When BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico last month, phones started ringing at the desks of federal scientists 2,200 miles away on the shores of Seattle’s Lake Washington. Five weeks later, they’re still ringing.
The scientists at NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, or OR&R, are the nation’s experts on oil spills. They attempt to quickly analyze what is at risk, and then advise the Coast Guard and other agencies what to do about it.
In a typical year, they deal with up to 200 spills, large and small, ranging from a beached barge on the Florida coast to a leaky pipeline on Alaska’s North Slope. Some have been at this job for more than 20 years, dating back to before the infamous Exxon Valdez spill of 1989.
Like most scientists, they prefer to work quietly, leaving the press conferences and politics to state and local officials closer to the scene. Their job is to quickly apply science and experience to the immediate crisis, unfettered by oil politics or environmental passions.
But the BP crisis soon became an oil spill in a league of its own, creating ugly and enormous challenges that didn’t fit OR&R’s playbook. The initial explosion and fire killed people. It happened a mile underwater. It was big, getting bigger by the hour, and they had no way to measure how big.
And suddenly, those mild-mannered scientists found themselves in the middle not just of an oil spill, but of a national media storm that was morphing into a political war zone. In particular, they’ve been accused, by no less than The New York Times, of systematically understating the amount of oil that is gushing into the Gulf.
“It’s the numbers game,” says Doug Helton, who has had to deal with the press and politics while his colleagues deal with the oil. “I’ve learned a lot about the media age we’re in.”
It began April 20 as a “search and rescue” problem, Helton says. The rig was on fire, 11 oil workers were missing, and the platform included a storage tank filled with diesel fuel. The next day, the rig sank in 5,000 feet of water, and oil started gushing from broken pipes at the bottom.
Since then, the OR&R staff has worked virtually round-the-clock. They have command posts in Louisiana and Alabama, all linked into the windowless “War Room” in Seattle. Retired scientists have come back to help out.
But they’ve been stymied by the sheer scale, depth and vast uncertainties swirling with that oily plume. Here’s a glimpse at some of the challenges:
Numbers: While the initial estimate was 5,000 barrels per day, the NOAA experts knew it could be much larger. Early on, somebody scribbled the figure “64k-110k bbls/day” on a whiteboard, which was caught on a visitor’s video. Critics took this as evidence that NOAA knew the leak was much worse than the official estimate, but was concealing the bad news.
That notation was a “worst case scenario,” Helton says, scribbled during an early-morning briefing. BP’s estimate was 5,000 barrels, and the NOAA experts had no definitive evidence to the contrary. “At some point, the actual volume doesn’t matter,” he says. “We don’t know the number, and if we did there is nothing we would do any differently.”
More important, he says, is the difference between a leaking tanker and a blown oil rig. “A tanker has a finite volume. You can reach out and touch it.” But the leaking pipe just keeps gushing oil, under pressure, day by day until somebody figures out how to plug it.
History: OR&R’s expertise stems strictly from experience. They analyze and recommend responses based on what they’ve seen with hundreds of previous spills. Much of that experience has been in the Gulf of Mexico, which sits atop massive oil deposits. Millions of gallons per year seep naturally into the gulf, and hardly a week passes without something spilling there. Tankers collide or run aground. Aging pipelines fail. Oil platforms spring leaks.
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