill disaster, not just the same old nice, yet general, feel-good statements. At very least, he needs to propose a doubling-up of everything he has done to date on this front, to show this sentiment is real, and more than hollow rhetoric.

Overall, the speech was too much prayer, and not enough policy. We need tangible, specific policies to hasten the transition to sustainable energy, and we needed to hear some of them in that speech. We didn’t, which suggests that the inertia the President complained about in this effort is still very much with us today, even in the midst of the Gulf oil spill disaster.

As well, the Spill Commission he has appointed is now composed of mostly politicians that have little or no direct experience with offshore oil, ocean ecosystems, or oil spill issues. Few of the appointees have ever publicly criticized the offshore oil industry, or government in any way. The commission seems strategically picked to be the “yes-we-can get the administration’s offshore drilling agenda back on track” commission. There is already talk of delivering their result sooner than the end of year, to end the deepwater drilling moratorium, and I suspect the Arctic Ocean drilling moratorium as well.

The announcement of the $20 billion “BP Oil Spill Victim Compensation Fund” to pay claims, outside the judicial system, is one of the most important accomplishments the administration has made to date in this disaster. It is also appropriate that BP will forgo paying shareholder dividends this year. The $20 billion claims fund will take the claims process out of the court system, and allow more prompt and fair resolution of many of the early claims. This will save years of heartbreak and misery for claimants wading through the endless court battles to receive compensation, and preserve their right to pursue legal avenues in the future. There are about 30,000 Alaska plaintiffs from the Exxon Valdez case that would have loved to have had that sort of arrangement in the Exxon Valdez spill – kudos to the President for this achievement.

Gulf Restoration

As mentioned above, one of the only two new proposals in the President’s Oval Office address this week is to establish a Gulf Coast Restoration Plan. This is appropriate and welcome news so early in the disaster. In addition to the $20 billion fund to cover economic claims of private parties, I would propose that there be a comparable fund established to pay for environmental restoration and recovery. Certainly, both people and the Gulf coast environment deserve prompt, comprehensive attention here.

The President needs to press BP to establish a $20 billion Gulf Restoration Fund. It will be necessary to conduct Contingent Valuation studies to place “a price on the priceless” – – the “value” of non-economic damages caused by the spill. For Exxon Valdez spill 21 years ago, this environmental damage estimate ranged from $3 billion – $15 billion. I suspect the Gulf spill will be comparable, if not more in today’s dollars.
As to the question of how to restore the Gulf ecosystems injured by the BP spill, we must first accept the fact that there is little that can be done to directly restore the environmental damage caused by large marine oil spills. We just cannot fix a broken ecosystem like we can a broken car engine. To paraphrase the old nursery rhyme:

All the kings’ horses and all the kings’ men can’t put the Gulf of Mexico back together again.
But what we can, and must do, is everything humanly possible to give the Gulf of Mexico and its coastal ecosystems the best chance possible to recover. That must be the singular objective of the Gulf Restoration program.

In the Alaska spill, coastal citizens first proposed that the government and Exxon settle their claims for Exxon Valdez in 1990, recommending a $2 billion “out-of-court” settlement. The federal court approved the final settlement in Oct. 1991 for $1 billion, paid over 10 years to the government Trustees for restoration and reimbursement of costs. The restoration program developed in Alaska focused on minimizing other threats to the injured coastal ecosystem, with such mechanisms as purchasing conservation easements to protect coastal habitat from other forms of degradation, such as logging, etc. In this way, the governments protected over 600,000 acres of critical fish and wildlife habitat along the shoreline of the oil spill region with about $500 million of the spill settlement. In my opinion, too much of the Restoration fund went to fund oil spill research projects of limited value that agency and university researchers wanted to do, with little or no benefit to ecological recovery. The same tendency will no doubt be seen in the Gulf spill, and it must be resisted. We already know that oil, water, fish, and wildlife don’t mix. Some targeted science should focus on damage assessment and monitoring, but most should be directed toward the overarching question of how best to help the marine and coastal ecosystem to fully recover.
The restoration program for the Gulf spill should focus on Indirect Restoration, including reducing chronic pollutants into the system, allowing more sediment flow down-river to rebuild the Delta, establishment of new protected areas onshore and offshore, etc…e.g. projects that might be environmentally beneficial to the Gulf coastal ecosystems should be identified and funded.
My initial list for the Gulf Restoration Plan is as follows:

1. Let the River Run – restore the periodic flood flow of the Mississippi river, so that sediment can flow down-river and begin rebuilding the Delta. The Mississippi Delta has been shrinking for over 100 years, due primarily to flood control up river, as well as sea level rise and more intense and frequent hurricanes. This shrinking / sinking delta has added risk from hurricane storm surge, such as we saw tragically in Hurricane Katrina. Reversing this trend is an essential component of any environmental and economic Restoration plan for the region. This will take cooperation with states and cities up-river, but we all have to pitch in to save the Mississippi Delta.

2. Eliminate the Dead Zone – reduce the input of nutrients down the river, from the misuse / overuse of agricultural fertilizers in the Mississippi drainage. This high nutrient load flows into the Gulf of Mexico each spring, causes enormous blooms of phytoplankton, which respire oxygen at night and also die and decay and use oxygen from the water, and causes a huge anoxic dead zone along the coast each summer. This can and must be eliminated.

3. Reduce coastal degradation – better manage, reduce, or eliminate the amount of coastal channelization, wetlands loss, road building, etc.

4. Halt overfishing – to the extent that some fish populations had been overharvested in the past, harvest levels of these populations should be minimized for a time – e.g. a conservation moratorium for stock recovery. Harvests should be resumed only when the population, and the marine ecosystem, can be sustained. In particular, principles of ecosystem management must be front-and-center of any Gulf Restoration program, to dial harvests down enough to allow for needs of other predators in the ecosystem.

5. Establish additional protected areas – both marine and coastal – to reduce disturbance and degradation of coastal fish and wildlife populations.

6. Build artificial seabird nesting islands in inshore areas – as the coastal nesting islands have dramatically eroded over the past several decades – due to reduced sediment flow down-river, sea level rise, and more frequent and intense hurricanes-the birds are now forced to nest on smaller and smaller remnants of their original nesting island habitat. In addition, the oil has severely damaged the perimeter of many of these nesting islands. Many of the plants that provide stability to the island substrate will die due to direct oiling, and thus the spill will contribute to the acceleration of erosional processes that will eventually eliminate these small islands altogether. And when the first hurricane surge occurs across these tiny islands, the oil will cover the entire island, and thus more vegetative loss will occur. Using Gulf Coast Restoration Fund to place rip-rap and fill to form new islands or add to existing ones would greatly enhance breeding habitat for the thousands of birds in the region.

7. Prevent other oil spills – this is an obvious one, but needs to be mentioned. If the Gulf can recover from one Deepwater Horizon disaster, and that is a big if, it almost certainly can’t from another on top of this one.

Policy actions

If the Obama administration and the nation wish to lift their moratorium on deepwater drilling, which seems apparent, then they should only do so if they can assure the public that the operations are as safe as humanly possible. This will require Best Available Technology in all aspects of the drilling, including the newly developed Blowout Preventers with double shear-rams, acoustic triggers, and redundant sealing systems.

As well, the government should require that exploratory drilling in extreme or sensitive environments also include a companion emergency relief well be drilled along side. If for instance, the Deepwater Horizon had a companion relief well being drilled alongside while they were drilling the Macondo well, then the relief well could have intersected and killed the failed well in a matter of weeks (perhaps by the end of April), not the many months that we are now suffering through. Senator Lautenberg has just introduced legislation into the U.S. Senate that would require precisely that, and it is a welcome and necessary step in reducing risk of these high-pressure, deepwater operations.

And of course, we are still waiting for the new push for clean, efficient, low-carbon, sustainable energy due to the recognition of the costs of oil, seen so clearly in the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Whose ass to kick?

Regarding the ongoing BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, President Obama recently asked his advisors to tell him “whose ass to kick.”

Given our lazy, catastrophic energy policy that has for too long ignored the true cost of our oil addiction, while we knew better, here’s my short list:

Every member of the U.S. Congress, present and past back to at least 1980; every director and executive of all power companies, auto companies, and oil companies; every oil lobbyist and industry ‘think-tank’; every cabinet member; every member of the White House staff, including the man himself; every former president and their cabinet back to 1980; every governor and their staff; and every state legislator.

As well, perhaps we all need a collective boot for allowing this energy / climate crisis to become so severe, and putting at risk the future of life on Earth, including our own.

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Rick Steiner

Rick Steiner