Thursday, May 13, 2010

Crude Possibilities - Thursday May 13 Gulf Oil Leak Update

1. 3-Day Coastal Oil Slick Projection.

Wind and water current will continue to be favorable for Pensacola Beach over the next three days, according to the latest projections by L.S.U.'s Coastal Studies Institute. Not so much for coastal points west of here, though. CLICK HERE or on the map, above, for a closeup.

Scientists at LSU and other research facilities that study the Gulf Coast are telling us that southeast-to-northwest winds and water currents are the norm for Pensacola Beach throughout Spring and Summer. While there will be exceptions on occasion, they generally are brief. So, if BP's Deepwater Horizion well gusher can be capped soon -- a possibility that still seems remote -- there is a rational basis in fact for hoping that we will escape the worst of the oily sludge.

2. Crude possibilities.

One scientist, who asked for anonymity because he does not want to be misunderstood as speaking for a well-known Gulf Coast employer, told us this week that much of the leaking oil appears to be "very buoyant" and "very light" in weight. It shows signs of "fragmenting," he says, into smaller pools and slicks.

"For a sandy beach like yours," he said, "this would not present much of a clean-up problem. It's worse for marshes with fine grained soils and cohesive particles that have the ability to retain that kind of oil for a long time."

"Over time, you probably will get occasional tarballs -- the flat, hard kind of heavy tar -- washing up on the beach," he forecast. "But that's nothing new."

He pointed out that over the decades occasional tarballs have washed up on Pensacola Beach before. Most of them are thought to be from long-forgotten tanker spills or small leaks from in-shore drilling rigs elsewhere in the Gulf. "Winter storms and of course hurricanes over time can transport the heavier crude patties almost anywhere."

When we asked about Escambia County's proposed plan to scrape the beach and build a landward berm in advance of any oil arriving, this expert said he considered it "unconscionable." He thought is was a waste of money and potentially harmful to the beach ecology. Scrape the beach afterwards if the worst should happen, he advises, but don't go throwing away money now on a worse-than-useless defense.

3. Eye Candy.

Today's New York Times has a report straight from Dauphin Island, Alabama. Reporter Shaila Dewan is there, bemused at the contrast between barefoot bathers enjoying the sun and surf and "National Guard troops and scores of laborers in hazmat gear and gloves" patrolling the beach and fortifying the island. They're there "for the coming war on oil," armed with what one resident calls "eye candy" -- hopelessly inadequate booms, hay bales, and skimmers.

Although 35 pounds of tarballs have been collected this week on Dauphin Island, the slick itself is still well offshore and out of sight:
At this time, it is perfectly possible to enjoy the beach, which is being kept unbelievably clean by the Tyvek battalions, so numerous that there was not enough trash to go around and their nearly empty garbage bags streamed behind them in the wind. But no one knows how long the oil will stay away, nor at what moment the Tyveks will suddenly drive past in four-wheelers towing trailers of hay, or wade into the water with strings of what look like pompoms and affix them to metal posts to catch incoming oil.
Even the normal beach trash is so sparse, Dewan writes, that "nearly empty garbage bags" stream behind the hazmat battalions.

Dauphin Island residents seem as divided as Pensacola Beach islanders. Some are grateful for the flurry of preparatory activity, others deeply skeptical.

David Probst... approached a television satellite truck Tuesday evening in hopes of showing off a small paper bag full of tarballs he had collected.

Mr. Probst opined that the floating booms, hay bales, and skimmer booms — strings of pompom-like material that trail through the water and are supposed to collect oil — were nothing more than “eye candy” whose weaknesses would be exposed as soon as a sustained south wind came along, pushing the disaster right onto Dauphin Island’s doorstep.

4. "Red Flag" Drilling Days.

On the beach everybody knows what a red flag day is: stop playing in the water for your own safety and that of others. Turns out, based on yesterday's congressional committee hearings, there were plenty of red flags waving in BP's face before the April 20 Deepwater well blowout -- but it proceeded with drilling activities, anyway.

WaPo summarizes:
A House energy panel investigation has found that the blowout preventer that failed to stop a huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico had a dead battery in its control pod, leaks in its hydraulic system, a "useless" test version of a key component and a cutting tool that wasn't strong enough to shear through steel joints in the well pipe and stop the flow of oil.

In a devastating review of the blowout preventer, which BP said was supposed to be "fail-safe," Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on oversight, said Wednesday that documents and interviews show that the device was anything but.
* * *
In Washington, Stupak said the committee investigators had uncovered a document prepared in 2001 by Transocean, the drilling rig operator, that said there were 260 "failure modes" that could require removal of the blowout preventer.

"How can a device that has 260 failure modes be considered fail-safe?" Stupak asked.
* * *
Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), who said the committee has collected more than 100,000 pages of documents, focused on the cementing job by Halliburton. He said statements and documents indicated that a test performed on the work about five or six hours before the explosion showed other dangerous flaws.

Waxman said James Dupree, BP's senior vice president for the Gulf of Mexico, told committee staffers Monday that the test result was "not satisfactory" and "inconclusive." Waxman said the test showed wide discrepancies in pressure between the drill pipe and the kill and choke lines in the blowout preventer. Dupree told committee staffers that the pressure readings should have been the same.

At the hearing, Halliburton's chief health, safety and environmental officer, Tim Probert, conceded in questioning that the pressure readings "would be a significant red flag."
5. The Color of Research Money.

Yesterday, we mentioned the inevitably ugly stampede of hungry academic researchers trying to belly-up to the money trough they hope will soon be spilling out of the BP oil disaster. Today, the PNJ editorial board does its best to clear a place at the table for Florida universities by calling on Governor Charlie Crist to "knock some heads in Tallahassee and raise some cane with BP to get Florida's universities fully engaged."

By "fully engaged" the newspaper means Crist "could make some of the $25 million BP fronted to the state available for the effort, and then he should politely ask BP for more cash."

It's a very old joke that the most exciting words in science are not, "Eureka, I have found it" but "Your research grant has been approved.'" Scholars follow the money, as Phillip Mauser once said.

We have no doubt that some, possibly even many, of the Florida academics the PNJ wants to receive BP money have only the best of intentions. But where were they when Congress and the Florida state legislature were busy passing drill-baby-drill bills?

Where was the scientific curiosity in the Florida university system then? Some professors, surely, must have been researching questions like, "What would an oil well blowout do to the cycle of life a mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico?;" or "What innovations in drilling safety have been overlooked by the oil industry in the past three decades?;" or "How can a deep sea oil well blowout be rapidly shut off?"

As far as we're concerned, if anyone was seriously examining these or related questions, they're the ones who deserve to go to the head of the grant-money breadline. It shouldn't matter where they live or work -- in or out of "Florida's universities" or, for that matter, the state as a whole.

The issues are too important to the public at large to be treated like so much pork in the Florida educational funding barrel.

What we should be aiming for is superior, independent, and courageous research that won't disappear from public view behind some corporate claim to copyright or trade secrets, or be watered down to the taste of this year's partisan political fashion or to hike corporate profits.

6. White House Oil Slick Plan.

Speaking of money and research, the White House yesterday publicly released a $118 million supplemental budget request to take account of the BP oil spill. As Reuters reports, "the bulk" of the money is expected to be paid by BP Corp. and a one percent hike in oil drilling fees paid by the oil industry.

In addition to substantial funds to pay for U.S. Coast Guard services, fishermen and other coastal workers' unemployment, and Gulf Coast economic recovery monies, the budget request includes --
  • $29 million additional appropriation request "for the Secretary of the Interior for additional inspections, enforcement, studies and other activities that may not qualify as recoverable from the responsible parties or the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund;"
  • $5 million for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for activities that support the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but may not qualify as recoverable from the responsible parties or the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund; and
  • $2 million to the FDA to monitor and respond to the environmental impact of the oil on seafood.
The full text of the detailed supplementary request is here. A Fact Sheet summary is here.
Details of the plan.

Oops! Title change 5-14 am

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the nice references.