8/2/10

NEW ORLEANS — The BP spill is by far the world’s largest accidental release of oil into marine waters, according to the most precise estimates yet of the well’s flow rate, announced by federal scientists on Monday.

Nearly five million barrels of oil have gushed from BP’s well since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, according to the latest data. That amount outstrips the estimated 3.3 million barrels spilled into the Bay of Campeche by the Mexican rig Ixtoc I in 1979, previously believed to be the world’s largest accidental release.

The BP spill was already thought to be the largest spill in American waters, but it was unclear whether it had eclipsed Ixtoc.

“We’ve never had a spill of this magnitude in the deep ocean,” said Ian R. MacDonald, a professor of oceanography at Florida State University.

“These things reverberate through the ecosystem,” he said. “It is an ecological echo chamber, and I think we’ll be hearing the echoes of this, ecologically, for the rest of my life.”

Federal science and engineering teams, citing data that are “the most accurate to date,” estimated that 53,000 barrels of oil a day were pouring from the well just before BP was able to cap it on July 15. They also estimated that the daily flow rate had diminished over time, starting at about 62,000 barrels a day and decreasing as the reservoir of hydrocarbons feeding the gusher was gradually depleted. Before Monday’s announcement, federal scientific teams had estimated the spill in a range from 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day.

The teams believe that the current estimates are accurate to within 10 percent. They also reported that of the roughly 4.9 million barrels that had been released from the well, about 800,000 had been captured by BP’s containment efforts. That leaves over four million barrels that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico from April 20 to July 15.

As the estimates of the number of barrels spilled increases, so, too, do the penalties under the Clean Water Act, which calls for fines of $1,100 per barrel, or $4,300 per barrel if the government finds that gross negligence led to the spill.

At 4.9 million barrels, that means that the total fine could be $5.4 billion — and, if gross negligence led to the spill, $21 billion. If BP successfully argues that the 800,000 barrels it has recovered should mitigate the penalty, then the figure drops to $4.5 billion and $17.6 billion, respectively.

The amount of oil estimated to be pouring from the well has been a matter of dispute from the earliest days of the spill. Federal and BP officials initially announced that no oil appeared to be leaking, then 1,000 barrels a day, then 5,000 a day, frequently repeating that spill estimates are rough at best and that the main goal was to stop the well. But criticism mounted that no effort was being made to measure the leak with more certainty. 

 

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7/31/10

The U.S. Coast Guard has routinely approved BP requests to use thousands of gallons of toxic chemical a day to break up oil slicks in the Gulf of Mexico despite a federal directive that the chemicals be used only rarely on surface waters, congressional investigators said Saturday after examining BP and government documents.

The documents show the Coast Guard approved 74 waivers over a 48-day period after the restrictions were imposed, resulting in hundreds of thousands of gallons of the chemicals to be spread on Gulf waters. Only in a small number of cases did the government scale back BP's request.

The extensive use of dispersants to break up oil gushing from BP's Deepwater Horizon raised concerns early on as to what long-term damage the toxic chemicals might be doing to the Gulf's aquatic life. That prompted the Environmental Protection Agency on May 26 to direct BP to stop using the chemicals on the water surface except in "rare cases."

But Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said Saturday that the chemicals continued to be used extensively with Coast Guard approval, often at a rate of 6,000 to 10,000 gallons a day. A request was made and approved on June 13 to spread as much as 36,000 gallons of dispersant, according to data obtained by Markey's Energy and Environment subcommittee.

The EPA directive "has become more of a meaningless paperwork exercise than an attempt ... to eliminate surface application of chemical dispersants," Markey wrote in a letter sent Friday to retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's point man on the spill.

Markey's office released the letter Saturday as well as the documents his panel had analyzed. Markey said that instead of complying with the EPA directive, "BP often carpet bombed the ocean with these chemicals and the Coast Guard allowed them to do it."

The House investigators found that the Coast Guard routinely approved the chemical use, in some cases a week in advance. On five occasions the Coast Guard approved a BP request to use 6,000 gallons a day over a weeklong period and "in many of these days BP still used more than double" the limit that was approved, Markey said in his letter.

 

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7/29/10

Scientists have found signs of an oil-and-dispersant mix under the shells of tiny blue crab larvae in the Gulf of Mexico, the first clear indication that the unprecedented use of dispersants in the BP oil spill has broken up the oil into toxic droplets so tiny that they can easily enter the foodchain.

Marine biologists started finding orange blobs under the translucent shells of crab larvae in May, and have continued to find them "in almost all" of the larvae they collect, all the way from Grand Isle, Louisiana, to Pensacola, Fla. -- more than 300 miles of coastline -- said Harriet Perry, a biologist with the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.

And now, a team of researchers from Tulane University using infrared spectrometry to determine the chemical makeup of the blobs has detected the signature for Corexit, the dispersant BP used so widely in the Deepwater Horizon

"It does appear that there is a Corexit sort of fingerprint in the blob samples that we ran," Erin Gray, a Tulane biologist, told the Huffington Post Thursday. Two independent tests are being run to confirm those findings, "so don't say that we're 100 percent sure yet," Gray said.

 

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7/27/10

Federal agencies must not assume a large oil spill is unlikely in weighing the effects of proposed drilling projects on endangered species, according to a lawsuit filed by environmentalists yesterday.

The Center for Biological Diversity's lawsuit targets allegedly lax analyses by the Interior Department's offshore regulator.

Filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the lawsuit accuses Interior Secretary Ken Salazar of falsely assuming spill risks in the Gulf of Mexico were too remote to jeopardize endangered whales and turtles. Such an assumption, the group says, led to the issuance of a drilling permit to BP PLC for the ill-fated well that has fouled the Gulf with crude after a April 20 rig explosion.

"While Salazar's conclusion that exploration drilling in the Gulf posed little risk of a large oil spill was dubious at the time it was made, in light of BP's calamity that position is completely untenable," said Miyoko Sakashita, the group's oceans director. "The public deserves disclosure and a full analysis of the true impacts of oil drilling off our coasts."

Interior did not immediately return requests for comment.

At issue is the former Minerals Management Service's work on exploratory drilling in the Gulf. The agency has since been carved up by the Obama administration and remained the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

Interior exempted BP's drilling operation from a detailed environmental impact analysis last year, after three reviews of the area concluded that a massive oil spill was unlikely.

 

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7/2/10 With controlled burns temporarily suspended on account of tempestuous weather, Gulf waters have had a reprieve lately from the roaring fires and billowing smoke plumes that, since late April, have come to overwhelm the oily seascape.

But as fire teams prepare to resume their work, the burning and flaring of oil is attracting growing criticism from environmentalists who worry about the hazards it poses to wildlife and Gulf Coast communities. Some say that BP isn't investing enough energy in other methods of cleaning up the roughly 2.2 million to 4.2 million barrels of oil that have spewed into the Gulf of Mexico as of June 29, according to the latest estimates...

Critics also note burning can imperil wildlife. Last week, the Center for Biological Diversity filed suit against BP under the Clean Water Act, charging the company with burning endangered sea turtles alive in the course of its cleanup efforts. In response, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service announced it would place a NOAA observer with each fire team to inspect oil corrals before they are ignited...

Some oil is being burned using another method: flaring.

Only one of the two rigs collecting oil from the leaking well has the capacity to process and store the crude oil it captures. That ship, the Discoverer Enterprise, is connected to a cap that contains some of the gushing crude and feeds it to the rig through a riser. The Enterprise is able to isolate and burn the gas, store the oil, and pump the leftover water back into the ocean.

Its cohort, the Q4000, can't process or store the crude oil it collects. So the vessel burns both oil and gas through an "EverGreen" burner, said to provide a relatively clean burn by eliminating visible smoke emissions. Since it went into operation on June 16, the Q4000 has burned an average of 8,556 barrels of oil per day, totaling 119,780 barrels as of June 29 -- about half the oil burned thus far.

Burning oil aboard the Q4000 isn't harmless, says Subra, but it's far preferable to burning it off the water's surface. Gas flaring, meanwhile, is a waste of potentially usable energy, and further burdens the atmosphere with unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions, according to NOAA.

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