Blue Marble - September 2010

BP's Internal Report: Spreading the Blame Around

| Wed Sep. 8, 2010 11:02 AM EDT

BP released the findings of its internal probe of the Deepwater Horizon disaster on Wednesday. The 193-page report accepts some of the blame for the explosion and subsequent spill, but also points the finger at its partners in the operation. In the eight key findings in the report, the company only directly takes responsibility for one of the problems that led to the disaster.

While investigation into what happened on the rig on April 20 is far from complete, the company's initial report attempts to shift some of the blame to the other companies involved in the disaster: Transocean (the owner of the Deepwater Horizon), Halliburton (the company charged with cementing the well) and Cameron (the manufacturer of the failed blowout preventer). BP has so far received the bulk of the criticism for the disaster, with its partners claiming that it was cutting corners to save time and money.

BP's report concludes that "no single factor caused the Macondo well tragedy," but "a sequence of failures involving a number of different parties led to the explosion and fire which killed 11 people and caused widespread pollution in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year."

From the executive summary:

The accident on April 20, 2010, involved a well integrity failure, followed by a loss of hydrostatic control of the well. This was followed by a failure to control the flow from the well with the BOP equipment, which allowed the release and subsequent ignition of hydrocarbons. Ultimately, the BOP emergency functions failed to seal the well after the initial explosions.

The report concludes that both a cement barrier and something called a "shoe track" barrier failed to contain the flow of oil and gas from the well. The team "concluded that there were weaknesses in cement design and testing, quality assurance and risk assessment." This perhaps could have been avoided, the report concludes, by "more thorough review and testing by Halliburton" and "stronger quality assurance."

Prior to closing off the well, tests that indicated that there were problems with the well's integrity were misread; as a result, "the Transocean rig crew and BP well site leaders reached the incorrect view that the test was successful and that well integrity had been established." This in turn caused oil and gas to flow into the riser and past the blowout preventer, but the crew working on the rig did not notice the influx soon enough and were unable to regain control of the well.

The rig's system designed to prevent the gas and oil from catching fire failed, too, as did the blowout preventer. The report notes that investigators found "indications of potential weaknesses in the testing regime and maintenance management system" for the blowout preventer (BOP). It's worth noting, however, that the BOP was only removed from the site recently and has not been fully examined yet.

Of course, this is only BP's self-evaluation of what went wrong. The Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement are still in the process of their own joint investigation into the spill. The Oil Spill Commission that President Obama formed is also conducting an investigation, as is the Justice Department and Congress.

The results of the federal and independent probes probably won't be released for some time. In the meantime, this is clearly BP's attempt to preemptively deflect blame and raise concerns about their partners' role in the disaster. "I look forward to seeing the final results of the multiple other investigations not funded by BP or the other companies involved in this disaster," said Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) in a statement. "Those are the reports that will tell the real story of this disaster, and give us the lessons we need to create laws that will prevent this type of accident from happening again."

The other companies fingered in BP's report dispute its conclusions. Transocean maintains that the disaster was result of "BP's fatally flawed well design" and accused the company of making "a series of cost-saving decisions that increased risk—in some cases, severely." Transocean is also conducting its own investigation.

Nor are environmental groups pleased with the oil giant's attempts to downplay their role in the disaster. "BP's efforts to spread the blame for the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster displays a devastating litany of human error, incompetence and technical failure, but of course this tragedy is still unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico," said Dan Howells, deputy campaigns director at Greenpeace. "While BP continues to try and blame others, polish its image, and downplay the devastation it has caused, we cannot forget that the full scope of this disaster is only just beginning to be understood."

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Health Shots: Ghosts, Oil, Antibiotics, and Dirty Hands

| Tue Sep. 7, 2010 6:20 PM EDT

From some of the latest medical findings: how to exit the superhighway of antibiotic resistance; why ghostwriting medical papers is a bad idea; what physicians should know about BP's oil spill; and how best to dry your supposedly-clean washed hands.

  • To avoid a public health crisis from rapidly rising rates of antibiotic-resistant infections, the US should focus on minimzing the use of antibiotics rather than continuing with the current pharmaceutical reimbursement system, which gives companies an incentive to oversell antibiotics before resistance sets in. This according to a new analysis by Public Health Law Research.
  • A new paper in PLoS Medicine analyzes 1,500 documents unsealed in recent litigation against pharma giant Wyeth (now part of Pfizer). The findings: that ghostwritten reviews and commentaries published in medical journals were used to promote unproven benefits and to downplay harmful aspects of the drug Prempro, a menopause hormone therapy. Wyeth used a medical education & communication company, DesignWrite, to produce ghostwritten articles in order to mitigate the perceived risks of breast cancer associated with Prempro, to defend its unsupported cardiovascular ''benefits,"  and to promote off-label, unproven uses such as the prevention of dementia, Parkinson's disease, vision problems, and wrinkles. The ghostwritten papers, which were widely circulated among drug reps and doctors, also disparaged competing therapies.
  • BP's Gulf oil spill poses direct threats to human health from inhalation and from skin contact with oil and dispersant chemicals. It also poses indirect threats to food (seafood) safety and to mental health. A new paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that physicians familiarize themselves with a long list of health effects from oil spills, some of which are otherwise rare, in order to advise, diagnose, and treat patients from the Gulf Coast and elsewhere.
  • Not drying your hands thoroughly after washing them could increase the spread of bacteria. Rubbing your hands under a conventional electric hand dryer could too. New research in the Journal of Applied Microbiology examined the many ways to dry your hands (paper towels, traditional hand dryers that rely on evaporationrubbing your hands together, plus a new hand dryer that strips off water using high velocity air jets). Their findings: hand washing diminishes but doesn't destroy bacteria, and if the hands remain damp then bacteria are more easily transferred to other surfaces. Among the dirtiest methods: electric driers that require you rub your hands together. The best: paper towels.

 

BP Games Google

| Tue Sep. 7, 2010 3:54 PM EDT

Last week, BP disclosed that it had spent $93 million on television and print advertising to rehab its image in the months following the Deepwater Horizon disaster. But in less obvious attempt to sway public opinion, the company also spent $3.59 million to appear in Google search ads in the month of June alone, according to a report in Advertising Age.

BP spent almost nothing on search advertising in the months leading up to the spill. But an internal Google document obtained by Ad Age shows that BP drastically increased its spending after the Deepwater Horizon rig blew up in April. By June, BP ranked sixth in search ad spending, behind internet heavyweights like Amazon and Ebay.

We already knew that BP spent big bucks on PR after the spill in hopes of preventing serious damage to its brand. But the figures underscore the importance of web searches in general and Google (which controls 65 percent of US web searches) in particular. Google usually holds its search advertising numbers close to the vest, so this is a rare peek at how much corporations are spending to sway web users. (BP's spending was small compared to AT&T, which spent $8.08 million in June alone.) It also highlights the lengths to which BP went to control what internet users encountered about the oil spill. Ad Age also notes that the spending indicates that BP probably bought ads on "broad match" keywords, like anything involving the words "oil" or "spill." From the story:

BP's increase underscores how important Google has become for reputation management, and in the battle for public opinion. In the wake of the spill, Google was a natural first stop for people seeking information, and BP bought up dozens of keywords associated with the disaster such as "oil spill," "leak," "top kill" and "live feed" as it vied for clicks with news stories, images of oiled wildlife and plaintiff attorneys trolling for clients.

"Google has become the remote control for the world; it's the first stop, not TV," said Will Margiloff, CEO of Innovation Interactive, a unit of Denstu. "More than any other media, that messaging is requested; people are seeking BP's answers out as opposed to waiting to be told."

 

Congressman: BP "Openly Blackmailing the American Government"

| Tue Sep. 7, 2010 3:12 PM EDT

BP wants the federal government to meet its demand for continued access to oil and gas leases in the United States. If the oil giant can't keep drilling here, its promise to compensate victims of the Deepwater Horizon disaster might go unfulfilled—or so the company claims.

BP's fear-mongering is directed at the House-passed spill bill (officially known as the CLEAR Act), which would bar companies who repeatedly violate safety and environmental regulations from obtaining new leases to drill in US waters. If the CLEAR Act becomes law, BP is unlikely to get any new leases in the near future.

But the idea that BP has to keep drilling in the Gulf in order to compensate victims is simply not true. According to its last quarterly report, BP's assets and investments are valued at approximately $248.6 billion. The company has plenty of money. Unfortunately, the US government set up the oil spill compensation fund with BP's Gulf subsidiary, which in practice makes the $20 billion fund reliant on keeping those operations profitable. BP is now using this to strong-arm the government—but only because the administration let it.

BP's behavior is riling a few in Congress. On Monday, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) accused the company of "openly blackmailing the American government." The company, he said in a statement, "should be held responsible not just for the damage it caused, but for its consistently indifferent attitude to that damage."

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) took to Twitter for his criticism: "BP threat to not pay damages if CLEAR Act is approved should be repudiated. Bill brings accountability & reforms to the leasing process."

The victims of the 1989 Exxon Valdez incident spent the next two decades fighting for meager payouts. The BP fund, a voluntary agreement between BP and the federal government, was set up to in the hope that Deepwater Horizon victims could avoid that fate. The fund should not become a tool for BP to push the federal government around. Unfortunately, that appears to be what it's already become.

Audio: Setting the Stage for Apocalypse

Tue Sep. 7, 2010 2:20 PM EDT

The topic of global warming frequently grabs headlines. Now the issue is center stage at Britain's National Theatre, where playwright Mike Bartlett's new play "Earthquakes in London" has received buzz for its apocalyptic view of a world in chaos due to global warming. The script features a scientist who suppressed his prescient understanding of the impact of carbon emissions, only to lose faith in the future of mankind.

Guest host Leslie Hart speaks with Rupert Goold, the Olivier-award-winning British director at the helm of the three-hour epic. Goold is also artistic director of the Headlong Theatre Company and an associate director at the Royal Shakespeare Company. In this podcast, Goold discusses the aim and impact of "Earthquakes in London." He also calls upon scientists to more clearly communicate their warnings regarding global warming.

This podcast was produced by Need to Know as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Investigation Into BP's Other Big Gulf Operation Still Not Done

| Tue Sep. 7, 2010 1:00 PM EDT

Even before the Deepwater Horizon exploded and dumped 4.1 million barrels of oil into the Gulf, environmental advocates and 19 members of Congress were calling on the Department of Interior to investigate BP's other major Gulf operation, the Atlantis, an oil platform 124 miles off the Louisiana coast. In 2008, a whistle-blowing contractor claimed the platform posed a significant safety threat and should be shut down and inspected. But despite that red flag and the greater level of attention to potential disasters in the Gulf, the Atlantis is still up and running.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (formerly the Minerals Management Service) promised to conduct an audit of the Atlantis and issue a report by the end of May. In June, the agency said that response had been delayed due to the Gulf disaster. Now BOEM says that it needs more time to evaluate the platform, and won't have a final report until Oct. 15.

BOEM head Michael Bromwich outlined the delay in a recent letter to Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.):

Given the sheer volume of BP documents, this was a lengthy and complex review process. During this review, the BOEM team examined the process that BP went through to bring the Atlantis Project to production, including the documentation involved in that process. BOEM has determined that an extensive review is necessary to complete the review of the required engineering drawings for Atlantis that you directed. BOEM therefore requested specified documents from BP, and has recently received them. Once the team completes its review of these documents, we anticipate providing you a final report of BOEM's investigation, which will include an explanation of BOEM's regulations governing engineering documents and its findings regarding BP's compliance with these rules with respect to BP's Atlantis.

It's interesting that Bromwich notes that a BOEM investigative team was "onsite in BPs Houston office when the Deepwater Horizon incident occurred." But it's now been six months since Grijalva and his colleagues first requested an investigation of the Atlantis. The platform has continued production the entire time, even as it became clear that BP's Gulf operations have run roughshod over environmental and safety regulations. It's about time the federal government actually prove that it's done due diligence in ensuring that this platform is safe.

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Give Me Inefficient Lighting or Give Me Death!

| Tue Sep. 7, 2010 11:57 AM EDT

Unemployment remains at record highs. The economy is stuck in a rut. The US is still fighting wars on two fronts and constant threats to security here at home. But the real menace facing America? The looming phase-out of incandescent light bulbs.

That's the second-biggest threat to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (after healthcare reform)—at least if you're Erick Erickson. The Red State blogger has launched a campaign to save the old-school bulbs, which, under the 2007 energy bill, are set to begin phasing out in 2012 in favor of more energy-efficient compact florescent bulbs. Erickson wants to "get every Republican out there to pledge their support to saving the incandescent light bulb when they take back Congress."

In an open letter to House Minority Leader John Boehner, Texas Republican Ted Poe, and other members of the incoming 112th Congress (which, you might note, have not actually been elected), Erickson asks: "If you do only one thing in your time in Washington, and frankly I hope you do only one thing given your propensity to expand government (other than eradicating Obamacare), it is this: SAVE THE LIGHT BULB."

He continues:

Now, you may say that this is an exaggeration, and it is a bit, but the incandescent light bulb is the light bulb of choice for millions of Americans. It turns on instantly, it can be tossed in the trash without summoning a hazmat team, and is cheap.
The compact fluorescents cannot be treated that way and cost more. Likewise, we are forced to deal with China for every purchase.
If Republicans want to bring change, they need to save the incandescent light bulb. From christmas trees to kitchens, the incandescent light bulb is a staple of the American household and Congress’s ban is offensive.

Yes, compact fluorescent bulbs do cost $3 on average (compared to 50 cents for the older bulbs), but they last five years and use 75 percent less electricity than incandescent bulbs, meaning they save money in the long run. That's the point of the phase-out: there are better options now available. And concerns about disposal of CFLs are vastly overstated.

But this is a matter of liberty for Erickson—the freedom to choose wasteful, inefficient lighting is an American right, darn it. He does have a number of supporters in the GOP. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has made it a personal mission, sponsoring the "Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act" in 2008, an effort to repeal the phase-out. Bachmann, who thinks global warming is "voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax," called her bulb crusade "an issue of science over fads and fashions."

Poe has also been busy working to combat this threat to America. Here's his 5-minute speech on the floor of the House a few years ago on why light-bulb control is unconstitutional:

The Government's Shrimpy Seafood Safety Test

| Fri Sep. 3, 2010 12:15 PM EDT

On Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in consultation with the Food and Drug Administration, announced the re-opening of 5,130 square miles of the Gulf for commercial and recreational fishing. "This is a significant area of importance to fishing and tourism," said NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco in announcing the decision. "The gulf seafood taken from these waters is safe to eat, and today’s reopening announcement is another signal to tourists that the northern gulf is open for business."

But as we've noted before, there's justifiable concern about just how much is actually known about the safety of that seafood. Yesterday's reopening doesn't give much more reason for comfort. As far as the public knows, the data used to decide whether to reopen the area included only 12 samples of shrimp, for a total of 73 individual shrimp, as Gina Solomon, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, notes on her blog.

That's about a dozen shrimp cocktails spread out over an area the size of Connecticut, in case you're keeping track.

"Does that reassure you that they've really found whatever contamination might be out there?" asks Solomon. I'd venture that the answer, for most people, would be "No." Solomon posts the very limited data that is publicly available on what's actually in the seafood on her site; as of yesterday, the FDA has released data on 42 shrimp samples from Louisiana, 12 from Florida, 7 from Alabama, and 6 from Mississippi, with each sample containing an average of between 1 and 7 shrimp. NOAA has released data on chemical testing of a total of 17 shrimp samples, with an average of 6 shrimp in each sample. That's not a whole lot of shrimp.

In addition to questions about just how much the federal government is testing before deciding to reopen waters, there are still concerns that the decisions are being made based on what's safe for a 176-pound, healthy adult male who only eats four shrimp per week. (That, I would add, is less than one average shrimp cocktail.) Solomon and others argue that the standard does not ensure protection for vulnerable populations like pregnant women, children, and the elderly.

But the federal government maintains that it believes its standards are adequate. "We believe that the levels of concern that we established for the reopening protocol are quite conservative and will be sufficiently protective for all populations," Donald Kraemer of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition told a congressional panel last month. (At that same hearing, the FDA also admitted that it doesn't have methodologies in place to check for a number of components of chemical dispersants in seafood yet, which was equally alarming.)

The little data that's out there backing up the decision to reopen those waters yesterday isn't reassuring in that regard. If there's more to back this up than they've provided, it sure would help their case to put it out there.

UPDATE: The NOAA document notes that the agency also analyzed 110 finfish before deciding to reopen the area. This is slightly more encouraging than the shrimp figures, though I don't know that 110 fish over an area the size of Connecticut will make anyone feel all that much better.

How to Track a Spill

| Fri Sep. 3, 2010 11:21 AM EDT

The journal Science has a has a report today on a new tool scientists have developed to predict where and when oil will wash ashore following a spill like BP's. Using fluid dynamic models, satellite images of the Gulf spill, and data on ocean currents, they were able to create new "visualization software" that can be used to track spills.

From the Science story on the new technology:

Their model gave several days of warning to authorities about where the gulf's currents would carry the huge swaths of BP oil, and the researchers say the model can predict how any hazardous or unwanted material will spread.
When fluid dynamicist Igor Mezić of the University of California, Santa Barbara, watched TV reports in late April showing 10,000 or more barrels of crude oil a day spilling into the gulf, he quickly assembled a research team. Mezić, who has been studying the mixing dynamics of fluids, such as oil and water, for 20 years, says he thought he could develop a better method of predicting where the oil would spread, thereby giving workers more time to deploy containment and cleanup equipment.

Well, at least one good thing may have come from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Considering there was yet another explosion at a drilling operation in the Gulf yesterday, perhaps this will come in handy.

Is BP Blackmailing the Feds?

| Fri Sep. 3, 2010 10:35 AM EDT

When the details on the deal between the federal government and BP to set up a $20 billion fund to compensate spill victims were released last month, I reported on concerns that the design of the fund might compromise its long-term viability and create a conflict of interest in cracking down on BP's misdeeds. The fund was designed in such a way that it basically hinges on keeping BP's Gulf-drilling subsidiary in production and turning a profit.

In an interview with New York Times published today, BP executives confirmed as much—if the government cracks down on the company by cutting it off from obtaining new leases or permits, the fund could go belly-up:

But as state and federal officials, individuals and businesses continue to seek additional funds beyond the minimum fines and compensation that BP must pay under the law, the company has signaled its reluctance to cooperate unless it can continue to operate in the Gulf of Mexico. The gulf accounts for 11 percent of its global production.
"If we are unable to keep those fields going, that is going to have a substantial impact on our cash flow," said David Nagle, BP’s executive vice president for BP America, in an interview. That, he added, "makes it harder for us to fund things, fund these programs."

This, of course, is the problem with making the fund contingent upon keeping BP Exploration & Production Inc., a subsidiary of BP America Production that deals primarily with Gulf of Mexico production, profitable. The House-passed spill bill includes a provision that would bar companies with bad safety and environmental records from obtaining new leases in US waters; while the provision doesn't specifically name BP, it's clear that's who the measure is gunning for. But now BP is using the spill fund to pressure the federal government into backing off actual penalties for their transgressions in the Gulf.

BP is also pointing to other actions they've taken, like providing $89.5 million to states for the promotion of tourism, as reasons why the government shouldn't crack down on them:

Andrew Gowers, a BP spokesman, said that BP had shown good will by going beyond its legal obligations to clean up the spill and compensate those affected.
"We have committed to do a number of things that are not part of the formal agreement with the White House," he said. "We are not making a direct statement about anything we are committed to do. We are just expressing frustration that our commitments of good will have at least in some quarters been met with this kind of response."

I can imagine the threats will only get worse when (or perhaps, if) the federal government starts announcing the fines for legal violations and costs for damage to natural resources that BP will be expected to pay. The company could owe up to $17.6 billion for Clean Water Act violations alone. But if the price of making sure BP pays up is keeping the company drilling in the Gulf, the government has certainly cut a bad deal here.