Blue Marble - July 2010

Where's BP's Well Integrity Data?

| Wed Jul. 14, 2010 1:08 PM EDT

BP's latest attempt to cap the Gulf gusher was put on hold Wednesday afternoon amid questions about whether the company could safely contain the leak without making the disaster worse. The 150,000-pound "capping stack" is in place, but more tests are being conducted to make sure it doesn't create too much pressure on the well. A well integrity test, meant to ensure that the well can withstand the pressure created by the cap, was supposed to be completed yesterday, but is on hold.

The state of the wellbore has been in question for some time; incident commander Thad Allen said last month that that its condition is unknown. The worry is that more pressure might further damage the wellbore, causing even more oil to spew into the Gulf. Current estimates range from 35,000 barrels per day to 60,000. But internal BP documents estimate that up to 100,000 barrels per day could come from the gusher if the wellbore is further compromised.

Last month, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) asked BP to provide information about the status of the wellbore, but the company has not yet responded. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) sent a similar letter to BP on June 2; his spokesman confirmed today that they, too, have not received a response from BP despite having "asked them about it many times since."

Markey sent a second letter today, again asking for more information about the condition:

Please provide documents related to the condition of the wellbore.

—Has BP attempted to determine whether the casing inside the wellbore has been damaged and if so, what were the results? Please provide all measurements, images, and other documents related to the condition of the wellbore, as well as any future plans for such measurements going forward.

—Has BP confirmed or attempted to confirm the presence of hydrocarbons leaking from anywhere other than the containment cap? If so, what were the results? Please provide all related documents.

—Has BP surveyed the vicinity of the well to look for any leaks from the sea floor? If so, what area was surveyed? Please provide all measurements, images, and other documents related to any survey(s) to identify hydrocarbon leakage from the sea floor. If no survey has been performed, why not?

Markey also notes that the administration has been provided with this information, but it hasn't been made public. He also sent a letter to Allen asking him to make public what they know about the well's integrity.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Enviro Links: Senate to Address "Pollution," NOAA Hoarding Gulf Info, and More

| Wed Jul. 14, 2010 9:08 AM EDT

In climate news:

Majority Leader Harry Reid says there will be a "pollution" measure in the energy package.

John Kerry (D-Mass.) has a new, a 667-page draft version of a utility-only bill.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin says he will name a replacement for Sen. Robert Byrd by the end of the day on Friday.

And in oil disaster news:

The keeping lobbyists busy, The Hill reports, as oil drillers and related industries push back against the Obama administration's moratorium on new deepwater drilling.

Dan Frumkin reports that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is hoarding reams of data that marine researchers say is imperative to understanding how much damage the BP oil gusher has caused to the Gulf.

New Orleans residents tell the oil spill commission about how the disaster is affecting them.

Some members of the oil spill panel are questioning the administration's latest attempt to instate a moratorium on new offshore drilling.

The impact the Gulf spill will have on seafood is still unknown.

BP's shares are up now that the new containment cap is in place.

ProPublica reports that the co-owners of the Macondo well are still refusing to help cover the costs of the disaster, pointing the finger at BP.

"They Just Don't Know Who They're Messing With"

| Wed Jul. 14, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

If you've been reading Mother Jones lately, you've heard about BP's stranglehold on media access in the Gulf, which has included preventing reporters from visting oil-soaked public beaches and barring its spill cleanup workers from talking to the press. Now, one of BP's ex-media enforcers is speaking out.

Former BP contractor Adam Dillon went public last Friday, telling a local news station in New Orleans that he was fed up with BP's handling of the spill response, not least of all its information clampdown. In an interview with Mother Jones this week, Dillon, who claims he was fired for raising concerns about the cleanup with his bosses, elaborated on his experiences in the Gulf and vented his frustrations with BP.

A retired Army special operations soldier who lives in Wilmington, North Carolina (and is running for sheriff in his home county), Dillon first worked management* for BP on the beaches of Louisiana. In June, a camera crew caught him chasing reporters off a Grand Isle beach. Dillon was hired by O'Brian's Response Management Group, which was in turn contracted by BP to hire an army of subcontractors to aid in various aspects of the the spill response, from cleanup workers to security guards to communications specialists. Based on his behind-the-scenes view of the spill response, he describes a cleanup effort in disarray, marred by unclear lines of authority and shoddy communications among the numerous players involved—from BP and its litany of contractors and subcontractors to the Coast Guard and local law enforcement agencies. "There's just so many moving parts and moving pieces," he says. "The right hand is just not talking to the left." In BP's attempts to control the flow of information, Dillon says, it has largely compounded these problems."

But while Dillon says the company is bungling many aspects of the spill response, he notes that it has done a reasonably good job in one area: blocking the media from seeing the worst of the disaster in Grand Isle, a beach on a barrier island off Louisiana's coast. "There was all kinds of stuff they didn't want the media to see," he says, describing areas thick with oil that were off-limits to journalists. "They kept it very strict what they wanted the media not to see, and what they wanted them to see. Where the media was actually given access to really was kind of mundane."

While BP has insisted publicly that it has not prevented spill workers from talking to the press, Dillon says company officials made it perfectly clear to contractors that they would lose their jobs if they spoke to reporters. "There are people down on that beach that are begging to talk to reporters, because they're having pay issues, having problems," says Dillon of the workers in Grand Isle. "Any of those laborers that are down there are being told behind closed doors that if they talk to the media, they'll be fired."

To enforce its media blockade, Dillon says, the company turned to its security force, largely made up of guys like him, ex-military and law enforcement personnel. "They were given orders to herd the media away," he says, and they followed those instructions just like he did. "They didn't know the reason behind it—they were just told keep the media away from [the cleanup workers]." He adds, "That's a First Amendment violation… You can't keep the media away. It's a public beach. We weren't under Martial Law."

After working on Grand Isle, Dillon was transferred to the Unified Command Center in Houma, Louisiana, the hub of BP and federal response activities, to work on cleanup logistics. He claims he was fired last week "because he was seen as a threat to superiors." (Stephanie Hebert, a spokeswoman at the Unified Command Center, confirms he was a contractor there but declined to comment on his dismissal.) Specifically, he says BP axed him after taking photos of what he described as "equations on dispersants" and calling these pictures to the attention of his bosses. He says he was "confined and interrogated for almost an hour" about what he saw, and within 12 hours was dismissed from the command center. Dillon declined to elaborate on the dispersant issue when we spoke, but pledged to avenge his termination by calling attention to BP's mishandling of the response.

"They screwed up royally when they let me go," he says. "I was down there to do the right thing, to clean up. They just don't know who they're messing with."

*This story has been updated to clarify Dillon's role.

Senate Climate Watch: Fate of Carbon Cap Still Unclear

| Tue Jul. 13, 2010 12:20 PM EDT

Last week I wrote about the continued confusion over what exactly will be included in the energy (and possibly climate) package Democrats want to debate next week. There's not much more clarity on that yet, but here are a few bits of news.

The Washington Independent got a copy of the utility-only language that Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) put together. This particular version is from April. I'll note, however, that Bingaman's spokesman indicated last week that this was just a discussion draft and that Bingaman doesn't expect it to go anywhere. As I reported last week, Bingaman doesn't think any sort of cap is going anywhere this year—his or anyone else's—and still seems focused on passing his energy-only bill.

Meanwhile, John Kerry (D-Mass.) is now apparently drafting his own utility-only cap, and is holding some meetings on this latest option today. He's meeting with some representatives from environmental groups later this afternoon, which may yield some more details. As for whether Kerry's latest attempt at a carbon cap is likely to come to fruition, no one really seems to know. "Until I see something on paper, I don’t know how real it is," said one environmental advocate. "We're waiting to see."

But many, even within the environmental community, have acknowledged that there's little chance that any kind of carbon cap passes this year. "It's a very uphill battle," acknowledged another environmental advocate working on legislation. There has not yet been an indication from either Majority Leader Harry Reid's office or the White House whether they want the carbon cap included at all.

The recent death of Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) hasn't made it any easier, as his replacement is not expected to be a vote for climate action. With several other expected Democratic defections, leadership would probably have to find six Republicans to vote for a carbon cap—and there are only two, possibly three, members of the GOP who are considered possible "yes" votes at this point.

Anyway, still no earth-shattering news on this front yet. Stay tuned.

Drilling Moratorium, Take Two

| Mon Jul. 12, 2010 4:59 PM EDT

After its first attempt to impose a moratorium on new deepwater drilling lost in federal court last month and then on an appeal last week, the Obama administration took another stab at blocking new drilling Tuesday.

The administration's latest moratorium would allow some operations to continue—if drillers can certify that there are adequate plans in place to control a well, that the blowout preventer on the well is functioning properly, and that the company has the "ability to respond effectively to a potential oil spill."

The administration's first moratorium shut down 33 exploratory drilling operations in the deepwater. In practice, the new moratorium would likely keep those operations on hold for now; federal regulators have until the end of August to come up with new guidelines that will clarify what companies will have to do to get the green light. The Department of Interior's statements today indicated that they expect most operations will remain on hold through the end of November, the original expiration date for the moratorium. "Like the deepwater drilling moratorium lifted by the District Court on June 22, the deepwater drilling suspensions ordered today apply to most deepwater drilling activities and could last through Nov. 30," the agency said.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar indicated that he believes the continued moratorium is necessary to ensure that the there are no repeats of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. "I am basing my decision on evidence that grows every day of the industry's inability in the deepwater to contain a catastrophic blowout, respond to an oil spill, and to operate safely," said Salazar in a statement.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Deep Waves, Deep Currents

| Mon Jul. 12, 2010 2:33 PM EDT
From my blog Deep Blue Home. Deep waves as seen from space. Deep currents as sensed from two miles under Antarctic waters. Both are rewriting what we know of the movement of oceanic waters.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
(Image by the NASA Earth Observatory. Caption by Holli Riebeek.)
 
This Earth Observatory image shows two kinds of waves on the surface of the Indian Ocean near the Andaman Islands. You can also see the venting Barren Island Volcano in the lower left. The tiny waves running horizontally across the image are regular surface waves driven by wind blowing across the water. The huge waves flowing nearly vertically across the right side of the frame are internal waves, driven by tides dragging the deep, cold, salty waters at the bottom of the ocean over a shallower seafloor ridge. From the Earth Observatory caption:
Internal waves happen because the ocean is layered. Deep water is cold, dense, and salty, while shallower water is warmer, lighter, and fresher. The differences in density and salinity cause the various layers of the ocean to behave like different fluids. As internal waves move through the lower layer of the ocean, the lighter water above flows down the crests and sinks into the troughs. This motion bunches surface water over the troughs and stretches it over the crests, creating alternating lines of calm water at the crests and rough water at the troughs.
It is the pattern of calm and rough water that makes the internal wave visible in satellite images. Calm, smooth waters reflect more light directly back to the satellite, resulting in a bright, pale stripe along the length of the internal wave. The rough waters in the trough scatter light in all directions, forming a dark line.
In my new book DEEP BLUE HOME I spent a fair amount of time writing about the stratification of the ocean. At its largest scale, the motion of the waters of the globe are known as the thermohaline circulation, because they're driven by differences in temperature (thermo) and salinity (haline). Here's a snippet:
Just as gravity drains the rivers of the land, so gravity drains the rivers of the World Ocean. The saltier, colder, heavier rivers sink beneath the fresher, warmer, lighter ones. The three dimensional realm of the ocean is layered with watersheds running over and atop one another in multiple directions. An exploded view of the global thermohaline circulation looks something like an intricately entwined highway interchange system, with layers crossing and bypassing at many levels, in all directions, and at different speeds.
This simplified diagram is worth a thousand words:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The timescale of the thermohaline circulation is pretty amazing. On the order of a couple of millennia to circulate complete around the world. We currently understand only the broad outline of the system.

 

A new and really important piece of the puzzle was only recently added with this paper in April's Nature Geoscience (DOI: 10.1038/ngeo842) by researchers from Japan and Tasmania. They found that waters flowing nearly two miles deep in the Southern Ocean are moving at an astonishing 700 meters/2,300 feet a minute (the fastest deep current yet found), with a flow rate of more than 8 million cubic meters/2,800 cubic feet a second. That's 40 times as much water as the Amazon River. The new current is likely a critical driver of the thermohaline circulation, and global climate.

 

"What This Company is Doing to This Country Right Now is Just Wrong"

| Mon Jul. 12, 2010 2:29 PM EDT

The news station WDSU in New Orleans on Friday ran the first part of an interview with Adam Dillon, a former BP contractor now going public with his dissatisfaction at the company's handling of the Gulf disaster.

Dillon was caught in an earlier WDSU video chasing reporters off a beach and barring them from talking to cleanup workers. Now BP has fired Dillon, and he's willing to talk. From Friday's interview:

WDSU Reporter Scott Walker: Why did you want to talk to me tonight?

Dillon: Because of what I told you on Grand Isle that day. When you met me and you were straight with me and I saw the way that you were being treated, I told you I wish I could tell you more. And after the way BP treated me, I'm telling you now that you deserve and answer and that's why you're getting an answer.

Shortly after the first encounter with WDSU, Dillon was promoted to a position at the BP command center, but was soon "fired because he was seen as a threat to superiors," he says. Dillon says he was fired after he took photos of "equations on dispersants." "I saw something when I was out there. I took pictures of something," said Dillon. "I brought it to the attention of the command center. Whatever I took pictures of, 12 hours later I was gone." (We're trying to get a hold of Dillon for more details, but haven't had any luck. So Adam Dillon, if you're out there, drop us a line!)

Dillon says his experience as a contractor has caused him to lose all faith in BP's recovery efforts:

They're not worried about cleaning up the spill as it is… I will never have loyalty to this company. I will always have loyalty to my country, and my country comes first. And what this company is doing tot his country right now is just wrong.

Here's the video: 

Where Are the Respirators?

| Mon Jul. 12, 2010 11:51 AM EDT

Progressive groups and fisherman are attacking the Obama administration for not protecting cleanup workers in the Gulf from hazardous oil and chemical dispersant fumes. Last week, a coalition of local and national groups launched BPMakesMeSick.com, a petition calling on President Obama to ensure that BP provides workers in the Gulf with respirators.

The petition, sponsored by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), states:

We cannot let the denial of protective gear that hurt so many 9/11 clean-up workers happen again with the Gulf clean-up workers.

President Obama and the federal government must demand that BP allow every clean-up worker who wants to wear respiratory protective equipment to do so—and ensure that workers get the equipment and training they need to do their jobs safely.

Twenty percent of offshore workers have been exposed to 2-butoxyethanol, a chemical used in the dispersant Corexit 9527 that has been linked to health concerns.

Despite the fact that oil contains a number of harmful chemicals that workers should not inhale, the federal government does not presently require that BP provide respirators for all cleanup workers. At the end of June, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued new guidance recommending that respirators be provided for workers closest to the spill site—those who are on vessels performing controlled burns of the oil or trying to contain the leak itself. But regulators still don't require BP to provide respirators for cleanup crews working further away from the busted well. That's what BPMakesMeSick is trying to change. 

June data from air monitoring in the Gulf region also suggests that there are likely health risks for cleanup workers farther from the spill site, too. But Gina Solomon, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says BP hasn't provided enough details about air quality problems. Without more information about "where or when the elevated levels [of toxins] were measured," she says, "there's not enough information in these reports to know if the new limited respiratory protection guidelines will protect these workers." 

Perhaps more disturbing, BP's latest round of data showed that 20 percent of offshore workers have been exposed to 2-butoxyethanol, a chemical used in the dispersant Corexit 9527 that has been linked to health concerns. Short-term exposure can cause nausea and vomiting, but repeated exposure can cause damage to red blood cells and kidney and liver problems. The chemical made cleanup workers in Alaska sick after the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. What we know about worker exposure is troubling, but as others have pointed out, the monitoring BP and OSHA are conducting may not be sufficient to monitor the full range of air quality concerns in the Gulf.

Pressure is mounting for the Obama administration to take a clearer stance on respirators and ensure that BP provides every worker in the region with protection from hazardous chemicals. The BP Makes Me Sick coalition has gathered 57,000 signatures since launching late last week, including the support of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the Louisiana Shrimpers Association, United Commercial Fisherman, Louisiana Environmental Action Network, The Daily Kingfish, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America, Color Of Change, Friends of the Earth, and Commercial Fishermen of America. Four Senate candidates, 27 House candidates, and 10 current members of the House have also signed on.

The BP Blame Game

| Mon Jul. 12, 2010 8:19 AM EDT

Attorney General Eric Holder said last Thursday that the Justice Department's criminal investigation into the Gulf oil disaster may cast a much wider net than just BP. "There are a variety of entities and a variety of people who are the subjects of that investigation," Holder said in an interview with CBS's Bob Schieffer, "For people to conclude that BP is the focus of this investigation might not be correct." The investigation, he said, is "ongoing," and he hinted it may extend beyond just the companies involved in the Deepwater Horizon. There's a "certain commonality of the way oil companies had been operating" in the Gulf," he noted.

Possible investigations into the other oil companies notwithstanding, here's what we know about the possible targets of the DOJ probe:

BP: Operator of the Deepwater Horizon rig. In the weeks since the explosion, much has come to light about what may have led to the disaster—reports of ignored warning signs, cut corners, and neglected procedures. Other oil giants have thrown BP under the bus, arguing that the company violated all kinds of industry standards. BP has said it will cover all "legitimate claims" related to the spill and put up $20 billion for an escrow fund, but has also tried to deflect blame to its partners in the Deepwater operation.

Transocean: Owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig and the biggest offshore drilling company in the world. The company, now based in Switzerland, has been accused of human rights abuses in Myanmar, tax evasion, and abuse of the legal system. It has also been criticized for shirking responsibility for the explosion, first by invoking an obscure, 159-year-old maritime law to minimize the amount of money it might have to pay out resulting from the spill to just $27 million. Then it was targeted for transferring $1 billion to shareholders on May 14. Transocean was also operating the Deepwater Horizon under the Marshall Islands flag—yes, the poor island nation with a population the size of Oshkosh, Wisconsin—to avoid US regulations. The company has also claimed that according to the contract with BP, it's only responsible for surface spills, not underwater.

Anadarko Petroleum Corp.: This Houston-based petroleum company held a 25 percent share in the Macondo well. BP's agreement with Anadarko says that each company has responsibility for damages in proportion to their share of the well, unless an incident is found to be the result of "gross negligence or willful misconduct" on the part of one partner. When BP requested a $272 million contribution to help cover the costs of the spill in June, the company refused, arguing that it was BP's "reckless decisions and actions" that caused a "preventable" accident.

Mitsui Oil Exploration Co.: This Japanese company also had a 10 percent stake in the well, and so far hasn't responded to BP's request to help pay for the cleanup.

Halliburton: The infamous oil field services giant was responsible for pouring the cement for the well, which has been targeted as a probable cause or contributing factor in the explosion. Transocean has pointed to a bad cement job as the cause of the blowout. But Halliburton has said in public comments that they were just following orders from the well-owner, BP. The company has also said that its contract with BP insolated it against "all potential claims and expenses" (unless, of course, it is found to be grossly negligent).

Cameron International: This is the Houston-based manufacturer of the blowout preventer that failed to close off the well after the April 20 blast. BP has repeatedly stressed that the blowout preventer malfunctioned. Cameron has been tight-lipped about the situation, but has lawyered up.