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The Deepwater Drama and the Pursuit of Honest Reporting

11:42 am in Uncategorized by Brian Sonenstein

As the world gets its first, live look at oil gushing from the well head in the Gulf, Ken Ringle of Nieman Watchdog weighs in on what he feels to be the media’s unhelpful exaggeration of the disaster’s potential consequences.

Ringle starts out by talking about his experience covering the 1979 disaster off the coast of Trinidad & Tobago, in which two massive oil tankers– the Atlantic Empress and the Aegean Captain– collided during a tropical storm and hemorrhaged 287,000 metric tons of oil. That was the 3rd largest spill in history, but, purportedly through the use of dispersants and other techniques, the oil slick never managed to make landfall.

As for the damage to ocean life, I was having trouble finding much information. But as Ringle remembers it:

The calamity was bad enough. One ship exploded and sank, 27 people died and there WAS an enormous oil spill. But it never hit any beaches, never appeared to oil any birds, and ultimately simply disappeared. Most of it evaporated; the rest was consumed by oil-eating microbes in the sea. As near as anyone can tell, there was virtually no environmental damage.

I didn’t want to believe this could be true. It took aerial flights over the spill site and interviews with a dozen or more experts before I understood and reported that seemingly impossible truth.

How lucky! But then Ringle takes it a step too far.

The month before the oil spill in Tobago, the Mexican oil company Pemex had its Ixtoc I rig blow out in the Bay of Campeche, 600 miles south of the Texas coast. That resulted in one of the largest oil spills in history. The drilling platform burned and collapsed in an accident intriguingly similar to that of the BP rig off Louisiana. The well leaked from 10,000 to 30,000 barrels of oil a day for eight months before it was capped. Yet resulting coastal damage was minimal.

Coastal damage was minimal? With all due respect, Mr. Ringle, the Ixtoc 1 was an infamous spill not only because of how massive it was at sea, but also because of the havoc it wreaked back home.

From the Guardian:

Ixtoc 1 owners, Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), the Mexican state oil company, could not cap the well for 10 long months, by which time an estimated 90m gallons of oil had escaped. Much of it evaporated, was dispersed by chemicals or burned off in the fire, but the remainder drifted in a greasy slick up to 60-70 miles long on to the US coastline, damaging wildlife, fishing and tourism. A report for the US government later concluded that the lost oil, equipment and clean up cost Pemex $498m – more than US$1bn in today’s money – and there were claims for damages of more than $400m, making it "probably the most expensive oil spill in history".

You can read that report from our friends at MMS here [PDF].

How bad was this minimal coastal damage?

Despite a big operation to use skimmers and booms to protect the coast, Ixtoc 1 damaged 162 miles of Texas beaches. Birds were badly affected with 1,421 oiled royal terns, blue-faced boobies, sanderlings, willets, plovers, herons, noddy terns, and snowy egrets rescued, while thousands more were driven away from their feeding and breeding grounds, many of them not returning for years afterwards. The impact on smaller species was – as so often – impossible to calculate.

I can get on board with the idea that media sensationalism doesn’t help and in some cases makes things worse. The (original) point of journalism is to present the facts to the public in an unbiased way.

As a writer for a well-respected journalism watchdog like Nieman, Ringle knows that, and I truly believe he’s trying to encourage more balanced reporting on the BP disaster with this piece.

Ringle’s argument seems to hinge on the fact that naturally-occurring, oil-eating bacteria are an important line of defense in an oil spill, and how evaporation is a key player as well.

But what about the possibility of the toxic dispersants killing off those bacteria? And even if they don’t, what about the fact that those toxins will be ingested by the bacteria, allowing the chemicals to make their way up the food chain?

And if the dispersants are supposed to ball up the oil into tar, how exactly does that promote evaporation?

The parallels between Ixtoc 1 and Deepwater Horizon are quite popular; a simple google search will prove that. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to assume the devastation could be all that different.

The bottom line: the media will report the story that attracts readers. We can’t expect anything more or less from them. But if we’re going to push back, let’s at least do it in an honest manner.

Better Luck Next Time: Shell Reassures MMS That the Next Spill Won’t Be So Bad

9:58 am in BP oil disaster, Energy by Brian Sonenstein

flamerig.jpgThe popular narrative in regard to the BP oil spill doesn’t make much of a problem with the fact that oil is spilling into the Gulf of Mexico at tremendous rates, but rather the fact that BP was largely unprepared to stop and clean it up. The question of whether or not offshore drilling is worth the trouble is a debate that has been decidedly left off the table by anyone in a position to do something about it.

And given the global addiction to fossil fuels, this isn’t all that surprising. While we’re exploring for a cleaner, safer alternative, we can’t readily swear off oil altogether.

But it’s unsatisfactory for me to say that the lesson we’ll eventually learn from this oil spill is that next time the response will be faster, or that next time there will be greater controls in place to reduce the impact on the environment and our communities. It avoids the fact that the consequences of such a spill are so great and irreversible that we can’t really afford to have "the next one."

Unfortunately, this seems to be the direction we’re headed in. In a move to get in good with the notoriously accommodating folks over at Minerals Management Service, who will be under much more scrutiny and pressure following the Gulf spill, Shell wrote them a letter to assuage any fears they might have about the oil giant’s future plans– specifically a controversial drilling project off the coast of Alaska (emphasis mine):

Responding to a federal request to increase safety measures for its plans to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean, Shell Oil on Monday vowed an “unprecedented” response in the event of an oil spill, including staging a pre-made dome in Alaska for use in trying to contain any leaking well.

As the Obama Administration reviews the safety and environmental risks of offshore oil drilling after the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the fate of the pending Shell project in Alaska looms more urgently. Shell has received initial permits and hopes to begin exploratory drilling this summer. Yet the project, which would be the first offshore drilling in Alaska in many years, still requires final permits and could be delayed.

Environmentalists and Native Alaskan groups that have long worked to stop the project have seized on the Gulf spill to emphasize risks in the Alaska project. The drill sites, far out in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, are in some of the most remote and frigid waters of North America, with ice forming much of the year, endangered whales and other animals living in the area and little onshore support in the event of a spill.

In a letter sent to the head of the Minerals Management Service, S. Elizabeth Birnbaum, Shell’s president, Marvin E. Odum, said Shell the dome it would have ready would “take into consideration issues with hydrate formation.”


Shell also said it would be ready to apply dispersal agents below water “at the source of any oil flow” after “all necessary permits are acquired.”

The company also said it would work to prevent a spill from happening, including refining how it drills, increasing the frequency of inspections of its blowout preventer to 7 days from 14 – the blowout preventer failed in the Gulf spill – and adding a remote underwater vehicle nearby that would be capable of working on the blowout preventer.

I suppose it’s marginally comforting to hear an oil company publicly recognize the importance of safety measures and spill prevention. But it does nothing to address the fundamental problem that this drilling is so exploratory, so potentially dangerous and so irreparably destructive in the event of an accident that perhaps it’s just not a good idea in the first place.

There’s something seriously wrong when we accept that oil spills are facts of life and that our concerns should instead rest on how effective and coordinated the response should be.

As long as that’s the pervasive narrative, you can bet that future drilling accidents will forever be apologized for with reassurances for "next time."

But just how many more "next times" do we have left?

Transocean Invokes Obscure 159-year-old Law to Avoid Paying Damages to Injured Employees

11:47 am in BP oil disaster, Energy by Brian Sonenstein

Let’s talk about this little piece of news from Mother Jones (emphasis mine):

Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded and is still spewing millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, is sending a message loud and clear: it intends to assume very little financial responsibility for the disaster. In a filing submitted to a federal court in Houston this week, the company has invoked an obscure, 159-year-old law to contend that it should only have to pay for the cost of salvaging the debris of the rig from the ocean.

Right, because the remnants of the rig are our biggest problem right now.

At the very same time, Transocean is also petitioning to consolidate its outstanding lawsuits in an attempt to avoid paying worker compensation down the road. Let’s not forget Transocean was trying to get workers to sign forms saying they weren’t injured and didn’t know what happened when the rig just plain exploded underneath their feet.

From McClatchy (emphasis mine):

In a statement, Transocean said the court petition was filed at the request of its insurance companies, and the petition will allow the company to consolidate all outstanding lawsuits before a single federal judge in Houston. The company said it now faces more than 100 lawsuits over the spill in several states.

Lawyers for those injured in the blast said the petition could also prevent any claims filed more than six months after the accident

Too bad for anyone who may suffer from delayed PTSD as a result of a rig exploding beneath you. You’re out of luck.

And the list of casualties just keeps growing, and growing, and growing…

UPDATE: Well, at least someone’s trying

Jo Lang, a prominent national lawmaker for [Switzerland's Green Party], said he plans to introduce a motion in parliament calling for any taxes paid by Transocean in Switzerland last year to be donated toward helping those who suffered as a result of the rig disaster.

The amount is likely to be symbolic, as Transocean pays hardly any taxes in Switzerland.

"We want to show that the oil spill in the Gulf reaches all the way to Zug," Lang told The Associated Press.

VIDEO: The Failed Attempt to Cap the Oil Gusher in the Gulf

10:55 am in Uncategorized by Brian Sonenstein

Following Firedoglake’s coverage of the BP oil disaster, here’s footage of the failed attempt to use a 100-ton cofferdam to cap the main oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. h/t seymour friendly

VIDEO: Recapping Day 1 of the BP Oil Disaster Hearings

5:30 pm in BP oil disaster, Energy, Uncategorized by Brian Sonenstein

Yesterday was day 1 of the Senate Energy & Commerce Committee hearings into the BP oil disaster. Here are some clips highlighting the proceedings.

Elmer Danenberger, former MMS ORP Chief, questioned by Sen. Wyden about Gulf blowout

Read the rest of this entry →