But Seriously, Tragically, 11 Missing Workers Are Presumed Dead

On Saturday, April 24, Coast Guard officials reported that the damaged Deepwater Horizon well on the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico was leaking oil at a rate of about 42,000 gallons (or 1,000 barrels) per day—since recalculated at 210,000 gallons per day, a fivefold increase. The leak, about 50 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, is some 5,000 feet (about a mile) below the surface. (Chris Kirkham of the Times-Picayune has written a detailed, illustrated report of efforts to cap the leak.) As of Monday afternoon, April 26, the Coast Guard said the oil spill measured about 48 miles by 39 miles, or 1,800 square miles, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. John Amos of SkyTruth reports that NASA photographs taken Sunday, April 25, show that oil slicks and sheen (“very thin slick”) covered about 817 square miles. Amos, who in Nov. 2009 was invited to testify at a Senate hearing on the risks posed by offshore drilling, wrote yesterday (April 25):

This is bad news—it means the blowout preventer on that well is not doing its job, and that several attempts by BP, Transocean and the Coast Guard to operate a shutoff valve on the well using a robotic ROV have failed. The oil slick has grown rapidly and now covers 400 miles.

A friend in New Orleans who is an industry insider says the Deepwater Horizon well “was as sophisticated a rig as has been built operating in the Gulf of Mexico (not a rust-bucket).” He adds:

So far, cleanup efforts haven’t done very well. 126,000 gallons of oil have been spilled, but only 33,726 gallons of emulsion (which is part water) have been picked up, and this is when conditions are calm. If you assume a 50/50 water/oil mix (a conservative assumption, IMHO), the cleanup has only been 13% effective.

Dig deeper here: WWL-TV reportCoast Guard unified command updateUSCG District 8 Flickr streamMMS article on closing blowouts (big PDF)

Our friend Aaron Viles of Gulf Restoration Network reports after a flyover on Sunday (read the entire post here):

We were shocked at what we saw. The main spill was at least 8 miles across . . . and stretching for 45 miles, in a Northeastern and Southeastern direction. The crude at the surface of the Gulf has been churned into a ‘chocolate mousse’ material that was easy to spot from our altitude of 4,000 feet. The mousse covered approximately 100 square miles, and then faded into a heavy, then light sheen, which faded about 20 miles from the Chandeleur Islands, critical bird nesting and migration habitat.

It is still unclear what caused last week’s explosion; eleven crew members are still missing and are presumed dead. After the explosion, the rig burned for two days, then broke apart and sank to the seafloor. The rig is owned by Transocean, which was working for BP Exploration and Production. The Times-Picayune’s Chris Kirkham writes that BP, as the responsible party, must pay the cost of the cleanup under the requirements of the Oil Pollution Act passed in 1990 after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska (1989). Marcus Baram of HuffingtonPost reports that relatives of missing crew members allege that BP and Transocean violated “numerous statutes and regulations” issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Natalie Roshto, the widow of one worker, has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. The suit alleges that the defendants—including Halliburton—failed to provide safe working conditions and to properly train and supervise their employees. BP and Transocean are said to have aggressively resisted new safety regulations proposed by a federal agency last year. Baram reports that according to a study by the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, “there were 41 deaths and 302 injuries out of 1,443 incidents from 2001 to 2007. . . . In addition, the agency issued 150 reports over incidents of non-compliant production and drilling operations and determined there was ‘no discernible improvement by industry over the past 7 years.’”

It has been estimated that stopping the leak could take two to three months. The spill poses a potential ecological catastrophe and could decimate coastal wildlife and cripple the Louisiana seafood industry if oil spreads to the wetlands’ delicate habitats for fish, shrimp, oysters, crawfish, and many species of waterfowl. Louisiana supplies the nation’s largest bounty of shrimp, oysters, and blue crab, and almost one-third of the fish harvested in the Lower 48, with annual retail sales of about $2.85 billion, employing about 40,000 in Louisiana.

This accident occurs just weeks after President Obama announced the administration’s decision to open large expanses of water along the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico to oil and natural gas drilling—some for the first time. There has been a moratorium on oil exploration along the East Coast from Delaware down to central Florida. The decision, announced March 30, was welcomed by oil companies and domestic drilling advocates but decried by environmentalists and residents of the affected states. In a related development, ExxonMobil, with a profit of $45 billion last year, paid no federal corporate income taxes in 2009. (But Exxon’s not alone: the Government Accountability Office reported that between 1998 and 2005, “two out of every three United States corporations paid no federal income taxes.”) According to Forbes, the oil giant Chevron, with pretax income of $18.5 billion, paid the U.S. just $200 million in income tax in 2008.

In the NASA photograph below, the city of New Orleans is in the upper left corner, along the southern shore of Lake Pontchartrain. The oil slick appears to be about the size of the metropolitan area (1.5 million population). Note the spill’s proximity to wildlife refuges around the Mississippi River delta (known as “the birdfoot”).

Spill, Baby, Spill

The oil industry and its supporters routinely assert that offshore drilling is “safe” and “environmentally friendly” and that offshore rigs and hurricanes coexist amicably. During the 2008 campaign and every chance she’s gotten since, Sarah Palin has shrilled, “Drill, Baby, Drill!” Samuel Bodman, former energy secretary in the Bush administration, claimed in 2008 that “there was not one case where we had a situation with oil or gas being spilled in the environment” during hurricanes Katrina and Rita, a falsehood peddled to anyone with a microphone. Sadly, not true. Those two hurricanes within a month in August and September 2005 caused 595 different oil spills, totaling 9 million gallons. The U.S. Minerals Management Service documents that Katrina and Rita totally destroyed 113 oil drilling platforms, and according to press reports at the time, the hurricanes ruptured pipelines and set rigs adrift. One rig drifted 66 miles before running aground.

We are not opposed to some oil drilling, but, as with the wars the U.S. wages to secure access to global oil supplies, we want this practice to be winding down, not escalating. Levees Not War has been calling for increased federal investment in public transportation because the U.S. must reduce its dependence on automobiles and on importing foreign oil (and extracting it from off the Gulf Coast). Here’s why: carbon emissions aggravate global warming, which intensifies hurricanes and raises sea levels. That, along with the 10,000 miles of oil industry pipelines through the Louisiana wetlands, hurts New Orleans, Louisiana, and other precious places. In addition, investment in public transportation and other infrastructure also gives more “bang for the buck” in creating jobs and providing public works of lasting value that help support the economy in a sustainable way. President Obama has often spoken of the need to shift gears toward sustainable green energy programs, but his recent decision to open formerly protected areas of the coastal United States to oil exploration is change we cannot believe in. His recent announcement with “Amtrak Joe” Biden of $8 billion in stimulus funding for 13 high-speed rail projects, however, is what America needs more of. So far, these are very modest steps. (The war in Afghanistan eats up that $8 billion every two or three months, and for what?)

Stressing Out the Planet

Coming just weeks after the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster in West Virginia took 29 lives, the worst in four decades, the Deepwater Horizon calamity reinforces the message that the environmental consequences of harvesting fossil fuels are as unsustainable as the price paid for burning these fuels. Other nations are doing much more than the United States to shift from carbon-based fuels to recyclable, sustainable energy sources; thousands, even millions of new jobs could grow if our business leaders and elected officials would Give Green a Chance. Read these previous posts about the ecological effects of global warming, including the rising sea levels and the warmer sea waters that intensify hurricanes.

Diagnosis of a Stressed-Out Planet

Swiftly Melting Planet 2007

Penguins Are Melting

Polar-Palooza and the Singing Glaciologist

Copenhagen Climate Accord Better Than Nothing

We don’t know whether the unusual frequency of earthquakes this year could be related to human activity or human-caused temperature changes, or if it just feels that way. We do know that climate change is going inexorably in one direction, and the rising temperatures are threatening more than just the low-lying areas of the world. Last assignment for this session: Read Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change. There will be a test.


Photo credits: U.S. Coast Guard; NASA; NASA; Salon.com.