Oil spill's challenges engulf NOAA Seattle team

A Seattle-based NOAA team is in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico oil-spill crisis, and the scientists are hunkered down for the long haul.
Drill ships and support vessels at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, May 26.

Drill ships and support vessels at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, May 26. BP p.l.c.

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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Comments:

Posted Fri, May 28, 10:39 a.m. Inappropriate

Thank you, Ross Anderson, for providing some intelligent, well-informed context for scientific and governmental responses to this terrible accident, and in such a concise, focused way. It's a more useful article than many I've read about the event in national media.

Posted Fri, May 28, 10:58 a.m. Inappropriate

Excellent piece. First mention of the 79 blowout I've seen in the MSM.

Posted Fri, May 28, 11:01 a.m. Inappropriate

My heart goes out to Helton and the others trying to create a new body of knowledge overnight. Still, like others, I am deeply frustrated that other branches of the government have been so negligent in allowing the accident to occur - and, worse, knowing that someday such a thing would occur, having no contingency plans in place. We send people to jail for shoplifting; we should certainly be sending boatloads of BP/Halliburton/MMS decision makers to jail for their lethal recklessness here.

nonydog

Posted Fri, May 28, 11:06 a.m. Inappropriate

Senator Cantwell was asleep at the switch. She is the Chair of the Senate Energy Subcommittee responsible for overseeing off shore drilling. Why isn't the press talking about this??? How does she explain the MMS being so dysfunctional, and corrupted?

As for the leak, the articles only talk about barrels or gallons of oil, but output often is expressed as 'oil and equivalents'. That means natural gas may be included in the press reports in barrels, but will evaporate at the surface and not result in shoreline contamination. That should be extracted out of the problem. Secondly, the type of oil matters. This is a light sweet crude that have more volatiles that will evaporate relatively quickly. Unlike the heavy Alaskan crude, less oil will ultimately reach the shoreline as a percentage of what was released.

I'd like to see a little more accurate science in the news reports.

Posted Fri, May 28, 5:56 p.m. Inappropriate

This didn't fit in anybody's playbook because it was not a spill (or a leak). But even though this article differentiates between a spill and a gushing of oil, it continues the convention of calling this a spill. That deceives people into being shocked that the volume is greater than first estimated. Of course it's greater; the gushing has continued for a month now.

sarah

Posted Fri, May 28, 7:22 p.m. Inappropriate

Here's some science: the Gulf was an ecological disaster prior to the blowout.

Posted Fri, May 28, 9:43 p.m. Inappropriate

By August the public outrage will have moved on, and the entire episode will only live on in the collective conscious as a bumper sticker. The 79 Gulf blowout spewed upwards of 30k b/d for 10 months under more favorable conditons. Get back to me when the oil slick has migrated up the Potomic and the political elite have actually noticed.

Posted Sat, May 29, 4:46 a.m. Inappropriate

I am deeply frustrated that other branches of the government have been so negligent in allowing the accident to occur - and, worse, knowing that someday such a thing would occur, having no contingency plans in place. We send people to jail for shoplifting;

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dion

Posted Sat, May 29, 9:31 a.m. Inappropriate

As Anderson writes above, the Deepwater Horizon gush of pollution was certainly not "unprecedented," not even in the Gulf. But it's certainly remarkable that in the 30 years since the Ixtoc blowout the wealthiest industry in the world has developed no visible new technologies for responding to disasters of their own creation. Industry progress seems to consist only of their ability to drill at deeper levels. More at http://wonkroom.thinkprogress.org/2010/05/28/oilpocalypse-not-unprecedented/ .

Posted Mon, May 31, 8:58 p.m. Inappropriate

It's entirely possible there is no technology that can respond to something like this. Although it's not a popular concept in America, not everything can be fixed. BP and Halliburton and others did not prepare for this disaster not because they didn't think it was possible but because they didn't care. They are concerned with profits, and profits mean doing things cheaply. That's true in coal mines and in offshore drilling and production of pharmaceuticals; the list could go on.

Until we recognize that our elected representatives are complicit with corporations in emphasizing profit rather than safety, complaining about government not doing enough to either prevent or "fix" things like this is useless. Those elected representatives are supposed to be watchdogs on our behalf.

sarah

Posted Tue, Jun 1, 8:56 p.m. Inappropriate

Time to get serious instead of endlessly arguing over whether proposers needs to prove proposals safe or whether the public must wait for indisputable evidence of the potential harm and it's magnitude.

Washington's State Environmental Protection Act describes the situation at hand: the likelihood is not high, but the consequences would be great. SEPA & NEPA, thanks to Climate Change, Smart Growth, Washington's Growth Management Act, etc., have been pushed farther and farther back on the dusty shelf— until this.

afreeman

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