Blue Marble - June 2010

New Exxon Blog Targets BP Fallout

| Mon Jun. 14, 2010 7:16 PM EDT

Breaking news: You need not worry about the safety of offshore oil drilling. How do I know this? Well, let's just say a hat tip is in order for Exxon's new blog, Perspectives, which launched today with a post about the Deepwater Horizon disaster. "This devastating chain of events is far from the industry norm," proclaims Exxon blogger Ken Cohen, who's also the oil giant's vice president of public and government affairs. "We all need to understand what occurred on this occasion that did not occur on the 14,000 other deepwater wells that have been successfully drilled around the world."

Translated into the kind of language that actual bloggers use, Cohen's missive appears to be saying that Exxon and the world's other upstanding oil outfits shouldn't be punished for BP's bad behavior. "Energy consumers around the world need the energy and natural gas resources found in offshore and deepwater regions," he concludes, "but they expect it to be done safely and in an environmentally sensitive way."

As of this afternoon, only one person had responded to Cohen's post. A commenter who identified himself as "James Peppe" wrote that companies such as Exxon "play a vital role in maintaining and improving our standad of living." He went on: "So let's all continue working together to learn from accidents like this. . . [and] "take care to avoid making a very bad situation even worse by succumbing to the shortsighted passions of misguided political expediency."

According to LinkedIn, Houston resident James Peppe is the senior regional manager at the National Association of Manufacturers, one of Exxon's major political allies in Washington.

In a separate shorter post, "Welcome to ExxonMobil Perspectives," Cohen explains that Exxon had been planning the blog "for some time" but adds that the BP disaster will be a dominant theme. "Understandably, people have questions, comments, and concerns about the tragic events unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico," he writes. "So do we. That's why we are making this our primary focus as we start this discussion."

To be sure, Perspectives is far from the first time that an oil company has tried its hand at blogging. In 2008, Chevron started a blog to look at how "to meet the needs of consumers in an environmentally responsible way." And more recently, BP has taken out Google ads based on oil spill search terms that links to a "BP blog"—really just a webpage with updates and talking points.

Exxon, however, has generally preferred to get its message out though a host of shadowy front groups—particularly in regards to climate change denial. With the launch of Perspectives, Exxon is signaling that it sees the need to speak with the public more directly. It will be interesting to watch how the blog presses Exxon's case against tighter regulation of offshore drilling. And how an angry public responds (or is edited out) in its comments section.

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Oil Execs on the Hot Seat Tomorrow

| Mon Jun. 14, 2010 4:39 PM EDT

It will be another busy week of hearings related to the Gulf oil disaster, kicking off with a panel of the top executives from five of the country's largest oil companies Tuesday morning.

The Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Energy and Environment will host the five execs at a hearing titled "Drilling Down on America’s Energy Future: Safety, Security, and Clean Energy." Appearing at the hearing will be BP America President Lamar McKay, as well as Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil; John Watson, chairman and CEO of Chevron Corporation; James Mulva, chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips; and Marvin Odum, president of Shell Oil Company. That hearing starts at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow, and we'll be live-Tweeting from it.

The hearings get even hotter on Thursday as the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations puts BP CEO Tony Hayward on the hot seat for the first time since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon on April 20. Up until now, other BP executives have been called on to testify; now Congress will get a crack at the top guy (and source of so many flubs in the past weeks).

The hearing on "The Role of BP in the Deepwater Horizon Explosion and Oil Spill" will take place Thursday at 10 a.m. Investigators have already sent a detailed list of questions they expect Hayward to answer about evidence that the company took a number of shortcuts that potentially caused the disaster.

23-Mile Oil Plume Headed for Dry Tortugas. And More Spill Science Updates

| Mon Jun. 14, 2010 4:16 PM EDT

A compilation of spill science for 14 June 2010 that might otherwise be hard to see camouflaged against the clutter of headlines.

  • By slowly increasing the percentage of water flow down the main stem of the Mississippi, oil can be held offshore longer, giving response crews more time to deal with it before it poses a greater threat to sensitive wildlife and marsh and mangrove habitats, suggests an Audubon coastal scientist.
  • The six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico has waylaid the research of an oceanographer at Louisiana State University, who uses ROVS attached to deepwater oil rigs to video strange creatures living up to 8,000 feet below the surface. Just when we need their underwater eyes to see the marine life most affected by the spill, the ROVs are all being redeployed to shut down exploratory wells so the rigs can move on to drill in other waters.
  • How bad is it for workers in the spill zone? One analysis by a former OSHA inspector finds a synergy of alarming trends: bad planning (sampling isn't taking place in the right places at the right times); not enough sampling (25,000 workers, less than 2,500 air samples collected in 52 days since April 20; not even one worker's exposures to all chemicals has been characterized); not sampling for the right things (ultrafine particles, for instance).
  • NOAA finally gets all its data up on one new interactive website for anyone to see. Only took 55 days [to make the data public]. The map provides layers showing everything from turtle stranding sites to fishing closures to cleanup assessments to satellite images of the spill.
  • Rapid Response Research Grants from the National Science Foundation are available for Gulf of Mexico oil spill research. This is a part of a system designed to receive and review proposals with "a severe urgency with regard to availability of or access to data, facilities, or specialized equipment, as well as quick-response research on natural or anthropogenic disasters and similar unanticipated events."
  • Scientists aboard the research vessel the Walton Smith have found a 23-mile-long plume of oil headed towards Florida's Dry Tortugas national Park, breeding grounds for sooty terns, brown noddies, masked boobies, and magnificent frigatebirds.

Groups Take Murkowski EPA Showdown to the Airwaves

| Mon Jun. 14, 2010 8:29 AM EDT

Environmental and progressive groups are targeting senators for their votes last week on a measure to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. The measure, sponsored by Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), failed by a vote of 47-53.

Americans United for Change is spending $405,000 on local TV ads targeting Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Richard Burr (R-NC), and Scott Brown (R-Mass.). Both Burr and Grassley are up for reelection this year. Brown isn't up for reelection until 2012, but he comes from the state whose challenge to the EPA prompted the regulation of planet-warming gases in the first place, and he supported carbon reduction as a state senator. The Brown ads, which started over the weekend, highlight the senator's $45,000 in donations from the oil industry and show footage of the Gulf oil spill and oil-coated animals. Here's the ad:

Meanwhile, Clean Energy Works is running ads thanking senators who voted against Murkowski's measure. The first round praises Michael Bennet (D-Col.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.); Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), and Jim Webb (D-Va.). Here's the Murray ad:

Should You Boycott BP?

| Mon Jun. 14, 2010 4:30 AM EDT

A few weeks ago, I borrowed a car to run some errands. I prefer to travel on two wheels, and I have the luxury of doing so because I live in a city. But let's be honest, carrying a bed frame on a bike can be pretty tough. As I returned to DC, I realized I needed to fill up the gas tank, but was dismayed at the stations lying before me: BP, BP, BP…and then I spotted an Exxon station. Up until about April 19, I probably would have chosen BP over Exxon, the legacy of the Valdez spill still at the forefront of my mind even 20 years later. But ever since the Gulf disaster, I just couldn't stomach spending my money at BP.

I know it's not an entirely rational thought process. After all, fuel from other gas stations that don't bear the BP logo may well be coming from BP wholesalers and refineries, meaning I could be buying BP oil at another station without realizing it. And most of the BP-branded stations are owned by independent franchisees, since the company doesn't actually own many of the 13,000 retail stations bearing its logo these days (BP announced in 2007 that it plans to sell off the 700 it still owned). That means I'm most likely hurting a small-time business person rather than the oil giant most likely. And it's not like my decision to deny BP a relatively tiny sum of money puts a noticeable dent in its deep pockets anyway. More importantly, it's not like there's any oil company out there that doesn't have something deplorable on its record. I'm not alone, though. There's good reason a significant "Boycott BP" movement has sprouted in the past eight weeks. The movement's Facebook page touts 557,000 fans (heck, even the band Korn is taking part).

Gavan Fitzsimons, a professor of marketing and psychology at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, understands the feeling. He, too, has cruised by BP stations in the weeks since the spill. I caught up with him to talk about the effect of boycotting BP and what concerned citizens should think about this whole question.

Science of the Spill: News Roundup

| Fri Jun. 11, 2010 5:46 PM EDT

A compilation of spill science that might otherwise be hard to see camouflaged against the clutter of headlines.

  • Researchers have discovered a new strain of bacteria that could be of considerable value in the long-term cleanup of the massive Gulf Coast oil by degrading polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)—the compounds in oil that are toxic, carcinogenic, and mutagenic.
  • A new field technique for mapping and testing oil-contaminated soils skips the time- and money-consuming lab tests to accurately predict the total amount of petroleum contaminants in moist unprepared soil samples.
  • Violent outflows of methane from the sea floor might have spiked the planet's temperature ~55 million years ago, and scientists en route to the Gulf of Mexico think the spill (also leaking methane) affords a unique opportunity to study an analog in real time.
  • Four generations of researchers have been studying a 1969 diesel spill in Buzzard's Bay, Massachusetts. In this video Christopher Reddy of WHOI describes what they're still finding out there and how it might or might nor relate to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
  • How endangered are the Gulf's brown pelicans? Roughly 60 percent of the subspecies Pelecanus occidentalis carolinensis that breed along the Gulf coast and nest on the barrier islands off Louisiana have already been exposed to oil.
  • A new analysis finds that as early as 2015 oil production capacity is going to begin to be challenged in terms of meeting rising demand, particularly from continuing growth of the economies of China and India, and that conventional oil reserves are actually 30 percent lower than generally accepted.
  • The Gulf of Mexico Loop Current changes in intensity through the year. Early in the year it's fairly slow, then picks up speed during the summer, generating more eddies along the way, some likely to spin off and carry oil back to the untouched estuaries and beaches of western Louisiana and Texas.

 

 

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Eco-News Roundup: Friday June 11

| Fri Jun. 11, 2010 2:20 PM EDT

News on the environment, oil spills, health, BP, wildlife, and more Blue Marblish news from our other blogs.

Bad Brand: BP's brand value is sinking like a drop of water in oil.

Oil Into Oilade: The corn ethanol industry may spin the oil spill for a bailout.

Vote of Confidence: Murkowski's bill to ban the EPA from regulating gases loses.

Death of Climate: Lindsay Graham's lack of support may kill a real climate bill.

Energy to Spare: A new report shows just how much the world subsidizes energy production.

Gulf Disaster 2.0: A political poll on how we see Deepwater vs. Katrina.

Race to the Top: Whites have a few more decades before they're outnumbered by minorities in the US.

Regular Coverage: The Tea Party has taken a backseat to Deepwater Horizon coverage.

Map Love: See this map on who actually owns the Gulf of Mexico.

BP's Master Spin: Despite BP's lies, the government is taking their cleanup report at face value.

Toxic Soup: Listing of ingredients in BP's spill dispersants.

DIY DNA: At-home DNA tests are unreliable, and potentially scarring (emotionally, that is).

No Fun: Surveys show that teenagers are enjoying sex less during the recession.

Immediate Help: Obama's giving seniors help now until the 2012 reform kicks in.

Price to Pay: The BP oil spill may derail recession recovery efforts.

Suicide Spike: Baby Boomers are experiencing an uptick in suicide rates.

Trial and Error: In trying to evade "torture," GITMO staff may have experimented on detainees.

 

 

The Ever-Growing Gulf Disaster

| Fri Jun. 11, 2010 12:16 PM EDT

The estimate from the government flow rate team now puts the size of the Gulf disaster somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 barrels of oil per day (or possibly as high as 50,000). The ever-ballooning figure is twice the size of the government's last estimate. But it's at least 100 times the size of what we were told was coming out of the well in the first days after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon.

Josh Nelson at EnviroKnow put together a chart illustrating the ever-ballooning disaster:

In 2008, BP Touted New Tech To Measure Oil Flow

| Fri Jun. 11, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

For seven weeks, BP has insisted that measuring exactly how much oil is gushing into the Gulf of Mexico is a daunting—perhaps impossible—task. The depth of the well, and the volume of natural gas emitting from it, has made the flow rate "very, very difficult to estimate," BP has said, while its chief operating officer has emphasized the "huge amount of uncertainty" surrounding the question. But back in 2008, the company was singing a very different tune. In an in-house magazine, BP bragged about sophisticated technology it had developed to measure precisely the flow of oil and gas through pipelines.

The August 2008 issue of Frontiers, BP's technology and innovation magazine, includes a lengthy feature, titled "Listening to the Flow." The article boasts of the company's "expertise [in] flow measurement." Determining how much oil and gas is flowing out of a pipeline is "tricky to do," the article says. It explains that BP had developed a technology called sonar-based flow metering, in which the flow of hydrocarbons is measured using sonar sensors placed inside a pipe. This technology is "proving its worth in the company’s operations around the world," the article says, noting that BP "has pioneered the introduction of a new and very useful tool into the wider oil industry."

According to the article, BP tested its technology in 2004 on a wet gas pipeline in Alaska and had already introduced around 45 sonar meters to oil fields. The company's research and development program manager told the magazine that BP planned to use the devices on underwater wells, too.

Scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution have also developed acoustic technology. BP initially invited them to the site of the spill in early May, one scientist told a House panel last month, but then rescinded the invite. The Woods Hole team is now working on estimates as part of the government flow rate team.

In the early weeks of the catastrophe, BP said 1,000 barrels of oil were leaking from the well each day. Then, the oil giant went along with a later government estimate of 5,000 barrels per day. That, too, proved to be understating the matter. The government's latest assessment is 20,000 to 40,000 barrels per day, but the upper range could be as high as 50,000 barrels per day. Meanwhile, BP says it's siphoning up to 15,000 barrels of oil daily. Given that oil is still pouring into the ocean, this only serves to verify that the spill is far worse than BP—and the government—originally let on. BP's earliest estimates would have us believe that a total of around 2.2 million gallons of oil had entered Gulf waters. According to the new, upper-end calculation from the flow rate team, that total could be as high as 109.2 million gallons.

There's a reason the oil giant is being so cagey about the spill's true size. The amount that the company will eventually have to fork out in civil penalties will be determined by how much oil they've dumped into the Gulf. On Thursday, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) called on BP to grant independent scientists direct access to the spill site in order to figure out the flow rate.

Of course, if BP's technology is as ground-breaking as that 2008 magazine article would have us believe, the oil giant should be perfectly capable of undertaking this complex calculation itself. Where's that cutting-edge research now?

Image from Frontiers, August 2008. Image from Frontiers, August 2008.

How Does Kevin Costner's Oil Cleaning Machine Work, Exactly?

| Thu Jun. 10, 2010 5:35 PM EDT

Actor Kevin Costner told Congress that his company has developed a high-tech machine for separating oil and water that could slurp up as much as 200 gallons of oil every minute from the massive spill in the Gulf. BP has already tested the technology and put ten machines to use in the water.

Sounds great! How does it work?

The company, Oil Therapy Solutions, explains the mechanics of the machine on its website. If you want to read the description verbatim, it's at the end of the article.* Greg Lowry, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, helped me translate the jargon into simpler English.