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Our President Thinks God Is On Our Side, But the Lobbyists are Opposed

7:51 pm in BP oil disaster, Energy, Government by Scarecrow

I don’t know how any sentient being could miss the obvious signs that if the gods care at all, they’re either testing us or not on our side. So its strange to hear the President of the United States tell an anguished, worried people facing destroyed livelihoods and desperate for leadership and a plan of action that prayer and faith are our best hope for stopping an ongoing catastrophe and preventing the next.

Let’s start from the end:

The oil spill is not the last crisis America will face. This nation has known hard times before and we will surely know them again. What sees us through – what has always seen us through – is our strength, our resilience, and our unyielding faith that something better awaits us if we summon the courage to reach for it. Tonight, we pray for that courage. We pray for the people of the Gulf. And we pray that a hand may guide us through the storm towards a brighter day. Thank you, God Bless You, and may God Bless the United States of America.

Does anyone believe this catastrophe continues because of a lack of faith in a better future, a shortage of American strength and resilience?

Why don’t we start by assuming the America people can understand basic physics. They intuitively grasp that we can’t keep punching holes into highly pressurized formations three miles beneath the ocean and not expect at least one of them to blow up with catastrophic consequences and then be the devil to stop. They understand that if corporations engage in inherently dangerous but highly profitable activities, they’ll inevitably cut safety corners, ignore risks and cause a disaster that kills people and causes massive damages. People get that.

And now they can see and touch and smell the nauseating reality that the destruction this causes can be beyond anything they’ve been told, anything they’re willing to accept. They know they’ve been lied to, and it hasn’t stopped. So it would be helpful if the President stopped it.

In the understatement of the decade, the CEO of Exxon-Mobile told Congress today that "when these things happen, we are not well equipped to deal with them. . . . There will be damages occur."

So any statement a President or any leader would put before a public whose intelligence and judgment they respected would have at least these two parts:

(1) Here’s the plan for fixing the immediate crisis, and here are the risks it might not work and what we’ll do about that.

(2) And here’s my challenge for the future: "We don’t have to take this. But if we want something different, we have some very hard work to do, and we need to get on with it. Here is what we must do, and here are the people and the failed ideas that stand in our way. We have to fight them if we want a different future. And that’s what I propose to do; here’s my plan, and I want your support."

I don’t know why our President can’t say it that simply, but apparently it’s not his style, or not what he wants or believes, or maybe he and his advisers just don’t know what to say or do. But someone needs to tell him, and now, that calling the nation to faith and prayer is not a substitute for a plan and it’s not leadership. It’s a sop.

The President’s Address to the Nation on the BP Oil Spill (transcript)

The President opened by reminding us we’re fighting three wars: an economic one against the deepest recession in 75 years; a military one against those we classify as terrorists; and a technological one against our dependence of energy sources that are inherently dangerous to extract, use, or dispose of.

What he didn’t say is that we’re making little or no progress in any of them, and that his Administration has virtually given up on the first and struggling with what to do about the second. It is any wonder he was so timid about the third?

He correctly tells us a drilling blowout at these depths is "testing the limits of human technology," but he still assures us — based on what? — we’ll soon capture 90 percent of the escaping oil. Does anyone believe that? And what of the oil already out there? He promises only that "we’ll fight this with everything we’ve got, for as long as it takes," and then help the Gulf and its people recover.

He tells us that from the beginning "the federal government has been in charge of the largest environmental cleanup effort in our nation’s history." Residents of the Gulf know this is false. They know BP is still in charge, still allocating resources, and the locals are furious at BP’s arrogance, secrecy and inattentiveness.

He says they have thousands of people and boats at work; locals know BP controls most of them, just as it’s deployed zillions of booms, but badly deployed and attended to both. He’s "authorized" 17,000 National Guard; locals know many haven’t been deployed.

The President could have acknowledged these failings and the justified anger and explained how he’ll change that. He didn’t. Instead he told locals to call if there’s a problem. But locals have been calling — to BP’s call centers — with little effect.

It will be interesting to hear local reactions to this part of the speech. My guess is many will feel let down. They should.

More on the energy challenge tomorrow.

John Chandley

BP Says “NO” to EPA on Switching Dispersants: Who’s in Charge?

10:07 am in BP oil disaster, Energy by Scarecrow

We’re about to find out how this "BP is responsible for the spill and cleanup, but we’re responsible for oversight" concept works, because BP is apparently defying the Environmental Protection Agency’s order to find and use a different, less toxic and more effective dispersant.

From the continued excellent coverage by the Times Picayune:

BP has told the Environmental Protection Agency that it cannot find a safe, effective and available dispersant to use instead of Corexit, and will continue to use that chemical application to help break up the growing spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

BP was responding to an EPA directive Thursday that gave BP 24 hours to identify a less toxic alternative to Corexit — and 72 hours to start using it — or provide the Coast Guard and EPA with a "detailed description of the alternative dispersants investigated, and the reason they believe those products did not meet the required standards."

BP spokesman Scott Dean said Friday that BP had replied with a letter "that outlines our findings that none of the alternative products on the EPA’s National Contingency Plan Product Schedule list meets all three criteria specified in yesterday’s directive for availability, toxicity and effectiveness."

Dean noted that "Corexit is an EPA pre-approved, effective, low-toxicity dispersant that is readily available, and we continue to use it."

He did not directly address widely broadcast news reports that more than 100,000 gallons of an alternative dispersant chemical call Sea-Brat 4 was stockpiled near Houston and available for application.

As the article notes, there are reportedly quantities of alternative dispersants available in the region.

BP’s Dean statement suggests an attitude of open defiance. They’ve been ordered to stop using a dispersant and replace it, or explain why, but "we continue to use it." So who’s in charge here?

Either EPA needs to say, "we’ve examined the response and based on our own investigation we agree that alternatives meeting our criteria are not available and so authorize BP to continue using its dispersant" . . . or . . . EPA needs to say "we do not agree and BP shall immediately cease its use of the dispersant and comply with our order."

What EPA can’t say, or leave others to conclude, is "we continue to believe BP can and should be using an alternative, but we have to take their word and there’s nothing we can do about it."

The public is out of patience and they expect their government to be able to function in an emergency. It better be quick.

Update: Interesting comments from BP and EPA yesterday, reported by ABC:

Though Suttles said BP will continue to search for a better alternative, he said "right now we cannot identify another product that is available that’s better than [dispersant] Corexit."

EPA spokeswoman Adora Andy told ABC News today, "It’s not that Corexit is banned. It’s not that they have to stop using it because they’re using it right now. But it’s just that they need to switch over."

Oh. And there’s this:

Suttles said he had not seen any evidence of the toll the dispersant is taking on marine life, he admitted that using the chemicals involves "tradeoffs."

"I haven’t seen any evidence to show that," Suttles said today. "We’re doing extensive monitoring as is NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the EPA."

According to the NYT, NOAA has only four research ships to cover the Gulf, with another still returning from the Pacific, while all of the EPA’s monitoring is either near shorelines or for air contamination on shore, not effects on the deepwaters near the BP site. (see EPA website below).

Times Picayune, EPA demands BP use less toxic dispersant
Empytywheel, Congress gets results on Corexit, and see John Hall questions BP on greenwashing campaign
NYT/Greenwire, Less toxic dispersants lose out in BP oil spill cleanup
EPA website on dispersants and directives to BP
NYT, Scientists fault lack of studies over Gulf oil spill
Local media: Fisherman report illnesses from BP chemicals

NOAA Distances Itself from Scientists’ Claims of Underwater Gulf Oil Plumes

12:22 pm in BP oil disaster, Energy, Media by Scarecrow

I don’t know whether this is good or bad news. Last weekend, the New York Times quoted several ocean scientists collecting samples in the area of the BP oil disaster to the effect that there could be large plumes of oil at various depths below the Gulf surface.

Today, however, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued a disclaimer, stating they had no confirmation and claiming "media reports" were "misleading." From the NOAA press release:

"Media reports related to the research work conducted aboard the R/V Pelican included information that was misleading, premature and, in some cases, inaccurate. Yesterday the independent scientists clarified three important points:

1. No definitive conclusions have been reached by this research team about the composition of the undersea layers they discovered. Characterization of these layers will require analysis of samples and calibration of key instruments. The hypothesis that the layers consist of oil remains to be verified.

2. While oxygen levels detected in the layers were somewhat below normal, they are not low enough to be a source of concern at this time.

3. Although their initial interest in searching for subsurface oil was motivated by consideration of subsurface use of dispersants, there is no information to connect use of dispersants to the subsurface layers they discovered.

NOAA thanks the Pelican scientists and crew for repurposing their previously scheduled mission to gather information about possible impacts of the BP oil spill. We eagerly await results from their analyses and share with them the goal of disseminating accurate information.

NOAA continues to work closely with EPA and the federal response team to monitor the presence of oil and the use of surface and sub-surface dispersants. As we have emphasized, dispersants are not a silver bullet. They are used to move us towards the lesser of two environmental outcomes. Until the flow of oil is stemmed, we must take every responsible action to reduce the impact of the oil.”

Well, great. We either have a group of irresponsible scientists who are the only ones reporting and possibly the only ones in the region doing onsite research on the possible composition of plumes near the well, or we have a very politically compromised NOAA trying to manage public concerns. Because if you read the Times story, the "media reports" being blamed here consisted of quotes from the scientists.

What the NOAA statement doesn’t tell us:

1. What, if any, direct collection of under/deep-water samples in the vicinity have been taken or are being taken? What do those samples, show? Who is doing this?

2. If NOAA is still waiting to see analysis of the scientists’ test samples, what is the basis for NOAA’s claims that levels of oxygen are not low enough to be a basis for concern?

3. What is the basis for the EPA/NOAA assumption that massive use of deepwater dispersants is an acceptable tradeoff against impacts from surface levels?

4. Is it true that the dispersants EPA permitted BP to use have been shown to have worse toxicity and less effectiveness than available alternative dispersants, and if so, why is the BP choice accepted under any rational environmental regime? Has BP’s corporate relationship with the chosen dispersant manufacturer played a role in allowing this choice?

5. What steps is NOAA or anyone else within US government taking to account for the huge discrepancies between the "official" estimates of the flow rates and the much larger rates estimated by several different, independent scientists? Is there a large quantity of oil "missing" and unaccounted for, or isn’t there? And what is the government doing to sort that out?

It may be that NOAA is one of the more trusted entities is this saga, and that all we have here is an effort to make sure the media does not get ahead of the known facts. Fine. But government oversight of a powerful industry has clearly failed because of pervasive industry capture, and that failure has embarrassed the Administration and undermined it’s announced pro-industry policies. "Trust us" doesn’t get it, and it never should.

Senate Committee Hearing on BP Oil Disaster II: It Still Hasn’t Sunk In

8:12 am in BP oil disaster, Energy by Scarecrow


CSPAN 3 has live coverage of today’s House Subcommittee hearing, questioning the heads of BP, Halliburton, Transocean and Cameron (the manufacturer of the blowout preventer).

Live CSPAN 3 feed is here:

The consensus media view is that the three main companies who share some responsibility for the still gushing oil disaster pointed their fingers at each other with no one taking responsibility. That was to be expected, because the executives for BP, Transocean and Halliburton realize there are billions of dollars in potential liability to be shared among them.

So the Committee hearings Tuesday contained no explicit admissions that anyone had done something wrong in the days and hours leading up to the catastrophic blowout. Nevertheless, the second hearing of the day, by the Senate Environmental Committee, helped focus on the breakdown in the environmental review process required by the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). It exposed a legal timebomb.

We already know that this particular drilling project, like many others in the Gulf, had been subjected to only cursory NEPA review. The process allowed a generic but inadequate environmental impact assessment (EIS) to be performed to permit leasing and drilling over a wide region. Once that broad-area hurdle was cleared, individual wells would be covered with only minor additional reviews by the Mineral Management Service (MMS).

So if industry could weaken the generic EIS — by essentially writing it for Interior/MMS — it could establish the industry storyline that massive blowouts are unthinkable, that minor blowouts are unlikely, and that whatever spills might result from such minor events could be readily contained and their impacts mitigated with readily available and tested strategies. Hence, there are no unacceptable environmental impacts, and the impacts that might occur in that very unlikely event are acceptable and can be mitigated with proven methods.

That’s the pattern all industries have used to weaken NEPA. But the reality of the BP disaster proves, as every coal mining disaster proves, that story was a massive, lethal fraud. None of it was true. Catastrophic accidents are possible; indeed they may be inevitable, given the dangerous, sometimes unknowable conditions in which deepwater drilling (and mining) occurs.

And once these inevitable catastrophes happen, we’re well beyond the capabilities of traditional responses, remedies and mitigation measures. We’re making it up. We still don’t know how to stop a continuing catastrophe, and we’re woefully unprepared to deal with the consequences, let alone to make the surrounding environment whole again. In addition to the immediate deaths, vast areas can be rendered "dead zones," and whole communities, for hundreds of miles of coastline, can be economically and environmentally devastated.

The Obama Administration made a token gesture yesterday (was it to divert attention?), arguably helpful, proposing to split up MMS so that the office that collects royalties doesn’t conflict or influence the office that oversees safety. Fine, do it. But the degradation of NEPA and the acceptance of a benevolent, fraudulent view of dangers and their consequences could have occurred — and does occur — under bifurcated organizations and combined agencies alike.

The fundamental problem is corporate power and influence over deliberately weakened government regulators and policy makers. There are massive amounts of money at stake, functioning in a political process that allows that money to corrupt our politics and governing institutions. Nothing has been proposed by this Administration or enacted by Congress to fix those problems.

In the meantime, what needs to sink into our government’s collective consciousness is that the BP Oil Disaster has now defined a clear and compelling legal challenge to the deadly inadequacy of every EIS and safety review on which the entire offshore drilling program floats.

No agency can now claim that what we’re doing is safe, that catastrophic accidents can’t occur, or even that they’re unlikely. No agency can assert that we know what to do when it happens, that industry knows how to stop the catastrophe, or that we can contain the damage to reasonable/acceptable levels. Even if somehow the industry manages to staunch BP’s gushing flow with its latest schemes, there’s no assurance the next catastrophe will fit this pattern and be fixable the same way.

Those arguments are now as dead in the water as the fish and wildlife that will increasingly wash up on the shores of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida. And no further deepwater drilling can legally occur — assuming we’re still a nation of laws — as long as that’s true. Let that sink in, Congress.


Halliburton Presentation May Explain Horizon Oil Rig Explosion and Fire

1:53 pm in BP oil disaster, Energy by Scarecrow

What More Can Halliburton Tell Us About the Horizon Oil Blowout and Its Risks?

A publicly available Halliburton PowerPoint presentation from last November might tell us a lot about what could have caused the oil blowout, fire and massive oil gushing at the Horizon rig.

Suppose you’re that division of Halliburton that has the dangerous job of "cementing" the drilling hole and the gaps between the hole and pipe. You’ve done this lots of times in shallow water wells, but you’ve learned through previous experience in deep water there’s a particularly difficult problem having to do with the presence of gas that has seeped to the ocean floor and been captured in essentially "frozen" crystallized formations.

The problem is that when you drill into these formations, and then try to inject cement into the hole/gaps to prevent leakage, the curing process for that creates heat. That heat can, if not controlled, cause the gas to escape the frozen crystals. If a lot of gas is released all at once, as could happen during the cement/curing process, it can cause a blowout where the cementing is occurring, or force gas and/or oil up the pipeline to the drilling rig on the surface. And the heat created by the process may be just enough to ignite the gas [or more likely, a spark at the rig -- see comments 81, 85], causing the explosion and fire.

Did this happen at the Horizon rig? And if Halliburton already knew about this problem months (years) ago, and knew the risks it might create, why are we just now learning about this?

From Halliburton’s presentation (large pdf), page 10, last November (my bold):


• Shallow water flow may occur during or after cement job
Under water blow out has happened
• Gas flow may occur after a cement job in deepwater environments that contain major hydrate zones.
• Destabilization of hydrates after the cement job is confirmed by downhole cameras.
• The gas flow could slow down in hours to days if the de- stabilization is not severe.
• However, the consequences could be more severe in worse cases.

Page 13 lists the design objectives but then concedes they can’t all be met at once:

Deepwater Well Objectives
• Cement slurry should be placed in the entire annulus with no losses
• Temperature increase during slurry hydration should not destabilize hydrates
• There should be no influx of shallow water or gas into the annulus
• The cement slurry should develop strength in the shortest time after placement
Conditions in deepwater wells are not
conducive to achieving all of these
objectives simultaneously

The presentation goes on to explain various options for dealing with the risks and assess the relative merits and costs. What’s interesting is that Halliburton appears to have been working at the edge of the technology and was not certain what would happen. Most experience was in shallower waters and no one was certain what would happen in deep waters. It conducted tests, but it’s not clear how complete or realistic those tests were or how costs factored into the choice of techniques. From page 23:

Destabilization of hydrates during cementing and production in deepwater environments is a challenge to the safety and economics

I think we’re about to learn a lot more about how cement cures and interacts with gas-locked crystaline formations in deep water drilling.

Update: See, alternative explanations at The Oil Drum, Tech Talk: Revisiting Oil Well Pressures and Blow Out Preventers . . .. Reacting to a discussion of the cementing issues in the [May 1] LA Times, the author says "it is hard to see from what is known, that this was a cause in this case," though not all commenters there seem convinced.

h/t to Cynthia Kouril who seems to know about how cement cures underwater — tunnels into New York — and found the presentation.

Halliburton presenation below: