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Monday, July 12, 2010

Gulf Oil Spill: Back to the Numbers, Day 82

As BP attempts to install a new containment cap optimism is mounting that the well head might be brought under control within a few days. According to engineers and Admiral Thad Allen the new cap might be able to actually contain the well. This is good news, because without the new cap and/or relief wells completed we're looking at a major step backwards in the event BP has to abandon the area for a hurricane, i.e. they'll have to literally pull the plug (the first LMRP containment cap) and hunker down, thereby releasing as much as 60,000 barrels per day. But, if the new cap holds, BP can shut down the well and move off site and not have to worry about the continuing and unimpeded volcanic eruption of oil and gas. The well will be secure. Or so the theory goes.

From a numbers POV, we're at day 82. At 60,000 barrels a day (and I still believe it's more like 100,000 barrels per day), the total spill is at over 5,000,000 barrels or over 200,000,000 gallons. Skimmers, OSRV's and other spill collection assets have recovered a total oil/water mix of about 720,000 barrels. What percentage of this amount is pure oil is anybody's guess. Fair to say it could be as little as 10%, which means a pitiful 72,000 barrels of oil. BP says that the majority of this oil has been collected in the waters at or around the Deepwater Horizon well head, probably by the MSRC's Responder-Class OSRVs and the Mighty Servant III. Another 230,000 barrels of oil has been flared by controlled burning. Given these figures, skimmers, OSRVs and the burning have remediated about 6% of the spill -- after nearly three months of 24 hour per day fighting (weather permitting) by as many as 5,000 vessels. What does this tell you about our ability to clean-up a major spill at sea?

Compared to Europe and even Saudi Arabia, U.S. spill response assets are woefully over matched and under managed.

And here's another thought: The MSRC's 12 oil spill response vessels on site now are said to have the combined capability of handling 48,000 barrels per day of oily liquid. (This doesn't include the Mighty Servant III, which is not an OSRV but is presumably collecting a lot of oily liquid in its ballast tanks.)

If the MSRC's OSRVs had been dispatched immediately, and if they had arrived on site within ten days of the accident -- plenty of time to be dispatched, get there and fuel up -- they would have had 72 days to work in a fairly contiguous spill area. That's 3,456,000 barrels of oily liquid recovered. You get where I'm going with this? (Obviously this would have been under ideal circumstances, which is pretty much impossible. Still...)

According to Judith Roos, a spokesperson for the MSRC, the company dispatches it's resources based on the demands/requests of its clients, in this case BP, and in coordination with Unified Command:

"MSRC resources are activated by our customer in coordination with the Unified Command. Although MSRC has cascaded a significant amount of resources, which now include twelve 12 responder class oil spill response vessels from their home ports to the Gulf of Mexico, we have notified the Coast Guard of all movements, as they are tracking the availability of resources [in the event they have] to mount a response in other locations around the country."

If the government and corporate clean-up response was indeed timely and appropriate as White House Press Secretary Gibbs and others in the administration have been saying, why is it the MSRC's OSRVs have only collected about one fifth of the amount of oil/water mix they are capable of collecting?

Here's what's wrong with this picture and it's what I've been saying all along about our government's response to this tragedy. It's called shifting attention if not blame away from one of the responsible parties.

President Obama's Oil Spill Commission is holding its first meeting today under a veil of controversy. Many see this as a one-sided panel intent on forwarding the President's energy policy. I agree. But I also see it as a strategy to shift attention away from the mistakes this government made in dealing with the emergency, namely the lack of focus, attention and the dispatching of resources. I can't fault the Obama administration for what happened at the Dept. of the Interior or the MMS. I can't fault the present administration for a lack of preparedness and our inadequate resources. But this President and this administration bares the blame for letting way too much time go by before realizing the threat and dealing with it appropriately. In my opinion, it wasn't part of the President's policy strategy or his political agenda or political allegiances, and I believe he dealt with it from the start as if it was somebody else's problem and an intrusive element in his overall plan for America.

The panel the President really needs to commission is the one that looks long and hard at the government's response from day-1. I'm not saying a drilling safety panel isn't called for. What I'm saying is that I think the response to this emergency from the administration has been driven primarily by politics and academics. There are thinkers and there are doers in this world, and I'm inclined to put my faith in a man or woman of action.

So, why do I think this tragedy proves President Obama is more of a thinker than a doer?

1. It's a mistake to shut down the oil exploration/drilling industry. It puts a million people out of work, depresses the economy, threatens the U.S. recovery and jeopardizes our oil independence. It also has no legal precedent, as was established in a Louisiana Federal Court. Meanwhile, the Dept. of the Interior is scrambling to find some legal basis for continuing the moratorium as billions of dollars in assets and manpower sit idle. Why?

Because, in the long term, it hamstrings the industry and boosts green technologies.

2. Everything the President is doing and has done seems to be toward a political or strategic end. It's as if nothing can be decided until a long term goal has been established. The long term goal in this case is green and/or alternative energy and Trade and Cap legislation. (Why did it take so long to consider McCrystal's troop recommendations for Afghanistan? Same reason. What's the long term goal? Hence the troop withdrawal deadline, a precondition scorned by McCrystal and many of the men and women fighting in Afghanistan.)

3. Shutting down the oil industry with a moratorium and creating what may be a biased panel to look at drilling safety issues is a blow to the oil industry in the U.S. and a boon to green energy. But let's not forget that this has absolutely no impact or effect on oil drilling anywhere else on the planet.

4. The Macondo oil reservoir is not the largest in the Gulf. The largest is about 20 miles off the Yucatan Peninsula. No matter what the U.S. government decides, Mexico will do whatever it wants with its deep water drilling industry. So will Cuba, which has been looking at Chinese oil exploration and drilling companies to exploit its reservoirs. What will be their safety standards and who will the President get an escrow account of $20 billion from if and when a Chinese well blows?

5. Some scientists think the Gulf of Mexico is sitting over the largest reserve in the world. Others believe oil is abiotic, meaning it is not a fossil fuel but a renewable resource created continually by processes deep with the earth. Looking at video of the BP well spewing 60,000 barrels a day or more is a strong argument for the latter.

6. This tragedy worries me that congress, the senate, the administration and our President are not prepared to handle real-world emergencies. In real-world emergencies, decisions must be made quickly, sometimes without regard to future consequences.

In a perfect world, with a perfect leader, every problem would have a perfect solution. Obviously, it's not a perfect world. And there are no perfect leaders. But who do you want at the helm? An intellectual who can organize and study academic solutions to problems? Or do you want someone with the knee-jerk instincts to instantly choose the best of all possible solutions.

In a perfect world, I'd want both.

~seabgb

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