economics

May 1, 2010

Choppy Seas Hinder Effort To Contain Oil Spill

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by NPR Staff and Wires

Enlarge NASA/APThis satellite image taken Thursday shows the oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico as it nears the shoreline, threatening wildlife along Louisiana’s fragile islands and barrier marshes.

ASA/APThis satellite image taken Thursday shows the oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico as it nears the shoreline, threatening wildlife along Louisiana’s fragile islands and barrier marshes.

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April 30, 2010

High winds and choppy seas frustrated efforts to hold back the oil spill seeping into Louisiana’s rich fishing grounds and nesting areas Friday, and the government desperately cast about for new ideas for dealing with the nation’s biggest environmental crisis in decades.

The seas were too rough and the winds too strong Friday to burn off the oil, suck it up effectively with skimmer vessels, or hold it in check with the miles of orange and yellow inflatable booms strung along the coast. The floating barriers broke loose in the choppy water, and waves sent oily water lapping over them.

Oil Slick’s Projected Path

NOAA estimates that the oil slick will reach parts of the Louisiana coast Friday.

“It just can’t take the wave action,” said Billy Nungesser, president of Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish.

Louisiana’s National Guard mobilized to fight the spill, but the first waves of crude neared the state’s wetlands.

Sheen from the vast oil slick was beginning to penetrate the ecologically rich coastal marshes and barriers island, according to several reports, though the heavy oil was still offshore. The state of Louisiana diverted thousands of gallons of fresh water from the Mississippi River to try to flush out the wetlands, though that effort was being hampered by wind.

High seas were in the forecast through Sunday and could push oil deep into the inlets, ponds, creeks and lakes that line the boot of southeastern Louisiana. With the wind blowing from the south, the mess could reach the Mississippi, Alabama and Florida coasts by Monday.

The Guard prepared to send communication equipment, boats, all-terrain vehicles and other equipment to help. Animal rescue workers say they’ve begun to clean oil off sea birds coated from the oil spill that’s begun to wash ashore along the Gulf Coast, according to Eileen Fleming of member station WWNO in New Orleans.

Weather May Drive Spill Deeper Inland

The National Weather Service predicted winds, high tides and waves through Sunday that could push oil deep into the inlets, ponds and lakes that line the boot of southeast Louisiana. Seas of 6 to 7 feet were pushing tides several feet above normal toward the coast, compounded by thunderstorms expected in the area Friday.

Crews are unable to skim oil from the surface or burn it off for the next couple of days because of the weather, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O’Hara said.

Waves may also wash over booms strung out just off shorelines to stop the oil, said Tom McKenzie, a spokesman for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is hoping booms will keep oil off the Chandeleur Islands, part of a national wildlife refuge. “The challenge is, are they going to hold up in any kind of serious weather,” McKenzie said. “And if there’s oil, will the oil overcome the barriers even though they’re … executed well?”

President Obama sought to reassure Gulf Coast communities Friday and counter any perception that his administration has been slow to respond. At a Rose Garden news conference, he said the federal government is “fully prepared” to meet its responsibilities to them as the spill becomes a worsening environmental disaster.

The president said no new offshore leases would be issued to oil companies unless they were subject to stricter safety measures, NPR’s Giles Snyder reported. But Obama, who recently lifted a drilling moratorium for many offshore areas, including the Atlantic and Gulf areas, underscored that offshore drilling remains an important part of U.S. energy policy.

The Coast Guard also defended the federal response to the spill.

Brice-O’Hara, appearing on multiple TV news shows, said the Coast Guard-led federal response to the spill has been rapid and sustained, and that it has adapted as the threat has grown since a drill rig exploded and sank last week. The Coast Guard, she said, has been closely monitoring efforts directed by oil company BP PLC to contain and stop the leak and has filled in gaps where needed.

Military Planes Awaiting Orders

The Gulf spill was up to five times larger than first estimated and could surpass the Exxon Valdez disaster in scope.

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“It is of grave concern,” David Kennedy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told The Associated Press. “I am frightened. This is a very, very big thing. And the efforts that are going to be required to do anything about it, especially if it continues on, are just mind-boggling.”

Florida’s governor declared a state of emergency as the slick spread across the Gulf. The declaration from Gov. Charlie Crist, which covers six counties in the state’s panhandle, frees up state money and activates Florida’s National Guard to respond to the crisis.

But Judith Smelser of member station WMFE in Orlando said some experts think ocean currents could carry the oil all the way around the Florida Peninsula.

Two Air Force planes have been sent to Mississippi and were awaiting orders to start dumping chemicals on the oil spill threatening the coast, as the government worked Friday to determine how large a role the military should play in the cleanup.

The C-130 Hercules cargo planes, specially designed for aerial spraying, were sent Thursday from the Youngstown Air Reserve Station in Ohio, said a spokesman there, Master Sgt. Bob Barko Jr.

The planes and crews were standing ready in case they’re needed, said Maj. David Faggard, an Air Force spokesman at the Pentagon.

“If this mission comes to pass, it would be first time we have done this in a real world scenario,” Barko said, adding that the 910th Airlift Wing at Youngstown has trained for such a mission and has done other spraying such as mosquito-abatement flights after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

NPR’s Wade Goodwyn, reporting from New Orleans, said that as the slick moved closer to shore, a strong smell of crude oil had penetrated the city and other parts of southern Louisiana, extending as far as Baton Rouge. Authorities urged people with respiratory illness to take precautions or remain indoors.

Hundreds Of Gulf Coast Species Imperiled

The oil slick could become the nation’s worst environmental disaster in decades, threatening hundreds of species of fish, birds and other wildlife along the Gulf Coast, one of the world’s richest seafood grounds, teeming with shrimp, oysters and other marine life.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency Thursday, which allows the state to free up resources to prepare for the oil’s impact.

The Coast Guard has worked with British oil giant BP, which operated the rig that exploded April 20 and then sank, to deploy floating booms, skimmers and chemical dispersants, and to set controlled fires to burn the oil off the water’s surface.

Obama has pledged that his administration will use “every single resource at our disposal.” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and environmental protection administrator Lisa Jackson will travel to the Gulf of Mexico on Friday to oversee efforts to contain the spill.

Salazar said he pressed the chief executive of BP to “work harder and faster and smarter to get the job done.” He said the government will not rest until BP seals the well and “they clean up every drop of oil.”

As for the cause of the accident, he said: “I am confident we will get to the bottom of what happened here. Those responsible will be held accountable.”

BP confirmed Thursday that up to 5,000 barrels, or 200,000 gallons, of oil a day are spilling from the site of the deadly oil rig explosion in which 11 workers are still missing and presumed dead.

Many of the more than two dozen lawsuits filed in the wake of the explosion claim it was caused when workers for oil services contractor Halliburton Inc. improperly capped the well. Halliburton denied it.

At that rate, the spill could easily eclipse the worst oil spill in U.S. history — the 11 million gallons that leaked from the grounded tanker Exxon Valdez in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989 — in the three months it could take to drill a relief well and plug the gushing well 5,000 feet underwater on the seafloor. Ultimately, the spill could grow much larger than the Valdez because Gulf of Mexico wells typically hold many times more oil than a single tanker.

At least 1.6 million gallons of oil have spilled, according to Coast Guard estimates.

’We’ll Take Help From Anyone’

Jackie Savitz, a toxicology scientist with the environmental group Oceani, says that at the current flow rate, the spill will reach the 11 million gallon mark of the Exxon Valdez spill in 50 days. The Gulf holds several endangered and threatened species, including four species of endangered sea turtle, in addition to dolphins, porpoises and whales.

“This is one of only two spawning areas for bluefin tuna in the world,” Savitz said. “If larvae are exposed, there’s a good chance they won’t survive or their survival will be reduced because of the oil spill.”

Doug Suttles, the oil company’s chief operating officer, told NBC’s Today show that oil is bubbling up from the ocean bottom at a rate of 1,000 to 5,000 barrels a day. He said the company would welcome help from the U.S. Defense Department and other agencies in containing the slick.

“We’ll take help from anyone,” Suttles said.

As the slick has grown, so have potential cleanup costs. Napolitano called BP the responsible party for costs “as the president and the law have made clear.”

Industry officials say replacing the Deepwater Horizon, owned by Transocean Ltd. and operated by BP, would cost up to $700 million. BP has said its costs for containing the spill are running at $6 million a day. The company said it will spend $100 million to drill the relief well. The Coast Guard has not yet reported its expenses.

The massive Gulf spill could result in billions of dollars losses for BP and curb plans to expand offshore drilling, according to NPR’s Chris Arnold.

The chairman of PFC Energy, Robin West, says BP could spend several hundred million dollars on cleanup efforts but that bigger costs could come from legal liability for spill-related damages.

“If it gets into all the bayous and estuaries and things like that, the potential liability is immense,” West said. “The Mississippi River delta is one of the great spawning grounds on earth.”

NEW ORLEANS — Officials in the Obama administration began for the first time Friday to publicly chastise BP America for its handling of the spreading oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, calling the oil company’s current resources inadequate to stop what is unfolding into a environmental catastrophe.

Multimedia
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The Takeaway on the Spill With Clifford Krauss

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What the Spill Means for Offshore Drilling

How should the environmental effects of deep sea oil exploration be weighed against its benefits?

Readers’ Comments

As oil edged toward the Louisiana coast, fears continued to grow that the seabed oil well could grow much larger and spiral out of control. A document prepared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the oil flow could grow from the current estimate of 5,000 barrels a day to an amount 10 times that much, which could be 2.1 million gallons a day.

The increased level of concern was reflected in the sharp new criticism by federal officials of BP for not stopping the leak and cleaning up the spill before it reached land, something the company’s officials had said was possible earlier in the week.

“It is clear that after several unsuccessful attempts to secure the source of the leak, it is time for BP to supplement their current mobilization as the slick of oil moves toward shore,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said pointedly, as the government announced steps to supplement its response with people and equipment from the Defense Department.

Geoffrey S. Morrell, deputy assistant secretary of defense, said in a statement that the government would hold BP accountable for the cost of the department’s deployment, which as of Friday night included the Louisiana National Guard to help clean up coastal areas once the oil comes ashore.

BP officials said they did everything possible, but a review of the response suggests that it may be too simplistic to place all the blame on the oil company. The federal government also had opportunities to move more quickly, but did not do so while it waited for a resolution to the spreading spill from BP, which was leasing the drilling rig that exploded in flames on April 20 and sank two days later. Eleven workers were left missing and are presumed dead..

The Department of Homeland Security waited until Thursday to declare that the incident was “a spill of national significance,” and then set up a second command center in Mobile. The actions came only after the estimate of the size of the spill was increased fivefold to 5,000 barrels a day.

The delay meant that the Homeland Security Department waited until late this week to formally request a more robust response from the Department of Defense, with Ms. Napolitano acknowledging even as late as Thursday afternoon that she did not know if the Defense Department even had equipment that might be helpful.

Officials initially seemed to underestimate the threat of a leak. Rear Adm. Mary E. Landry, the chief Coast Guard official in charge of the response, said on April 22, after the rig sank, that the oil that was on the surface appeared to be merely residual oil from the fire, though she acknowledged that it was unclear what was going on under the water. The day after, officials said that it appeared the well’s blowout preventer had kicked in and that there did not appear to be any oil emanating from the well, though they cautioned that it was not a guarantee.

BP officials, even after the oil leak was confirmed by using remote-controlled robots, expressed confidence that the leak was slow enough, and steps taken out in the Gulf of Mexico aggressive enough, that the oil would never reach the coast.

(The NOAA document regarding a far larger leak, first obtained by The Press-Register in Mobile, Ala., was described by agency officials as raising a possibility, though not a prediction.)

Some oil industry critics questioned whether the federal government is too reliant on oil companies to manage the response to major spills, leaving the government unable to evaluate if the response is robust enough.

“Here you have the company that is responsible for the accident leading the response to the crisis,” said Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. “There is a problem here, and the consequence is clear.”

But it is still the government, in this case the Coast Guard, that has the ultimate say.

A law passed a year after the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster makes the owner of a rig or vessel responsible for cleaning up a spill. But oversight of the cleanup is designated to the Coast Guard, with advice from other federal agencies.

Rear Adm. Robert C. North, retired, who was commander of the Coast Guard’s Eighth District from 1994 to 1996, said that decisions in these situations are made collectively, but that the buck essentially stops with the federal coordinator — in this case, Admiral Landry. “The federal on-scene coordinator is kind of the one individual to say, ‘I think we need to do more or that’s adequate,’ ” he said.

NEW ORLEANS — Officials in the Obama administration began for the first time Friday to publicly chastise BP America for its handling of the spreading oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, calling the oil company’s current resources inadequate to stop what is unfolding into a environmental catastrophe.

As oil edged toward the Louisiana coast, fears continued to grow that the seabed oil well could grow much larger and spiral out of control. A document prepared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the oil flow could grow from the current estimate of 5,000 barrels a day to an amount 10 times that much, which could be 2.1 million gallons a day.

The increased level of concern was reflected in the sharp new criticism by federal officials of BP for not stopping the leak and cleaning up the spill before it reached land, something the company’s officials had said was possible earlier in the week.

“It is clear that after several unsuccessful attempts to secure the source of the leak, it is time for BP to supplement their current mobilization as the slick of oil moves toward shore,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said pointedly, as the government announced steps to supplement its response with people and equipment from the Defense Department.

Geoffrey S. Morrell, deputy assistant secretary of defense, said in a statement that the government would hold BP accountable for the cost of the department’s deployment, which as of Friday night included the Louisiana National Guard to help clean up coastal areas once the oil comes ashore.

BP officials said they did everything possible, but a review of the response suggests that it may be too simplistic to place all the blame on the oil company. The federal government also had opportunities to move more quickly, but did not do so while it waited for a resolution to the spreading spill from BP, which was leasing the drilling rig that exploded in flames on April 20 and sank two days later. Eleven workers were left missing and are presumed dead..

The Department of Homeland Security waited until Thursday to declare that the incident was “a spill of national significance,” and then set up a second command center in Mobile. The actions came only after the estimate of the size of the spill was increased fivefold to 5,000 barrels a day.

The delay meant that the Homeland Security Department waited until late this week to formally request a more robust response from the Department of Defense, with Ms. Napolitano acknowledging even as late as Thursday afternoon that she did not know if the Defense Department even had equipment that might be helpful.

Officials initially seemed to underestimate the threat of a leak. Rear Adm. Mary E. Landry, the chief Coast Guard official in charge of the response, said on April 22, after the rig sank, that the oil that was on the surface appeared to be merely residual oil from the fire, though she acknowledged that it was unclear what was going on under the water. The day after, officials said that it appeared the well’s blowout preventer had kicked in and that there did not appear to be any oil emanating from the well, though they cautioned that it was not a guarantee.

BP officials, even after the oil leak was confirmed by using remote-controlled robots, expressed confidence that the leak was slow enough, and steps taken out in the Gulf of Mexico aggressive enough, that the oil would never reach the coast.

(The NOAA document regarding a far larger leak, first obtained by The Press-Register in Mobile, Ala., was described by agency officials as raising a possibility, though not a prediction.)

Some oil industry critics questioned whether the federal government is too reliant on oil companies to manage the response to major spills, leaving the government unable to evaluate if the response is robust enough.

“Here you have the company that is responsible for the accident leading the response to the crisis,” said Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. “There is a problem here, and the consequence is clear.”

But it is still the government, in this case the Coast Guard, that has the ultimate say.

A law passed a year after the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster makes the owner of a rig or vessel responsible for cleaning up a spill. But oversight of the cleanup is designated to the Coast Guard, with advice from other federal agencies.

Rear Adm. Robert C. North, retired, who was commander of the Coast Guard’s Eighth District from 1994 to 1996, said that decisions in these situations are made collectively, but that the buck essentially stops with the federal coordinator — in this case, Admiral Landry. “The federal on-scene coordinator is kind of the one individual to say, ‘I think we need to do more or that’s adequate,’ ” he said.

If the government determines that the responsible party is not up to the job, it can federalize the spill, running the cleanup operations without the private company but billing it for the cost. This is a last resort, however.

In this case, Admiral North said, the oil companies have more technology and expertise than the government.

“It doesn’t appear that federalizing it would bring in any more resources,” he said.

Officials from BP and the federal government have repeatedly said they had prepared for a worst-case scenario.

“There are not much additional available resources in the world to fight this thing offshore,” said Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer for exploration and production, in an interview. “We’ve basically thrown everything we have at it.”

Mr. Suttles said that BP’s efforts did not change after it was disclosed, on Wednesday night, that the leak was estimated at 5,000 barrels a day, five times larger than initial estimates suggested. He said BP, which is spending roughly $6 million a day and will likely spend far more when oil reaches land, had already been mobilizing for a far larger spill.

However, he did not deny that BP initially thought the slick could be stopped before it reached the coastline.

“In the early days the belief was that we probably could have contained it offshore,” Mr. Suttles said. “Unfortunately, since the event began we haven’t had that much good weather.” The first weekend after the sinking of the rig, choppy seas brought the cleanup to a near halt, and made more complicated tactics such as controlled burns impossible.

But even after the weather cleared — and just a couple of days before officials began acknowledging the likelihood of landfall — the chief executive of BP expressed confidence that the spill could be contained.

Adm. Thad W. Allen, the commandant of the Coast Guard, said Friday that he agreed the situation is catastrophic and could continue to unfold for up to three months, but he said he remained satisfied with the response of his team, saying that even if they knew that the leak was 5,000 barrels a day, they would have responded the same.

“While it may not have been visible to the public, from the very start, we have been working this very hard,” he said.

Within a matter of hours of the report of the explosion, the Coast Guard had dispatched three cutters, four helicopters and a plane to the scene, helping ultimately to save 90 workers, including three critically injured workers who were sent by helicopter for emergency care.

“We have never tried so many different methods for a large spill on the surface as we have during this, and I have been doing oil spill response for 30 years,” Admiral Allen said.

But he acknowledged that the oil leaks are growing, and in fact said officials still do not understand why more oil is not already leaking from the drill site, as it is still a relatively limited flow compare to the enormous surge that could spew out of the well if there were no restraints on it.

The Gulf coast oil spill

Horror from the deep

Watching and waiting after the Deepwater Horizon spill

Apr 29th 2010 | HOUSTON | From The Economist print edition

THE spill has been unfolding for more than a week, pouring at least 1,000 barrels (159,000 litres) of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico, and probably a lot more than that. It began on April 20th with a fire and an explosion on an exploratory rig 40 miles (65km) from the Louisiana coast. Eleven workers were lost, and several days later it became apparent that the well underneath had begun to leak. By April 26th the slick was 80 miles across, with the western part 36 miles from reaching the coast. By April 28th, as The Economist went to press, it was 100 miles wide and only 16 miles from Louisiana’s shores. It was feared that it might reach land by as early as April 29th.

An array of state and federal agencies are on the scene, skimming up oily water, installing thousands of feet of boom in an attempt to contain the oil, and burning off some of the slick. BP, which was leasing the rig, will spend at least $100m on the clean-up. Much depends on the wind, which could push the oil out towards the open sea—or in the other direction. If the oil does reach Louisiana, the costs will be grave. The coastal marshes are home to abundant and various animal life, as well as sizeable fishing and tourism industries.

It is terrible timing for Barack Obama. In March he proposed opening new stretches of America’s coasts to offshore drilling. Some observers guessed that he was trying to smooth the way for a climate-change bill by offering Republicans a present. So far, though, there has been no response.

Now environmentalists will point to the spill as a reminder of the dangers of offshore drilling. They have a point. Nancy Kinner, co-director of the Coastal Research Response Centre at the University of New Hampshire, explains that oil rigs rarely have accidents: “The risk might be one in 1,000, or one in 2,000.” Of course, she adds, there are hundreds of rigs out there. This spill might be shocking; but it was hardly unforeseeable.

RPezzie wrote:
Apr 29th 2010 3:32 GMT
I think that Obama’s plan to allow more off-shore drilling is like one step backwards before one step forwards. We have barely begun to secure real alternative energy momentum, and to allow more off-shore drilling throws the message in the wrong direction. We do not have time to to continue on the path of off-shore drilling, we need to be throwing all our energy into developing alternative energy strategies if we are going to have air clean enough to breathe and water clean enough to drink in 50 years
http://www.cnn.com/video/data/2.0/video/us/2010/04/30/ac.oil.slick.intv.cnn.html

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