Coinciding with the eruption of Mount St. Helens 30 years ago, I came to the Northwest to study our ever-less-resident and now endangered killer whales. Since completing my graduate research at the University of Washington, I have dedicated myself to preventing what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico from occurring here while improving our ability to respond if it does. It is from this perspective that I reflect on the slow-motion crisis that is playing out in the Gulf, looking at our strengths and weaknesses in the Northwest as well as BP's operations here.
I've been struggling to try to keep up with the voluminous accounts of British Petroleum's (BP) deadly oily eruption from its inception on Earth Day to the first sign of some control 50 days in time for World Oceans Day (June 8). But we're looking at long-term impacts that won'êt be known for years especially given that we still aren'êt even sure how much oil is entering the Gulf.
I have become all too familiar with BP over the years having commented on their waste water permits, successfully challenged the expansion of their Cherry Point refinery dock without adequate prior environmental review, and have worked to protect the state'ês once largest and genetically distinct herring run at Cherry Point by petitioning it for listing under the Endangered Species Act and by working with Washington state Department of Natural Resources to create the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve. While I'm not neutral, I am familiar with the subject.
What I have seen tells a great deal about the poor job that the nation has done in preparing for a massive oil spill of this sort, even with the improvements in law made after the Exxon Valdez disaster. It should spur us to much more significant reforms, regulatory changes, and attention to ongoing operations in all the nation's waters, including our own Salish Sea, Olympic Coast, and Columbia River.
BP has given new meaning to the Gulf's nickname of being this nation's "oil patch" as the rusty slime of emulsified crude extends throughout the water column, owing to the unprecedented use of dispersants whose chemical properties are trade secrets despite the inevitability of them ending up in our seafood. While dispersant use is intended to trade off surface and shoreline impacts (e.g., birds and bad press) with the less visible impacts on the marine food chain, protocols call for them to be applied on the surface of waters of at least 100 feet deep, not directly at the bottom as currently applied. As a result, NOAA has had challenges in evaluating the volume of the spill from surface trajectories; meanwhile the practice is undermining the ability to recover the oil at the surface, if there were equipment available to do so.
Despite adding over a million gallons of toxic dispersants to what must be over 20 million gallons of crude spewed so far (two Exxon Valdez-sized spills), various surface slicks have impacted four states' shorelines while the underwater plume is far more difficult to track. In addition, the National Center for Atmospheric Research has produced a model showing the oil following the Gulf Stream up the East Coast. Perhaps it will even reach BP's English shores — talk about trouble coming home to roost.
Like being in a car accident, this human and ecological nightmare is unfolding in apparent slow motion covered by 24/7 press. Despite all the attention and all the people trying to seize this teachable moment, it is difficult to get a clear message.
One thing is clear. A disaster of this size is perhaps the only way to overcome the stranglehold that the oil industry has on Congress, the administration, and the judiciary in the Gulf, where half the judges had to recuse themselves from cases stemming from the spill. Such indelible incidents in history afford an unprecedented opportunity to make progress on several fronts.
Some have rightly noted if the oil industry can't respond to a spill in a region littered with oil rigs, personnel, and infrastructure, they should not be allowed to drill in deep water, much less the remote waters of the Arctic. Others have taken the broader message that we need to wean ourselves off oil by instituting a carbon tax, as we should have learned after the Santa Barbara blowout 40 years ago. The inability of the government to independently evaluate the status of the situation a mile below the ocean's surface has renewed calls for greater investment in deep-sea research technology.
Closer to home, less direct connections have been made to this concentrated crude geyser with the impacts of storm water run off, which diffusely pollutes the Sound with gasoline and other toxic derivatives. While storm water needs to be adequately addressed here, BP helped to champion the defeat of the Washington legislature's proposed 2010 Clean Water Act, which would have raised $100 million for storm water infrastructure projects.
Still, we cannot lose sight of the fact that commercial vessels ply Washington waters carrying 15 billion gallons of oil and fuel yearly and that the state Department of Ecology's spills program is badly underfunded. The 5-cent per barrel tax that funds Ecology's program has not increased in 20 years, and the nickel is refunded if the oil is exported after it's refined.
The National Response Program (NRC), which provides oil spill response coverage for all the cargo and passenger ships as well as the spot-market oil tankers, has been badly out of compliance with state spill response requirements for years. Despite the fact that the Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRC) covers the refineries and has far more equipment than NRC, they do not cover all the tankers calling on the refinery docks. In addition, Canadian-bound vessels add risk and complexity to our oil spill exposure but bring very little more response capability to the table. Yet, as much traffic heads to Vancouver, B.C. as goes to Seattle and Tacoma combined. And this was the situation before Washington state sent what little offshore response equipment we have to the Gulf.
So what have we learned? To begin with nothing is too big to fail, not even "failsafe" machines like BP's modified blowout preventer, which has not stemmed over 20 million gallons of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico for the past month. Claims that this unprecedented spill was due to human factors and not a mechanical failure do little to explain why the response to this eventuality has been so ineffective.
The pervasive influence of the oil industry is well established and needs to be managed. Part of the problem with our nation's poor oil-spill preparedness, besides the well publicized corruption within the Minerals Management Service, has to do with what has become to be known as "low probability, high consequence events."
This jargon basically means that big spills happen infrequently, but when they do the impacts are immense. Therefore, the oil industry has been able to convince regulators that it is not cost-effective to have significant stockpiles of equipment and personnel available to respond quickly, because it would be needed so infrequently.
Once a spill occurs, oil majors are prepared to spend enormous amounts of money ($1 billion and counting when insurance is paying) on what appears to be a heroic response, but due to inevitable delays associated with not being prepared from the time of the spill, the effort, as in the Gulf, ends up being too little, too late. Now more is being spent on PR damage control than has been previously spent on spill prevention and preparedness, which would have rendered the full page ads and search term purchases on Google largely unnecessary.
As BP, Halliburton, and Transocean try to establish blame and liability limits for the ongoing spill, Congress and the Obama administration are grappling with the implications of the closeness of their relationships to the oil industry, especially BP, which provides the majority of fuel for the Department of Defense despite its abysmal safety record nationwide.
While much attention has been paid to the engineering nightmares associated with stopping the blowout and what the president did and when (as if he should be a petroleum engineer), far more attention needs to be paid to BP's initial responses. The White House blog on the issue in April showed a very slow progression over several days toward any kind of comprehension of the size of the problem. On April 20, for instance, the president was alerted, but even three days later, "no leak apparent" was recorded. On April 24, the first leaks were found, and suddenly the next day, there is this entry: "Overflights determine oil spill size approximately 48 miles wide by 39 miles long."
What the log shows is that the original spill volume estimates are always wrong and usually badly wrong. The reason for this is the initial estimates usually come from the responsible party, who is highly motivated to underplay the amount spilled for PR and financial reasons. While original reports suggested the volumes to be 75,000 gallons daily, recent estimates suggested the number was at least 750,000 gallons per day.
What is particularly odd about the Gulf scenario is that on the morning of April 20, when the rig was on fire with 700,000 gallons of diesel fuel on board, BP still did not find reason enough to initiate sending oil spill response vessels to the scene. It was not until April 23 that oil began to be recovered. Given that the deepwater rig was 50 miles offshore, it is hard to imagine why spill response actions did not begin sooner. It's particularly ironic that the oil industry would build those huge rig tender vessels with firefighting, but no spill response capabilities.Part of the reason for this feeble response is of BP's own making. A year after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, best known for finally requiring the oil industry to build double-hull tankers (by 2015, that is). In addition, the Coast Guard was required to establish oil-spill response requirements for commercial vessels and oil rigs in U.S. waters. Like the double-hull requirement, the spill response requirement was to be phased in over time.
In 2005, BP, among other oil majors, convinced the Coast Guard to favor new dispersant application capabilities, in exchange for not increasing mechanical recovery requirements endorsed by the Coast Guard in the Response Plan Equipment Caps Review (1999), despite opposition by the Western states. The 1999 report further stated that nearly two-thirds of spills in the U.S. are amenable to mechanical recovery, that mechanical equipment technology is steadily improving, and finally that an increase in current caps levels is both "warranted and practicable."
However, instead of raising the spill-response requirements every five years as originally envisioned, BP led efforts to convince the Coast Guard to liberalize the use of dispersants instead. In the current situation, dispersant use was the only option, because there was so little equipment immediately available to physically remove the oil from the water. It turns out BP did not even have enough dispersant on hand, so they removed stockpiles from other parts of the country and applied over 1 million gallons of the highly toxic chemicals at concentrations and in locations contrary to the use guidelines.
Another thing is clear: The public is uncomfortable with the basics of the Incident Command System (ICS) that provides for how this nation responds to emergencies. It puts the Responsible Party (RP) as the lead in a response with the federal and state On Scene Coordinators (FOSC, SOSC) in a support role as long as the RP is acting responsibly. A spill is only "federalized" if the RP does not have the resources sufficient to respond to the disaster or is not taking the precautions sought by the state and federal incident commanders. In Washington state, tribal and local governments are often included in the incident command as well.
However, the public incorrectly believes it the Coast Guard's job to clean up spills when in fact that is the industry's responsibility by law. The Navy and Coast Guard have some response equipment but that is primarily to address their own spill risk. The Navy does have an Office of the Supervisor of Salvage that has sent all its assets to the Gulf. They have some of the best spill response equipment in the country and have initiated a scoping process to build new salvage tugs based on the limited capability of the industry's rig tenders rather than mutli-mission capabilities of the tugs on station to protect European coastlines.
What I have found to be awkward, at best, is how the Joint Information Center (JIC) is established to have all press statements be made collaboratively with all members of the Unified Command, despite their differing motivations in how to communicate with the public. Given the mixed messages being presented to the media regarding the size of the spill and the progress with the response, it was good to see that Admiral Thad Allen has recently chosen to make independent statements to avoid such inherent conflicts.
While Republican critics of the Obama administration have been calling for his personal presence, trying their best to turn this episode into his Katrina, they fail to acknowledge that he has appointed the highest-ranking member of the Coast Guard, Commandant Allen, to be his representative on scene. The critical role the government should have played was prior to the spill to assure that BP's response plans were regularly drilled, so we would not have lost the first critical days to contain the spill, as happened in Valdez 20 years ago. While Exxon created that unmitigated disaster, BP, as the largest shareholder of the Aleyeska pipeline, was primarily responsible for that failed response as well.
One of the most cost-effective ways of assuring such response capacity is there when you need it is by training local fishermen in oil spill response. Waiting weeks for the slick to spread miles before hiring fishermen is nothing more than a feeble attempt to buy their silence and have something for TV cameras to point at, similar to bird washing.
This catastrophic spill was thought so unlikely to occur that MMS did not even require BP to fully evaluate it, much less have an adequate contingency plan in place to respond to such an eventuality. We have learned that, regardless of its cause, one of the world's self-professed kings of the oil companies is naked when it comes to its ability to respond.
It is hard to understand how government officials at the MMS seem to have been so trusting of Big Oil, including BP, when it is has been obvious how far removed their PR is from their track record. A cover story on USA Today revealed that oil spills from rigs and pipelines quadrupled this past decade, led by BP.
It was encouraging to see the Obama administration call for separating the MMS's royalty-collecting roles with those of its enforcement, for we have learned how in bed with the industry this agency has become over the years. Obama's appointment of its new director will be key to its success.
Therefore, instead of passing legislation that will simply fix the broken widget associated with this latest catastrophic release, we need to make a broader evaluation of the oil industry's ability to respond when things go wrong if we are to permit the development, transportation, and refining of oil along U.S. waters. While such additional safety measures may show up on pump prices, they are a fraction of the cost of making gasoline but are an essential part of our needed transition away from fossil fuels.
Very little coverage has been given recently to BP's operations of the state's largest refinery, which I have followed since they bought the Mobile refinery in Ferndale and subsequently the ARCO refinery at Cherry Point. Despite the fantastic national cover page coverage of the Gulf spill, a small AP story on B3 of the May 6 edition of the Seattle Times covered the 13 serious safety violations the Department of Labor and Industries found during an inspection of BP's only non-union refinery, able to produce 225,000 barrel per day, at Cherry Point this past November.
The catastrophe in the Gulf illustrates how easy it is to act as if everything will work out fine. The ongoing tragedy ought to spur us to act more seriously on the need for precautions and preparations in our state, where BP looms large.
Fortunately there are many important maritime safety measures to support included in the Coast Guard reauthorization bill (S. 1194) championed by Sen. Maria Cantwell. Ultimately, if we do not get serious about getting Beyond Petroleum, as BP obviously has not, we will be left with the near-term consequences of shortsighted financial decisions to forgo preventative maintenance and safety by such Buck Pinchers while suffering the even longer term consequences of climate change.