Monday, May 17, 2010

Misdirection Monday: May 17 Oil Spill Update

"I make the weather! All of this moisture coming up out of the Gulf is gonna push off to the east and hit Altoona."

-- Phil Connors (Bill Murray), Groundhog Day

1. Weekly Oil Spill Forecast.

For much of the past month since the April 20 BP oil platform explosion, Northwest Florida has been protected from direct damage by the river of oil in the Gulf of Mexico predominantly by Southeast-to-Northwest winds and water currents. The web site Windmapper, however, is forecasting a change for the first few days of this week.

Monday through Wednesday, it suggests, we are likely to experience a slowly strengthening trend of Southwest- to- Northeast winds. This is the worst kind for our beach.

One of the TV weathermen at local station WEAR-TV is saying, however, that the drift toward the northeast won't be strong enough to push BP oil onto Pensacola Beach. (click photo up and to the left). We'll see how well he imitates Bill Murray's Goundhog Day character in 'making the weather.'

To view Windmapper's daily forecast animation click here. For an hour-by-hour overview of each day of the week, click here.

2. Pipe Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.

Of course, one big news item yesterday was that on the third try, as McClatchy News puts it, the "BP Oil giant succeeded Sunday in connecting a mile-long pipe to help capture what it hoped will be a majority of the oil flowing from a damaged well into the Gulf of Mexico."

But confusion reigns. British Petroleum wasn't saying on Sunday how much oil it really was collecting on board the oil tanker tethered a mile above the wellhead pipe. All we could be sure about is that the pipe insertion didn't completely plug the "massive oil leak." According to Shaila Dewan of the New York Times, BP vice president Kent Wells "could not say how much oil had been captured or what percentage of the oil ... was now flowing into ... the insertion tube."

"Could not?" More likely, would not. The more BP talks, the less they seem to tell us. As a result, reporters can't even agree on the dimensions of the tube that BP inserted:
We could go on. Near-endless examples exist. The real lesson to remember is that none of these reporters have a clue what they're writing about. Every one of them is dependent on BP, itself, for the numbers.

Apparently, the ancient adage 'You're entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts' is no longer operative in the Gulf of Mexico. BP drowned it.

3. BP's PR.

There also is a yawning chasm between what BP seems to be saying and what, in fact, it is saying. Only lawyers and those journalists accustomed to dealing with slippery oil corporations have noticed that BP is playing a very "cagey" game -- to borrow the admiring word from the Jakarta Globe, a newspaper published in a country that has a long and sad history of being shamelessly exploited by underwater oil drillers.

For just one example, an early report Sunday afternoon by Shaila Dewan of the New York Times at 1:58 pm CDT clashed with another by Jeffrey Collins and Jason Dearen of the Associated Press which was originally published within minutes that same afternoon. Dewan reported that BP would not disclose "how much oil and gas were taken aboard the... drill ship... as it is siphoned off" by the 4- (or is it 6-?) inch pipe. Contrariwise, Collins and Dearen claimed that "BP said a mile-long tube was siphoning most of the crude from a blown well to a tanker... ." [emphasis added]

At mid-day Monday, BP owned up to the reality. As CBS News, France's wire service, and other sources are now reporting, only "about 20 percent of the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico is being swallowed up by its insertion tube system." That "20 percent," moreover, is based on now-discredited estimates that the leak consists of 5,000 barrels a day.

In fact, yesterday's insertion of the "mile-long pipe" enables BP to capture only 1,000 barrels a day. This means the "success" yesterday is far less consequential than either the Times or the Associated Press were saying yesterday.

As multiple news outlets are reporting today, the actual leak rate is now believed by scientists to "be between 25,000 and 80,000 barrels per day." Accordingly, a thousand barrels a day means the 4- or 6-inch pipe is capturing as little as one-and-one-quarter percent of the oil gushing into the Gulf every day.

Are we better off than we were on Friday? Reality has not appreciably changed. But insofar as public knowledge is concerned, in the space of just three days we've gone from 5,000 barrels of oil a day freely pouring into the Gulf to as much as 80,000 barrels a day, minus a measly one thousand barrels captured by the 4-inch -- or is it 6-inch? -- pipe plug.

4. Oil Lakes Beneath the Sea.

There are other, even more momentous issues, where it's useful to bear in mind all the misdirection going on. For example, independent researchers, like oceanography professor Vernon Asper of Southern Mississippi University, have found huge pools of oil "at substantial depths down to at least 1,300 meters, which is very close to the depth of the well."
We’re thinking that this oil is probably some fraction of the oil that’s not reaching the surface but instead is sort of spreading out and then the currents are taking it wherever the currents are going.
The pools of underwater oil are said to be just "too big" for the usual bottom-dwelling organisms that metabolize oil to "gobble" them up. (You can read the interview with Prof. Asper last Friday here; or, listen to the podcast here.)

As Justin Gillis of the New York Times reports:
Scientists are finding enormous oil plumes in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, including one as large as 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and 300 feet thick in spots.
* * *
“There’s a shocking amount of oil in the deep water, relative to what you see in the surface water,” said Samantha Joye, a researcher at the University of Georgia who is involved in one of the first scientific missions to gather details about what is happening in the gulf. “There’s a tremendous amount of oil in multiple layers, three or four or five layers deep in the water column.”

The plumes are depleting the oxygen dissolved in the gulf, worrying scientists, who fear that the oxygen level could eventually fall so low as to kill off much of the sea life near the plumes.

5. Damaging Dispersants.

This is especially worrisome given BP's practice of continuing to release hundreds of tons upon hundreds of tons of "dispersants" a mile below the surface near the wellhead. As USM professor Asper told The World radio program Friday, "we don’t know what affect the dispersants might have." And, as usual, BP isn't talking.

For more on the threat posed by excessive use of dispersants, check out The Truth about Gulf Oil Spill.

6. Swallowing BP's Word for It.

Journalists are one thing. Washington politicians should be even more embarrassed by their unquestioning acceptance of whatever BP says. As Sam Stein suggests over at the Huffington Post, foremost among them is our next-door neighbor, Alabama senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL):
Late this past week, Republicans in the Senate effectively blocked legislation that would have raised the cap on the amount of money oil companies like BP would have to pay for economic damages caused by oil spills.
* * *
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) suggested on Sunday that raising the cap was unnecessary because BP had given him it's word that it would cover the costs of the spill in the Gulf.
Not far behind is the Obama administration. It took them until last Friday to wake up to the legal reality that BP's oral word is meaningless when it comes to paying all "legitimate claims" for damages. As veteran reporter James Ridgeway writes, the company's reputation is "coated in sludge."

So far as we can tell, the oil company's only response to this hour has been to have their PR flack-catchers repeat the same oral assurances:
"What they are requesting in the letter is absolutely consistent with all our public statements on the matter," BP spokesman David Nicholas said.
But will they love us in the morning? We'll wait for an answer in writing, signed, and notarized by BP's chief executive officer and board chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg. Then, BP can kiss us.

Oral assurances that BP will fully pay all "legitimate" damages caused by this disaster are of no use whatsoever when the graven law imposes a $75 million limit on its liability.

Dept. of Amplification
05-17 pm

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor, has additional thoughts along the same lines ["BP Stands for Bad Petroleum"]:
Saturday the White House warned BP that it expects the oil giant to pay all damages associated with the disastrous oil leak into the Gulf of Mexico, even if the costs exceed the $75 million liability cap under federal law. BP responded Sunday saying its public statements are “absolutely consistent” with the Administration’s request.

When you hear dueling public statements like these, watch your wallets. You can safely assume BP’s lawyers are already at work to ensure that the firm pays not a cent more than $75 million — not to taxpayers bearing cleanup costs, not to consumers whose gas bills will rise, not to businesses along the coasts that will lose a fortune. And BP won’t pay more unless or until there’s a law requiring it to.

BP * * * [is] the poster child for PR masquerading as CSR.
There's a good deal more worth reading ...

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