Wednesday, September 22, 2010

On Sabbatical

Friends, family, bloggers, an antagonist or two, and even spam artists are wondering whatever has become of Beach Blogger? Apologies are due all around. Consider us as groveling for your forgiveness.

We're very well, thank you for asking, and as happy, sassy, and cynical as ever.

We originally intended to take a short time off. But after a much too-abbreviated respite in a couple of westerly locations, we squarely confronted the reality that BP's oil spill had shoved another project of ours onto a back burner, and far too long at that. All in all, we lost three months on a looming deadline.

We blame Tony Hayward and BP, of course. If Ken Feinberg thinks he's seen some dicey damage claims, wait until he gets ours for missing the entry deadline for the Fredrick Jackson Turner award.

Our blogging compadre, Barrier Island Girl, wistfully sighs through an email she sent us the other day that it looks like we've 'taken back our life.' Not quite. We've just imprisoned it inside another passion for the time being.

Wait a bit more. Blogging will resume shortly, though it likely will be light. In the meantime, we recommend you consult our blogging neighbors Why Now? and Barrier Island Girl. They're both superb.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Disappearing Thursday: July 29 BP Oil Spill Update

1. Oilcast.

Another interactive web tool, this one developed by the State Emergency Response Team (SERT) for the Florida Division of Emergency Management's, says today:
Winds over Florida waters are expected to be out of the northwest in the morning, shifting out of a general west direction in the afternoon from Wednesday through Friday. Winds should be 15 knots or less within 60 miles of the coastline each day, with waves less than 3 feet.

Rain chances will begin to increase again on Thursday and Friday to around 30-40% each day through the weekend. Heat indices will be near 100-105 degrees along the shoreline through the next several days, though some isolated areas may reach as high as 108.
In another section of the web site the state division says:
Although sporadic sightings of tar balls may continue, Florida’s shoreline is not expected to receive additional impacts over the next 72 hours.
2. Towing Boom.

Nevertheless, yesterday we saw one small boat hauling about 300-400 feet of boom behind it, heading for the entrance to Pensacola Bay (click above). Nearby, two shrimp boats looked like they were getting into position to skim any oil.

3. Disappearing Tourists.

Jim Snyder of Bloomberg News reported late last night that although only Florida's four panhandle counties have been directly affected by BP's oil spill, "Florida’s claims for spill damage are surpassing those from other Gulf States that have suffered more direct physical damage."
Florida filed 32,762 claims through last week, topping No. 2 Louisiana by more than two thousand, said Scott Dean, a spokesman for [BP].

Because of Florida’s heavier dependence on beach tourism, it will take the biggest hit in dollars from the spill, a study commissioned by the U.S. Travel Association found.

The state will lose $7.6 billion, a 13 percent decline, if the accident’s impact lasts 15 months and $18.6 billion, a drop of 14 percent, if it lingers for 36 months, according to the study by Oxford Economics, a U.K. economics firm. The percentage declines will be greater for Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, Oxford Economics said.
From all appearances, it looks like claims by Floridians soon will be mounting even higher. One business journal reports that many more Florida business owners "have BP in their sights and plan to seek compensation." What's more, it appears these are all businesses based in south Florida, which has yet to see any direct impact from the oil spill. The report is based on data collected from "businesses... located in Sarasota, Lee/Collier, Manatee, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties."

4. Disappearing Claims.

Good luck with that. As the Sun-Sentinel reports the newly appointed administrator of the $20 billion BP trust fund, Kenneth Feinberg, told Congress yesterday that while public "perception" may be a compensable injury for a business that is losing tourist income, "every business that loses money as an indirect result of the spill may not be compensated."
[T]hose more directly affected and relatively close to the spill would be eligible.

"I will have to draw some lines on eligibility," [Feinberg] said. "The lines will be based on proximity to the beach and the (individual’s or company’s) dependence on natural resources for fishing or whatever."

"Actual physical damage to property is not required," he said.

"If the perception harms a hotel on the beach, even if there’s no damage, that’s compensable. It’s another thing if the perception harms a hotel 70 miles inland."
The Sun-Sentinel's sense of this is that "businesses along the western Panhandle will get some BP money because of the devastation to its tourism industry. Those elsewhere in Florida -- even if they lose prospective visitors -- probably will not see compensation."

As for those who have weekend water-front cabins or other property within the oil zone, they also likely have a long and probably fruitless struggle ahead. One example was mentioned by NPR last night:
Preston Mayeaux, 59, knows where he would draw the line.

He walked into a BP claims center this week seeking compensation because, he says, the property value has plummeted at the small cabin he owns on Bayou John Charles. He says he can no longer enjoy summer weekends on the oily water.

"I lost my golden years that I wanted to be able to go to my fishing camp, and how do you put a price on
that?" Mayeaux says. "I don't know how you put a price on that."

Apparently, neither did the BP claims official who Mayeaux says gave him a lot more pushback than sympathy. If BP's recklessness caused the spill, then he says people like him should be compensated.
To add to the attenuated nature of some claims is the fact that the economy was a mess well before the BP oil spill.

"We know there’s been an impact and loss," says one south Florida restauranteur, "but how do you show a difference when you’re measuring against a year of recession? Last year was such a bad year."

5. Disappearing Oil.

Not only tourists have disappeared. Apparently, so has about half of BP's oil spill.

We continue to find tarballs in sargasso washed up on the beach, or half-buried in the sand next to a cement piling at Ft. Pickens Park (see left) on the west end of Pensacola Beach -- just steps from a clean-up crew.

But over the length and breadth of the Gulf the new question seems to be, as David A. Fahrenthold and Leslie Tamura phrase the question for WaPo, "Where did all the oil go?"
Up to 4 million barrels (167 million gallons), the vast majority of the spill, remains unaccounted for in government statistics. Some of it has, most likely, been cleaned up by nature. Other amounts may be gone from the water, but they could have taken on a second life as contaminants in the air, or in landfills around the Gulf Coast.

And some oil is still out there -- probably mixed with chemical dispersants. Some scientists have described it floating in underwater clouds, which one compared to a toxic fog.
NOAA's administrator, the credibility-impaired Jane Lubchenco, says it's neither gone nor killing the Gulf. "The truth is in the middle," she asserts.
Relying on the latest estimate of the leak's total volume -- 60,000 barrels (2.5 million gallons) per day, at most -- then 5.2 million barrels may have escaped over 86 days. Of that, about 1.2 million barrels were either siphoned, burned or skimmed.

That would leave slightly less than 4 million barrels missing.

The best-case scenario is that much of this amount has been eaten by the gulf's natural stock of oil-munching microbes. Several scientists have said they are concerned that these microbes could cause their own problems, depleting the oxygen that gulf creatures need in the water.

It looks like we're about to witness a rematch between NOAA scientists versus the rest of the scientific community.

NOAA scientists have offered upbeat assessments of the oil that remains below the ocean's surface, saying they've seen significant concentrations only near the wellhead.

But other scientists, working for Gulf Coast universities, have reported finding large "clouds" of oil miles away from the site.
WaPo quotes Prof. Caz Taylor of Tulane University as saying, "We're so unsure of what's going on at this point," including whether the oil might hurt creatures that eat the crabs, Taylor said.

"The worrying thing," she adds, "is that we're seeing these droplets everywhere that we're sampling," from Galveston Bay, Tex., to Pensacola, Fla.

6. Disappearing BeachBlogger.

Speaking of disappearing, we'll be taking a break for a few days and leaving all the electronics and phones and tarballs behind. We'll be back toward the end of next week.

Pensacola Beach: BP Going Green

We spent much of yesterday traipsing down the beach to Ft. Pickens and stopping along the way from time to time to talk with clean-up workers.

Some workers are more loquacious these days than formerly. Perhaps it's because they have fewer tarballs to pick up. More likely, it's because withering criticism has forced BP to relax what Mac McClelland called its "gag order" on clean-up workers.

Green for Clean

Yesterday, one thing stood out for us: clean-up worker uniforms are going green. BP green, in many instances.

Going "clean for Gene" even today is a phrase that denotes a remarkable turn-around in American history, public opinion, and politics. Cutting off that long hair in 1968 to work for Eugene McCarthy elevated anti-war activism to a politically acceptable level and brought down a war president.

As Prof. Joshua I. Miller has argued at some length, "Fashion affects citizens’ perceptions of one another, and therefore influences their political bonds." [Miller, "Fashion and Democratic Relationships," 37 Polity 3, 5 (January, 2005).] It's as true today as it was forty-two years ago.

Time was when BP's clean-up crews dressed like work release prisoners, as in the snapshot we took in the bad old days of early June at Navarre Beach (above left).

A month or so later, blazing orange vests predominated. Orange is a color that fairly shouts "Look out! Danger! Emergency!" It fascinates herons, apparently (below), but it's a definite turn-off for beach visitors looking to relax by the sea.

Over the past few weeks, however, a sartorial transition in BP clean-up crews seems to have been gaining momentum. For one thing, new T-shirts are coming off the looms, proudly emblazoned with the words, "Qualified Community Responder" (below).

It seems not everyone gets one, however. We'd like to think that's because they can be worn only by those who have received superior training so as to qualify for such a snazzy T-shirt. But a reliable source tells us it's because there is presently a severe shortage of the new uniforms.

"They're making them as fast as they can," one supervisor told us confidentially. "We expect a new shipment any time."

As a result, at least for awhile longer we're likely to see scenes like this one, below, with one worker decked out in BP's dernier cri and another still saddled with last month's out-dated duds.

The Psychology of Green

It's all a PR stunt, of course. The purpose is to put the minds of beach-goers at ease; or, preferably, completely asleep.

Business consultants consider green to be a "calming color... that's very pleasing to the senses."
Dark forest green is associated with terms like conservative, masculine and wealth. Hospitals use light green rooms because they too are found to be calming to patients. It is also the color associated with envy, good luck, generosity and fertility. It is the traditional color of peace, harmony, comfortable nurturing, support and well paced energy.
British Petroleum undoubtedly hopes that something in between dark and light green -- we'll call it "BP green" -- is the best color to make you soporific and insensible to any disaster that is transpiring around you.

Someone, somewhere at BP is battling back against the hilarious, mocking caricatures of BP's logo, such as those here.... and here... and here, among dozens of others sites. When the entire art world burlesques your logo, your corporate image is in mortal danger. Or, so we imagine the PR types suppose who focus on superficialities.

BP Fashion Accessories

On the beach this week we saw signs that BP's PR department is counter-punching with more than just green T-shirts. Everything is turning green.

Clean up crews increasingly accessorize with green clean-up crew dune buggies....

Beach scrapers are becoming green...

More clean-up crew road graders are transitioning from last month's Caterpillar yellow (insert, below) to John Deere green...

Even green porta-potties, increasingly, stand sentry where once they were yellow, tan, and blue...

The endless stream of white vans is still visible, as it was two months ago:

But we have no doubt that John Deere can help BP with that, too. If not, then soon enough we'll probably be seeing fleets of Japanese-built green Scions taking their place.

It's also a good bet that somewhere in London an army of lawyers is hard at work trying to figure out if there's some way to get worldwide trademark protection on BP's particular shade of green. With that, they just might be able to put the entire world to sleep even as the Gulf of Mexico dies, the Earth grows warmer, and our dependence on carbon-based fossil fuels renders the planet completely uninhabitable.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

BP Anniversary: Wednesday July 28 BP Oil Spill

1. Oilcast

The interactive GeoPlatform, a superior tool developed by the University of New Hampshire and NOAA, today is showing mostly "light oiling" along Santa Rosa Island over the next seventy-two hours. You can reconfigure the display yourself if you're interested in other areas of the Gulf Coast or other indices.

2. 100 Days.

All the news organizations are noting that today marks the one hundredth day anniversary of the explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling platform. As George Altman of the Mobile Register describes it:
Exactly 100 days ago, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 people and spawning what has been called the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. Federal officials say they could permanently plug the broken oil well in a matter of weeks, but even if they are successful, an enormous recovery project still lies ahead.
The Economist magazine, which loves to chart all kinds of stuff, last week added the BP oil catastrophe to the long list of other 'worst' peacetime oil spills in history. (See below). Even if one accepts the London-based magazine's British-friendly low-ball estimate of the total barrels of BP oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico -- and discounts the magazine's inexplicable obliviousness to the ongoing Nigerian oil disaster -- BP wins the dubious distinction of the world's worst oil polluter, tarball-blackened hands down.

3. Size and Amount Matter.

Skytruth yesterday posted a different sort of chart, one showing that "cumulatively, the surface oil slicks and sheen observed on ... satellite images directly impacted 68,000 square miles of ocean - as big as the state of Oklahoma."

What we find more interesting, however, are charts showing how much in wealth all these momentous oil spills have cost the human species. A year and a half ago, Jeff Siegel was marking the anniversary of what was then, in some circles, considered the world's worst oil spill -- the Exxon Valdez disaster. ["You've Come a Long Way, Baby"]

Siegel's calculations show the cumulative cost of twenty notable oil spills, adjusted for inflation, totalled $41,142,623,500. Yesterday, British Petroleum nearly doubled that amount when it announced it had a second quarter loss of $17.2 billion and is setting aside another $15 billion to cover projected charges against future earnings. The $32 billion total quite likely could rise, BP's chairman of the board told Barron's yesterday. And, he's strangely optimistic no fines for gross negligence will add to the total.

As Seigel's article begs to be asked, how much better off would we and the warming earth be if that money had been poured into alternatives to carbon-based fossil fuels?

4. Long Term Recovery.

It's clear that we won't know the full cost of BP's criminal negligence for decades to come. As McClatchy News reports Minnesota attorney Bill O'Neill, who handled Exxon Valdez lawsuits for fishermen and businesses, told a Senate committee yesterday, "The inability to know the impacts of the spill are inherent in oil spills. In three or four years, you're still not going to know what the impact of the spill is."

BP's newly designated CEO, Robert Dudley, said in a conference call with reporters yesterday that "he hopes 'five years from now' people will look back and conclude his company acted with "incredible corporate responsibility to a very tragic accident." But attorney O'Neill points out that it took many more years than that in Alaska to verify that some local fisheries there could never recover. And another witness, a native of Cordova, Alaska, says it took fifteen years for his town to recover economically.

As points out in a fact sheet, BP's Deepwater Horizon catastrophe released "an oil spill the size of Exxon Valdez" every 4 to 7 days over the course of the last three months. Some 21 years later in Alaska --
there are still two species that continue to be listed as “not recovered,” these are the Pacific herring and pigeon guillemot. There are ten species that are still “recovering”, including sea otters, killer whales, clams, and mussels. Commercial fishing, recreation and tourism are among the “human services” still listed as “recovering.” The ten species listed as “recovered” include bald eagles, pink and sockeye salmon and harbor seals. There are five resources listed as “unknown,” including the cutthroat trout, rockfish and subtidal communities.
5. Gulf Spill Legislation.

Even without knowing how long or deep will be the effects of BP's oil spill, both the U.S. House and the Senate are considering legislation that would "toughen regulations on offshore drilling," the Times Picayune reports. Late is better than never, we suppose.

The New York Times reprints an article from Greenwire by Katie Howell and Robin Bravender that identifies a number of near-identical provisions in the two bills:
  • "Both measures require drillers to beef up their oil spill response plans that are filed before drilling begins."
  • Both would write into statutory law the regulatory restructuring of MMS announced over a month ago by the Interior Department;
  • "The two bills would raise the liability limits for oil companies responsible for spills." The Senate does this cleanly by eliminating the current $75 million liability limitation for oil; the House bill merely would authorize a president to raise the cap.
  • "Both measures would grant the presidential commission tasked with investigating the oil spill subpoena power to conduct its investigations and would increase funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund."
  • The Senate bill "would set up a multiagency oil spill research and development program is similar to a measure passed on the House floor last week (H.R. 2693 (pdf)). The House has also passed a version H.R. 5019 of the "Home Star" energy-efficiency retrofit program that is included in the Senate bill.
The House bill, which is scheduled for floor debate tomorrow, also includes an additional provision that would "that would ban companies that have suffered 10 or more deaths at offshore and onshore drilling facilities over the past seven years from getting new permits." Guess the name of the only corporation on planet earth which would be barred from the Gulf of Mexico under that bill.

Has anything been left out? Well for starters, as The Atlantic's Nicole Allan reports, almost everything good that once was in the proposed Senate energy bill.
[I]t includes none of the grand, carbon-slashing measures that phrase called to mind just weeks ago. Instead, the Clean Energy Jobs and Oil Company Accountability Act is a modest, contained package that gives a curt nod to climate advocates but focuses on responding to the BP oil spill.
Reid apparently couldn't get more than one measly Republican vote to assure that the original energy bill could be debated on the floor of the Senate. Together with the defection of a couple of ultra-conservative Democrats, that means he couldn't find the 60 votes out of 100 needed to defeat a threatened Republican filibuster.

6. BP vs. U.S. Senate.

No less than five friends and relatives sent me messages today pointing to Thomas Friedman's column which went on the web yesterday and which appears in today's print edition of the Times. In sum, he says, the Senate is a bigger threat to the Gulf of Mexico coastal ecosystem than BP Corp.
There are three things it should be doing for the gulf and our other vital ecosystems. First, taking out some minimal insurance against climate change by reducing our carbon emissions; this region is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise and the more intense storms that climate change will bring. Second, set us on a path to diminish our addiction to oil so we don’t have to drill in ever-deeper waters. And, finally, provide the federal funding to restore America’s critical ecosystems. The Senate abandoned the first two but is still working on the third.
To be clear, what Friedman means when he refers to the "Senate" is the minority of all Republican senators and two or three Democrats who are paid by the oil and coal industry to keep us addicted to carbon-based fuels until we choke on the carbon monoxide-fouled air or burn the planet to a cinder.

Senator Reid isn't responsible for that minority of nay-sayers being in the Senate. We are. All of us.

The voters in states like Louisiana, for example, who for years have sent mere tools of the oil industry to Washington to work assiduously for more offshore rigs and money -- and less barrier islands and beaches -- for that state. But the rest of us also share in the blame. We know too well how corrupt our election politics have become, yet we neglect to do anything about it.

A coalition of environmental organizations released a joint statement that puts the problem starkly:
As we witness the worst industry‐caused environmental catastrophe in our history,
the deadliest coal mining disaster in 40 years, and sweat through the hottest first 6
months of any year on record, there’s never been a more urgent time to move
forward with a clean energy and climate policy.

There’s no doubt that big oil, big coal, their army of lobbyists and their partners in
Congress are cheering the obstruction that blocked Senate action on clean energy
and climate legislation. Their cheers are cheers for China taking the lead in clean
energy jobs, the Middle East getting more of our money, and America getting more
pollution and fewer jobs.

At every opportunity, a minority of Senators who are in the pocket of America’s
largest polluters in the coal and oil industries chose obstruction over working
together to solve America’s energy and national security challenges. As a result of
their actions, the big polluters will continue to reap record profits at the expense of Americans.
Every decade for the last three decades has been a record-setter for global warmth. Photo plankton that feed the fish in the world's oceans are disappearing, mostly probably because of warming oceans. The fish won't be far behind.

If all of that and the BP catastrophe, too, can't wake us up what will it take?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Corporate Games Tuesday: July 27 BP Oil Spill Update

"To put Hayward's failure down to tone-deaf PR "gaffes" is to suggest that appearances matter more than reality; that the superficial trumps substance."
1. Oilcast

Winds and water currents are projected to remain generally favorable "through Thursday," reads NOAA's surface oil forecast. However, as NOAA (above) and its Mobile Regional weather center are predicting for our locality, winds will be light southwesterly and westerly, for the most part. They will shift to a more welcome light northerly breeze by Wednesday.

The forecast direction could be better, but it is the seasonal norm. The relatively "light" strength of the winds is favorable. By Thursday midnight, Ocean Circulation Group's latest animation shows offshore directional arrows coming at us from nearly every direction (screenshot below), albeit slowly and without much push.

2. Corporate Games.

As predicted, BP's Tony Hayward is officially out effective October "by mutual agreement," BBC News announced this morning. His reward? According to NPR this morning, a year's salary and benefits worth over $1.6 million million, an annual "pension pot" of at least $18 million which he can begin drawing at age 55, and a cushy "non-executive" job as director of its Russian joint venture.

That's more like an "up-fall" than a downfall. Everyone seems to putting it down to Hayward's "gaffes" and his failure at public relations. Rahm Emanuel, who plays Karl Rove to President Obama, even cracked this lame joke: "I think we can all conclude that Tony Hayward is not going to have a second career in PR consulting."

This is maddening. Hayward's fundamental mistake was that he failed at his job of seeing that a major oil company went about its business competently and within the law. Instead, he was the man in overall charge of an entity that killed eleven employees, disturbed the lives and livelihoods of millions of innocent victims, and endangered all sea life in the Gulf of Mexico.

To put Hayward's failure down to tone-deaf PR "gaffes" is to suggest that appearances matter more than reality; that the superficial trumps substance. Would we love Hayward any more after April 20 if he had uttered soporific apologies and cleverly conned us with false sympathy?

Corporations do not sympathize with anyone. By law they have but one job: to make money for their shareholders.

The current Supreme Court, by a vote of 5 to 4, may suppose that corporations are "persons" protected by our Constitution. If so, however, as Prof. Joel Balkan's work shows, they are deeply pathological 'persons' singularly interested in, and acting upon, one overriding desire. Like any other sociopath on the street, corporations want to get as much money as they can as fast as they can.

3. Hayward's Replacement.

We should bear that point in mind as Robert Dudley ascends to Hayward's job. Yesterday, instead, New York Times reporters Jad Mouawad and Clifford Krauss dutifully transcribed without comment BP Corporation's hoped-for narrative in naming Dudley:
The planned appointment of an American to run the London-based company... would underscore how vital the United States has become to BP. About one-third of the company’s oil and gas wells, refineries and other business interests.* * *
Mr. Dudley, 54, who grew up in Mississippi and spent summers fishing and swimming on the gulf, has been in charge of BP’s response to the spill for the last month. Before that, he was best known for running the company’s joint venture in Russia, where he butted heads in 2008 with BP’s business partners and the Russian government over control of the operation.
As if a bucolic childhood or American citizenship makes any difference when working for an international corporation like BP. When one is employed by a pathological entity interested in just one thing, rearing and nationality mean nothing. Dudley's job isn't to be a good neighbor. His job is to achieve the corporation's singular objective without getting caught violating the law.

Focusing, as so much of the press has been doing, on Dudley's personality and lousy PR skills diverts our attention from substance to the superficial. Wake up, people. This isn't television, it's real life.

As the Pensacola News Journal editorializes today.
[T]he environmental and economic damage caused by BP — and the recent plunge into the financial abyss led by the big banks and investment houses — should wake us all up to just how tied together we are. The idea that BP or other big companies can be safely left alone to work their market "magic" should have gone down in flames with the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon and the incineration of the default credit swap era.
* * *
[R]egulations will never be an adequate replacement for the ac
ceptance of ethical and moral responsibility for their actions on the part of large corporations. At some point they must understand that making more money each quarter cannot be the end-all, be-all of their existence. The economy is supposed to be about people improving their lives, not cutting any moral, environmental or economic-risk corner that gets in the way of next quarter's fiscal results.
3. Boom status.

We spent yesterday checking out a number of our favorite sites to see what changes, if any, the T.S. Bonnie emergency wrought.

Some booms are back, like Project Greenshores' boom in the northeast corner of Pensacola Bay (see left) and the booms protecting Dead Man's Island in Gulf Breeze (see below).

Others yesterday morning at Bayou Texar were nowhere to be seen. On the beach, the boom was still not replaced at the entrance to Little Sabine Bay, in Lafitte Cove, and across Pensacola Pass.

4. BP Newtown.

One thing that's back in full force are all the clean-up workers. We found so many of them encamped on the beach along the road to Ft. Pickens that it looked like a new village. Call it BP Newtown.

This is the new normal, apparently. To give you a sense of it, we tried to stitch together several photos of the scene we came upon just west of the entrance to Ft. Pickens National Seashore Park.

Our editing skills are minimal and our tools are crude and ancient, so the result shows the stitching. But click on the photo above to get a sense for how the clean-up crews' tents stretch for nearly a mile along the shore, as if they had been newly platted for residential homes.

5. Tarballs Ashore.

We weren't surprised to come across vast piles of seaweed (properly, sargasso) washed up along Ft. Pickens' beaches (see below). This is expected after the vigorous surf we had last week.

Click each photo to see a close-up.

What shocked us was all the oil evidence we found embedded in and around it. Oil tarballs cling to the sargasso and wash ashore with it. Perhaps a third of the individual weedy stalks we came across on a 2-mile stroll have oil clinging to them.

Almost as frequently, we found the two -- oil and sea grass -- lying next to each other.

Oil also is visible on beached driftwood and the seemingly ubiquitous plastic bottles that litter Gulf waters.

Unweathered, gooey oil tarballs with the tell-tale orange tint were as numerous as the black weathered tarballs. This tells us that much of the oil arrived underwater or is relatively new.

On the beach, the visible tarballs ranged from about the size of a postage stamp to as wide and thick as the palm of an adult male.

About a quarter mile west of the Ft. Pickens fishing pier, we happened upon a small group of divers. As they were emerging from the water, we asked if they'd spotted any underwater oil on their dive. "Don" said he'd seen "some" including one large tarball not far from shore. He gestured with his hands to demonstrate its size (below).

That, too, looks like part of the "new normal" we on the Gulf Coast will be experiencing for a very long time to come.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Bye-Bye Tony Sunday: July 25 BP Oil Spill Update

1. Oilcast.

The midday Situation Report issued yesterday by the state of Florida noted:
The NOAA oil plume model shows the oil plume 90 miles from Pensacola, and 160 miles from Panama City. Florida is not expected to receive direct oil impacts through at least Monday, scattered tarball fields already nearshore may continue to be carried onshore along the panhandle coast.
The state's situation report also announced that the "the removal of tier 1 and tier 2 boom has been halted."

2. Hayward Out at BP.

The BBC is reporting this morning that BP chief executive Tony Hayward is "negotiating his exit from the company." A formal announcement that he will soon have his life back is expected in the next 24 hours.

The BBC also is reporting that "Oil giant BP has confirmed it will begin drilling off the Libyan coast in the next few weeks." This culminates BP's three-year effort to strong-arm the British government into agreeing to release the convicted Lockerbie bomber and then muddling the international scandal by passing responsibility around like a hot potato.

During Hayward's tenure as Chief Executive Officer he managed to kill at least 11 of his employees, poison the Gulf of Mexico, compile more than 700 safety violations at its Texas refinery, spill over 45,000 gallons of oil in Alaska, and subvert the British justice system.

How big an exit bonus do you suppose that earned him, according to the standards of today's corporate business world?

3. Ships Return.

Also at midday yesterday, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen "ordered the ships that had left BP's broken well in the Gulf of Mexico back to the area so they could resume work as soon as possible." Rebecca Mowbray in todays' New Orleans Times-Picayune quotes him saying, "Within 24 hours we should have most of the vessels back on scene."

USA Today summarizes Allen's remarks at a press briefing as estimating "It could be Friday before workers can start "'static kill.'" Drilling of the relief well may not resume until Monday.

Altogether, former T. S. Bonnie's feint toward the coast "cost BP a week of work in shutting down the well," Rebecca Mowbray reports.

4. Tropical Effects.

Cammy Clark of the Miami Herald writes in a dispatch also carried by McClatchy News that the storm caused more like a "7- to 9-day delay in completing the ultimate fix" of a relief well. According to NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco, however, "the storm's wave action of up to 8 feet in the northern Gulf will churn the oil, spreading what's left of the surface oil slicks and breaking tar balls up into smaller parts that will biodegrade more quickly."

Clark reports Lubchenco also gave it as her opinion that Bonnie's lingering effects in the Gulf "could drive some oil into marshes and bayous and onto beaches." Or, Lubchenco says, maybe "its counter-clockwise rotation also could move some oil away from the coastlines."

That Jane Lubchenco. She's such a big help, isn't she?

5. Go Fish.

Late last week Lubchenco's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced the re-opening of 26,388 square miles of the Gulf to commercial and recreational fishing. The NOAA press release says the reopened area constitutes "a third of the [previously] overall closed area." (Click map, left)

The reopened area, however, is quite a haul from the northern Gulf coast. It lies some "190 miles southeast of the Deepwater/BP wellhead." NOAA says "the area where the majority of fishing will occur is about 220 miles from the wellhead, along the west Florida shelf."

Lubchenco, whose credibility was damaged when she and BP jointly "denounced" marine researchers' early reports of undersea lakes of dispersed oil which later proved correct, said in the statement released Thursday, "We are confident that seafood caught in this area is, and will continue to be, free from contamination."

Or, knowing Lubchenco's 'What Me Worry?' attitude, maybe it won't.

6. Turtle Nest Rescue.

A Mobile, Ala., citizen journalist at the experimental site reported yesterday that "the first Kemp's ridley sea turtle nest was excavated" from Fort Pickens National Seashore Park two days ago. The delicate operation, "took place at 6:00 p.m. EDT on Friday as part of the multi-agency effort to retrieve thousands of turtle eggs from the Gulf Coast and relocate them... ."

The eggs will be incubated at a secure NASA facility near Cape Canaveral. Once they hatch, the baby turtles will be released along the east coast of Florida. This should give them a better chance of survival than if they entered the Gulf waters polluted by the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Our own Barrier Island Girl has a much more entrancing report -- with lots of pictures, too. Everyone who is anyone in the local media was present (click above left). As an added bonus, Barrier Island Girl has a stunning portrait of the mother Kemp's ridley turtle. But what's she doing in the middle of a blacktop road?

7. Registration for Primary Elections.

Monday July 26 is the last day for Floridians to register as voters in the upcoming August 24 primary. Click here for information on how to register -- including how to register by email.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Subsea Saturday: July 24 BP Oil Leak Update

1. Oilcast.

As the latest NOAA oilcast graphic shows (above), the surface of BP's oil lake visible in satellite photos presently is being pushed away from the Florida panhandle and toward the northwest, fouling more of the coastline of Louisiana where Bobby Jindal apparently welcomes it as an economic growth strategy:
Oil moving westward around the Mississippi Delta is collecting in the convergence line associated with the freshwater outflow -- this oil will continue moving westward threatening the Delta and shorelines west to Caillou Bay.
That doesn't mean we're in the clear, of course. Westerly winds and currents can, and eventually will, push it back toward us just as easily.

2. Bonnie Gone.

Former Tropical Storm Bonnie lost its status as a tropical storm and became a mere tropical depression overnight. The National Hurricane Center was saying early this morning, "Bonnie could degenerate into an area of low pressure... Warnings will likely be discontinued later this morning."

Two hours later NHC discontinued all warnings. Bonnie is gone. No storm, no depression, no Bonnie.

Here in Northwest Florida we barely noticed anything except high clouds and a very few abbreviated rain squalls. We happened to be in north Pensacola late yesterday afternoon and were caught in one weird, violent burst of a dust storm, followed by a ten-minute downpour. That was it.

By dinner time on the beach you could tell there had been enough rain to flood Via deLuna directly in front of the superior eatery, Florida Pizza. Then again, that often happens to this old section of Via deLuna, so it seems, even if there's been nothing more than a dewy morning.

3. Subsea Oil.

As Enid Sisskin has warned, danger lurks not just in the oil you see but in what you don't see. McClatchy News reports today,"researchers have definitively linked clouds of underwater oil in the northern Gulf of Mexico to BP's runaway Deepwater Horizon well... ."

This is the first comprehensive and irrefutable proof of a "link between the subsurface oil clouds commonly known as 'plumes' and the BP oil spill, USF officials said Friday."
The announcement came on the same day that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that its researchers have confirmed the existence of the subsea plumes at depths of 3,300 to 4,300 feet below the surface of the Gulf.
* *
Together, the two studies confirm what in the early days of the spill was denied by BP and viewed skeptically by NOAA's chief — that much of the crude that gushed from the Deepwater Horizon well stayed beneath the surface of the water.
Most of the testing NOAA conducted was south of Louisiana, Mississippi, but at least one of the underwater plumes appears to be relatively close to Florida. "One layer was 100 feet thick; it was found 45 nautical miles north-northeast of the well site, officials said."

One of the maps included in NOAA's 73-page report (above left) shows confirmed underwater plumes were discovered due south and about one longitudinal degree west of Pensacola. NOAA may not have tested east of there.

At the University of South Florida, marine scientists' findings were said to be based on "water sampling using three separate technologies: an optical device that measures red backscatter; the ship’s sonar; and filtrations that trapped microscopic particles."
Lab tests of these trapped particles confirmed in early June that the particles were microscopic oil droplets suspended at depth. The recent Compound-Specific Isotope Analysis (CSIA) further confirmed that these suspended oil droplets matched BP MC252 oil.
A BP spokesman contacted by the Los Angeles Times, you will not be surprised to learn, pretended to complete ignorance:
"We have only seen media reports, and have not yet seen the report and underlying data," BP spokesman Phil Cochrane said in an e-mail.
A scientist at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota says "the finding is important because oil that escaped from the mile-deep, blown-out well had been treated with dispersants... . It's more readily taken up and absorbed and ingested by marine animals," says Richard H. Pierce, director of Mote's Center for Ecotoxicology.
Although dispersed oil degrades more quickly over the long-run, in the short-term, it poses a more toxic threat to marine life, Pierce said.
The NOAA report is available to everyone (except, apparently, BP) right here. The University of South Florida report will be publicly released on Monday, McClatchy reports.

4. Asleep at the Switch

The Coast Guard's hearings in Louisiana about what caused the explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling platform are getting to be as exciting as Sam Ervin's Watergate hearings. Yesterday, Mike Williams, the New York Times reports,who was "the rig’s chief electronics technician... said the general safety alarm was habitually set to 'inhibited' to avoid waking up the crew with late-night sirens and emergency lights."
"They did not want people woke up at 3 a.m. from false alarms," Mr. Williams told the federal panel of investigators. Consequently, the alarm did not sound during the emergency, leaving workers to relay information through the loudspeaker system.

While it is not known whether it would have saved the workers who died in the April 20 disaster, the lack of a fully functioning alarm hampered the effort to safely evacuate the rig, Mr. Williams said.

Williams also testified to "several new details about the equipment on the rig, testifying that another Transocean official had turned a critical system for removing dangerous gas from the drilling shack to 'bypass mode.'"
When Mr. Williams questioned that decision, he said he was reprimanded.

“No, the damn thing’s been in bypass for five years,” he recalled being told by Mark Hay, the subsea supervisor. “Why’d you even mess with it?”

Other testimony at the hearing "addressed the role that shortcuts and mistakes played in compounding the rig’s troubles." These included mechanical errors, "390 repairs" left undone, and an incorrectly done test of emergency equipment that failed to detect a “kick of gas roughly an hour before the explosion."

5. Whither BP?

Overall, the evidence is mounting that not one of the oil drilling companies involved is without serious fault. All conspired to create a criminally negligent hot-dog culture that not only killed eleven workers but which put all life in the Gulf of Mexico at risk.

Can any of these leading corporations in the oil drilling industry survive the consequences of being caught? One expert we spoke with the other day was doubtful.

"I had a Ph.D. student who's now a higher up in the industry," he told us. "He's a top notch guy. He says BP is hurting financially and he doesn't expect it to survive another two years."

Derek Thompson for the estimable Grist Magazine found a bankruptcy wizard last month who agrees. "There is a reasonably high chance that BP could file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the next few years, or even months," he said. "[T]he result would be an 'absolute horror' for the government... ."

The prospect of a BP bankruptcy is not as crazy as you might think. Andrew Sorkin described why six weeks ago:
BP’s costs for the cleanup could run as high as $23 billion, according to Credit Suisse. On top of that, BP could face an additional $14 billion in claims from gulf fisherman and the tourism industry. So while conservative estimates put the bill at $15 billion, something approaching $40 billion is not out of the question. After all, little about this spill has turned out as expected.

The company has about $12 billion in cash and short-term investments, but there is already a debate about whether it should cut its dividend out of fear that it could run out of money. [It did - Beach Blogger] Of course, it could sell assets or seek loans, which in this environment is still not that easy.

As Zero Hedge Fund noted over a month ago, watching BP's common stock price doesn't necessarily give the clearest picture of BP's financial status. Think credit default swaps, the very kind of risky investment instruments that was the undoing of some of Wall Street's biggest securities firms and insurance companies.
[T]he real investing community is ever more carefully looking at the worst case, and its implications. Said implications would be vast, and in addition to wiping out billions in capital from BPs direct counterparties which are already limiting their BP exposure... would also impair indirect holders of pre-packaged securitized BP exposure.
Claims against BP for its part in the oil spill catastrophe now top $200 million. While that's a long way from the $20 billion pledge for a compensation fund which the White House exacted from the company, apparently no one has made public the actual documents setting up the fund. In connection with pending lawsuits, one federal judge has been asked to order a release of the details.

Today, fund administrator Kenneth Feinberg told an Alabama audience that he is concerned that "British energy giant BP Plc is holding up payments to economic victims of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill." He says he thinks it's more about needing documentation than having ready cash. We shall see.

Feinberg doesn't get his hands on the money until August. If then, we are tempted to say.

As one financial expert noted fifteen years ago, "Seeking shelter under the umbrella of the federal bankruptcy court has become an increasingly common corporate strategy in recent years." Take a quick trip down's bankruptcy's memory lane:
Cases such as Texaco, Wilson Foods, Continental, and others are some examples of solvent corporations using Chapter 11 to stave off potential financial disasters. Texaco argued that it needed protection because of its inability to pay its liabilities, which included a $10.3 billion award to Pennzoil. Wilson Foods and Continental argued that they needed protection because their high labor costs were making them uncompetitive. Manville, UNR Industries, and Amatex sought protection because they were deluged with lawsuits for asbestos-related diseases.
* * *
Bankruptcy is no longer viewed as a last resort for insolvent companies, but is regarded as a strategy that can be used by financially solvent companies in an attempt to prevent potential financial disasters. An increasing number of financially sound companies have sought shelter under Chapter 11 not only to reorganize their present debts but also in order to renegotiate their liabilities, to void their contractual obligations, or to head off future liabilities.

Tavakolian, "Bankruptcy: An Emerging Corporate Strategy", 60 SAM Advanced
Management Journal 18 (1995) [full article by subscription only]
The consequences of such a move by BP would be devastating for claimants and Gulf coast businesses expecting to recover their losses. The moment a bankruptcy petition is filed, all creditor claims pending in court would be frozen. As Tavakolian explained:
The court prohibits all creditors from pursuing the company pending a bankruptcy court's approval of a plan to restructure the company's financial obligations. The automatic stay gives the company temporary relief from collection attempts, lawsuits, and foreclosure procedures, thereby allowing the company to focus on its operations.
Even if bankruptcy -- the now-common business strategy of so many capitalist enterprises -- isn't in BP's future, the most optimistic vision for the company isn't much prettier. "'BP will spend the coming decades circling the drain, mired in endless litigation, its reputation irreparably damaged, and its finances weakened," investment specialist Robert Bryce told Sorkin.

Beside all the fishermen, businesses, and property owners just who, may we ask, is going to compensate the oiled sea turtles, pelicans, fish, oysters, crab, and seaweed for what BP did to them?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Bonnie Be Good

T.S. Bonnie is crossing south Florida right now and will enter the Gulf later today. NHC's 11 a.m. discussion says:
The environment in the Gulf of Mexico is not favorable for any significant strengthening and in and hurricane dynamical models insist on weakening or even dissipating the cyclone gradually. Bonnie could degenerate into a tropical wave as it crosses Florida but the official forecast still shows some slight strengthening over the Gulf of Mexico.
The latest satellite images, wind data, marine conditions, and more is available at NOAA's New Orleans/Baton Rouge regional weather station. Check in with Hurricane City for Jim Williams' coverage.

Bonnie, Bonnie Friday: July 23 BP Oil Spill Update

1. Oilcast.

The approach of Tropical Storm Bonny has "forced the evacuation of response vessels at the site of BP’s blown-out oil well, further stalling efforts to permanently seal the well," the New York Times reports this morning.
Among the vessels forced to flee the well site, 50 miles off the Louisiana coast, was a drill rig that was working on a relief well, which is considered the ultimate way to seal the well.
* * *
The drill rig that was working on the relief well was most likely to be among the first to leave because it travels very slowly. Other ships that are better able to handle higher seas and travel faster would leave later, Admiral Allen said. Support ships for submersibles that have been monitoring the well would be among the last to leave, so the well would probably be unattended for only a few days, he said.
The oil well itself will be "left closed off and unattended." It is expected there is "little risk" the 3-stack cap will "deteriorate" under pressure.
The decision to leave the well capped, which was made at the recommendation of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, means that scientists with the government and with BP think that the well is undamaged and that there is little risk it would deteriorate if kept under pressure, as it has been since valves on a new cap were closed a week ago.
The National Hurricane Center is projecting that T.S. Bonnie will not likely grow to hurricane status. It is expected to near the Gulf coast late Saturday or early Sunday.

Depending on how close the storm passes to the well and how long it takes to clear out, a BP spokesman estimates it will take 10 to 12 days to complete the relief well operation. This likely means a permanent solution to the long-running oil gusher will be pushed back to mid-August, and that's if everything goes well.

2. Bonnie, Bonnie Loch Ile.

Kimberly Blair reports for the local daily, "Pensacola Beach officials are more worried about Tropical Storm Bonnie... stirring up dangerous rip currents than washing oil up on the beach."
Bonnie's prevailing cyclonic winds are likely to push BP's lake of oil -- which we're told a true Scottish Bonnie would call loch ile -- away from the Florida panhandle farther to the south and west.

Even T.S. Bonnie isn't likely to do much damage to Pensacola Beach, Blair's sources believe.
"By all indications, if it follows the projected path and crosses the Gulf on Saturday or Sunday and goes into Texas or Louisiana, we'll get some surf, no doubt," said Pensacola Beach Public Safety Supervisor Bob West. "The projected 40 mph or 50 mph winds, will only create 5 to 6 foot waves."
Just the kind of conditions surfers enjoy -- and in which unwary swimmers drown.

Jim Williams at Hurricane City has collected all the early morning computer-generated spaghetti forecasting models for Tropical Storm Bonnie. (See above) A near-contemporaneous public advisory from the Hurricane Center, however, warns that "a tropical storm watch has been issued for the northern Gulf of Mexico coast from Destin... westward to Morgan City Louisiana."

This represents a slight shift to the east. This is the reason, as NHC explains in its discussion:
Bonnie is moving faster and has turned west-northwestward.* * * There is some spread in
the guidance after landfall along the northern gulf coast. The guidance is noticeably faster... which may be in part from the more westward initial location. The new NHC track is similar to the previous track but is faster than the previous advisory. This requires the issuance of tropical storm watches for a portion of the northern gulf coast.
Still, Pensacola Beach is unlikely to be affected much, other than by higher waves, brisk but not particularly damaging winds, and starting today "thunderstorms after 1 p.m."

3. Promotional Predicament.

The predicament for Pensacola area businesses is apparent to all. The Island Authority's Bob West gave news reporter Blair a quote for the ages that encapsulates the dilemma facing us:
"The beach looks great, with the exception of sargassum and algae. The water is clear and is that beautiful blue. There's only a smattering of tar balls."
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

4. "It's the Water."

Alexander Higgins has serious questions -- which is putting it mildly -- about EPA's assurances that its monitoring of Gulf seafood and water shows all is safe. Concerned over "obfuscated and poorly arranged" reports about the safety of Gulf water and seafood, he mashed up a number of EPA's sampling reports with local media stories about tests for Vanadium, a naturally-occurring metal found in oil which is a potential carcinogen but more commonly causes "bronchitis and pneumonia."

According to Higgins Gulf Coast local media reports are far more accurate in showing contaminated water samples than EPA's own publicly-released test results. His summary about Pensacola Beach is typical of many of the other coastal localities he examined:
One of the most well known areas being devastated by the BP Gulf Oil Spill is Pensacola Beach Florida.

Amazingly however the EPA reports only detecting on substance, Diesel Range Organics [C10-C28] in a water sample taken on May 9th, from all of the samples collected within 10 miles of Pensacola Beach.

While the EPA data shows the beach is free of contamination that clearly isn’t the case and against advice of Federal scientists Pensacola Beach was reopened after being absolutely covered with oil in June. Over 400 people ended getting sick after swimming on the county beaches.
We've previously mentioned that the "400" number is now said to have been an error. But that shouldn't obscure Higgins' larger point that EPA test results released to the public are, on the whole, almost completely useless to the average citizen. They certainly appear to differ substantially from local media reports as well.

EPA was heavily criticized for its supposed claims after 9-11 that New York City air was safe to breathe. However, the evidence for that is mixed as Google's own mash-up for 9-11 researchers shows. But reason for doubts remain about the way in which EPA casts its air quality reports for public consumption.

Higgins' work is useful, but hardly the last word on the safety of seafood and water in the Gulf. Except on this one point: EPA has a huge job ahead if it wants to regain the public's trust about its air and water quality reports. This can only be done if it finds a way to issue candid, detailed, and easily-explained public reports that give the average citizen meaningful information.

EPA has made some progress in the last month. The new web site "EPA Response to BP Spill in the Gulf of Mexico" is a start. It's easy enough to understand, too, if you have a college degree, can read the periodic table of elements, and have a copy of Merck's Manual handy.

Does anyone else think it's weird that Homeland Security can reduce the public notice about the terrorism threat level to five colored-bar warnings, yet EPA has yet to find a quick and accurate way to warn the citizenry at large where and when the water is unsafe for swimming or the seafood is inedible?

5. Murzin Mirth.

Pensacola News Journal columnist Mark O'Brien is fresh from nearly finishing out of the money in an Indianapolis horse race for 'funniest columnist.' At least he beat someone whose humorous entry was all about potty training.

In his allotted space today O'Brien relates a remark recently made by now-candidate for county commissioner Dave Murzin. Murzin is freshly home from his own trip -- this one as state representative to Tallahassee, where he made sure voters will have absolutely no say about stiffening an offshore drilling ban to protect the state's beaches.

According to O'Brien, "Murzin, a state representative from Pensacola, said he likes 'listening to people' and hearing others' opinions."

Now that is hilarious! Mark deserves a first place prize from someone for that catch.