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USA > History > 2010 > Environment (III)

 


 

 

A Brown Pelican

is seen on the beach at East Grand Terre Island

along the Louisiana coast on Thursday, June 3, 2010.

 

Photograph: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

 

Boston Globe > Big Picture

Caught in the oil        June 3, 2010

http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2010/06/caught_in_the_oil.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

A bird is mired in oil on the beach at East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast

on Thursday, June 3, 2010.

 

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

 

Boston Globe > Big Picture > Caught in the oil        June 3, 2010

http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2010/06/caught_in_the_oil.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Banned Trailers

Return for Latest Gulf Disaster

 

June 30, 2010
The New York Times
By IAN URBINA

 

VENICE, La. — In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, they became a symbol of the government’s inept response to that disaster: the 120,000 or so trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to people who had lost their homes.

The trailers were discovered to have such high levels of formaldehyde that the government banned them from ever being used for long-term housing again.

Some of the trailers, though, are getting a second life amid the latest disaster here — as living quarters for workers involved with the cleanup of the oil spill.

They have been showing up in mobile-home parks, open fields and local boatyards as thousands of cleanup workers have scrambled to find housing.

Ron Mason, owner of a disaster contracting firm, Alpha 1, said that in the past two weeks he had sold more than 20 of the trailers to cleanup workers and the companies that employ them in Venice and Grand Isle, La.

Even though federal regulators have said the trailers are not to be used for housing because of formaldehyde’s health risks, Mr. Mason said some of these workers had bought them so they could be together with their wives and children after work.

“These are perfectly good trailers,” Mr. Mason said, adding that he has leased land in and around Venice for 40 more trailers that are being delivered from Texas in the coming weeks. “Look, you know that new car smell? Well, that’s formaldehyde, too. The stuff is in everything. It’s not a big deal.”

Not everyone agreed. “It stunk to high heaven,” said Thomas J. Sparks, a logistics coordinator for the Marine Spill Response Corporation, as he stood in front of the FEMA trailer that was provided to him by a company working with his firm. Mr. Sparks said the fumes in the trailer from formaldehyde, a widely used chemical in building materials like particle board, were so strong that he had asked his employer to provide him with a non-FEMA trailer.

The trailers — which are being resold for $2,500 and up — started down their road to infamy after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, when FEMA officials ordered nearly $2.7 billion worth of trailers and mobile homes to house victims of the storm.

Within months, some of these residents began complaining about breathing problems and burning eyes, noses and throats. One man who had complained about fumes was found dead in his trailer in June 2006.

Federal officials later discovered that formaldehyde — an industrial chemical that can cause nasal cancer, aggravates respiratory problems and may be linked to leukemia — was present in many of these housing units in amounts that exceeded federal limits. Scientists have since concluded that the high levels of formaldehyde found in the trailers probably resulted from cheap wood and poor ventilation. FEMA has produced other models and later batches of the trailers that do not have the health risks that the trailers built for Hurricane Katrina victims did.

But federal officials have struggled to figure out what to do with the contaminated trailers, which have cost nearly $130 million a year to store and maintain, according to federal records. As a result, the government decided to sell the trailers in 2006.

The trailers have found a ready market in the gulf.

“The price was right,” said Buddy Fuzzell, an executive with Cahaba Disaster Recovery, a contracting firm that bought 15 trailers for about 45 cleanup workers.

Several buyers said in interviews that they were unaware of any prohibition on using the trailers for housing.

In an April hearing, members of the House Energy Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection raised concerns that the trailers would end up being used for housing. More than 100,000 trailers have been sold so far in public auctions.

The trailers are “not intended to be used as housing,” said David Garratt, FEMA’s associate administrator for mission support. “Subsequent owners must continue to similarly inform subsequent buyers for the life of the unit.”

These rules are not being followed in many cases, however. Officials with the inspector general’s office of the General Services Administration said Wednesday that they had opened at least seven cases concerning buyers who might not have posted the certification and formaldehyde warnings on trailers they sold.

Federal records indicate that of the hundreds of companies and individuals who have bought the trailers, dozens are in Louisiana. They include Henderson Auctions, which bought 23,636 units for $18 million, and Kite Brothers RV, which bought 6,511 mobile homes and travel trailers for $16 million.

On Henderson Auctions’ Web site, a spokeswoman is quoted in a news video saying that people who live on the street or in their cars would much rather live in the trailers and that the formaldehyde has dissipated after four or five years.

Caren Auchman, a spokeswoman for the General Services Administration, said in an e-mail message that her agency was taking steps to ensure that the units were not used for housing.

Most of the workers in the gulf are not living in the trailers but in newer quarters provided by BP, its subcontractors or by state or federal agencies.

Still, housing remains tight. In June, Mr. Mason’s firm and another consulting firm began proposing a plan to large contractors in the region to put about 300 of the trailers on barges for offshore worker housing.

Officials from BP and the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health, which is BP’s subcontractor that is handling most of the air sampling in the region, said they had no plans to move forward with the proposal.

But others are not hesitating.

John Sercovich, the owner of Bud’s Boat Rentals in Belle Chasse, La., said that he thought the trailer he bought for some of his workers to stay in was more than adequate.

“We couldn’t have afforded it any other way,” he said.

Standing in a small field surrounded by a new shipment of the trailers, Mr. Mason declined to say whether he informed buyers of the formaldehyde risks or kept warning labels on the trailers.

One of Mr. Mason’s trailers, shown to a reporter, had an overpowering smell of formaldehyde inside and none of the required placards on the outside or inside indicating the formaldehyde risk or that it was not supposed to be used for housing. The trailer did, however, have a note taped inside to call FEMA.

Mr. Mason, who is based in Texarkana, Tex., added that all of his customers have been happy and that he planned to lease land for 50 more trailers that he would rent out to workers.

“Bottom line,” he said, “I’m providing a service.”


Bob Driehaus contributed reporting from Cincinnati,

and Kitty Bennett from St. Petersburg, Fla.

    Banned Trailers Return for Latest Gulf Disaster, NYT, 30.6.2010,
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/01/us/01trailers.html

 

 

 

 

 

Overture to Taliban Jolts Afghan Minorities

 

June 26, 2010
The New York Times
By DEXTER FILKINS

 

KABUL, Afghanistan — The drive by President Hamid Karzai to strike a deal with Taliban leaders and their Pakistani backers is causing deep unease in Afghanistan’s minority communities, who fought the Taliban the longest and suffered the most during their rule.

The leaders of the country’s Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara communities, which make up close to half of Afghanistan’s population, are vowing to resist — and if necessary, fight — any deal that involves bringing members of the Taliban insurgency into a power-sharing arrangement with the government.

Alienated by discussions between President Karzai and the Pakistani military and intelligence officials, minority leaders are taking their first steps toward organizing against what they fear is Mr. Karzai’s long-held desire to restore the dominance of ethnic Pashtuns, who ruled the country for generations.

The dispute is breaking along lines nearly identical to those that formed during the final years of the Afghan civil war, which began after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in 1989 and ended only with the American invasion following the Sept. 11 attacks. More than 100,000 Afghans died, mostly civilians; the Taliban, during their five-year reign in the capital, Kabul, carried out several large-scale massacres of Hazara civilians.

“Karzai is giving Afghanistan back to the Taliban, and he is opening up the old schisms,” said Rehman Oghly, an Uzbek member of Parliament and once a member of an anti-Taliban militia. “If he wants to bring in the Taliban, and they begin to use force, then we will go back to civil war and Afghanistan will be split.”

The deepening estrangement of Afghanistan’s non-Pashtun communities presents a paradox for the Americans and their NATO partners. American commanders have concluded that only a political settlement can end the war. But in helping Mr. Karzai to make a deal, they risk reigniting Afghanistan’s ethnic strife.

Talks between Mr. Karzai and the Pakistani leaders have been unfolding here and in Islamabad for several weeks, with some discussions involving bestowing legitimacy on Taliban insurgents.

The leaders of these minority communities say that President Karzai appears determined to hand Taliban leaders a share of power — and Pakistan a large degree of influence inside the country. The Americans, desperate to end their involvement here, are helping Mr. Karzai along and shunning the Afghan opposition, they say.

Mr. Oghly said he was disillusioned with the Americans and their NATO allies, who he says appear to be urging Mr. Karzai along. “We are losing faith in our foreign friends,” he said.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was worried about “the Tajik-Pashtun divide that has been so strong.” American and NATO leaders, he said, are trying to stifle any return to ethnic violence.

“It has the potential to really tear this country apart,” Admiral Mullen said in an interview. “That’s not what we are going to permit.”

Afghanistan’s minorities — especially the ethnic Tajiks — have always been the most reliable American allies, and made up the bulk of the anti-Taliban army that the Americans aided following the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

The situation is complicated by the politics of the Afghan Army, the centerpiece of American-led efforts to enable the Afghan military to one day take over. The ethnic mix of the Afghan Army is roughly proportional to the population, and the units in the field are mixed themselves. But non-Pashtuns are widely believed to do the bulk of the fighting.

There are growing indications of ethnic fissures inside the army. President Karzai recently decided to remove Bismullah Khan, the chief of staff of the Afghan Army, and make him the interior minister instead. Mr. Khan is an ethnic Tajik, and a former senior leader of the Northern Alliance, the force that fought the Taliban in the years before Sept. 11. Whom Mr. Karzai decides to put in Mr. Khan’s place will be closely watched.

One recent source of tension was the resignation of Armullah Saleh, the head of Afghan intelligence service and an ethnic Tajik. Mr. Saleh, widely regarded as one of the most competent aides, resigned after Mr. Karzai said he no longer had faith that he could do the job.

Along with Mr. Khan, the army chief of staff, Mr. Saleh was a former aide to Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary commander who fought both the Soviet Union and the Taliban. Since leaving the government, Mr. Saleh has started what appears to be the beginning of a political campaign.

Other prominent Afghans have begun to organize along mostly ethnic lines. Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister and presidential candidate, has been hosting gatherings at his farm outside Kabul. In an interview, he said he was preparing to announce the formation of what would amount to an opposition party. Mr. Abdullah, who is of Pashtun and Tajik heritage, said his movement would include Afghans from all the major communities. But his source of power has historically been Afghanistan’s Tajik community.

Mr. Abdullah said he disagreed with the thrust of Mr. Karzai’s policy of engagement with the Taliban and Pakistan. It would be impossible to share power with Taliban leaders, Mr. Abdullah said, because of their support for terrorism and the draconian brand of Islam they would try to impose on everyone else.

“We bring the Taliban into the government — we give them one or two provinces,” Mr. Abdullah said. “If that is what they think, it is not going to happen that way. Anybody thinking in that direction, they are lost. Absolutely lost.”

The trouble, Mr. Abdullah said, is that the Taliban, once given a slice of power, would not be satisfied. “They will take advantage of this,” he said of a political settlement, “and then they will continue.”

The prerequisite for any deal with the Taliban, Afghan and American officials have said repeatedly, is that insurgents renounce their support of terrorists (including Al Qaeda), and that they promise to support the Afghan Constitution.

Beyond that, though, Mr. Karzai’s goals vis-à-vis the Taliban are difficult to discern. Recently he has told senior Afghan officials that he no longer believes that the Americans and NATO can prevail in Afghanistan and that they will probably leave soon. That fact may make Mr. Karzai more inclined to make a deal with both Pakistan and the Taliban.

As for the Pakistanis, their motives are even more opaque. For years, Pakistani leaders have denied supporting the Taliban, but evidence suggests that they continue to do so. In recent talks, the Pakistanis have offered Mr. Karzai a sort of strategic partnership — and one that involves giving at least one the most brutal Taliban groups, the Haqqani network, a measure of legitimacy in Afghanistan.

Two powerful Pakistani officials — Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the army chief of staff; and Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha, the chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, — are set to arrive Monday for talks with Mr. Karzai.

Afghanistan’s non-Pashtun leaders are watching these discussions unfold with growing alarm so far they have taken few concrete steps to resist them.

But no one here doubts that any of these groups, with their bloody histories of fighting the Taliban, could arm themselves quickly if they wished.

“Karzai has begun the ethnic war,” said Mohammed Mohaqeq, a Hazara leader and a former ally of the president. “The future is very dark.”

 

Thom Shanker contributed reporting.

    Overture to Taliban Jolts Afghan Minorities, NYT, 26.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/27/world/asia/27afghan.html

 

 

 

 

 

Cleanup Hiring Feeds Frustration in Fishing Town

 

June 26, 2010
The New York Times
By JOHN LELAND

 

BAYOU LA BATRE, Ala. — Nine weeks into the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, there is more money in this small, hardscrabble fishing town than there has been in decades, residents say. There are more high-paying workdays, more traffic accidents, more reports of domestic violence, more drug and alcohol use, more resentment, more rumors, more hunger, more worry.

On a recent afternoon, Delane Seaman scowled at a procession of boats starting to come in to the town dock, each owner or captain with a promise of a day’s pay of more than $1,400, each mate with around $200, all courtesy of a BP program created to employ boats to help with the oil spill cleanup. The program, called Vessels of Opportunity, has been a lifeline for hundreds in this town of 2,300 at the mouth of Mobile Bay, paying several times more than they could make fishing. But for others, like Mr. Seaman and his brother, Bruce, whose oyster-processing business has been closed since May, it has been a target for frustration.

“These folks you see right here, they shouldn’t be hired on,” Mr. Seaman said, pointing to a group of sport-fishing boats from Florida. “We heard BP was going to be hiring the people directly affected by the oil spill. But we can’t get hired, and they’re hiring all these people who quit their jobs to come here. We’ve had our application in for two months.”

From a hamlet of independent fishermen and seafood handlers, many second or third generation, Bayou La Batre has become something close to a one-employer town, with BP acting as both the destroyer of livelihoods and the main source of income, through cleanup programs and compensation for lost business.

As the money flows in, many residents say it is not reaching them. In early June, commercial fishermen blockaded Mississippi Sound to protest BP’s hiring of recreational boats for the cleanup. A fisherman was led away in handcuffs.

The company is trying to hire more commercial fishermen and has cut the share of recreational boats working in Alabama to 13 percent, from 23 percent a week ago, said Andrew Cassels, director of the Vessels of Opportunity program at the Mobile Incident Command Post.

A week ago, the company began consulting local officials on all hires, Mr. Cassels said.

“We’re restructuring our fleet to take the commercial fishermen,” Mr. Cassels said.

But those who are not working say this still has not happened. And for everybody, there is fear that the money will run out, BP will declare bankruptcy or end Vessels of Opportunity. There are 915 vessels in the Alabama program, 262 of them working from Bayou La Batre.

“Everyone’s worried to death,” said Kendall Stork, owner of the Lighthouse restaurant, where business is still good. “Unless they got a building as big as the Empire State Building filled with $100 bills, it’s going to run out. There’ll be some killing around here.”

Signs outside Bayou La Batre declare it the seafood capital of Alabama, and for the people here — whose median household income is $24,539, 28 percent below the state median, according to the 2000 census — fishing is a passion and a cross to bear. Business owners were just starting to recover from Hurricane Katrina, which flattened many shops, including the Seamans’.

Residents here said that in the past they always knew they would not starve because they could get their food from the gulf; now that security is gone.

At Dominick’s Seafood, a shrimp processor operating at 60 percent below its normal volume — boats can shrimp only off parts of Florida and western Louisiana — Dominick Ficarino spoke lovingly about every aspect of the business. Then he said he did not want his daughters or their boyfriends to come near the plant. “I don’t want nobody to have this miserable life,” he said.

Now, many here say, even this misery will be taken from them.

Het Le, 30, who came from Vietnam when he was 11, has been shucking oysters since he was 16. Since the government closed the oyster beds in May, Mr. Le has been out of work, as have his eight siblings. Though he got a check from BP for $1,000 for lost income, he has had to rely on a food bank to feed his family.

“Lots of families are having arguments because of money,” he said. “My wife, she’s good. But with money, she blames on me, I blame on her. It makes your life more of a struggle.”

Bayou La Batre’s population is one-third Asian, mostly Vietnamese, and many have a hard time getting social services or training to work for BP because of the language barrier, said David Pham, a counselor at Boat People SOS, a nonprofit group. Many older residents are neither fit enough for beach cleanup jobs nor eligible for Social Security because they are not citizens, he said.

“In most families the mother, father, children and grandparents are all out of work,” he said. “People come in here edgy, angry and scared. They’ll come to the office and argue in front of me, or say, ‘My husband is acting more angry now.’ Usually Asians try to keep private problems at home.” He added that many hesitate to use the food bank, even though they need the support.

“They say, ‘I don’t want to beg for food,’ ” Mr. Pham said. “One woman told me, ‘I haven’t seen powdered milk since the refugee camps.’ ”

Mayor Stanley Wright said he had repeatedly fought with BP to hire more local fishermen, and got grants of $7.5 million and $1 million from the state’s BP grant to put residents to work, at about half the rate BP pays. This money, however, has run out. “How we got out of this without a murder, it’s a miracle,” he said.

Calls to the police and accidents were up 50 percent since late April, said the police chief, John Joyner. Even his officers were working off-duty for BP, Chief Joyner said.

At the Bayou Clinic, started by Regina M. Benjamin, now the United States surgeon general, 20 percent more patients are asking for free health care.

Most people here say they have received some compensation from BP, but not enough to cover their losses. And many who have put in claims will never be repaid because much of their business was cash and they do not have proof of income, said Linda Fisher, an accountant who worked for 12 shops but is now mostly out of work herself.

“I’ve had guys call me and want 1099s for previous years,” Ms. Fisher said. “I can’t do that.”

Ms. Fisher said that after four trips to the BP claim center, the company has compensated her $2,000 for lost income, less than half of her monthly earnings.

For Delane Seaman, there is the feeling that “BP took our life away,” only to replace it with a form of dependency that he and his brother went into business to avoid. “All our lives we’ve made decisions for ourselves,” he said. “Now BP is telling us what we can and can’t do. You have no mediator. BP has the final yes or no because they’re holding the purse strings.”

He looked across his empty workplace, where 40 stainless steel shucking stations sat empty. After Hurricane Katrina, he said, people in town learned not to expect anything from government programs. “We pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps,” he said. “Now BP took away our boots.”

    Cleanup Hiring Feeds Frustration in Fishing Town, NYT, 26.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/27/us/27bayou.html

 

 

 

 

 

Louisiana Wants U.S. Help, and Its Own Way

 

June 25, 2010
The New York Times
By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON and JOHN COLLINS RUDOLF

 

NEW ORLEANS — For weeks, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana has attacked BP and the Coast Guard for not having adequate plans and resources to battle the oil spill.

But interviews with more than two dozen state and federal officials and experts suggest that Louisiana, from the earliest days of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, has often disregarded its own plans and experts in favor of large-scale proposals that many say would probably have had limited effectiveness and could have even hampered the response.

The state’s approach has also at times appeared divided: while some state officials work alongside the Coast Guard and BP every day, others, including the governor, have championed a go-it-alone approach.

Such a stance is popular in a place justifiably skeptical of federal disaster response after Hurricane Katrina. The federal response, at times slow and disorganized, has been a matter of grave concern to this state, with its fragile and complicated coastline.

Mr. Jindal, a Republican like all but one of the other gulf state governors, has been alone among them for his publicly critical stance toward the federal agencies in the response.

But experts said such antagonism could actually slow down that response.

“You can ask for the moon and say you didn’t get it, but I don’t think that’s going to add anything to the response capabilities,” said Doug Lentsch, who was chief of the Coast Guard’s Pollution Response Branch in Washington, D. C., during the Exxon Valdez disaster and helped develop the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. “When that stuff happens, you actually take away the ability of the unified command to get their job done.”

Melissa Sellers, the governor’s communications director, said in a statement that the state was forced to be proactive and act on its own because of the slow response and a lack of information from BP and the federal authorities.

“The bottom line is that this is an emergency situation,” Ms. Sellers said. “It demands quick action and quick thinking, and especially common sense. We continue to ask the federal government and BP to join us in this fight and battle this oil spill with the sense of urgency that the protection of our state demands.”

But a review of Louisiana’s prespill preparation suggests that the state may be open to the same criticisms that Mr. Jindal has leveled at BP and federal authorities.

The state has an oil spill coordinator’s office. Its staff shrank by half over the last decade, and the 17-year-old oil spill research and development program that is associated with the office had its annual $750,000 in financing cut last year. The coordinator is responsible for drawing up and signing off on spill contingency plans with the Coast Guard and a committee of federal, state and local officials.

Some of these plans are rife with omissions, including pages of blank charts that are supposed to detail available supplies of equipment like oil-skimming vessels. A draft action plan for a worst case is among many requirements in the southeast Louisiana proposal listed as “to be developed.”

State officials said that many of those gaps had been addressed but that the information had not yet been formally incorporated into the plan by the Coast Guard.

The plans, in conjunction with state and federal laws, do outline a response structure, called a unified command. In the event of a spill, state officials, the responsible party and the federal authorities, usually the Coast Guard, are supposed to work together to marshal resources and create day-to-day action plans.

From the first days of the spill, state representatives at a command center in Houma, La., have been following that script, signing off on the action plans with the Coast Guard and BP.

But on the first weekend in May, after the governor declared a state of emergency and weeks before heavy oil began to hit the coast, senior members of the Jindal administration decided the unified command was not working.

“We very quickly ran into challenges with the different entities carrying out their responsibilities under that framework,” said Garret Graves, the director of the governor’s office of coastal activities, citing a lack of urgency and decisiveness by the Coast Guard. “That’s where I think the inefficiencies were realized, and that’s why the state began taking an alternative path.”

“I don’t think the Coast Guard or BP had a familiarity with disaster posture,” Mr. Graves added.

On May 3, Mr. Jindal went public with his dissatisfaction.

“We kept being assured over and over that they had a plan, that there was a detailed plan, that it was coming; we never got that plan,” he said.

But under the law, oil spill experts said, there are only two kinds of government plans pertaining to spills, and the state is partly responsible for both.

There are area contingency plans, which the state helps draw up and are meant to be in place when a spill occurs; and there are action plans, which the state helps put together on a day-to-day basis after a spill.

It is just as much the state’s responsibility as anyone’s if a spill occurs and there is no up-to-date contingency plan, said Donald S. Jensen, a retired Coast Guard captain who coordinated the response to several major oil spills.

"After a spill happens is not the time to make a plan," he added.

Nevertheless, state and parish officials drew up their own response plan, a process that usually takes months, over that weekend.

The amount of hard boom the state requested, roughly 950 miles or about one and a half times the national stockpile, was more than three times what the southeast Louisiana area contingency plan said would be required to boom the state’s entire coastline.

“I think it’s proven to be not real reasonable,” said Todd Paxton, general manager of Cook Inlet Spill Prevention and Response Inc., an Alaska company. “For one, it’s just a huge amount of boom.”

A call to put out large amounts of that boom immediately, experts said, was also problematic, as boom can quickly be rendered useless by waves and tides if deployed too early.

Still, the unified command put much of the state and parish plan into effect over the next few weeks, while also continuing to draw up its day-to-day action plans.

A little over a week later, Mr. Jindal began to push a sand berm strategy.

Working off an idea put forward by a pair of Dutch marine research and engineering firms, the plan called for the construction of 140 miles of sand barriers, in 24 segments, to protect the inner coastline from oil. Such an idea is also discussed, though not in great detail, in one of the state’s area contingency plans.

Just before midnight on May 11, the state requested an emergency permit for the project from the Army Corps of Engineers. At just three pages, it was intentionally vague, Mr. Graves said, on the understanding that it was likely to need modifications.

Within days the governor began to decry the slow wheels of government.

“While we’re continuing to push the Corps to give us this permit and the Coast Guard and BP to approve this, we’re not letting the bureaucracy stop us,” Mr. Jindal said on May 14.

By that time, federal agencies had already raised serious concerns about the sand berm project, which, by one estimate, could cost nearly $1 billion.

The project would take months — at least three for the first berm to be built and six or more for the whole project to be finished — causing some experts and federal officials to wonder whether it would do any good. Others questioned whether it could make the problem worse: as the berms were being constructed, an analysis from the Environmental Protection Agency read, “the flow of water through unbermed portions could accelerate, potentially creating a funneling effect for the oil.”

A panel of local coastal scientists was put together by the state to direct the handling of the project. But even some members of that panel have expressed deep skepticism about the plan, though none wanted to be quoted on the matter.

While a series of revisions was being made by state and federal agencies, Mr. Jindal kept up the political pressure, saying on June 2 that 10 miles of berms could have already been constructed if the federal government had immediately granted the permit.

The next day, Adm. Thad W. Allen of the Coast Guard, the national incident commander for the spill, approved the building and financing, at BP’s expense, of six of the berms at a cost of $360 million, saying he was satisfied that they “will effectively stem potential damage” to the shoreline.

But the public disagreements have not stopped. This week federal authorities halted the dredging of sand for the berms in a certain part of the Chandeleur Islands, saying it violated the state’s permit and could jeopardize the islands themselves.

Mr. Jindal replied by urging the federal government to “get out of the way” of a necessary defense strategy.

The state engineering firm has nevertheless suspended dredging for several days while it moves the equipment to comply with the permit.

The first barrier will be completed “no sooner than August,” said Gentry Brann, a spokeswoman for the Shaw Group, the engineering firm.

“It is a large construction process,” she said. “And it doesn’t happen overnight.”

    Louisiana Wants U.S. Help, and Its Own Way, NYT, 25.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/26/us/politics/26jindal.html

 

 

 

 

 

Advances in Oil Spill Cleanup Lag Since Valdez

 

June 24, 2010
The New York Times
By HENRY FOUNTAIN

 

Two decades after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, cleanup technology has progressed so little that the biggest advancement in the Gulf of Mexico disaster — at least in the public’s mind — is an oil-water separator based on a 17-year-old patent and promoted by the movie star Kevin Costner.

Experts say there have been some improvements in skimmers and other existing technologies since the 1989 Exxon accident in Alaska. Dispersants to break up oil have been far more widely used in the Deepwater Horizon leak in the gulf than in any previous spill, and they have been used for the first time underwater. Controlled burns of oil — only tested in 1989 — have been conducted regularly in the gulf.

But more significant advances have been hampered by a lack of money for research and laws and regulations that make it difficult to test new ideas and introduce improved equipment. In the gulf spill, the laying of boom and the skimming of oil remain a last, and not completely effective, line of defense for coastal areas. Skimming, for instance, cannot be done in rough seas and is often limited to daylight hours because of the difficulties in detecting oil at night.

Even officials with BP, the company responsible for the gulf spill and cleanup, acknowledge that most of the equipment in use represents improvements in old technology, and cite the lack of major spills in the past two decades as one reason.

“The events haven’t driven the technology change that’s out there,” Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer, told a TV interviewer recently. “I think this event probably will.”

BP said last week that it would buy 32 of Mr. Costner’s machines to help clean the oil spill. But the machines work much better on fresh oil than weathered oil, so it is unclear how much of a contribution they will make.

Experts in cleanup technologies say that there are no magic-bullet approaches on the horizon and that in some ways, cleanup is limited by a basic fact of nature: oil and water do not mix.

“I’m not saying there aren’t ways to improve or tweak the system,” said Nancy E. Kinner, co-director of the Coastal Response Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, which seeks to develop new approaches to spill response. “But you’re not going to change the laws of physics.”

Ms. Kinner and others cite many other reasons why cleanup technologies lag.

In testimony this month before Congress, Mr. Costner told of years of woe trying to market his separator, a centrifuge originally developed and patented in 1993 by the Idaho National Laboratory, for use in oil spills. One obstacle, he said, was that although his machines are effective, the water they discharge is still more contaminated than environmental regulations allow. He could not get spill-response companies interested in his machines, he said, without a federal stamp of approval.

Beyond regulatory obstacles, a major reason for the dearth of new technologies has been a lack of money for research. Programs that were flush with cash in the 1990s after the Exxon Valdez spill and the subsequent creation of the Oil Pollution Act have had their appropriations dry up over the past decade. And research money from oil companies has declined in the same period.

“Funding goes up and down like a roller coaster” as public and political interest builds after a spill and then wanes, said Mervin Fingas, a consultant in Edmonton, Alberta, who has written a book on cleanup technologies.

“It’s really a big problem trying to do proper research during these cycles,” Mr. Fingas said.

Kurt Hansen, project manager for spill research with the Coast Guard’s Research and Development Center in New London, Conn., said that in the 1990s, his group’s budget was $5 million to $6 million a year.

“Now we’re spending about three-quarters of a million,” Mr. Hansen said.

Research is hampered in other ways. For example, there is only one place in the United States — a center in New Jersey operated by the Minerals Management Service — where cleanup technologies can be tested, at full scale, on spilled oil. Other countries, notably Norway and Canada, allow occasional testing involving intentional spills into the environment, although only after an exhaustive permitting process.

In the United States, just obtaining oil for use in small-scale laboratory research can be extremely difficult, said Scott Pegau, research program director of the Oil Spill Recovery Institute, a research center established in Cordova, Alaska, after the Exxon Valdez spill. Mr. Pegau said it recently took him months to obtain less than a gallon of crude.

“Companies are concerned that I use it properly,” he said.

Oil spill experts also say that much of the research that has been conducted may have, in retrospect, focused on the wrong target. For years scientists and environmentalists have been concerned about the possibility of a spill in Arctic and near-Arctic areas, with their fragile ecosystems and extreme drilling conditions.

But with a runaway gusher 5,000 feet under the surface of the gulf, “now we know it’s quite extreme there,” Ms. Kinner said.

Ken Lee, executive director of a Canadian government center for offshore gas and oil research, said scientists had made progress in developing better ways to cope with spills in cold environments. One approach, Mr. Lee said, is to introduce fine mineral particles that help the oil naturally disperse, after which it can be degraded by bacteria.

But the research is not particularly useful for the current spill, he said, because the Gulf of Mexico is naturally full of fine mineral particles, so presumably much natural dispersion is happening anyway.

For years after the Exxon Valdez disaster, scientists studied the possibility of improving bacterial degradation by adding different, perhaps even genetically engineered, bacteria to the water in the vicinity of a spill. A more voracious microbe, the thinking went, would eat more oil.

“In reality, adding bacteria is sort of a dream,” Mr. Lee said.

Since no one bacterium degrades all the components of oil, he said, “there’s no net advantage in adding one bug.” And studies showed that natural bacteria often quickly beat out any new designer microbes added to the mix.

Ms. Kinner and others said that with all the attention being paid to the gulf spill, the prospects for more research money had brightened considerably. This month, for instance, the Coast Guard issued a call for research proposals related to the gulf disaster, including ideas for “innovative applications not commonly used for oil response.”

“It’s totally turned around, and there’s a kind of chaos,” Ms. Kinner said. “It’s one of those things where we’ve gone from feast to famine, and now from famine to feast.”

An earlier version of this article misstated the impact of the Jones Act, a 90-year-old law requiring that ships operating between American ports be American owned and built and have American crews, on the use of advanced cleanup technology in the gulf. The United States Coast Guard said last week it would issue waivers if needed to allow more foreign-made skimmers to be used in the gulf, but so far, with 15 foreign vessels working on the spill, no waivers have had to be issued.

    Advances in Oil Spill Cleanup Lag Since Valdez, NYT, 24.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/25/us/25clean.html

 

 

 

 

 

Fierce Recycling Effort in Fighting Oil’s Spread

 

June 22, 2010
The New York Times
By FELICITY BARRINGER and ROB HARRIS

 

VENICE, La. — Pete Parker’s not-so-small frame radiates purpose. Striding around a dockside yard where his “decontamination unit” works, he keeps an eye on 11 workers who are stooped over drills, bolts and iron mallets to repair oil-containment booms damaged by waves and strong currents in the gulf.

Like a cobbler in a town where no new shoes are to be had, Mr. Parker, 60, is helping the oil-spill containment effort get by with the boom it has. Many days, no new boom is delivered. The goal of his unit, which works for an emergency response company known as O’Brien’s Response Management, is to supply boom as soon as it can be made seaworthy again.

A shortage of containment boom has plagued the spill containment effort since the Deepwater Horizon leak began two months ago. So far about 475 miles of boom — both the “hard” vinyl boom that Mr. Parker repairs and the “soft” absorbent boom — has been deployed across the coastline of four states, including more than 225 miles in Louisiana alone, according to figures provided by BP and the Coast Guard.

But the five biggest domestic manufacturers have a backlog of orders of six weeks or more, one industry expert said. So Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama are competing for whatever supply is available.

“If this is a battle, and it is, Pete’s providing us with the ammunition,” said Chief Petty Officer John Kapsimalis of the Coast Guard, who works daily with Mr. Parker.

“Just think of all your exposed coast and your islands,” said Officer Kapsimalis, a New Yorker who is a member of the Coast Guard’s Atlantic Strike Team, whose territory includes the Gulf Coast. “You can’t have enough of it.”

On at least one day last week, the only new boom laid by the Venice operation was some 500 feet provided by Mr. Parker’s unit. “We’re getting it from wherever we can find it,” said Michael R. Abendhoff, a director of government and public affairs for BP.

Some of the boom came from foreign suppliers, though none of that has come to Mr. Parker for repair. “I know they got some Brazil boom in because it came in meters instead of being measured by the domestic boom makers’ standard of 100-foot sections,” said Mr. Parker, who has worked on spill-response efforts for more than 25 years. “I know we got some China boom — it comes in 200-foot sections.”

His crews cluster in groups of two or three around the damaged boom. The first order of business is often to cut the soiled material so that there are clean, undamaged ends. Then, with nuts, bolts and wrenches and mallets, they refasten the metal connectors that hold the long cylinders of vinyl-covered foam together.

The sounds of mallets tapping in the bolts or electric drills creating holes for metal fixtures mingles with the sounds of decontamination activities nearby, like the whoosh of water from high-pressure hoses decontaminating cages that once held oiled pelicans.

Mr. Parker provides the repaired boom in increments of 500, 2,500 or even 4,000 feet per day as the oil eddies shoreward in fits and starts. On Sunday, he said he repaired 2,000 feet worth, and almost that much on Monday; by midday Tuesday, his crews had repaired 1,350.

Like the so-called vessels of opportunity that transport the boom for BP — everything from large shrimp boats to 12-foot motorboats — the booms are a motley multicolored assortment.

Out on the water in Pass-a-Loutre, at the bottom of the Mississippi Delta, largely yellow booms were joined in a giant circle to keep oil that had already invaded one marshland from oozing out into other sensitive wetlands.

Airboats, barges and motorboats with squared-off bows were clustered around it. Workers on the larger vessels were playing out coils of soft, white absorbent soft boom to the smaller boats, which then lay it alongside the vinyl hard boom.

Some of the hard boom has proved too flimsy to hold up. In other cases, boom was laid in waters that were far too rough for it.

Tim Byerly, president of the Tactical Sourcing Group, a company in Suwanee, Ga., that provides boom for the cleanup effort, estimated that 10 percent of all the boom laid so far, at a price ranging from $15 to $18 a foot, was ineffective. In particular, Mr. Byerly cited boom that lacks reinforcing cable stretched through a seam along the top.

“Initially people were using boom without top cable,” he said. “It sufficed unless you had strong currents or wind. But if it’s not secured or heavy enough, it blows right in there.”

Mr. Abendhoff said BP required boom with cable, but on a shoreline on the eastern side of Grand Isle, rough, oily waves had left several hundred feet of hard boom with no visible cable in a jumble on the rocks while splattering the shore with goo.

“There’s a place to use boom and a place not to use it,” Mr. Parker said. “If you go into a place with strong current, it’s not going to hold at all.”

In the weeks ahead, officials hope that the boom repaired by his crews will be redeployed in spots where it will work best. Out on the water, said Chief Petty Office Lonnie Evans of the Coast Guard, “we’re running as fast as we can.”

“We’re trying to figure where it’s going to go,” he said of the menacing patches of oil.

And to have workable boom waiting for it.

    Fierce Recycling Effort in Fighting Oil’s Spread, NYT, 22.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/23/us/23boom.html

 

 

 

 

 

BP Executive Prepares to Take Over Spill Response

 

June 22, 2010
The New York Times
By CLIFFORD KRAUSS and ANDREW E. KRAMER

 

HOUSTON — Faced with the continuing American furor over its gaffe-prone British chief executive, Tony Hayward, BP is putting a former Mississippi resident in charge of handling the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and its aftermath.

Robert Dudley, who takes charge of BP’s spill response on Wednesday, has plenty of experience dealing with a hostile government, unhappy partners and angry citizens.

The former head of BP’s joint venture in Russia, TNK-BP, he was expelled from that country in 2008 after a nasty feud with the authorities and BP’s business partners. In the end, BP was forced to turn over management control of the venture to the Russians, though it remains highly profitable for both sides.

“I became a lightning rod between BP and the Russian owners,” said Mr. Dudley in an interview on Tuesday. “You learn in that kind of fast-paced, unpredictable environment to stay calm, get organized quickly and make sure you can communicate across an organization so everyone knows the direction and remains committed.”

Whether Mr. Dudley, a soft-spoken man with a wisp of a Southern accent, can repair BP’s ruptured relationships on the Gulf Coast and in Washington remains to be seen.

Once a candidate to be the London-based company’s chief executive, Mr. Dudley, 54, has spent just over a year as a board member and as BP’s “foreign secretary,” dispatched to deal with sticky situations in India, China and, now, the United States.

He will oversee BP’s cleanup efforts in the gulf, as well as its legal response and the handover of the claims process to the escrow fund’s administrator, Kenneth Feinberg. If Mr. Dudley succeeds in this assignment, analysts say, he could very well end up replacing the embattled Mr. Hayward.

“If Dudley handles the crisis in the gulf in an effective manner, it would put him directly in line for the top spot at BP, just as he was several years ago," said Chris Ruppel, managing director of capital markets at Execution Noble, an international investment bank.

Mr. Hayward has certainly upset many Americans, from President Obama to the families of the 11 men killed in the Deepwater Horizon oil platform accident on April 20.

He initially minimized the impact of the disaster, then publicly wished he could “get my life back.” Most recently, he took a day off to watch a yacht race in Britain even as Louisiana shrimpers were kept off the water by a fishing ban because of the oil spill.

BP’s original plan, announced three weeks ago, was to have Mr. Dudley take over management of the crisis in August, once the pressure in the leaking well was eased by relief wells. But last week, after a long meeting between top BP officials and Mr. Obama and then a tense day of combative Congressional testimony by Mr. Hayward, the company decided to speed up the transition.

Fadel Gheit, a senior oil analyst at Oppenheimer & Company, said Mr. Dudley will have an easier time dealing with the American public.

“He’s not only a good ol’ boy, but he’s from Mississippi and he doesn’t have a British accent,” Mr. Gheit said. “The media will take it a lot easier on him. He will fit in the landscape better than Tony Hayward.”

Mr. Dudley, who prefers to go by Bob, declined to criticize Mr. Hayward and said he would still report to him. He said he had not studied the well accident.

“The anger of the nation is vented at BP, and there is justification for the anger in that there is a leak that continues today,” he acknowledged in the interview, which was held in a colorless room in BP’s Houston offices.

Mr. Dudley said that he empathized with Gulf Coast residents. Though he was born in Queens, he grew up in Hattiesburg, Miss., and spent summers in Biloxi with his family and their sheepdog.

“I know what it’s like to jump off and swim off a boat in the gulf,” he said. “I know what crabbing, shrimping and fishing is all about.”

Mr. Dudley joined BP in 1999 after the company bought Amoco, an American oil company, and he oversaw exploration and production in a variety of countries before heading BP’s Russian joint venture.

He received mixed reviews for his difficult role in Russia, which would probably have challenged even the most skillful diplomat because of an energy business culture there rampant with corruption and kickbacks.

Under his leadership, from 2003 to 2008, TNK-BP increased production by more than 25 percent, and delivered among the highest financial returns in the Russian oil patch.

Mr. Dudley tried to emphasize safety in a country where it had long been a low priority, beginning his town-hall style meetings with managers every six weeks or so with a review of operational safety. Once, he upbraided managers because a refinery employee had died from inhaling fumes while cleaning a tank.

But he was far less successful in merging the Russian and British cultures that infused the joint operation. Indeed, he was accused of contributing to an elitist attitude among the British staff and ignoring the sensibilities of the Russians.

“There was an attitude of ‘Get out of the way. We’ll show you how to do it,’ ” said one former manager at the venture, who requested anonymity because the situation remained delicate and he was still doing business in Russia. In one memorable incident, the British team held a barbecue and failed to invite any of their Russian partners.

Eventually, Mr. Dudley became a central figure in the drawn-out fight between BP and the nation’s oligarchs, who were backed by senior figures in the Kremlin. The Putin government clearly wanted Russians, rather than BP employees, in charge of the west Siberian fields.

One sticking point was BP’s opposition to TNK-BP’s paying a high dividend. BP thought the money would better be reinvested in exploration. BP’s stock would also benefit from booking additional reserves, even if they were not pumped. The oligarchs wanted to generate cash for other projects.

The dispute ended with a flurry of regulatory problems, apparently orchestrated by the oligarchs. Mr. Dudley’s visa was revoked and he was interrogated by Russia’s police. He tried to run the company for four months from outside Russia at a location he still declined to reveal, but finally BP agreed to turn over management control to the Russians.

Peter B. Necarsulmer, director of PBN, a consultancy that advised BP in Russia during the conflict, said that Mr. Dudley had handled himself well then.

“Wherever there’s a storm around, he’s an eye, where people can think calmly and analyze calmly and come to conclusions,” Mr. Necarsulmer said. “Even the oligarchs had a grudging respect for him.”

But one of BP’s Russian partners, Mikhail Fridman, had a different view. In a 2008 op-ed piece in The Financial Times, he wrote, “BP has refused to engage meaningfully with any of the proposals we have made in recent years. Rather than talk to us, it has chosen to misrepresent our objectives and the nature of the dispute between us.”

Mr. Dudley, an engineer by training who has worked in the oil business for 30 years, pledged that he would “speak how I feel and not dodge questions.”

“I know I will be speaking into a gale about this,” he said, “but I think it is important for people to know we are turning ourselves inside out to meet our obligations.”


Clifford Krauss reported from Houston, and Andrew E. Kramer from Moscow.

    BP Executive Prepares to Take Over Spill Response, NYT, 22.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/23/business/23dudley.html

 

 

 

 

 

White House to Appeal Ruling Against Drilling Ban

 

June 22, 2010
Filed at 2:40 p.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

 

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The White House said Tuesday it will immediately appeal a federal judge's ruling against the Obama administration's moratorium on new deepwater drilling.

A New Orleans judge on Tuesday blocked the six-month ban imposed in the wake of the Gulf oil spill, saying the Interior Department had failed to provide adequate reasons for it.

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, defended the moratorium and promised an immediate appeal to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Gibbs said President Barack Obama believes strongly that drilling at such depths -- without knowing what happened to cause the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig to explode -- does not make any sense and puts the safety of workers ''at a danger that the president does not believe we can afford.''

Obama wanted the moratorium to be in place until a commission he appointed could complete a six-month investigation.

    White House to Appeal Ruling Against Drilling Ban, NYT, 22.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2010/06/22/us/politics/AP-US-Gulf-Oil-Spill-White-House.html

 

 

 

 

 

Judge Blocks Deep-Water Drilling Moratorium

 

June 22, 2010
Filed at 2:45 p.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

 

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- A federal judge struck down the Obama administration's six-month ban on deepwater oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday, saying the government rashly concluded that because one rig failed, the others are in immediate danger, too.

The White House promised an immediate appeal. The Interior Department had halted approval of any new permits for deepwater drilling and suspended drilling of 33 exploratory wells in the Gulf.

Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said President Barack Obama believes strongly that drilling at such depths does not make sense and puts the safety of workers ''at a danger that the president does not believe we can afford.''

Several companies that ferry people and supplies and provide other services to offshore drilling rigs asked U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman in New Orleans to overturn the moratorium.

They argued it was arbitrarily imposed after the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that killed 11 workers and blew out the well 5,000 feet underwater. It has spewed anywhere from 67 million to 127 million gallons of oil into the Gulf.

Feldman sided with the companies, saying in his ruling the Interior Department assumed that because one rig failed, all companies and rigs doing deepwater drilling pose an imminent danger.

''The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is an unprecedented, sad, ugly and inhuman disaster,'' he wrote. ''What seems clear is that the federal government has been pressed by what happened on the Deepwater Horizon into an otherwise sweeping confirmation that all Gulf deepwater drilling activities put us all in a universal threat of irreparable harm.''

His ruling prohibits federal officials from enforcing the moratorium until a trial is held. He did not set a trial date.

The Interior Department said it needed time to study the risks of deepwater drilling. But the lawsuit filed by Hornbeck Offshore Services of Covington, La., claimed there was no proof the other operations posed a threat.

Company CEO Todd Hornbeck said after the ruling that he is looking forward to getting back to work.

''It's the right thing for not only the industry but the country,'' he said.

Earlier in the day, executives at a major oil conference in London warned that the moratorium would cripple world energy supplies. Steven Newman, president and CEO of Transocean Ltd., owner of the rig that exploded, called it an unnecessary overreaction. BP PLC was leasing the rig.

''There are things the administration could implement today that would allow the industry to go back to work tomorrow without an arbitrary six-month time limit,'' Newman told reporters on the sidelines of the conference.

The moratorium was declared May 6 and originally was to last only through the month. Obama announced May 27 that he was extending it for six months.

In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal and corporate leaders said that would force drilling rigs to leave the Gulf of Mexico for lucrative business in foreign waters.

They said the loss of business would cost the area thousands of lucrative jobs, most paying more than $50,000 a year. The state's other major economic sector, tourism, is a largely low-wage industry.

Tim Kerner, the mayor of Lafitte, La., cheered Feldman's ruling.

''I love it. I think it's great for the jobs here and the people who depend on them,'' said Kerner, whose constituents make their living primarily from commercial fishing or oil.

But in its response to the lawsuit, the Interior Department said the moratorium is needed as attempts to stop the leak and clean the Gulf continue and new safety standards are developed.

''A second deepwater blowout could overwhelm the efforts to respond to the current disaster,'' the Interior Department said.

The government also challenged contentions the moratorium would cause long-term economic harm. Although 33 deepwater drilling sites were affected, there are still 3,600 oil and natural gas production platforms in the Gulf.

Catherine Wannamaker, a lawyer for environmental groups that intervened in the case and supported the moratorium, called the ruling ''a step in the wrong direction.''

''We think it overlooks the ongoing harm in the Gulf, the devastation it has had on people's lives,'' she said. ''The harm at issue with the Deepwater Horizon spill is bigger than just the Louisiana economy. It affects all of the Gulf.''

------

Associated Press Writer Pauline Arrillaga in Lafitte, La., contributed to this report.

    Judge Blocks Deep-Water Drilling Moratorium, NYT, 22.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2010/06/22/us/AP-US-Gulf-Oil-Spill.html

 

 

 

 

 

Cold, Dark and Teeming With Life

 

21 June 2010
The New York Times
By WILLIAM J. BROAD

 

The deep seabed was once considered a biological desert. Life, the logic went, was synonymous with light and photosynthesis. The sun powered the planet’s food chains, and only a few scavengers could ply the preternaturally dark abyss.

Then, in 1977, oceanographers working in the deep Pacific stumbled on bizarre ecosystems lush with clams, mussels and big tube worms — a cornucopia of abyssal life built on microbes that thrived in hot, mineral-rich waters welling up from volcanic cracks, feeding on the chemicals that leached into the seawater and serving as the basis for whole chains of life that got along just fine without sunlight.

In 1984, scientists found that the heat was not necessary. In exploring the depths of the Gulf of Mexico, they discovered sunless habitats powered by a new form of nourishment. The microbes that founded the food chain lived not on hot minerals but on cold petrochemicals seeping up from the icy seabed.

Today, scientists have identified roughly one hundred sites in the gulf where cold-seep communities of clams, mussels and tube worms flourish in the sunless depths. And they have accumulated evidence of many more — hundreds by some estimates, thousands by others — most especially in the gulf’s deep, unexplored waters.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if there were 2,000 communities, from suburbs to cities,” said Ian R. MacDonald, an oceanographer at Florida State University who studies the dark ecosystems.

The world’s richest known concentration of these remarkable communities is in the Gulf of Mexico. The life forms include tube worms up to eight feet long. Some of the creatures appear old enough, scientists say, to predate the arrival of Columbus in the New World.

Now, by horrific accident, these cold communities have become the subject of a quiet debate among scientists. The gulf is, of course, the site of the giant oil spill that began April 20 with the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drill rig. The question is what the oil pouring into the gulf means for these deep, dark habitats.

Seep researchers have voiced strong concern about the threat to the dark ecosystems. The spill is a concentrated surge, they note, in contrast to the slow, diffuse, chronic seepage of petrochemicals across much of the gulf’s northern slope. Many factors, like the density of oil in undersea plumes, the size of resulting oxygen drops and the potential toxicity of oil dispersants — all unknowns — could grow into threats that outweigh any possible benefits and damage or even destroy the dark ecosystems.

Last year, scientists discovered a community roughly five miles from where the BP well, a mile deep, subsequently blew out. Its inhabitants include mussels and tube worms. So it seems that researchers will have some answers sooner rather than later.

“There’s lots of uncertainly,” said Charles R. Fisher, a professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University, who is leading a federal study of the dark habitats and who observed the nearby community. “Our best hope is that the impact is neutral or a minor problem.”

A few scientists say the gushing oil — despite its clear harm to pelicans, turtles and other forms of coastal life — might ultimately represent a subtle boon to the creatures of the cold seeps and even to the wider food chain.

“The gulf is such a great fishery because it’s fed organic matter from oil,” said Roger Sassen, a specialist on the cold seeps who recently retired from Texas A&M University. “It’s preadapted to crude oil. The image of this spill being a complete disaster is not true.” His stance seems to be a minority view.

Over roughly two decades, the federal government has spent at least $30 million uncovering and investigating the creatures of the cold seeps, a fair amount of money for basic ocean research. Washington has provided this money in an effort to ensure that oil development does no harm to the unusual ecosystems. Now, the nation’s worst oil spill at sea — with tens of millions of gallons spewing to date — has thrown that goal into doubt.

The agency behind the exploration and surveying of the cold seeps is none other than the much-criticized Minerals Management Service of the Department of the Interior — not its oil regulators but a separate environmental arm, which long ago began hiring oceanographers, geologists, ecologists and marine biologists to investigate the gulf seabed and eventually pushed through regulations meant to protect the newly discovered ecosystems.

The minerals service is joining with other federal agencies to study whether the BP spill is harming the dark habitats. Scientists say ships may go to sea as soon as July, sending tethered robots down to the icy seabed to examine the seep communities and take samples for analysis.

It is a bittersweet moment for scientists like Dr. MacDonald of Florida State University, who has devoted his career to documenting the ecosystem’s richness and complexity. In an interview, he said the sheer difficulty of trying to fathom the ecological impacts of the spill had left some of his colleagues dejected.

“Once, we had this career studying obscure animals down there,” he said. “And now, it’s looking at this — probably for the rest of my career. It becomes this huge unknown.”

Inky darkness, icy temperatures and crushing pressures conspire to make studying the deep oceans arduous and remarkably costly. Humans are estimated to have glimpsed perhaps a millionth of the ocean floor.

By contrast, people looking at the surface of the gulf have known about the seeping oil for centuries. Spanish records dating from the 16th century note floating oil.

In the early 1980s, scientists investigating the oil seeps wondered if nearby creatures on the seabed might suffer chronic harm from pollution and serve as models for petrochemical risk. They lowered nets about a half mile down and pulled up, to their surprise, riots of healthy animals.

“We report the discovery of dense biological communities associated with regions of oil and gas seepage,” six oceanographers at Texas A&M wrote in the journal Nature in September 1985.

The animals included snails, crabs, eels, clams and tube worms more than six feet long. The founding microbes of the food chain turned out to feed on seabed emissions of methane and hydrogen sulfide — a highly toxic chemical for land animals that has the odor of rotten eggs.

Plants derive energy from sunlight and make living tissue in a process known as photosynthesis. The corresponding method among the microbes of the dark abyss is known as chemosynthesis.

The minerals service proceeded to finance wide expeditions. It issued thick reports in 1988, 1992 and 2002. By then, scientists had discovered dozens of seep communities and found some of their inhabitants to be extraordinarily old.

In the journal Nature, Dr. Fisher of Pennsylvania State University and two colleagues reported that gulf tube worms could live more than 250 years — making them among the oldest animals on the planet.

The latest expeditions have looked at seep communities as deep as 1.7 miles — far down the continental slope toward the gulf’s nether regions. In an interview, Dr. Fisher said investigations of the deeper communities suggested that tube worm species there grew slower and lived longer.

How long? “It’s likely they can live a lot longer,” he answered. “I’m uncomfortable with an exact number, but we’re talking centuries — four, five or six centuries.”

Over the years, scientists have found that the deep microbes not only eat exotic chemicals but also make carbonate (a building block of seashells) that forms a hard crust on the normally gooey seabed. The carbonate crusts can grow thick enough, they say, to reduce the flow of gas and oil through the seep communities and form attachment points for a variety of other sea creatures, especially deep corals and other filter feeders like brittle stars.

By probing the gulf’s deep waters with sound and other imaging technologies, scientists have found evidence for the existence on the northern continental slope of roughly 8,000 regions of hard crust — all, they say, potentially home to old or new seep communities.

On its Web site, the minerals service freely admits “a management conflict” between encouraging oil development and protecting the dark ecosystems. It issued regulations in 1989 and has periodically toughened the rules, most recently in January.

Now, in the wake of the oil disaster, many seep researchers have voiced strong concern about the threat to the dark ecosystems. Dr. Fisher said that thick oil could coat the respiratory structures of the animals and cause them to suffocate, and that high concentrations might otherwise prove toxic.

Samantha B. Joye, a cold-seep scientist at the University of Georgia, told a House science subcommittee on June 9 that the BP blowout represented “an unprecedented perturbation to the Gulf of Mexico system.”

She expressed particular concern about the dispersants that BP is injecting a mile down into the spewing oil — in a largely successful effort to reduce the flow reaching the surface.

Dr. Joye said the surge of oil into subsurface waters could feed microbes that consume oxygen. If their numbers explode, she said, the result could be a spike in oxygen consumption so large that its deep levels drop precipitously.

The dark ecosystems, she noted, “can tolerate reduced oxygen concentrations.” But she cautioned that the BP spill will challenge their tolerance “beyond any previous insult.”

Now, oceanographers are preparing to dive deep to see how the dark communities are holding up. The lessons for oil precautions and regulatory care, they say, could have application not only for creatures in the inky depths of the Gulf of Mexico but also around the world.

“Everywhere they looked, they’ve found them,” said Norman L. Guinasso Jr., director of Geochemical and Environmental Research at Texas A&M. He cited discoveries of seep communities off Angola, Indonesia and Trinidad.

In exploring the gulf, Dr. Guinasso said, scientists are struggling to fathom the strengths and vulnerabilities of some of the planet’s oldest and most novel creatures. “People,” he said, “are still learning.”

    Cold, Dark and Teeming With Life, NYT, 21.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/22/science/22cool.html

 

 

 

 

 

In Cleanup, It’s Local Help Wanted, Workers Find

 

June 20, 2010
The New York Times
By ROBBIE BROWN

 

Hundreds of workers hired by BP subcontractors to help with the cleanup of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico are complaining that they traveled long distances to assist in the effort — only to be told that their jobs had been given to local residents.

Workers from California, Mississippi and Texas say they signed contracts with the subcontractors under a belief that they would be spending weeks or months laying protective boom and scrubbing oil off the gulf shores.

But after less than a week of work, they say, the subcontractors informed them that BP and state officials preferred that their jobs be performed by coastal residents. Their contracts did not guarantee a certain length of employment, so the workers have been left fuming, with little legal recourse.

“Cleaning the oil properly has become secondary to employing people from the right state,” said Glenn Welstad, the chief executive of Command Center, a staffing company that recruited and trained workers from as far away as California. “If they wanted to charge full steam ahead with the cleanup, they would let the most experienced workers have the jobs.”

As many as 25,000 workers have been hired by more than 100 subcontractors to perform tasks like removing tar balls, skimming oil off the water’s surface and laying stretches of inflatable boom, BP said.

The company said its subcontractors do give priority to Gulf Coast residents, many of whom were put out of business by the spill. But the company said it wanted to avoid inconveniencing out-of-state workers.

In the first weeks after the spill, subcontractors scrambled to hire workers with proper training and experience, said Marti Powers, a BP spokeswoman. “As we’ve been able to find locals with the same skill set, we’ve made a shift to local workers,” she said.

In Florida, 86 percent of cleanup workers are now Floridians; in Alabama, 82 percent are from that state; and in Mississippi, 83 percent of the cleanup work force are residents. Those figures have nearly doubled in the last month, BP records show.

Governors of the four affected states — Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida — have made it clear in public speeches and private meetings with BP officials that they want residents hired first.

“You hate to take away anyone’s livelihood,” said Dan Turner, a spokesman for Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi. “But the locals here have already had their livelihood taken away, through no fault of their own.”

Subcontractors say they must follow the desires of BP and the governors if they hope to keep their contracts.

“If you’re in Florida, they want Florida residents. If you’re in Alabama, they want Alabama residents. If you’re in Mississippi, they want Mississippi residents,” said George Hutchinson, who runs a staffing company, Cabildo, in New Orleans. “You have to give them what they want.”

But many out-of-state workers say they have been misled by BP’s subcontractors. They say they were told to expected steady, well-paid work, but then were replaced by locals almost immediately.

Last Monday, a crew of 202 workers from Mississippi traveled by bus to Pensacola, Fla. They had undergone 40 hours of hazardous materials training. But by Wednesday, they were told by a subcontractor, Cliff Berry Inc., that the State of Florida wanted to replace them with Floridians.

“That was the mandate: Florida workers,” said Larry Doyle, the executive vice president of Cliff Berry, who apologized to the Mississippi crew but said a subcontractor employing Cliff Berry insisted on hiring locally.

“It was crazy,” said Steven Gilbert, 49, a seafood truck driver from Pass Christian, Miss. He pointed out that he belonged to the exact demographic that BP has vowed to help: gulf residents put out of work by the spill.

“They took hundreds of people who were ready to work and sent them home, just because they’re from another state,” Mr. Gilbert said.

Tishonya A. Hamilton, 39, had a similar experience. She rode from Houston to Mobile, Ala., last month with the belief that she would work for six months for a subcontractor, One Stop Safety and Rental. But after three days, she and 100 other workers were sent home and replaced with Alabama residents.

“We thought we were going down there to make good money and help clean up the beaches,” said Ms. Hamilton, an unemployed construction worker. “We were lied to.” One Stop Safety and Rental did not respond to requests for comment but told the local news media that the governors of Alabama and Mississippi had insisted that the jobs go to local workers.

Legal experts say states are allowed to give preference to residents, as long as it is not on a basis of race, gender or religion.

“If they’re limiting the workers to those who were affected by the spill, that’s a good thing,” said Joel Friedman, a labor law expert at Tulane Law School in New Orleans. “It’s a political issue, but it’s not a legal one.”

    In Cleanup, It’s Local Help Wanted, Workers Find, NYT, 20.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/21/us/21workers.html

 

 

 

 

 

Gulf Of Mexico Oil Spill Costs BP $2 Billion

 

June 21, 2010
Filed at 11:57 a.m. ET
The New York Times
By REUTERS

 

LONDON/LAFITTE, Louisiana (Reuters) - British energy giant BP, accused by U.S. lawmakers of putting savings over safety, said on Monday it has spent $2 billion so far on cleaning up its huge Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

But investors, who drove down BP's share price more than 2 percent on Monday, are more concerned about the final tally of cleaning up the spill. The company faces lawsuits, huge fines and damage claims that are expected to cost many billions more. BP agreed last week to set up a $20 billion compensation fund.

BP plans to raise cash from banks to ensure it has enough money on hand to pay for the clean-up, sources familiar with the matter told Reuters on Monday. Banking sources said last week that it was seeking to arrange $7 billion from banks.

BP has said it will suspend dividend payments to its shareholders and increase the pace of asset sales to $10 billion this year to offset liabilities from the spill, which began after an explosion on an offshore oil rig on April 20 that killed 11 workers.

The spill, now in its 63rd day, has soiled the coastline of four U.S. states, threatening tourism and fishing industries; seeped into ecologically sensitive wetlands and marshes; battered BP's image; and tested President Barack Obama, who has come under fire over his handling of the crisis.

Seeking to keep the focus on the unfolding ecological disaster, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu on Monday was taking mayors from 17 U.S. cities to visit the slick-damaged Mississippi Delta, where oil has coated fragile marshlands, tarred wildlife and decimated fisheries.

"Educating the rest of the country is what's going to help us win this fight," said Tim Kerner, mayor of Lafitte, Louisiana, where the mayors gathered for a presentation from BP and the U.S. Coast Guard.

"Every day it's a new oil spill," said Coast Guard Captain Roger Laferriere. "In previous spills, we always had a known quantity of oil."

Obama, working to convince Americans he is on top of the crisis, canceled a trip to Indonesia and Australia that had been set for last week to stay at home to deliver an address to Americans and castigate BP executives at the White House.

But the White House has been anxious that Americans do not think that the president's focus on the oil spill, the worst in U.S. history, means he is taking his eye off other pressing issues, such as fixing the sputtering economy.

Obama's official schedule this week focuses on selling healthcare reform, one of his signature achievements, managing the war in Afghanistan and talking to other major powers about the need for economic reforms at the G-8 summit in Canada.

Kenneth Feinberg, the administrator of the $20 billion fund to compensate victims for financial losses due to the spill, said on Monday he will "err on the side of the claimant" in paying emergency relief. "We've got to ease the burden on these folks in the Gulf," he told CNN.

Away from Washington, BP continued to siphon more oil from the blown-out deep-sea well. It said it collected or burned off 23,290 barrels (978,180 gallons/3.7 million liters) of crude on Sunday, still well below the 35,000-60,000 barrels a day that government scientists estimate are gushing from the well.

Both BP and the U.S. government are placing their hopes on two relief wells that are being drilled to permanently cap the leak. Those wells are expected to be finished in August.

 

BP STOCK

BP's shares, meanwhile, fell after a U.S. lawmaker released an internal company document on Sunday pegging the worst-case scenario rate for the spill far higher than the government figures. The oil giant's stock, nearly halved in value since the crisis began, slid more than 2 percent in London and New York trading after the document estimated a rate of 100,000 barrels per day.

BP spokesman Toby Odone said the document appeared to be genuine but the estimate applied only to a situation in which a key piece of equipment called a blowout preventer is removed.

"Since there are no plans to remove the blowout preventer, the number is irrelevant," Odone said.

BP also rejected claims by its partner in the oil well, Anadarko Petroleum, that it had been negligent in the way it operated the installation.

"It's a combination of things (affecting the share price)," said Barclays Capital analyst Lucy Haskins.

"Over the weekend we were getting the news flow about Anadarko refusing to pay and then there's these stories about higher flow rates in an internal memo."

 

(Additional reporting by Kristin Hays in Houston and Sarah Young and Victoria Bryan in London; Writing by Ross Colvin; Editing by Will Dunham)

    Gulf Of Mexico Oil Spill Costs BP $2 Billion, NYT, 21.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2010/06/21/news/news-us-oil-spill.html

 

 

 

 

 

Panel Is Unlikely to End Deepwater Drilling Ban Early

 

June 21, 2010
The New York Times
By JOHN M. BRODER

 

WASHINGTON — The bipartisan commission named by President Obama in May to study the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the future of American offshore drilling will hold its first formal meeting in mid-July at the earliest, most likely delaying the delivery of its final report into next year, a co-chairman of the panel said in an interview.

The co-chairman, William K. Reilly, who served as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under the first President Bush, also said it was unlikely that the panel would recommend the lifting of the six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling before it completes its report. Such a move would require profound changes in industry practice and government oversight that cannot be done that quickly, Mr. Reilly said in his first extensive remarks on the commission’s work.

The oil industry, its supporters in Congress and Gulf Coast officials have called for swiftly lifting the moratorium, saying the ban was causing severe economic hardship and that drilling could resume safely under tighter interim rules. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and some other administration officials had given the industry hope that the ban would be lifted as soon as new regulations were in place.

But Mr. Reilly said that ending the moratorium would require that the industry adopt safer drilling techniques and that the government regulatory agencies, particularly the Minerals Management Service, a part of the Interior Department, be markedly strengthened.

“Those things would have to happen faster than past history would suggest is possible,” he said. He also noted that a Congressional hearing last week revealed that the five major domestic oil companies relied on a common and clearly inadequate plan for responding to a major offshore spill.

“I would be very wary of encouraging more deepwater development until I was confident that the response plans were more realistic,” Mr. Reilly said. “They are not realistic at this time.”

Mr. Reilly serves on the board of ConocoPhillips, one of the oil companies whose chief executives testified before Congress last week.

Mr. Obama set a six-month deadline for the panel to produce its report, but the clock does not begin until the seven-member body officially meets. The group’s start has been set back by delays in naming the other five members and by a complicated White House vetting process for staff.

Mr. Obama named the two co-chairmen, Mr. Reilly and former Senator Bob Graham, a Democrat from Florida, on May 22. But the White House did not designate the other five members until June 14. They are Frances G. Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council; Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science; Terry D. Garcia, an executive vice president at the National Geographic Society; Cherry A. Murray, dean of the Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; and Frances Ulmer, chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage.

The panel as yet has no staff or budget, although the White House has requested $15 million from Congress for the group.

Mr. Obama said that the mandate of the commission was to find the causes of the BP disaster and to make recommendations for preventing such accidents in the future. Mr. Obama was explicit, both in public comments and in private statements to Mr. Reilly and Mr. Graham, Mr. Reilly said, that the United States would depend for the foreseeable future on oil and natural gas from beneath the gulf. The investigative panel is not charged with determining whether offshore oil development can be conducted safely; rather, its mission is to show how it can resume with greater safeguards.

“The president was clear,” Mr. Reilly said. “He was not inviting us to revise his energy policy. He said he was much more concerned to look ahead than look backward.”

Mr. Reilly said he expected his group to examine the reliability of blowout preventers, the toxicity of dispersants, the quality and frequency of inspections, and the possible need for simultaneous relief wells in deep water.

Officials with experience in earlier investigative panels said that it was essential to understand why the Deepwater Horizon accident happened before meaningful recommendations could be made about future actions.

Bruce Babbitt, who served on the commission that investigated the Three Mile Island nuclear accident and later was President Bill Clinton’s interior secretary, said the entire culture of the offshore drilling industry would have to change.

“You have to strengthen regulation,” Mr. Babbitt said, “but there has to be some way of implanting some safety DNA across the entire industry.”

The Three Mile Island panel’s recommendations led to the creation of a nuclear safety institute that trains plant operators and inspectors. Mr. Babbitt said something similar may be needed in the oil and gas industry.

He also said that the Minerals Management Service should be blown apart, not merely restructured, as Mr. Salazar has proposed. Environmental regulation must be taken out of the Interior Department and transferred to the E.P.A., Mr. Babbitt said.

Philip D. Zelikow, who served as executive director of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, urged the new panel to follow the 9/11 group’s path by writing a narrative history of the accident. That is the best way, he said, to understand the factors that led to the disaster and to generate public and political support for the changes that will be needed to prevent a recurrence.

“To explain is not necessarily to excuse,” Mr. Zelikow said, “but it is the first step in understanding.”

He said that in studying previous disasters, like the shuttle Challenger explosion, he learned that government agencies and private corporations engaged in cutting-edge endeavors, like deep-sea drilling or space exploration, over time begin to “normalize” and discount the risk.

“Here is an industry increasingly obliged to engage in ultra-hazardous activity,” Mr. Zelikow said. “I wouldn’t look just at BP. They are functioning in a much larger institutional culture. Everyone who worked on this rig has worked on other projects, maybe at other companies. What you want to discover is if there is something distinct and pathological about all of these institutions, or something distinctly pathological about BP.”

He added that it might be impossible for Mr. Reilly and the other commissioners to avoid the question of whether deepwater drilling should be pursued at all before recommending how it could resume, even though that matter was beyond their presidential mandate.

“I don’t think you can answer one question without answering the other,” Mr. Zelikow said.

    Panel Is Unlikely to End Deepwater Drilling Ban Early, NYT, 21.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/22/us/politics/22panel.html

 

 

 

 

 

‘National Mission’

 

June 20, 2010
The New York Times
 

To anyone watching the oil spew into the Gulf of Mexico, the argument for curbing this country’s appetite for fossil fuels could not be clearer. President Obama was right last week when he called on America to unify behind a “national mission” to find alternative energy sources, sharply reduce its dependence on oil and cut its greenhouse gas emissions.

We were disappointed, however, that Mr. Obama’s address failed to insist that the best way to do all of these things is to establish a broadly based, economywide cap-and-trade system that would put a price on carbon emissions. He opened the door far too wide to alternative policies that aren’t real alternatives — and to more stalling.

A House bill approved last year would set up such a system. Action in the Senate has been delayed for months, as Republicans, and some Democrats, have argued without any real proof that capping and pricing carbon emissions would cripple the economy by driving up the cost of energy.

On Wednesday, Democratic leaders, who have promised to bring an energy bill to the Senate floor after the Fourth of July recess but are nowhere near agreement on what should be in it, will troop down to the White House. This time, Mr. Obama must stress, explicitly and emphatically, that a conventional energy bill will not do — and that attaching real costs to older, dirtier fuels now dumped free of charge into the atmosphere is the surest way to persuade American industry to develop cleaner fuels.

Mr. Obama also needs to push back a lot harder against critics who claim, wrongly, that such an approach will raise electricity and fuel prices to unacceptable levels.

A new analysis from the Environmental Protection Agency shows that the most ambitious bill before the Senate, sponsored by John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman, would cost American households at most an additional $150 a year. That does not seem too high a price to pay for helping to avoid dangerous climate change. A simpler if less ambitious carbon cap proposal offered by Senators Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, and Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, is designed to cost consumers even less, and is worthy of attention.

There are other honorable bills out there that have much to recommend them but fall short because they do not include mandatory greenhouse gas reductions or a price signal. A measure sponsored by Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, would require utilities to generate 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2021.

A bill from Indiana’s Richard Lugar (one of the few Republicans to have stepped forward with genuinely positive ideas) seeks tighter fuel economy standards for cars and stricter efficiency standards for buildings — two huge sources of carbon emissions.

Those are good ideas that should be part of a comprehensive bill. By themselves they are not enough to reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuels or combat the dangers of climate change.

The politics won’t be easy. Some big oil and power companies will push back hard, as will nearly all Republicans and many Rust Belt Democrats. But Americans are rightly outraged by the spill in the gulf. This is clearly the moment for President Obama and Senate leaders to deliver a tough and ambitious energy bill capable of protecting the environment and the nation’s security.

    ‘National Mission’, NYT, 20.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/21/opinion/21mon1.html

 

 

 

 

 

Tornado Tears Through Montana City

 

June 20, 2010
The New York Times
By DERRICK HENRY

 

A tornado ripped off most of the roof of a sports arena in Billings, Mont., and also damaged other buildings as it barreled through the city late Sunday afternoon, the police said.

No fatalities were reported as emergency workers cleaned up into the evening.

The tornado was first reported at about 4:45 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time, said Lt. Mark Cady, of the Billings Police Department. The tornado approached the city from the southeast, doing the most damage in two neighborhoods called The Heights and the Lower Heights, before heading northwest, he said.

The tornado also tore off more than half the roof of the Rimrock Auto Arena at Metra Park, leaving pieces strewn over a ¾-mile area, Lt. Cady said. The arena, which seats 10,000 people, hosts indoor football games, rodeos and concerts. The tornado also damaged a casino, a bar and a laundry operation in the city’s downtown area and leveled a glass shop and broke some gas mains.

At a McDonald’s restaurant, about 20 people took cover in the walk-in freezer when they saw the tornado coming, Lt. Cady said. The tornado blew out all the glass from the building.

The tornado was also accompanied by floods that left cars stranded on roads under deep water. Runoff from the storm also overwhelmed the city’s sewer system.

“Manhole covers were blowing off because of the pressure from the water beneath,” Lt. Cady said. “It’s a mess right now.”

The tornado was part of a storm moving through the area that also dropped hail measuring nearly three inches in Bighorn and Yellowstone Counties, the National Weather Service said in a local storm report.

The Billings Logan International Airport reported 2.24 inches of rain from the storm, setting a local record for the date. The old rainfall record for this date was 0.47 inches, set in 1947.

The storm left as quickly as it appeared, and a half-hour later, the sun was shining, officials said. Some area residents who wanted to see the damage themselves created additional work for emergency workers as traffic became congested along Main Street, officials said.

“Main Street is the busiest road in Montana,” Lt. Cady said. Officials were trying to dissuade people from driving to the city to tour the damage, he said.

Officials continued a flash flood warning for central Yellowstone County until 9:45 p.m.

    Tornado Tears Through Montana City, NYT, 20.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/21/us/21storm.html

 

 

 

 

 

Failure of Rig’s Last Line of Defense Tied to Myriad Factors

 

June 20, 2010
The New York Times
By THE NEW YORK TIMES

 

This article is by David Barstow, Laura Dodd, James Glanz, Stephanie Saul and Ian Urbina.

It was the last line of defense, the final barrier between the rushing volcanic fury of oil and gas and one of the worst environmental disasters in United States history.

Its very name — the blind shear ram — suggested its blunt purpose. When all else failed, if the crew of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig lost control of a well, if a dreaded blowout came, the blind shear ram’s two tough blades were poised to slice through the drill pipe, seal the well and save the day. Everything else could go wrong, just so long as “the pinchers” went right. All it took was one mighty stroke.

On the night of April 20, minutes after an enormous blowout ripped through the Deepwater Horizon, the rig’s desperate crew pinned all hope on this last line of defense.

But the line did not hold.

For days, technicians and engineers worked furiously to figure out why, according to interviews and hundreds of pages of previously unreleased notes scrawled by industry crisis managers in the disaster’s immediate aftermath.

Engineers sent robotic submersibles 5,000 feet deep to prod the blind shear ram, nestled in the bosom of a five-story blowout preventer standing guard over the Macondo well.

They were driven on, documents and interviews reveal, by indications that the shear ram’s blades had come within a few maddening inches of achieving their purpose. Again and again, they tried to make the blades close completely, knowing it was their best chance to end the nightmare of oil and gas billowing into the Gulf of Mexico.

“If that would’ve worked,” a senior oil industry executive said of the blind shear ram, “that rig wouldn’t have burned up and sunk.”

Much remains unknown about the failure of this ultimate failsafe device. It continues to be a focus of inquiries, and some crucial questions will not be answerable until the blowout preventer is recovered from the sea.

But from documents and interviews, it is possible to piece together some of the decisions and events that came into play when the Deepwater Horizon most needed the blind shear ram.

Engineers contended with hydraulic fluid leaks that may have deprived the ram of crucial cutting force. They struggled to comprehend what was going on in the steel sarcophagus that encased the shear ram, as if trying to perform surgery blindfolded.

They wondered if the blades had by chance closed uselessly on one of the nearly indestructible joints that connect drilling pipe — a significant bit of misfortune, given a decision years before to outfit the Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer with just one blind shear ram when other rigs were already beginning to use two of them to guard against just this possibility.

But the questions raised by the failure of the blind shear ram extend well beyond the Deepwater Horizon.

An examination by The New York Times highlights the chasm between the oil industry’s assertions about the reliability of its blowout preventers and a more complex reality. It reveals that the federal agency charged with regulating offshore drilling, the Minerals Management Service, repeatedly declined to act on advice from its own experts on how it could minimize the risk of a blind shear ram failure.

It also shows that the Obama administration failed to grapple with either the well-known weaknesses of blowout preventers or the sufficiency of the nation’s drilling regulations even as it made plans this spring to expand offshore oil exploration.

“What happened to all the stakeholders — Congress, environmental groups, industry, the government — all stakeholders involved were lulled into a sense of what has turned out to be false security,” David J. Hayes, the deputy interior secretary, said in an interview.

Even in one significant instance where the Minerals Management Service did act, it appears to have neglected to enforce a rule that required oil companies to submit proof that their blind shear rams would in fact work.

As it turns out, records and interviews show, blind shear rams can be surprisingly vulnerable. There are many ways for them to fail, some unavoidable, some exacerbated by the stunning water depths at which oil companies have begun to explore.

But they also can be rendered powerless by the failure of a single part, a point underscored in a confidential report that scrutinized the reliability of the Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer. The report, from 2000, concluded that the greatest vulnerability by far on the entire blowout preventer was one of the small shuttle valves leading to the blind shear ram. If this valve jammed or leaked, the report warned, the ram’s blades would not budge.

This sort of “single-point failure” figures prominently in an emerging theory of what went wrong with the Deepwater Horizon’s blind shear ram, according to interviews and documents. Some evidence suggests that when the crew activated the blind shear ram, its blades tried to cut the drill pipe, but then failed to finish the job because one or more of its shuttle valves leaked hydraulic fluid.

These kinds of weaknesses were understood inside the oil industry, documents and interviews show. And given the critical importance of the blind shear ram, offshore drillers began adding a layer of redundancy by equipping their blowout preventers with two blind shear rams.

By 2001, when Transocean, now the world’s largest offshore drilling contractor, acquired the Deepwater Horizon, it had already begun equipping its new rigs with blowout preventers that could easily accommodate two blind shear rams.

Today, Transocean says 11 of its 14 rigs in the gulf have two blind shear rams. The company said the three rigs that do not were built before the Deepwater Horizon.

Likewise, every rig currently under contract with BP, which had been renting the Deepwater Horizon, comes with blowout preventers equipped with two blind shear rams, according to BP. While no guarantee against disaster, drilling experts said, two blind shear rams give an extra measure of reliability, especially if one shear ram hits on a joint connecting two drill pipes.

“It’s kind of like a parachute — it’s nice to have a backup,” said Dan Albers, a drilling engineer who is part of an independent investigation of the disaster.

But neither Transocean nor BP took steps to outfit the Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer with two blind shear rams. In a statement, BP pointed to the need for the rig to carry its blowout preventer from well to well.

BP said space limitations on the Deepwater Horizon would have prohibited the company from adding a second blind shear ram to the existing configuration on the blowout preventer. But other experts told The Times that a second blind shear ram could have been swapped in for some other component.

In a statement, Transocean said BP would have been responsible for deciding whether the blowout preventer was equipped with one or two blind shear rams; BP said both companies would have been involved.

Whatever the reasoning, the result was that the Deepwater Horizon was left with just one blind shear ram to contain a blowout. And yet, The Times examination found, government regulations do not require any regular checks of several important elements of blind shear rams.

What’s more, when those elements were put to the test after the blowout, some appeared to malfunction. In addition, interviews and documents show that after the crew abandoned the rig, the initial frantic efforts to find another way to activate the blind shear ram were hampered by the lack of submersibles with sufficient power.

Teams of engineers knew they were up against the clock. With each passing hour, more oil and well debris were rattling up through the blowout preventer under tremendous force, almost certainly chewing away at the blades of the blind shear ram — the very blades they still hoped and prayed would come to their rescue.

 

Vulnerable Devices

Last year, Transocean commissioned a “strictly confidential” study of the reliability of blowout preventers used by deepwater rigs.

Using the world’s most authoritative database of oil rig accidents, a Norwegian company, Det Norske Veritas, focused on some 15,000 wells drilled off North America and in the North Sea from 1980 to 2006.

It found 11 cases where crews on deepwater rigs had lost control of their wells and then activated blowout preventers to prevent a spill. In only six of those cases were the wells brought under control, leading the researchers to conclude that in actual practice, blowout preventers used by deepwater rigs had a “failure” rate of 45 percent.

For all their confident pronouncements about blowout preventers (the “ultimate failsafe device,” some called it), oil industry executives had long known they could be vulnerable and temperamental.

Rising five or more floors and weighing hundreds of thousands of pounds, these devices were daunting in their scale and complexity. There were hundreds of ways they could malfunction or be improperly maintained, tested and operated. Not only did they have to withstand extreme environments, they were relied upon to tame the ferocious forces often unleashed when drilling rigs penetrate reservoirs of highly compressed oil and gas.

They were also costly to maintain. An industry study last year estimated the price of stopping operations to pull up a blowout preventer for repairs at $700 per minute.

Those costs could be enough to draw the attention of Wall Street. Last August, during a conference call with investment analysts, Steven L. Newman, the chief executive of Transocean, was asked why his deepwater fleet had been paid for fewer days of drilling compared with earlier in the year.

Mr. Newman said the fleet had experienced a “handful of B.O.P. problems.”

But he assured the analysts that the problems were not systemic. “They were anomalies,” he said. “I would just leave it at that.”

A draft of another industry-financed study this year contended that companies cut corners on federally mandated tests of blowout preventers. A copy obtained by The Times described a mentality of “I don’t want to find problems; I want to do the minimum necessary to obtain a good test.”

It also included this observation: “Often there is a great deal of pressure to run the B.O.P. stack before it is deemed fit for purpose by the experts who maintain and test the equipment.”

When the report was finalized, those criticisms were omitted, although it is not clear why.

 

Last Finger in the Dike

Blowout preventers are designed to handle a range of well control problems. They come with several types of rams, giving rig workers flexibility if a situation escalates. But one component in particular has to work properly: the blind shear ram, the last finger in the dike during an uncontrolled blowout.

The danger is not merely theoretical.

More than three decades ago, the failure of a shear ram was partly to blame for one of the largest oil spills on record, a blowout at the Ixtoc 1 well off the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Descriptions of the accident at the time detailed problems both with the shear ram’s ability to cut through thick pipe and with a burst line carrying hydraulic fluids to the blowout preventer.

In 1990, a blind shear ram could not snuff out a major blowout on a rig off Texas. It cut the pipe, but investigators found that the sealing mechanism was damaged. And in 1997, a blind shear ram was unable to slice through a thick joint connecting two sections of drill pipe during a blowout of a deep oil and gas well off the Louisiana coast. Even now, despite advances in technology, it is virtually impossible for a blind shear ram to slice through these joints. In an emergency, there is no time for a driller to make sure the ram’s blades are clear of these joints, which can make up almost 10 percent of the drill pipe’s length.

The problems highlighted by these cases were common knowledge in the drilling industry.

But in two studies, in 2002 and 2004, one of the industry’s premier authorities on blowout preventers, West Engineering Services of Brookshire, Tex., found a more basic problem: even when everything worked right, some blind shear rams still failed to cut pipe.

West’s experts concluded that calculations used by makers of blowout preventers overestimated the cutting ability of blind shear rams, so-called because they close off wells like a window blind. Modern drill pipe is nearly twice as strong as older pipes of the same size. In addition, the intense pressure and frigid temperatures of deep water make it tougher to shear a pipe. These and other “additive pressures,” the researchers found, can demand hundreds of thousands of additional pounds of cutting force.

Yet when the team examined the performance of blind shear rams in blowout preventers on 14 new rigs, it found that seven had never been checked to see if their shear rams would work in deep water. Of the remaining seven, only three “were found able to shear pipe at their maximum rated water depths.”

“This grim snapshot,” the researchers concluded, “illustrates the lack of preparedness in the industry to shear and seal a well with the last line of defense against a blowout.”

Yet as the industry moves into deeper waters, it is pressing to reduce government-mandated testing of blowout preventers. BP and other oil companies helped finance a study early this year arguing that blowout preventer pressure tests conducted every 14 days should be stretched out to every 35 days. The industry estimated the change could save $193 million a year in lost productivity.

The study found that blowout preventers almost always passed the required government tests — there were only 62 failures out of nearly 90,000 tests conducted over several years — but it also raised questions about the effectiveness of these tests.

“It is not possible,” the study pointed out, “to completely simulate” the actual conditions of deepwater wells.

 

Flawed Oversight

BP is the largest oil producer in the Gulf of Mexico. It pumped 182 million barrels of crude oil from the gulf last year, and it is leading the charge to go deeper. Last fall, while working on another BP well, the Deepwater Horizon drilled a record 35,055 feet.

As with BP, the rig’s owner, Transocean, was aware of the vulnerabilities and limitations of blowout preventers.

But they were not the only ones.

The Minerals Management Service knew the problems, too. In fact, the agency helped pay for many of the studies that warned of their shortcomings, including those in 2002 and 2004 that raised doubts about the ability of blind shear rams to cut pipe under real-world conditions.

In some cases, the agency did not act on the recommendations of its consultants. But in 2003, it adopted a regulation requiring companies to submit test data proving that their blind shear rams could work on the specific drill pipe used on a well and under the pressures they would encounter. Companies had to submit this information to get drill permits.

At least, that was the way it was supposed to work.

Last year, when BP applied for its permit to drill the Macondo well, its application was reviewed by Frank Patton, an engineer in the New Orleans office of the Minerals Management Service. With nearly three decades of experience working for the agency and the oil industry, Mr. Patton was fully aware of the blowout preventer’s importance.

“It is probably the most, in my estimation, the most important factor in maintaining safety of the well and safety of everything involved, the rig and personnel,” he testified last month during the Coast Guard’s inquiry into the disaster.

Yet Mr. Patton said he approved BP’s permit without requiring proof that its blowout preventer could shear pipe and seal a well 5,000 feet down. “When I was in training for this, I was never, as far as I can recall, ever told to look for this statement,” he explained.

Mr. Patton said he had approved hundreds of other well permits in the gulf without requiring this proof, and BP likewise contends that companies have never been asked to furnish this proof on drilling applications.

In subsequent testimony, Michael Saucier, the agency’s regional supervisor for field operations in the gulf, insisted that the regulation was enforced. But asked if anyone ensures that a blowout preventer functions properly, Mr. Saucier replied, “I don’t know if somebody does or not.”

Capt. Hung M. Nguyen, the co-chairman of the Coast Guard inquiry, seemed incredulous at the agency’s deference to the industry on the most critical of safety devices.

“So my understanding,” Captain Nguyen said, “is that it is designed to industry standard, manufactured by industry, installed by industry, with no government witnessing oversight of the construction or the installation. Is that correct?”

“That would be correct,” Mr. Saucier said.

 

Adding Protection

As a consequence of this arrangement, the agency had little likelihood of knowing what engineering consultants had determined in 2000, when they were asked to assess the specific vulnerabilities of the Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer. The consultants, hired by the blowout preventer’s manufacturer, Cameron, zeroed in on what they considered the most serious weakness: the potential failure of the blind shear ram to close.

The consultants said the Deepwater Horizon’s blind shear ram was vulnerable to “single-point failure.” In other words, the breakdown of just one part could result in a catastrophic failure. The consultants focused on one of several T-shaped shuttle valves, which control the flow of pressurized hydraulic fluid that pushes the shear ram’s blades together.

This particular valve has no backup, so if it gets stuck or leaks hydraulic fluid, disaster beckons. In fact, the consultants concluded that this one shuttle valve represented 56 percent of the blowout preventer’s “failure likelihood.”

“Care should be taken to ensure the highest reliability possible from this valve,” they wrote.

In a written statement, BP said the consultants’ report was used “to ensure that critical components and maintenance activities are clearly understood so that system reliability remains high.” The company said a portion of the assessment not seen by The Times found that the blowout preventer’s overall risk of failure was tiny. It declined to release that part of the report.

In the 61 days since the blowout, BP and Transocean have clashed over who was responsible for what on the Deepwater Horizon. In written responses to questions, BP and Transocean differed yet again on why the Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer was not originally outfitted — or later converted — to have two blind shear rams.

Transocean said that BP, as the rig’s operator, would have determined the blowout preventer’s configuration. “Operators select B.O.P. stack configurations based on their anticipated operating environments, including water depths, seismic data, anticipated well conditions and the like.”

BP, however, said it was a collaborative decision driven by “contractor preference and operator requirements.” The company emphasized that blowout preventer reliability did not simply boil down to the number of blind shear rams. “These choices are risk assessed to provide the overall stack and system reliability to perform in a wide variety of situations.”

In 2001, just as BP and Transocean were pressing the Deepwater Horizon into service, the Minerals Management Service was being warned against allowing deepwater rigs to operate with only one blind shear ram. The agency had commissioned a study that documented more than 100 failures during testing of blowout preventers.

“All subsea B.O.P. stacks used for deepwater drilling should be equipped with two blind shear rams,” said the report, written by the SINTEF Group, a Scandinavian research organization that advises the oil industry and maintains detailed records on blowouts around the world.

The agency made no such requirement. Indeed, it waited until 2003 to require even one blind shear ram. By then, the industry had already started moving to two blind shear rams — although industry and government records show that roughly two-thirds of the rigs in the gulf today still have only one.

The benefit of two shear rams was examined last year in a report to Transocean. It estimated that while a blowout preventer with a single blind shear ram was 99 percent reliable, having two shear rams increased that reliability to 99.32 percent. Still, the study said, blowout preventers remain vulnerable to the same “single-point failures.”

In 2003, BP and Transocean experienced firsthand the benefits of redundant blind shear rams. On May 21 at 4 a.m., the Transocean rig Discoverer Enterprise, working on a deepwater BP well, was violently jolted. The steel riser that connected the rig to the well had cracked apart in two places. A BP executive would later write that if there had been a blowout, more oil would have spilled in a week “than occurred during the whole of the Exxon’s Valdez oil spill.”

One of the blowout preventer’s blind shear rams was triggered shortly after the jolt and worked as expected. But when a robotic submersible was sent down, it found the blowout preventer damaged. Workers then activated the second blind shear ram, giving an extra layer of safety.

On the other hand, BP and Transocean officials could have drawn reassurance from another close call that year, this one involving the Deepwater Horizon itself. On June 30, 2003, while drilling a 25,000-foot-deep well in the gulf, high winds and strong currents pushed the rig away from the well hole. The crew was forced to perform an emergency disconnect from the blowout preventer, which triggered the blind shear ram.

It worked perfectly. Whether it would have worked as perfectly in an actual blowout, or with a different type of drill pipe, was another matter. The following year, BP opted to remove a layer of redundancy from the blowout preventer. It asked Transocean to replace one of the blowout preventer’s secondary rams with a “test ram” — a device that would save BP money by reducing the time it took to conduct certain well tests. In a joint letter, BP and Transocean executives confirmed that BP was aware that the change “will reduce the built-in redundancy” and raise Transocean’s “risk profile.”

The Deepwater Horizon was scheduled for a series of extensive maintenance checks later this year. The last time it was checked so thoroughly, records indicate, was in 2005, when significant problems with the blowout preventer were uncovered. The control panels on the rig that operate the blowout preventer acted strangely, giving unusual pressure readings and flashing unexplained alarm signals. A critical piece of equipment, the “hot line” that connects the rig to the blowout preventer, was “leaking badly,” Transocean maintenance documents said.

As part of its assessment of the blowout preventer, Transocean hired West Engineering, which had a checklist of more than 250 components and systems to examine. It did not perform 72 of them, mostly for a simple reason: at the time, the Deepwater Horizon was operating in the Gulf of Mexico, and the blowout preventer was on the seafloor and therefore inaccessible.

According to a West Engineering document, one of those 72 items was verifying that the blowout preventer could shear drill pipe and seal off wells in deepwater. This checkup appears to be the last time an independent expert was asked to perform a comprehensive examination of the Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer.

The rig’s blowout preventer did get lots of attention from Transocean’s maintenance workers. In January, as the Deepwater Horizon sailed toward the Macondo well site, technicians spent 145 hours repairing and checking the blowout preventer, records show. And the maintenance continued, almost daily, as the drilling began.

 

A Rich, Difficult Well

The Macondo project yielded a rich prize: one of the largest finds in the Gulf of Mexico. But the crew repeatedly struggled to maintain control of the well against powerful “kicks” of surging gas. They contended with stuck drilling pipes and broken tools. The job fell weeks behind schedule, costing BP millions of dollars in rig rental fees. In e-mail messages, BP engineers vented their frustrations, calling it a “crazy well” and a “nightmare well.”

Yet in April, as BP prepared to seal the well for later production, the company took what numerous industry experts and fellow oil executives say were highly questionable shortcuts. These included using a well design that presented few barriers to high-pressure gas rising up; skipping a crucial $128,000 test of the quality of the cementing; and failing to install capping devices at the top of the well that could also have kept gas from lifting a critical seal.

Representative Henry A. Waxman, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, asserted last week that the common thread behind all of these decisions was that they saved BP time and money but raised the risk of catastrophe. “BP has cut corner after corner to save $1 million here, a few hours or days there, and now the whole Gulf Coast is paying the price,” Mr. Waxman said.

However, as Tony Hayward, BP’s chief executive, repeatedly told Mr. Waxman’s committee last Thursday, many of these decisions were approved by the Minerals Management Service.

But if federal regulators did not see any problems, some crew members on the Deepwater Horizon appeared to believe that BP’s decisions were, increasing the odds of a catastrophic blowout that only the rig’s blind shear ram could stop. In testimony in the Coast Guard inquiry, Douglas Brown, the rig’s chief mechanic, recalled an argument hours before the explosion between a BP official and Jimmy Harrell, a senior Transocean manager.

Mr. Brown recalled Mr. Harrell walking away, grumbling, “Well, I guess that’s what we have those pinchers for.”

 

Moment of Crisis

Minutes after the blast at 10:20 p.m. on April 20, Chris Pleasant headed for the bridge. As a subsea engineer who operated the blowout preventer, his first thought was to activate “the pinchers” with the ship’s emergency disconnect system. The system is supposed to trigger the blind shear ram and then free the rig by disconnecting the riser.

Mr. Pleasant immediately noticed that something was amiss. An alarm on the control panel indicated that “the pressure had dropped” in the blowout preventer’s hydraulics, he testified at the Coast Guard hearing. Without hydraulic pressure, the blowout preventer, and especially its blind shear ram, would be useless.

“I’m E.D.S.-ing,” he told the rig’s captain, referring to the emergency system.

The captain told him to hold off and calm down, he recalled. But Mr. Pleasant said he disconnected the system anyway. At first, he said, all seemed well. A control light switched from green to red, indicating that the blind shear ram had been activated.

But then he checked the panel’s flow meters, which measure whether hydraulic fluid is actually flowing under pressure to the blowout preventer. The meters showed no flow, he said. At that moment, he realized the ship and crew were in terrible danger.

“I knew it was time to leave.”

Yet even as emergency rescue operations began under the crippled Deepwater Horizon, the scramble was on to activate the blind shear ram in some other way. The chaos and confusion of those efforts emerge from testimony and documents, including the handwritten crisis team notes.

It was a race against time. The destructive force of oil, drilling mud and well debris blowing through the guts of the blowout preventer was sure to rapidly erode the shear ram’s blades and chew away its seals, leaving it useless.

Some people thought they had days at most. One study considered it “highly unlikely” the blades and seals could withstand a blowout for even five minutes.

It would be 27 hours after Mr. Pleasant abandoned ship before engineers could make their next effort to trigger the blind shear ram, according to BP documents.

Within the first few days, engineers had already begun to wonder whether a leak of hydraulic fluid had crippled the ram. “May have had leak & have lost pressure,” one entry reads. Using a robotic submersible equipped with a hydraulic pump, they injected seawater into the blind shear ram, hoping to drive its pistons and blades closed. But the pump did not have nearly the needed strength; it could not pump water fast enough to budge the blades.

Industry studies had highlighted the problem of submersibles without sufficient strength years earlier. Now, as BP and Transocean officials searched the globe for more powerful ones, engineers plotted out a plan essentially to trick the blind shear ram into closing.

When the rig’s control panels fail, two separate backup systems, the deadman and the autoshear, are supposed to close the blind shear ram automatically. The deadman is designed to close the shear ram if the electronic and hydraulic lines connecting the rig to the blowout preventer are severed.

An underwater robot cut several lines at 2:45 a.m. on April 22.

Nothing happened.

The situation was rapidly deteriorating. “2 explosions around 3:30-4:00 this morning & rig listing at about 35 degrees,” a crisis manager wrote. “High risk of sinking.”

The autoshear is designed to trigger the blind shear ram if a rig drifts out of position and yanks its riser loose from the blowout preventer.

At 7:30 a.m., a submersible cut a firing pin on the blowout preventer, simulating the rig’s pulling free. This time, the blowout preventer shuddered, as if struggling to come back to life. “L.M.R.P. rocked & settled,” one note says, referring to the top half of the blowout preventer. But after a few moments, as oil continued to flow, it became clear that this, too, had failed.

Soon after, the Deepwater Horizon sank.

 

Stunning Discovery

The deadman, the autoshear and the underwater robots constitute the critical backup systems that have given regulators and oil industry officials great confidence that no matter what, they could always find a way to activate their last line of defense.

This was more an act of faith than a fully tested proposition.

The Minerals Management Service had never required any of these backup systems to be tested despite a report it commissioned in 2003 that said these systems “should probably receive the same attention to verify functionality” as the rest of the blowout preventer. The agency had also declined to take the modest step of requiring rigs to have these backup systems in place at all, though it had sent out a safety alert encouraging their use.

At a BP complex in Houston after the Deepwater Horizon’s sinking, in a room called the hive with video screens displaying feeds from as many as a dozen underwater robots, engineers considered their options. BP officials theorized — perhaps based on the lower estimates of leakage in those first days — that the blind shear ram might have crimped, but not quite severed, the pipe.

The idea provided a comforting mental picture. Just a few more inches with the blind shear ram, the reasoning went, and perhaps it would snap shut and stanch the spewing oil.

So six days after the explosion, they began the fifth effort to close the blind shear ram. This time they sent down tanks of pressurized hydraulic fluid that a submersible could inject directly into the ram.

Shockingly, the blind shear ram’s hydraulic system leaked, meaning pressure could not be maintained on its shearing blades.

This leak shocked engineers because the blowout preventer’s hydraulic system was obsessively checked for leaks. “We see tests fail because the hydraulics leaked two drops,” said Benton Baugh, a leading authority on blowout preventers. Indeed, the blind shear ram had been tested for leaks only hours before the blowout, and according to Transocean, no hydraulic leaks had been detected in the weeks before the blowout.

The underwater robots tried to find and fix the leak, but by now, leaks were springing up on nearly every component of the blowout preventer.

“Retighten leak,” reads a note from 4 a.m. on April 26. At 4:45: “Retest & leak still present.” Fifteen minutes later: “Retighten loose connection.”

Some of those leaks appeared to be coming from shuttle valves leading to the blind shear ram — possibly the “single-point failure” that had been identified as the blowout preventer’s biggest vulnerability back in 2001. Or the leaks could have come from shuttle valves that let hydraulic fluid from the robots reach the blind shear ram.

The leaks pointed to a gaping hole in the government’s mandated leak tests. Those tests do not require rig operators to look for leaks in the connection points used by submersibles to activate a blowout preventer in an emergency.

Finally, seven long days after the explosion, operators of the underwater robots managed to repair the leak on the blind shear ram and apply 5,000 pounds per square inch of hydraulic pressure on its blades. This was nearly double the pressure it typically takes to shear pipe.

A BP report tersely described the results: “No indication of movement.”

But engineers could not be absolutely sure. Without any way to see into the blowout preventer, engineers had essentially been operating blind, using the rate of oil flow, for example, to deduce the conditions inside.

Help came from Scott Watson, an expert in gamma ray imaging at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Gamma rays, a form of electromagnetic radiation similar to X-rays but higher in energy, might at least penetrate a few inches into the blowout preventer’s thick steel walls. Then engineers might be able to see a device called a wedge lock, which slides into place behind the shear ram to hold it closed.

In mid-May, Mr. Watson ventured to the well site, where robotic submersibles were sent down to the seafloor with cobalt 60, a radioactive isotope that generates gamma rays. The team from Los Alamos was able to get a clear view of only one half of the blind shear ram. But the images showed one wedge lock fully engaged, meaning at least one half of the shear ram had deployed.

“I don’t think anybody who saw the pictures thought it was ambiguous,” Mr. Watson said.

It was a crushing moment.

Engineers realized that all their efforts to revive the blowout preventer had probably never budged the critical component at the machine’s core, the blind shear ram. They had assumed that at some point early on, the blades had tried to close. They had hoped to close them all the way. But now, the gamma ray images showed that at least one blade was fully deployed, and they had run out of options for forcing the other one closed. Continuing to push on the ram’s pistons with more hydraulic fluid would achieve nothing.

The last line of defense was a useless carcass of steel.

 

False Sense of Security

Barely three weeks before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, President Obama announced that he planned to open vast new tracts of ocean for oil exploration, including environmentally sensitive areas that for decades had been declared off limits by presidents from both parties.

Environmental groups were bitterly disappointed, but Mr. Obama said he had arrived at his decision after more than a year of study by his administration, including a careful weighing of environmental risks. Yet the administration’s examination did not question the oil industry’s confident assertions about its drilling technology. The well-known weaknesses of blowout preventers and blind shear rams simply did not make it onto the administration’s radar, interviews and documents show.

Mr. Hayes, the deputy interior secretary, said senior officials were reassured, perhaps wrongly, by “the NASA kind of fervor” over the oil industry’s seemingly “terrific technology.” They took comfort in what appeared to be a comprehensive regime of regulations. Most of all, he said, they were impressed by the rarity of significant oil spills even as more of the nation’s domestic oil supply was being drawn from ultradeep wells.

“The track record was good,” he said. “The results were significant.”

Not even environmental groups bitterly opposed to expanding offshore drilling were raising concerns about the industry’s technology for preventing deepwater spills, he added. “We were not being drawn by anybody to a potential issue with deepwater drilling or blowout preventers.”

As for the Minerals Management Service’s own studies on the vulnerabilities and failings of blowout preventers, Mr. Hayes faulted the agency for not bringing them to the administration’s attention. Long before Mr. Obama’s announcement, Mr. Hayes said, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar had asked the agency for a report describing the potential risks and benefits of expanding offshore drilling.

The report, 219 pages long, made no mention of blind shear rams. It barely mentioned blowout preventers. It did, however, assure Mr. Salazar that safety and engineering requirements were “extensive” and that blowouts were “very rare.”

“We did not have red flags about a problem with the enforcement culture at M.M.S.,” Mr. Hayes said. “We certainly have that now.”

After the Deepwater Horizon blowout, Mr. Obama declared a moratorium on offshore drilling and ordered Mr. Salazar to look for ways to improve safety. Within weeks, Mr. Salazar came back with a long list of changes, most of them clearly responsive to weaknesses that industry and government studies had identified years before.

Mr. Salazar recommended, for example, that all blowout preventers be equipped with two blind shear rams — a step suggested to the Minerals Management Service in 2001. He recommended new rules to make sure rigs were equipped with the right kind of underwater robots and had emergency backup systems to activate blowout preventers — a step suggested to the Minerals Management Service in 2003.

He also urged a break from the agency’s tradition of taking the drilling industry’s word. From now on, he said, government inspectors should witness actual testing on blowout preventers. Rig operators, he said, should have to pay an independent expert to verify that their blowout preventers were properly designed and had not been compromised by modifications.

But Mr. Salazar stopped short of what Mr. Hayward, the BP chief executive, said was called for in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. “We need a fundamental redesign of the blowout preventer,” Mr. Hayward testified last Thursday.

Still, J. Ford Brett, a drilling expert who contributed to Mr. Salazar’s list of suggestions, cautioned that blowout preventers, whatever their design, “will not save you in every situation.”

Mr. Salazar has yet to offer ideas for what to do if another blowout preventer fails thousands of feet beneath the sea. In the absence of a Plan B, he ordered his department to come up with new “deepwater well control procedures” in the next four months.

Already, though, pressure is building on the administration to let offshore drilling operations resume. Last month, Mr. Obama lifted the moratorium on drilling in shallow waters. But along the Gulf Coast, where drilling operations are responsible for an estimated 150,000 jobs, politicians are clamoring for an end to the deepwater moratorium, too.

In Senate testimony on June 9, Mr. Salazar made clear that Mr. Obama had no intention of pulling back permanently from deepwater drilling off the United States coast.

“It was the president’s directive that we press the pause button,” Mr. Salazar said. “It’s important for all of you on this committee to know that word — it’s the pause button. It’s not the stop button.”


Michael Moss and Henry Fountain contributing reporting.

    Failure of Rig’s Last Line of Defense Tied to Myriad Factors, NYT, 20.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/21/us/21blowout.html

 

 

 

 

 

G.O.P. Stalwart Says Come, the Gulf’s Fine

 

June 19, 2010
The New York Times
By MARK LEIBOVICH

 

GULFPORT, Miss. — “Get a picture of that beach!” Gov. Haley Barbour ordered a group of television photographers standing along an oil-less stretch of sand Monday.

“They are gorgeous, pristine,” the governor gushed on Tuesday about Mississippi’s shores.

“Beautiful,” he reiterated Wednesday at a La-Z-Boy plant in Newton. “The coast is clear, and come on down.”

He is a former lobbyist, Republican National Committee chairman, White House political director and a familiar enough piece of the national political furniture to be known simply as “Haley” within certain Washington circles.

Now, for the second time in five years, Mr. Barbour finds himself in a highly visible role during a Gulf Coast catastrophe. As he nears the end of his eight-year stint as governor, Mr. Barbour’s performance could help shift his political image from that of an insider party boss to an out-front crisis manager — and possible presidential candidate in 2012.

Mr. Barbour, 62, is proof that if you hang around long enough, even a good old boy lobbyist and political party animal can come back into fashion — or at least be recast by circumstance. A self-described “fat redneck,” he speaks in a marble-mouthed Mississippi drawl, loves Maker’s Mark bourbon, resembles an adult version of Spanky from the Little Rascals and fits no one’s ideal of a sleek new political model: squat, big-bellied and pink-jowled, he looks as if he should have a cigar in his mouth at all times (and occasionally does).

Mr. Barbour, one of the few politicians whose standing was enhanced by his response to Hurricane Katrina, has eagerly taken on the post of de facto director of tourism for the Gulf Coast, a task only slightly less daunting or thankless than heading a public relations campaign for BP. He has complained bitterly about what he calls the news media’s exaggerations and distortions about the spill.

“I’ve heard reports that this would be a threat to Europe,” he railed to The Sun-Herald newspaper. “That’s about the same as saying I’m going to grow wings and take flight.”

Unlike his counterpart in Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, Mr. Barbour has mostly been spared the day-to-day incursion of oil along his state’s shores. That has allowed him to promote his bona fides on popular Republican causes (he remains enthusiastic about offshore drilling, an important source of jobs in his state) and bogeymen (White House-backed “cap and trade” energy policies).

Mr. Barbour has been generally muted in his criticism of BP and was among the first Republicans to object to the Obama administration’s insistence on a $20 billion BP escrow account to settle damage claims. He has also warned against efforts by the left to turn the spill into a regulatory cause célèbre.

“A bunch of liberal elites were hoping this would be the Three Mile Island of offshore drilling,” Mr. Barbour recently told the Mississippi Manufacturers Association.

His upbeat attitude about the spill reflects the happy-go-Haley persona that he adopted from his political idol and former boss, Ronald Reagan. But his views have drawn criticism from local Democrats, assorted bloggers and late-night comedians, even inspiring ridicule in a Web video juxtaposing his beach-promoting statements with those of the mayor in the movie “Jaws,” who urged tourists to enjoy shark-infested waters.

“I appreciate him promoting tourism,” said Diane Peranich, a Democratic state representative from the coast, “but not to the detriment of reality.”

Mr. Barbour exudes a throwback vibe harking to a time when politicians were unafraid to call themselves “politicians” and could actually admit to being well-connected insiders who know people in Washington, tell the occasional dirty joke and sip a cocktail or three after hours.

“Haley is on a neck-hugging basis with more people in politics than you will ever see,” said Martin Wiseman, the director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University.

Recently dubbed “the anti-Obama” by Newsweek, Mr. Barbour has attributes that could prove to be a counterintuitive asset for him if he decides to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. “If you think ahead to 2012, we are not going to beat the president with someone who has the same M.O. as the president,” said Nick Ayers, the executive director of the Republican Governors Association, of which Mr. Barbour is chairman.

Indeed, watching Mr. Barbour last week with Mr. Obama — the two were shown eating lemon-lime snow cones on a Gulfport beach — offered a tableau of contrasts.

At the Gulfport-Biloxi airport, Mr. Barbour stood at the foot of the Air Force One staircase and received the president, who slapped the much-shorter governor’s wide back as they strolled across the tarmac. Wearing dark sunglasses and a pale blue polo shirt, the former super-lobbyist barreled along behind Mr. Obama (who has often derided lobbyists).

Mr. Obama waded into a small crowd, reaching deep across the rope line, while Mr. Barbour headed in another direction, swinging his tree-trunk arms and giving dainty little waves to children behind the barrier.

Later, after the president departed, Mr. Barbour complained to a small group of reporters about all those pictures of oil-blackened pelicans that seem to accompany every national media story about the spill.

“The way the news media, particularly television, covers it, you’d think the entire Gulf South was ankle-deep in oil,” Mr. Barbour said. (He declined a one-on-one interview with The New York Times for this article, though he did order a Times videographer at the airport back to the beach to take more pictures.)

Even the oil that gets close to Mississippi is not so bad, Mr. Barbour was insisting Wednesday outside the La-Z- Boy plant. Louisiana, he said, is much closer than Mississippi to the blown-out well, and it has been getting “real recognizable oil,” deep brown and black goopy crude.

Not Mississippi. “By the time it gets up here, it’s been out in the gulf for so long that mostly, it doesn’t look like oil,” he said. “It’s very mixed with water. A lot of it is orange or caramel in color.”

With some exceptions, Mr. Barbour has been relatively restrained in his criticism of the Obama administration. He behaved similarly after Hurricane Katrina, in which he largely shied away from criticizing the Bush administration for its response and promoted a message of, as he says, “hitching up your britches” and not complaining.

“As someone who went through Katrina, I know that everything doesn’t always work like you want it to,” Mr. Barbour said Tuesday on a Jackson radio program hosted by the Mississippi political analyst Sid Salter. “You kind of make it up as you go along.”

He added that the Obama administration, in its response, has “done more right than wrong.”

Mr. Barbour, who is prohibited by Mississippi’s term-limit laws from seeking re-election, has spoken to friends, donors and a roster of Republican operatives about a possible presidential run in 2012. He has spoken at conservative gatherings and “party building” events and traveled to dozens of states, including Iowa, the site of the first presidential caucus, as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

Mr. Barbour said he was focused for now on this year’s elections, a point he hammers home in his political travels. Many of the activists he encounters are the same people he has known and worked with over a four-decade political career that began when he dropped out of the University of Mississippi to work on Richard M. Nixon’s presidential campaign in 1968.

After serving as chairman of the Republican National Committee in the mid-1990s, overseeing the 1994 Republican takeover in Congress, Mr. Barbour started a powerful Republican lobbying shop, Barbour, Griffith & Rogers, that still bears his name.

That could prove a major vulnerability in a national election: Mr. Barbour was not just a lobbyist, but a tobacco lobbyist. He has also made a smattering of offense-bringing remarks over the years. Most recently, he defended Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s omission of slavery from his Confederate History Month proclamation in Virginia, saying the uproar was “just a nit” and “something that doesn’t matter for diddly.”

Mr. Barbour said he would make a decision about his future after leaving the governor’s office. As a possible presidential candidate, he barely registers in early surveys: he finished last in a straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, and also brought up the rear in an April poll by CNN.

Mr. Salter, the political analyst, said he doubted that Mr. Barbour would run. His barometer: If he were running, Mr. Barbour would be taking a harder line against Mr. Obama; also, a harder line against his waistline. If the governor were getting ready to run for president, Mr. Salter said, he would be on a diet.

“If he is going to launch a presidential bid,” Mr. Salter said, “it’s not going to be from a big and tall men’s shop.”

As he addressed a group of employees at the La-Z-Boy plant in rural Newton on Wednesday, Mr. Barbour looked every bit the “fat redneck” in his element, smiling big and bear-hugging the lectern as he said “Good to see y’all” to the assembled crowd.

Afterward, as he headed to his waiting car, Mr. Barbour turned to a photographer and expressed this closing wish: “I hope you’re making me look thin.”

    G.O.P. Stalwart Says Come, the Gulf’s Fine, NYT, 19.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/20/us/20barbour.html

 

 

 

 

 

BP Chief Draws Outrage for Attending Yacht Race

 

June 19, 2010
The New York Times
By LIZ ROBBINS

 

BP officials on Saturday scrambled yet again to respond to another public relations challenge when their embattled chief executive, Tony Hayward, spent the day off the coast of England watching his yacht compete in one of the world’s largest races.

Two days after Mr. Hayward angered lawmakers on Capitol Hill with his refusal to provide details during testimony about the worst offshore oil spill in United States history, and one day after BP’s chairman said the chief executive would not be as involved in daily operations in the Gulf of Mexico, Mr. Hayward sparked new controversy from afar.

“He is having some rare private time with his son,” a BP spokeswoman, Sheila Williams, said in a telephone interview on Saturday.

But Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, who taped an interview for ABC’s “This Week,” called Mr. Hayward’s attendance at the race “part of a long line of P.R. gaffes and mistakes” that he has made.

“To quote Tony Hayward, he’s got his life back,” Mr. Emanuel said.

On May 31, six weeks after the spill began, Mr. Hayward uttered “I’d like my life back,” a comment that struck many in the gulf region as insensitive, and for which he eventually apologized.

On Saturday, Senator Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama, called Mr. Hayward’s yacht outing the “height of arrogance,” in an interview with Fox News.

“I can tell you that yacht ought to be here skimming and cleaning up a lot of the oil,” Mr. Shelby said. “He ought to be down here seeing what is really going on. Not in a cocoon somewhere.”

But Mr. Hayward’s role in the gulf became the topic of further speculation on Saturday, even as Ms. Williams, the BP spokeswoman, insisted that Mr. Hayward was still in charge of the company and the enormous cleanup operations.

“Tony receives regular updates from the gulf,” she said in an e-mail message.

On Friday, the chairman of the board of BP, Carl-Henric Svanberg, told the British TV network Sky News that Mr. Hayward would be “now handing over” the daily operations in the gulf to Robert Dudley, an American who joined BP as part of its acquisition of Amoco a decade ago.

On Saturday, BP tried to clarify what Mr. Svanberg had said about the transition of leadership in the gulf. “What he meant by ‘now,’ ” Ms. Williams said, was that “there would be a transition over to Bob over a period of time.”

“Obviously, Tony’s main priority remains overseeing all BP operations,” she said. “Over all, there will be some responsibilities handed over, but Tony will remain in full control until we have stopped the leak.”

When that might happen is not clear. Crude oil is flowing at a rate estimated between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels of oil a day from the damaged well, and BP has been able to capture only a percentage of that with its current containment methods.

BP said it was aiming to stop the leak in August, when two relief wells it is drilling will intersect with the damaged one. The company said on Friday that it was ahead of schedule on one of the wells and within 200 feet of the side of the damaged well, but that the drilling would proceed more slowly the closer it got.

Workers had captured 24,500 barrels of oil on Friday before shutting down the operation because of a malfunction on the vessel that is siphoning the oil from the leaking well — 1,000 fewer barrels than on Thursday. Operations restarted early Saturday.

By then, Mr. Hayward was already in Cowes on the southern coast of England for the J. P. Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race, a yacht race around the Isle of Wight. A spokeswoman for the race said in an e-mail message “that a gentleman by the name of Tony Hayward is a co-owner of an entered boat called ‘Bob’ that was racing today, however his name did not appear on any crew list.”

The boat finished fourth in a class of 45 others.

    BP Chief Draws Outrage for Attending Yacht Race, NYT, 19.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/20/us/20spill.html

 

 

 

 

 

BP Tries to Clarify Who Is in Charge

 

June 19, 2010
The New York Times
By LIZ ROBBINS

 

BP officials scrambled on Saturday to say that Tony Hayward, their embattled chief executive, was still in charge of all BP operations in spite of comments from the company’s chairman the day before indicating that Mr. Hayward was relinquishing his duties in the Gulf of Mexico.

Once again, the oil company was forced to clarify the statements of its top executives and to try to smooth its public image. It did so on the same day Mr. Hayward attended a yacht race off the southern coast of England. “He is having some rare private time with his son,” a BP spokeswoman, Sheila Williams, said in a telephone interview on Saturday.

Mr. Hayward, she said, runs all of BP’s operations, including those in the gulf, even if he is handing over some of the day-to-day duties in the region to Robert Dudley. “Tony receives regular updates from the gulf,” Ms. Williams said in an e-mail message.

Ms. Williams was clarifying the comments made on Friday by the chairman of the board of BP, Carl-Henric Svanberg, who told the British television network Sky News that Mr. Dudley would “now” be handing over day-to-day operations in the gulf.

What Mr. Svanberg meant, Ms. Williams said, is that “there would be a transition over to Bob over a period of time.”

“Obviously,” she said, “Tony’s main priority remains overseeing all BP operations. Over all, there will be some responsibilities handed over, but Tony will remain in full control until we have stopped the leak.”

When that might happen is not clear. BP said it was aiming to stop the leak in August, when two relief wells it is drilling will intersect with the damaged one.

The company said that it was ahead of schedule on one of the wells and within 200 feet of the side of the damaged well, but that the drilling would proceed slower the closer it got.

BP suffered a setback on Friday when the drill ship Discoverer Enterprise shut down after 8 p.m. because of what BP called a “a blocked flame arrestor.” Operations restarted early Saturday morning.

Mr. Svanberg’s comments about Mr. Hayward’s role sparked speculation about his tenure, since the chairman spoke one day after Mr. Hayward appeared before Congress and angered some lawmakers with what they called “evasive” behavior.

Mr. Svanberg did not explicitly come to his chief executive’s defense, even acknowledging that Mr. Hayward’s comments have “upset people.” Two days earlier, Mr. Haywood apologized for referring to victims of the oil spill as “small people.”

On Saturday, there appeared to be another public relations misstep when the news media learned that Mr. Hayward had attended the J.P. Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race yacht race around the Isle of Wight, one of the biggest single-day races in the world. His yacht, Bob, finished fourth in a class of 45 others.

    BP Tries to Clarify Who Is in Charge, NYT, 19.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/20/us/20spill.html

 

 

 

 

 

Clean the Gulf, Clean House, Clean Their Clock

 

June 18, 2010
The New York Times
By FRANK RICH

 

PRESIDENT Obama is not known for wild pronouncements, so it was startling to hear him liken the gulf oil spill to 9/11. Alas, this bold analogy, made in an interview with Roger Simon of Politico, proved a misleading trailer for the main event. In the president’s prime-time address a few days later, there was still talk of war, but the ammunition was sanded down to bullet points: “a clean energy future,” “a long-term gulf coast restoration plan” and, that most dreaded of perennials, “a national commission.” Such generic placeholders, unanimated by details or deadlines, are Washingtonese for “The buck stops elsewhere.”

The speech’s pans were inevitable, but in truth it was doomed no matter what the words or how cool or faux angry the performance. The president had it right the first time — this is a 9/11 crisis — and only action will do. The sole sentence that really counted on Tuesday night was his prediction that “in the coming weeks and days, these efforts should capture up to 90 percent of the oil leaking out of the well.” He will be judged on whether that’s true. The sole event that mattered last week was his jawboning of BP for a $20 billion down payment of blood money — to be overseen, appropriately enough, by Kenneth Feinberg of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.

That action could be a turning point for Obama if he builds on it. And he must. In this 9/11, it’s not just the future of the gulf coast, energy policy or his presidency that’s in jeopardy. What’s also being tarred daily by the gushing oil is the very notion that government can accomplish anything. The current crisis in that faith predates this disaster. In the short history of the Obama White House, two of its most urgent projects, reducing unemployment and pacifying Afghanistan, have yet to yield persuasive results. The dividends on the third, health care reform, won’t be in the mail for years.

Given that record of incompletes, the government’s failure to police BP and the administration’s seeming impotence once disaster struck couldn’t have been more ill-timed. And there’s no miracle fix. Obama can’t play Aquaman in the gulf, he can’t coax a new jobs program out of a deficit-fixated Congress, and he can’t quit Harmid Karzai. Indeed, if the president had actually outlined new energy policies Tuesday night, they would have been dismissed as more empty promises from a government that can’t even measure the extent of the spill.

While Obama ended his speech with an exhortation for prayer, hope for divine intervention is no substitute for his own intercession. He could start running his administration with a 9/11 sense of urgency. And he could explain to the country exactly what the other side is offering as an alternative to his governance — non-governance that gives even more clout to irresponsible corporate giants like BP. As our most popular national politician, Obama still has power, within his White House and with the public, to effect change — should he exercise it.

Some exposure to the voluminous investigative reporting incited by this crisis might move him to step up his game. After all, the muckraking of McClure’s magazine a century ago, some of it aimed at Standard Oil, helped fuel Teddy Roosevelt’s activism. T.R. called it “torrential journalism,” and a particularly torrential contemporary example is a scathing account of Obama’s own Interior Department by Tim Dickinson in Rolling Stone, a publication often friendly to this president. Dickinson’s findings will liberate Obama from any illusions that the systemic failure to crack down on BP was the unavoidable legacy of the derelict Minerals Management Service he inherited from Bush-Cheney.

In Rolling Stone’s account, the current interior secretary, Ken Salazar, left too many “long-serving lackeys of the oil industry in charge” at M.M.S. even as he added to their responsibilities by raising offshore drilling to record levels. One of those Bush holdovers was tainted by a scandal that will cost taxpayers as much as $53 billion in uncollected drilling fees from the oil giants — or more than twice what Obama has extracted from BP for its sins so far.

Dickinson reports that Salazar and M.M.S. continued to give BP free rein well after Obama took office — despite the company’s horrific record of having been “implicated in each of the worst oil disasters in American history, dating back to the Exxon Valdez in 1989.” Even as the interior secretary hyped himself as “a new sheriff in town,” BP was given a green light to drill in the gulf without a comprehensive environmental review.

Obama has said he would have fired Tony Hayward, BP’s chief executive, but his own managers have not been held so accountable. The new director of M.M.S. installed by Salazar 10 months ago has now walked the plank, but she doesn’t appear to have been a major player in lapses that were all but ordained by policy imperatives from above. The president has still neither explained nor apologized for his own assertion in early April that “oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills” — a statement that is simply impossible to square with Salazar’s claim that the administration’s new offshore drilling policy, supposedly the product of a year’s study, was “based on sound information and sound science.”

The president must come clean and clean house not just because it’s right. He must rebuild confidence in his government for that inevitable day when the next crisis hits the fan. That would be Afghanistan, and the day is rapidly arriving. Already Obama’s chosen executive there, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is calling the much-heralded test case for administration counterinsurgency policy — the de-Talibanization and stabilization of the Marja district — “a bleeding ulcer.” And that, relatively speaking, is the good news from this war.

The president’s shake-up of his own governance can’t wait, as tradition often has it, until after the next election. The Tea Party is at the barricades. When Obama said yet again on Tuesday that he would be “happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party,” you wanted to shout back, Enough already! His energy would be far better spent calling out in no uncertain terms what the other party’s “ideas and approaches” are. The more the Fox-Palin right has strengthened its hold on the G.O.P. during primary season, the sharper and more risky its ideology has become.

When Rand Paul defended BP against Salazar’s (empty) threat to keep a boot on the company’s neck, he was not speaking as some oddball libertarian outlier. His views are mainstream in his conservative cohort. Traditional Republican calls for limited government have given way to radical cries for abolishing many of modern government’s essential tasks. Paul has called for the elimination of the Department of Education, the Federal Reserve and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The newest G.O.P. star — Sharron Angle, the victor in this month’s Republican senatorial primary in Nevada — has also marked the Energy Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Social Security and Medicare for either demolition or privatization.

Pertinently enough, Angle has also called for processing highly radioactive nuclear waste at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. If Americans abhor poorly regulated deepwater oil drilling, wait until they get a load of nuclear waste on land with no regulatory agency in charge at all. The choice between inept government and no government is no choice at all, of course. But there would be a clear alternative if the president could persuade the country that Washington, or at least its executive branch, can be reformed — a process that demands him to own up fully to his own mistakes and decisively correct them.

While the greatest environmental disaster in our history is a trying juncture for Obama, it also provides him with a nearly unparalleled opening to make his and government’s case. The spill’s sole positive benefit has been to unambiguously expose the hard right, for all its populist pandering to the Tea Partiers, as a stalking horse for its most rapacious corporate patrons. If this president can speak lucidly of race to America, he can certainly explain how the antigovernment crusaders are often the paid toadies of bad actors like BP. Such big corporations are only too glad to replace big government with governance of their own, by their own, and for their own profit — while the “small people” are left to eat cake at their tea parties.

When Joe Barton, the ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, revived Rand Paul’s defense of BP last week by apologizing on camera to Hayward for the “tragedy” of the White House’s “$20 billion shakedown,” the G.O.P. establishment had to shut him down because he was revealing the party’s true loyalties, not because it disagreed with him. Barton was merely echoing Michele Bachmann, who labeled the $20 billion for gulf victims a “redistribution-of-wealth fund,” and the 100-plus other House members whose Republican Study Committee had labeled the $20 billion a “Chicago-style shakedown” only a day before Barton did.

These tribunes of the antigovernment right and their Tea Party auxiliaries are clamoring for a new revolution to “take back America” — after which, we now can see, they would hand over America to the likes of BP. Let Deepwater Horizon be ground zero for a 9/11 showdown over the role of government. There couldn’t be a riper moment for Obama, as a man once said, to bring it on.

    Clean the Gulf, Clean House, Clean Their Clock, NYT, 18.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/20/opinion/20rich.html

 

 

 

 

 

Where Gulf Spill Might Place on the Roll of Disasters

 

June 18, 2010
The New York Times
By JUSTIN GILLIS

 

From the Oval Office the other night, President Obama called the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced.” Senior people in the government have echoed that language.

The motive seems clear. The words signal sympathy for the people of the Gulf Coast, an acknowledgment of the magnitude of their struggle. And if this is really the worst environmental disaster, the wording seems to suggest, maybe people need to cut the government some slack for failing to get it under control right away.

But is the description accurate?

Scholars of environmental history, while expressing sympathy for the people of the gulf, say the assertion is debatable. They offer an intimidating list of disasters to consider: floods caused by human negligence, the destruction of forests across the entire continent and the near-extermination of the American bison.

“The White House is ignoring all the shades and complexities here to make a dramatic point,” said Donald E. Worster, an environmental historian at the University of Kansas and a visiting scholar at Yale.

The professors also note the impossibility of ranking such a varied list of catastrophes. Perhaps the worst disaster, they say, is always the one people are living through now.

Still, for sheer disruption to human lives, several of them could think of no environmental problem in American history quite equaling the calamity known as the Dust Bowl.

“The Dust Bowl is arguably one of the worst ecological blunders in world history,” said Ted Steinberg, a historian at Case Western Reserve University.

Across the High Plains, stretching from the Texas Panhandle to the Dakotas, poor farming practices in the early part of the 20th century stripped away the native grasses that held moisture and soil in place. A drought that began in 1930 exposed the folly.

Boiling clouds of dust whipped up by harsh winds buried homes and cars, destroyed crops, choked farm animals to death and sent children to the hospital with pneumonia. At first the crisis was ignored in Washington, but then the apocalyptic clouds began to blow all the way to New York, Buffalo and Chicago. A hearing in Congress on the disaster was interrupted by the arrival of a dust storm.

By the mid-1930s, people started to give up on the region in droves. The Dust Bowl refugees joined a larger stream of migrants displaced by agricultural mechanization, and by 1940 more than two million people had left the Great Plains States.

However, the Dust Bowl lasted a decade, and that raises an issue. What exactly should be defined as an environmental disaster? How long should an event take to play out, and how many people have to be harmed before it deserves that epithet?

Among sudden events, the Johnstown Flood might be a candidate for worst environmental disaster. On May 31, 1889, heavy rains caused a poorly maintained dam to burst in southwestern Pennsylvania, sending a wall of water 14 miles downriver to the town of Johnstown. About 2,200 people were killed in one of the worst tolls in the nation’s history.

At the time it happened, that event was understood as a failure of engineering and maintenance, and that is how it has come down in history. Perhaps a one-day flood is simply too short-term to count as an environmental disaster.

On the other hand, if events that played out over many decades are included, the field of candidates expands sharply.

Perhaps the destruction of the native forests of North America, which took hundreds of years, should be counted as the nation’s largest environmental calamity. The slaughtering of millions of bison on the Great Plains might qualify.

Craig E. Colten, a geographer at Louisiana State University, nominates “the human overhaul of the Mississippi River Valley,” which destroyed many thousands of acres of wetlands and made the region more vulnerable to later events like Hurricane Katrina.

However, those activities were not seen as disasters at the time, at least by the people who carried them out. They were viewed as desirable alterations of the landscape. It is only in retrospect that people have come to understand what was lost, so maybe those do not belong on a disaster list.

Oil spills, too, seem to be judged more by their effect on people than on the environment. Consider the Lakeview Gusher, which was almost certainly a worse oil spill, by volume, than the one continuing in the gulf.

In the southern end of California’s San Joaquin Valley, an oil rush was on in the early decades of the 20th century. On March 14, 1910, a well halfway between the towns of Taft and Maricopa, in Kern County, blew out with a mighty roar.

It continued spewing huge quantities of oil for 18 months. The version of events accepted by the State of California puts the flow rate near 100,000 barrels a day at times. “It’s the granddaddy of all gushers,” said Pete Gianopulos, an amateur historian in the area.

The ultimate volume spilled was calculated at 9 million barrels, or 378 million gallons. According to the highest government estimates, the Deepwater Horizon spill is not yet half that size.

The Lakeview oil was penned in immense pools by sandbags and earthen berms, and nearly half was recovered and refined by the Union Oil Company. The rest soaked into the ground or evaporated. Today, little evidence of the spill remains, and outside Kern County, it has been largely forgotten. That is surely because the area is desert scrubland, and few people were inconvenienced by the spill.

That sets it apart from the Deepwater Horizon leak. The environmental effects of the gulf spill remain largely unknown. But the number of lives disrupted is certainly in the thousands, if not the tens of thousands; the paychecks lost in industries like fishing add up to millions; and the ultimate cost will be counted in billions.

Even with all that pain, can it yet be called the nation’s worst environmental disaster?

“My take,” said William W. Savage Jr., a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, “is that we’re not going to be able to tell until it’s over.”


Barclay Walsh contributed research.

    Where Gulf Spill Might Place on the Roll of Disasters, NYT, 18.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/19/science/earth/19enviro.html

 

 

 

 

 

Donations Create a Tricky Balance for Oil-State Politicians

 

June 18, 2010
The New York Times
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN and ERIC LICHTBLAU

 

WASHINGTON — The outburst by Representative Joe L. Barton of Texas in support of BP underscored the potential peril for lawmakers forced to respond to crises involving industries vital to their regions, and whose bountiful donations finance their political campaigns.

Democrats continued to make use of Mr. Barton’s apology to BP, using it to portray Republicans as beholden to big oil. Mr. Barton, the senior Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, worked as a consultant to Atlantic Richfield Oil and Gas Company before being elected to Congress. He has long been one of the top beneficiaries of campaign donations from big energy companies, cornerstones of the Texas economy.

But in going after Republicans, the Democrats’ attacks gloss over a more complicated picture.

The largest beneficiary of campaign donations from BP in the 2008 election cycle, for instance, was President Obama, who took in $77,000 from company executives and its political action committee. This year, Senator Blanche Lincoln, Democrat of Arkansas and chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee, leads all candidates with $286,000 in donations from oil and gas companies.

And while Democrats have pounced on Mr. Barton for accusing Mr. Obama of conducting a “shakedown” by demanding that BP set up a $20 billion fund for oil spill claims, a number of Democratic lawmakers — especially those from oil-producing Gulf states — have struggled to balance their criticism of BP with support for the industry.

Officials like Senator Mary L. Landrieu and Representative Charlie Melancon, both Democrats of Louisiana, have demanded accountability for BP and reparations for individuals and businesses who may face financial catastrophe. But they have also fought to lift the moratorium on offshore drilling imposed by the Obama administration after the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, saying it is crippling the local economy.

“Fifty-seven days ago this country was using 20 million barrels of oil a day,” Ms. Landrieu said on the Senate floor this week, responding to a speech by Mr. Obama from the Oval Office. “Today, 57 days later, 11 lives lost, the rig at the bottom of the ocean, we are still using 20 million barrels a day. The president did not say to people last night to park their cars and walk to work.”

Ms. Landrieu continued, “We have to understand we have to continue to drill for oil and gas.”

Both Ms. Landrieu and Mr. Melancon, who is running for a Senate seat, receive substantial donations from the oil and gas industry, which is hardly surprising given the industry’s big presence in Louisiana. For her campaigns, Ms. Landrieu has taken in $751,000 since 1996, while Mr. Melancon has received $312,000 since 2004.

A day after infuriating even his own party’s leaders with his remarks, Mr. Barton would not agree to an interview. But a Barton spokeswoman said it was similarly no surprise that a representative from Texas with a senior job on the Energy and Commerce Committee would be the beneficiary of oil and gas companies.

“Joe Barton gets oil money and energy money, well, damn straight,” said the spokeswoman, Lisa Miller. “It probably doesn’t come as a shock to anybody that Texas congressmen, Democrats and Republicans, receive energy money. But how he feels about BP is not related obviously to his campaign contributions because he is extremely critical of BP.”

Ms. Miller pointed out that Mr. Barton had a big role in Congressional inquiries into a 2006 BP oil spill in Alaska and a 2005 explosion at a BP refinery in Texas that killed 15 workers. Ms. Miller said that hearings led by Mr. Barton contributed to the forced retirement of BP’s chief executive, John Browne. He was replaced by Tony Hayward, the C.E.O. Mr. Barton apologized to on Thursday.

Mr. Barton was also critical in obtaining major tax breaks for the oil industry in 2004. He has received $1.4 million since the 1990 cycle from individuals and political action committees in the oil and gas industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The nuances of big oil’s relationship to Washington was immaterial to Democrats who intensified the onslaught that began on Thursday after Mr. Barton’s apology, and his subsequent apology for the apology.

Besides painting Republicans as defenders of big oil, Democrats used Mr. Barton’s comments to deflect attention, if briefly, from the Obama administration’s difficulties in managing the response to the huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“If the G.O.P. wins back the House, Barton is the guy who could be in charge of regulating the oil industry,” the Democratic National Committee wrote in a fund-raising pitch. “We’re whipping together an ad as fast as possible to make sure voters know exactly whose side Barton and the G.O.P. are on and to demand they stop apologizing to big oil, but we need your help to get it on the air.”

In a sign of the political sensitivity around the oil spill, Republicans joined in criticizing Mr. Barton. Representative Jo Bonner, Republican of Alabama, called on Mr. Barton to resign his committee post on Friday, joining Representative Jeff Miller, Republican of Florida.

The tightrope walk faced by elected officials from oil and gas states is similar to the New York delegation’s struggles when it comes to legislation to regulate Wall Street banks, or the New Jersey delegation’s sensitivity on legislation related to the pharmaceutical industry.

“You’ve got this conflict for these folks where they acknowledge the spill is a problem but, with the significant support they get from the industry, are a heck of a lot more reluctant to take aggressive legislative action against the company,” said Tyson Slocum, who runs the energy program at Public Citizen, a political research and advocacy group.

Besides Ms. Landrieu and Mr. Barton, lawmakers from big energy states include Senator David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana; Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma; and Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska.

Ms. Murkowski, who has received $434,000 from the industry since 2002 and whose state economy is particularly linked to the industry, last month blocked the Senate from considering a measure that would raise the liability limit for an oil company’s legal exposure to $10 billion from $75 million, saying it could hurt smaller companies and produce “unintended consequences.”

For the last decade, the oil industry has been one of the most powerful lobbying constituencies in Washington. It has spent nearly a billion dollars on federal lobbying since 1998, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, making it the sixth-biggest industry in terms of expenditures.

In the current election cycle, the oil and gas industry has contributed $12.8 million to Congressional candidates, with 71 percent of it going to Republicans.

    Donations Create a Tricky Balance for Oil-State Politicians, NYT, 18.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/19/us/politics/19donate.html

 

 

 

 

 

BP Moves Chief Executive to Lesser Role in Spill Response

 

June 18, 2010
The New York Times
By CLIFFORD KRAUSS

 

A day after he came under relentless attack at a Congressional hearing, the BP chief executive, Tony Hayward, was pushed aside as the man in charge of the company’s response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“It is clear Tony has made remarks that have upset people,” Carl-Henric Svanberg, the chairman of BP’s board of directors, told the British television network Sky News on Friday.

Mr. Svanberg said he had decided to get more personally involved in the oil giant’s handling of the crisis.

“This has now turned into a reputational matter, a financial squeeze for BP and a political matter, and that is why you will now see more of me,” said the chairman, who stepped into the spotlight this week when he led BP’s delegation to a meeting with President Obama in the White House.

Mr. Svanberg said Robert Dudley, an American who joined BP as part of its acquisition of Amoco a decade ago, is taking the lead in managing the London-based company’s response to the continuing disaster in the gulf. BP announced two weeks ago that it was creating a new unit, led by Mr. Dudley, to focus on the spill.

Mr. Svanberg’s remarks heightened Wall Street speculation that a major BP management shakeup will come sooner rather than later. “It tells me poor Tony is really walking on very thin ice,” said Fadel Gheit, a senior oil analyst at Oppenheimer & Company.

The change in roles, which a BP spokesman, Andrew Gowers, said was a normal transition so that Mr. Hayward could refocus on running the company, came after the chief executive got lackluster reviews in the United States and Britain for his House performance. During his testimony, which stretched over seven hours, Mr. Hayward repeatedly said he was not responsible for the decisions that may have led to the accident and could not comment on its causes.

“He appeared to have drunk deeply of the wisdom of his lawyers,” The Times of London dryly noted. A commentator in The Daily Telegraph said Mr. Hayward looked “like a tired undertaker who was rather bored with having to look mournful.”

If BP’s board were to choose another chief executive, Mr. Dudley would be a leading internal candidate. The former head of BP’s Russian joint venture, TNK-BP, Mr. Dudley was forced to flee Russia after a bitter dispute with the company’s Russian partners. He has since kept a low profile at BP, serving on its board.

In a statement Friday, Representative Bart Stupak, the Michigan Democrat who was one of Mr. Hayward’s harshest interrogators, said the BP chief had been “evasive and obstructive” in his testimony.

“Whether this change in gulf leadership for BP will be productive remains to be seen,” Mr. Stupak said. “I expect that Mr. Dudley will take a much more cooperative and open approach to answering our questions and responding to the needs of the gulf region. If not, his tenure will likely be as short lived as Mr. Hayward’s.”

Throughout the crisis, the company has publicly insisted that Mr. Hayward’s job is secure and that he remains very much in charge of the company. Mr. Gowers, the spokesman, said the board did not consider replacing Mr. Hayward at its meeting Monday.

At the outset of the crisis, the cherub-cheeked Mr. Hayward, 53, appeared to almost relish his sudden celebrity. He played down the environmental consequences of the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and repeatedly blamed Transocean, the rig owner, for the accident. He readily gave television interviews and took to quoting Winston Churchill and comparing BP’s response to the spill to World War II’s illustrious seaborne evacuation at Dunkirk.

But as the crisis wore on, a visibly tired Mr. Hayward repeatedly displayed a tin ear and became prone to embarrassing gaffes. Perhaps worst of all was his comment on May 31, when he said he would like the disaster to end because “I’d like my life back.” He later apologized.

    BP Moves Chief Executive to Lesser Role in Spill Response, NYT, 18.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/19/us/19spill.html

 

 

 

 

 

BP Captures Largest Amount of Leaking Oil Yet

 

June 18, 2010
The New York Times
By LIZ ROBBINS

 

Good days are relative for BP, the company responsible for stopping the largest offshore oil spill in the nation’s history. But the last two days brought moderate signs of progress in the company’s struggle to contain the catastrophe flowing from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico.

BP said Friday that it had captured 25,290 barrels on Thursday of crude oil leaking from the wrecked well. That amount was the most for a single day since the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig on April 20, though still not close to the total amount of oil pouring into the gulf each day.

The drilling of one of the relief wells, expected to be the means of sealing the damaged well, came within 200 feet of its destination, BP said.

The Coast Guard, meanwhile, said skimming equipment was being constructed for 2,000 more available vessels through BP’s Vessels of Opportunity program, which hires local boat owners to help clean up the oil.

“As many as we can make and as fast as we can get them here,” Adm. Thad W. Allen of the Coast Guard, the national incident commander, said in his daily briefing.

The need for expediency underscores the stark reality: oil is still gushing at 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day, with no signs of slowing down.

BP said early August was still the target time for killing the well — the technical term for sealing what has become a pernicious adversary — when the two relief wells are completed.

How, then, is it possible to measure progress that may seem like a few drops in the proverbial bucket? The Coast Guard and BP prefer to consider the recent small advances — cautiously — as signs of hope. The Q4000, the second vessel to join the containment effort above the well, began collecting oil Tuesday morning, and within three days was nearly achieving its maximum capacity of about 10,000 barrels a day.

On Wednesday, the two systems combined to collect 18,600 barrels of oil, which increased by nearly 7,000 barrels on Thursday. “I was quite encouraged,” said Kent Wells, a BP senior vice president, who gave a technical update to reporters on Friday.

By the end of June, the Q4000, together with the Discoverer Enterprise, the vessel with a direct connection to the containment cap on the well, will be joined by a third means of collecting escaping oil: a free-standing riser on the seabed floor. Together, they are expected to be able to collect about 50,000 barrels of oil daily, Mr. Wells said.

By mid-July, BP is planning to put a tighter cap on the well, and establish the second free-standing riser pipe, which can easily be disconnected in the event of a hurricane. By then, there would be four vessels in the gulf collecting oil — with a total capacity of 80,000 barrels a day.

That figure might seem excessive, considering scientists have estimated the maximum flow rate to be only 60,000 barrels a day. But Mr. Wells explained that was to cover all contingencies, “if once we start capturing all the oil, something goes wrong and we’re not capturing any at all,” he said.

After all, the process to kill and even contain the well has been full of failed attempts only recently.

BP has said that the relief well offers the best chance to seal the well for good. Two wells are being drilled — one as a backup. Although the first is close to the existing well, the farther down in the layers of rock beneath the seabed the drill bit goes, the slower the process will be as BP determines the exact point to curve back and intersect the leaking well. They will use electromagnetic sensors to assist them.

“We’re going to drill a couple hundred feet, see where the well is, and drill another 200 feet,” Mr. Wells said. “We’re honing in on exactly where the well is. Not only do we have to find where it is, we have to go right beside it and come back into it — that’s what takes the time.”

As of Thursday, BP has been able to capture 204,200 barrels of oil using the twofold containment system.

“Things have gone well down to this stage,” Mr. Wells said, “but that doesn’t always mean things will continue to go well.”

    BP Captures Largest Amount of Leaking Oil Yet, NYT, 18.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/19/us/19gulf.html

 

 

 

 

 

BP Chief Expresses Contrition to House Panel

 

June 17, 2010
The New York Times
By JOHN M. BRODER and LIZ ROBBINS

 

WASHINGTON — BP’s embattled chief executive, Tony Hayward, told Congress on Thursday that the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico “never should have happened, and I am deeply sorry that it did,” as he tried to demonstrate that he and the oil giant understood the enormity of the spill’s environmental, economic and human toll.

Just as Mr. Hayward, who has faced weeks of withering criticism for his response to the spill, was opening his mouth to begin his opening statement, he was interrupted by one of several protestors in the room, a woman with dark paint under her eyes and smothered over her hands to look like oil. After about two minutes, she was subdued by police officers, taken from the room and Mr. Hayward began his prepared remarks.

He offered deep contrition, but few answers to the pressing questions stemming from the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon offshore rig, and the two-month oil spill.

“How could this happen?” Mr. Hayward read. “How damaging is the spill to the environment? Why is it taking so long to stop the flow of oil and gas into the Gulf?”

He went on to say: “We don’t yet have answers to all these important questions.”

He called the spill a tragedy, and said that when he learned that 11 workers died in the explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon, “I was personally devastated.”

Mr. Hayward’s remarks came after he sat through more than an hour of statements from committee members committee.

Representative Henry A. Waxman, chairman of the full Energy and Commerce Committee, whose investigations and oversight subcommittee is holding the hearing, assailed BP’s “corporate complacency.” He said the committee searched 30,000 BP documents in vain looking for evidence of attention to the risks of the Macondo well.

“There is not a single e-mail or document that shows you paid even the slightest attention to the dangers at the well," Mr. Waxman said.

"BP’s corporate complacency is astonishing," he added. "BP cut corner after corner to save a million dollars here and a few hours or days there. And now the whole Gulf Coast is paying the price."

Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the senior Republican on the committee, criticized the White House’s brokering the $20 billion fund as a “shakedown,” and apologized to Mr. Hayward for what he called the politicization of the crisis.

Mr. Barton said he was “ashamed” of the meeting at the White House on Wednesday, at which top BP officials pledged to set aside $20 billion to pay future economic and environmental claims.

Representative Ed Markey, who chairs the House Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming, said he disagreed strongly with Mr. Barton’s characterization of a “shakedown,” adding that it was the government’s right to protect its “most vulnerable citizens.”

Later, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, responded to Rep. Barton’s remarks.

“What is shameful is that Joe Barton seems to have more concern for big corporations that caused this disaster than the fishermen, small business owners and communities whose lives have been devastated by the destruction,” Mr. Gibbs said in a statement. “Congressman Barton may think that a fund to compensate these Americans is a ‘tragedy’, but most Americans know that the real tragedy is what the men and women of the Gulf Coast are going through right now. Members from both parties should repudiate his comments.”

At the hearing, Mr. Hayward sat mostly expressionless, writing notes as committee members took turns delivering their statements and political salvos.

He later told the committee that BP’s efforts to stop the leak and contain the oil were continuing on two fronts: drilling of two relief wells should be completed by August, he said, and the two containment devices were successfully capturing some of the oil erupting from the well.

A spokesman for BP, Brian Ferguson, said that according to Adm. Thad W. Allen, the national incident commander, the relief wells were “weeks ahead of schedule.” On Thursday, BP had been able to capture 14, 750 barrels of crude oil.

Mr. Hayward’s appearance before the Congressional panel comes one day after President Obama announced that BP would create a $20 billion fund to pay damage claims to thousands of fishermen and others along the Gulf Coast. BP also said it would suspend dividend payments to shareholders.

The $20 billion fund announced on Wednesday will be administered by Kenneth R. Feinberg, the lawyer and mediator who ran the fund for victims of the Sept. 11 attacks and has emerged as a troubleshooter on issues like executive compensation and resolving claims for asbestos and Agent Orange victims.

While acknowledging that oil is likely to continue spewing from the well for perhaps months to come, Mr. Obama was able to throw something of a lifeline to desperate coastal residents worried about meeting payrolls, mortgages and shrimp boat payments.

Under the famous portrait of a charging Theodore Roosevelt on horseback, administration and company officials haggled over last details in an extraordinary White House meeting that went more than four hours, double the time scheduled, and was punctuated by breaks as each side huddled separately. Finally, participants said, Mr. Obama sealed the deal in a private, 25-minute session with BP’s chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg.

“This is not just a matter of dollars and cents” for a region upended by the spill, Mr. Obama, who returned Tuesday from a fourth tour of the coast, said he had told Mr. Svanberg.

“I emphasized to the chairman,” he said, “that when he’s talking to shareholders, when he is in meetings in his boardroom, to keep in mind those individuals — that they are desperate, that some of them, if they don’t get relief quickly, may lose businesses that have been in their families for two or three generations. And the chairman assured me that he would keep them in mind.”

Mr. Svanberg, looking somber as he left the White House, confirmed to waiting reporters that the president seemed “frustrated because he cares about the small people.” But he added: “People say that large oil companies don’t care about the small people. But we care. We care about the small people.”

The “small people” comment set off an immediate uproar in the blogosphere and elsewhere from people who said it showed BP’s indifference to those harmed by the spill. A BP spokesman called the remark a “slip in translation” by Mr. Svanberg, who is Swedish. Later Wednesday Mr. Svanberg apologized, saying he was “very sorry” he had spoken “clumsily.”

“What I was trying to say — that BP understands how deeply this affects the lives of people who live along the gulf and depend on it for their livelihood — will best be conveyed not by any words but by the work we do to put things right for the families and businesses who’ve been hurt,” he said in a statement.

Mr. Svanberg said the BP board, which met in emergency session on Monday in advance of the White House meeting, had agreed not to pay further dividends to shareholders this year. Faced with mounting criticism of his company, including from within the oil industry, he denied reports that BP had taken safety shortcuts on the Deepwater Horizon rig, where an April 20 explosion killed 11 workers and set in motion the leak that Mr. Obama has called the worst environmental disaster in American history.

Still, Mr. Svanberg said he wanted to “apologize to the American people on behalf of all the employees of BP.”

On Friday, Mr. Hayward was trying to do the same.


Jackie Calmes contributed reporting from Washington. Robbie Brown contributed reporting from New Orleans and Julia Werdigier from London. Helene Cooper contributed from Washington.

    BP Chief Expresses Contrition to House Panel, NYT, 17.10.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/18/us/politics/18spill.html

 

 

 

 

 

BP Chief to Express Contrition to House Panel

 

June 17, 2010
The New York Times
By JACKIE CALMES and HELENE COOPER

 

WASHINGTON — BP’s embattled chief executive, Tony Hayward, prepared to tell Congress on Thursday that he was “deeply sorry” for the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, seeking to demonstrate that he and the oil giant understood the enormity of the spill’s environmental, economic and human toll.

Mr. Hayward has faced withering criticism for his response to the spill, and was expected to receive another onslaught of anger as he testified before the House panel later Thursday morning.

“People lost their lives; others were injured; and the Gulf Coast environment and communities are suffering,” Mr. Hayward said in prepared remarks to be delivered to the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “This is unacceptable, I understand that, and let me be very clear: I fully grasp the terrible reality of the situation.”

His appearance before the Congressional panel comes one day after President Obama announced that BP would create a $20 billion fund to pay damage claims to thousands of fishermen and others along the Gulf Coast. BP also said it would suspend dividend payments to shareholders.

In prepared remarks, Mr. Hayward offered deep contrition, but few answers to the pressing questions stemming from the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon offshore rig, and the two-month oil spill.

“How could this happen?” Mr. Hayward said in the statement. “How damaging is the spill to the environment? Why is it taking so long to stop the flow of oil and gas into the Gulf?”

He goes on to say: “We don’t yet have answers to all these important questions.”

The $20 billion fund announced on Wednesday will be administered by Kenneth R. Feinberg, the lawyer and mediator who ran the fund for victims of the Sept. 11 attacks and has emerged as a troubleshooter on issues like executive compensation and resolving claims for asbestos and Agent Orange victims.

While acknowledging that oil is likely to continue spewing from the well for perhaps months to come, Mr. Obama was able to throw something of a lifeline to desperate coastal residents worried about meeting payrolls, mortgages and shrimp boat payments.

Under the famous portrait of a charging Theodore Roosevelt on horseback, administration and company officials haggled over last details in an extraordinary White House meeting that went more than four hours, double the time scheduled, and was punctuated by breaks as each side huddled separately. Finally, participants said, Mr. Obama sealed the deal in a private, 25-minute session with BP’s chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg.

“This is not just a matter of dollars and cents” for a region upended by the spill, Mr. Obama, who returned Tuesday from a fourth tour of the coast, said he had told Mr. Svanberg.

“I emphasized to the chairman,” he said, “that when he’s talking to shareholders, when he is in meetings in his boardroom, to keep in mind those individuals — that they are desperate, that some of them, if they don’t get relief quickly, may lose businesses that have been in their families for two or three generations. And the chairman assured me that he would keep them in mind.”

Mr. Svanberg, looking somber as he left the White House, confirmed to waiting reporters that the president seemed “frustrated because he cares about the small people.” But he added: “People say that large oil companies don’t care about the small people. But we care. We care about the small people.”

The “small people” comment set off an immediate uproar in the blogosphere and elsewhere from people who said it showed BP’s indifference to those harmed by the spill. A BP spokesman called the remark a “slip in translation” by Mr. Svanberg, who is Swedish. Later Wednesday Mr. Svanberg apologized, saying he was “very sorry” he had spoken “clumsily.”

“What I was trying to say — that BP understands how deeply this affects the lives of people who live along the gulf and depend on it for their livelihood — will best be conveyed not by any words but by the work we do to put things right for the families and businesses who’ve been hurt,” he said in a statement.

Mr. Svanberg said the BP board, which met in emergency session on Monday in advance of the White House meeting, had agreed not to pay further dividends to shareholders this year. Faced with mounting criticism of his company, including from within the oil industry, he denied reports that BP had taken safety shortcuts on the Deepwater Horizon rig, where an April 20 explosion killed 11 workers and set in motion the leak that Mr. Obama has called the worst environmental disaster in American history.

Still, Mr. Svanberg said he wanted to “apologize to the American people on behalf of all the employees of BP.”

The resolution of both the $20 billion fund, to be held in escrow, and the looming controversy over as much as $10.5 billion in dividends BP had been prepared to pay out provided the first triumphal moment for Mr. Obama since the disaster. Weeks of bad news about failed attempts to plug the well and ever-increasing estimates of how much oil was leaking were creating a political crisis for a president who had promised to restore competence to government.

The agreement, by settling much uncertainty about BP’s ultimate liabilities, also gave the company a boost on Wall Street. After the announcement, markets regained ground lost earlier in the day and finished the day mixed. BP shares, which had been down as much as 4.6 percent, closed up 1.4 percent, or 45 cents, to $31.85.

Mr. Obama’s announcement and subsequent information from the White House and BP was in effect a response to some critics, including normally supportive commentators, who had faulted him the night before for being short on specifics about the disaster in his first address to the nation from the Oval Office.

Nonetheless, as the administration also disclosed this week, new government reports suggest that oil is gushing at far greater volume than many had thought, as much as 60,000 barrels a day. BP does not yet have the capacity to capture that much oil in ships stationed above the leak, a mile down on the ocean floor.

So, as Mr. Obama acknowledged, the crisis continues. But the president said the escrow fund “will provide substantial assurance that the claims people and businesses have will be honored.”

“It’s also important to emphasize this is not a cap,” Mr. Obama said. “The people of the gulf have my commitment that BP will meet its obligations to them.”

He said that the fund would not preclude individuals or states from pressing claims in court, and that it would remain separate from BP’s liability for the damages to the environment.

In the discussions between the administration and BP, one sticking point was settled by the company’s agreement to “voluntarily” — as the president put it — establish a separate $100 million fund to compensate oil rig workers left jobless by Mr. Obama’s six-month moratorium on all deep-water drilling. That moratorium, which the president said would stay in place until a study of what went wrong with the BP well was concluded, has been a subject of much complaint from affected coastal residents.

While Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and other administration officials have repeatedly said that BP is liable ultimately for compensating laid-off oil workers, the company adamantly opposed open-ended responsibility for all of those laid off, including employees of other big oil companies, as a result of the government moratorium.

“We made clear we do not think this is a liability of the company,” said Jamie Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration who now represents BP. “The president said he’s concerned about those workers. He asked if this was something we could do as a voluntary gesture.”

She said the two sides had not discussed whether the $100 million fund meant that the White House would refrain from pressing BP further on behalf of those idled by the drilling moratorium.

The fund will be created over four years, at $5 billion a year. It is backed by the collateral of $20 billion in company assets in the United States. Though it is a significant hit for any company, the phase-in is intended give BP enough breathing space to manage its cash flow. BP said it would raise money by reducing spending programs and selling $10 billion in assets over the next month. Last year, BP generated profits of $17 billion.

Mr. Feinberg will segue into his new role as the fund administrator, perhaps setting up shop in Louisiana, just as he is nearing the end of his stint as the government’s “pay czar” overseeing executive compensation at the nation’s biggest banks, a post created in response to public outrage at bankers’ bonuses after the financial bailouts of recent years. Besides serving as special master for the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund, he helped in cases involving compensation for victims of illnesses related to asbestos and to Agent Orange chemical poisoning, among many others.

The claims process will be independent of BP and the government. Claimants who are rejected will be able to appeal to a three-person panel. BP can appeal only claims exceeding $500,000, unless Mr. Feinberg decides otherwise, said Carol M. Browner, a White House energy official.

The escrow agreement was hailed in Congress, where some Democrats in recent days had called for such a fund and for legally blocking BP dividends. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, typically one of Mr. Obama’s most vocal critics, called it “a step in the right direction.”

Along the Gulf Coast, many residents were relieved but skeptical at the news.

In Louisiana, Clint Guidry, acting president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, said, “What Obama’s talking about sounds O.K.” But, he said, “You have to remember: we went through federal programs after Katrina, Gustav, Rita and Ike, and we’re still fighting over that money.”


Robbie Brown contributed reporting from New Orleans and Julia Werdigier from London.

    BP Chief to Express Contrition to House Panel, NYT, 17.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/18/us/politics/18spill.html

 

 

 

 

 

Spill Takes Toll on Gulf Workers’ Psyches

 

June 16, 2010
The New York Times
By MIREYA NAVARRO

 

NEW ORLEANS — On a normal night, Hong Le, a deckhand on a fishing boat, would be miles out on the water laying nets and lines to catch tuna. Instead, he lies awake in his rented room agonizing over the money he is not sending to his wife and children in Vietnam and the delay in his longtime dream of bringing them here, apparently dashed by the oil spill.

At each day passes, Mr. Le, 58, says he feels more hopeless. “I just wait at home,” he said hollowly through an interpreter.

Beyond the environmental and economic damage, the toll of the mammoth spill in the Gulf of Mexico is being measured in hopelessness, anxiety, stress, anger, depression and even suicidal thoughts among those most affected, social workers say.

Mindful of the surge in psychological ailments after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, community groups are trying to tend to the collective psyche of fishermen like Mr. Le even as they address more immediate needs like financial aid.

When fishermen arrive to pick up emergency aid checks at the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit group in this city’s Vietnamese-American enclave, crisis counselors from Catholic Charities are on hand to screen for signs of emotional distress and to offer help.

“Are you having trouble sleeping?” the counselors ask through interpreters. “Do you feel out of energy? Do you have thoughts that you would be better off dead?”

Most of the fishermen trooping to the center lack fluency in English or skills beyond fishing, a vocation they have passed on for generations.

“They’re very distraught,” said the deputy director of the community development corporation, Tuan Nguyen. “For a lot of people, fishing is all they know. They don’t like handouts. They’re very proud. They don’t know how tomorrow is going to be.”

Catholic Charities reported this week that of the 9,800 people the counselors had approached since May 1 in Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes, 1,593 were referred for counseling because of signs of depression.

“It’s the fear of losing everything,” said Representative Anh Cao, a Republican from New Orleans who has assembled a response team to travel along the Gulf Coast to assess constituents’ needs.

Mr. Cao said he had met two fishermen in Plaquemines Parish who told him they were contemplating suicide. While those cases are “extreme,” Mr. Cao said, they reflect how some people “are approaching a point of despair.”

Officials with the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals said staff members had counseled 749 people in the last week of May and the first week of June to “mitigate” symptoms that could lead to destructive behavior.

“Most people are in disbelief,” said Dr. Tony Speier, deputy assistant secretary of the department’s office of mental health. “There’s fear not just for economic survival, but for a way of life.”

While state officials have emphasized the resiliency of Gulf Coast residents, who suffered through Hurricane Katrina and other major storms like Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008, experts say the region should brace for long-term psychological strain.

Researchers who studied the aftermath of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill said coastal residents of Alaska saw a higher incidence of suicide, divorce, domestic violence and substance abuse. To this day, many are still dealing with the effects of the environmental damage, economic losses and lawsuits.

At the Center for Wellness and Mental Health in Chalmette, which opened last year to treat cases of post-traumatic stress disorder lingering from Hurricane Katrina, the staff is checking in on fishermen’s families, mining relationships that were forged when volunteers helped rebuild homes after the hurricane.

An effort is under way to invite wives to receive counseling and learn breathing techniques and other skills to cope with stress, said Joycelyn Heintz, the coordinator of the center, which was founded by the nonprofit St. Bernard Project and the Health Sciences Center at Louisiana State University.

Rachel Morris, one of the wives who has agreed to counseling, said her husband, Louis Lund Jr., 34, was a shell of his formerly joyful self.

After the oil spill grounded fishing, Mr. Lund managed to get a job cleaning the gulf waters for BP, the oil company responsible for the spill, Ms. Morris said. But he is stricken by the sight of dead fish on his cleanup outings, she said, and for the first time has started to frequent bars with other fishermen.

Mr. Lund frets over whether he will be able to pass on his trade to his children, a 13-month-old son and 10-year-old daughter, or even remain in New Orleans, where volunteers just finished rebuilding the family’s Katrina-flooded home last October.

“When I saw the oil rig explosion on television, I was, like, ‘O.K., oil rig explosion,’ ” Ms. Morris, 26, said, adding that she told herself to pray for the 11 rig workers who were killed. “Two days later it was, ‘The oil is not stopping.’ That’s when my husband went from a happy guy to a zombie consumed by the oil spill.”

She said Mr. Lund had refused to accept counseling. He has lashed out occasionally, she said, venting his anger one evening last week after waiting in line for nearly four hours at the local civic center to pick up his two-week paycheck.

Asked about his state of mind, Mr. Lund told a reporter: “If you’re not out there in it, you can’t comprehend what this is about. We’re going to be surrounded by it. You’re going to smell it right here.”

Similar frustration was evident one morning last week at the Mary Queen of Vietnam center, where 50 people who had been waiting since as early as 4 a.m. for the doors to open around 9 a.m. suddenly began shouting, pushing and shoving one another. The commotion was soon quelled, but not the expressions of exhaustion and worry.

One of the groups hardest hit by the spill is Vietnamese fishermen, who make up a significant part of the about 12,400 commercial licensed fishermen in Louisiana (state officials had no firm estimate, but locals estimate they are as much as a third).

Having already experienced displacement — emigrating from Vietnam and in some cases losing their homes after Hurricane Katrina — they now face a crisis of epic proportions with an uncertain duration.

Interviewed in a sparsely furnished room he rents for $300 a month in a house with bars on the windows, Mr. Le said he was surviving on handouts after a lifetime of self-sufficiency.

He arrived in the United States in 1979. Nine years ago, he married on a visit home to Phan Thiet in southeastern Vietnam, assuring his wife that one day she would join him here.

Mr. Le said he used to send up to $5,000 a year to his wife and their 8-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter. As his family turns to other relatives for support, he is living on an initial payment of $1,200 from BP and whatever aid comes his way.

In phone conversations, his wife urges him to find a job outside the fishing industry. He applied at two Vietnamese restaurants, but neither would hire him for even the most menial work, Mr. Le said.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he murmured. “Any opportunity for work, I’ll do it.”

    Spill Takes Toll on Gulf Workers’ Psyches, NYT, 16.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/17/us/17human.html

 

 

 

 

 

BP Begins to Ante Up

 

June 16, 2010
The New York Times

 

Given the size of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, we suspect that $20 billion may not be enough to compensate all of the people whose lives and futures have been derailed by the spill. But it’s a good start.

It took days of very public pressure from President Obama and countless hours of private negotiations, but BP finally agreed on Wednesday to put $20 billion in an independently managed compensation fund. After meeting with the company’s top executives at the White House, Mr. Obama stressed that the amount is not a ceiling on BP’s obligations, which by some estimates could exceed $40 billion when the costs of cleaning the spill and restoring the gulf’s damaged ecosystem are also factored in.

“The people of the gulf have my commitment that BP will meet its obligations,” the president declared, adding that the agreement would not pre-empt any claims in court. BP did not publicly address the issue of a cap, but its chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, did apologize “to the American people” and vowed to “look after the people affected” and “repair the damage to this region and the economy.”

There are a lot of reasons, of course, not to trust BP.

The company insisted for years that it was ready to deal with a huge oil spill in the gulf, and it was completely unprepared. After the blowout on the Deepwater Horizon rig, it downplayed the size of the spill, starting with 1,000 barrels a day, then moving to 5,000, then — as its tallies became less and less credible — turning over the job of estimating to government scientists. Their present estimate is as much as 60,000 barrels a day.

When President Obama first started pressing for an escrow fund, and a suspension of dividend payments to BP’s shareholders, the company pushed back hard, rallying British politicians to argue that they were being unfairly roughed up by the Americans.

Mr. Svanberg appears to have decided that fessing up and anteing up is now the best course. On Wednesday, BP also announced that it would suspend dividend payments of about $7.5 billion over the next three quarters — in effect giving gulf residents higher priority over its own stockholders. It also agreed to set aside an additional $100 million to pay workers idled by Mr. Obama’s suspension of deep-water drilling in the gulf. This should relieve the pressure on the president to resume that drilling.

Having $20 billion in guarantees should reassure the spill’s victims, and all Americans, that BP will not be able to walk away from its responsibilities. It is also reassuring that the fund will be managed by Kenneth Feinberg, a veteran administrator who won high marks for overseeing the 9/11 victims’ compensation fund.

Mr. Feinberg’s task then — determining the value of a life, in nearly 3,000 cases — was extraordinarily daunting. This one will involve many more claims from many more people. There is not a lot of time for Mr. Feinberg to get up to speed. BP is currently handling individual claims and has been criticized for uneven treatment and not responding quickly enough to people who could be weeks or even days away from losing their businesses.

The White House will need to keep pressing BP hard. The agreement gives the company several years to deposit the $20 billion in order to manage its cash flow and not scare off investors. It must be held to that timetable. And it must begin making provisions to ensure a full payout of the billions more in cleanup and restoration costs and civil penalties under the Clean Water Act that are also its responsibility.

We would like to think the battle is over. It is not. Claims in the 1989 Exxon Valdez case were not finally adjudicated until two years ago, and there is still oil on the rocks of Prince William Sound.

    BP Begins to Ante Up, NYT, 16.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/17/opinion/17thu1.html

 

 

 

 

 

BP to Suspend Dividend and Set Up Claim Fund

 

June 16, 2010
The New York Times
By JACKIE CALMES and HELENE COOPER

 

WASHINGTON — Four days of intense negotiations between the White House and BP lawyers allowed President Obama to announce Wednesday that the oil giant would create a $20 billion fund to pay damage claims to thousands of fishermen and others along the Gulf Coast.

The fund will be administered by Kenneth R. Feinberg, the lawyer and mediator who ran the fund for victims of the Sept. 11 attacks and has emerged as a troubleshooter on issues like executive compensation and resolving claims for asbestos and Agent Orange victims.

While acknowledging that oil is likely to continue spewing from the well for perhaps months to come, Mr. Obama was able to throw something of a lifeline to desperate coastal residents worried about meeting payrolls, mortgages and shrimp boat payments.

Under the famous portrait of a charging Theodore Roosevelt on horseback, administration and company officials haggled over last details in an extraordinary White House meeting that went more than four hours, double the time scheduled, and was punctuated by breaks as each side huddled separately. Finally, participants said, Mr. Obama sealed the deal in a private, 25-minute session with BP’s chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg.

“This is not just a matter of dollars and cents” for a region upended by the spill, Mr. Obama, who returned Tuesday from a fourth tour of the coast, said he had told Mr. Svanberg.

“I emphasized to the chairman,” he said, “that when he’s talking to shareholders, when he is in meetings in his boardroom, to keep in mind those individuals — that they are desperate, that some of them, if they don’t get relief quickly, may lose businesses that have been in their families for two or three generations. And the chairman assured me that he would keep them in mind.”

Mr. Svanberg, looking somber as he left the White House, confirmed to waiting reporters that the president seemed “frustrated because he cares about the small people.” But he added: “People say that large oil companies don’t care about the small people. But we care. We care about the small people.”

The “small people” comment set off an immediate uproar in the blogosphere and elsewhere from people who said it showed BP’s indifference to those harmed by the spill. A BP spokesman called the remark a “slip in translation” by Mr. Svanberg, who is Swedish. Later Wednesday Mr. Svanberg apologized, saying he was “very sorry” he had spoken “clumsily.”

“What I was trying to say — that BP understands how deeply this affects the lives of people who live along the gulf and depend on it for their livelihood — will best be conveyed not by any words but by the work we do to put things right for the families and businesses who’ve been hurt,” he said in a statement.

Mr. Svanberg said the BP board, which met in emergency session on Monday in advance of the White House meeting, had agreed not to pay further dividends to shareholders this year. Faced with mounting criticism of his company, including from within the oil industry, he denied reports that BP had taken safety shortcuts on the Deepwater Horizon rig, where an April 20 explosion killed 11 workers and set in motion the leak that Mr. Obama has called the worst environmental disaster in American history.

Still, Mr. Svanberg said he wanted to “apologize to the American people on behalf of all the employees of BP.”

The resolution of both the $20 billion fund, to be held in escrow, and the looming controversy over as much as $10.5 billion in dividends BP had been prepared to pay out provided the first triumphal moment for Mr. Obama since the disaster. Weeks of bad news about failed attempts to plug the well and ever-increasing estimates of how much oil was leaking were creating a political crisis for a president who had promised to restore competence to government.

The agreement, by settling much uncertainty about BP’s ultimate liabilities, also gave the company a boost on Wall Street. After the announcement, markets regained ground lost earlier in the day and finished the day mixed. BP shares, which had been down as much as 4.6 percent, closed up 1.4 percent, or 45 cents, to $31.85.

Mr. Obama’s announcement and subsequent information from the White House and BP was in effect a response to some critics, including normally supportive commentators, who had faulted him the night before for being short on specifics about the disaster in his first address to the nation from the Oval Office.

Nonetheless, as the administration also disclosed this week, new government reports suggest that oil is gushing at far greater volume than many had thought, as much as 60,000 barrels a day. BP does not yet have the capacity to capture that much oil in ships stationed above the leak, a mile down on the ocean floor.

So, as Mr. Obama acknowledged, the crisis continues. But the president said the escrow fund “will provide substantial assurance that the claims people and businesses have will be honored.”

“It’s also important to emphasize this is not a cap,” Mr. Obama said. “The people of the gulf have my commitment that BP will meet its obligations to them.”

He said that the fund would not preclude individuals or states from pressing claims in court, and that it would remain separate from BP’s liability for the damages to the environment.

In the discussions between the administration and BP, one sticking point was settled by the company’s agreement to “voluntarily” — as the president put it — establish a separate $100 million fund to compensate oil rig workers left jobless by Mr. Obama’s six-month moratorium on all deep-water drilling. That moratorium, which the president said would stay in place until a study of what went wrong with the BP well was concluded, has been a subject of much complaint from affected coastal residents.

While Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and other administration officials have repeatedly said that BP is liable ultimately for compensating laid-off oil workers, the company adamantly opposed open-ended responsibility for all of those laid off, including employees of other big oil companies, as a result of the government moratorium.

“We made clear we do not think this is a liability of the company,” said Jamie Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration who now represents BP. “The president said he’s concerned about those workers. He asked if this was something we could do as a voluntary gesture.”

She said the two sides had not discussed whether the $100 million fund meant that the White House would refrain from pressing BP further on behalf of those idled by the drilling moratorium.

The fund will be created over four years, at $5 billion a year. It is backed by the collateral of $20 billion in company assets in the United States. Though it is a significant hit for any company, the phase-in is intended give BP enough breathing space to manage its cash flow. BP said it would raise money by reducing spending programs and selling $10 billion in assets over the next month. Last year, BP generated profits of $17 billion.

Mr. Feinberg will segue into his new role as the fund administrator, perhaps setting up shop in Louisiana, just as he is nearing the end of his stint as the government’s “pay czar” overseeing executive compensation at the nation’s biggest banks, a post created in response to public outrage at bankers’ bonuses after the financial bailouts of recent years. Besides serving as special master for the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund, he helped in cases involving compensation for victims of illnesses related to asbestos and to Agent Orange chemical poisoning, among many others.

The claims process will be independent of BP and the government. Claimants who are rejected will be able to appeal to a three-person panel. BP can appeal only claims exceeding $500,000, unless Mr. Feinberg decides otherwise, said Carol M. Browner, a White House energy official.

The escrow agreement was hailed in Congress, where some Democrats in recent days had called for such a fund and for legally blocking BP dividends. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, typically one of Mr. Obama’s most vocal critics, called it “a step in the right direction.”

But anger at BP remains bipartisan in Congress, and on Thursday its chief executive, Tony Hayward, is to testify before one of several committees investigating the spill.

Along the Gulf Coast, many residents were relieved but skeptical at the news.

In Louisiana, Clint Guidry, acting president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, said, “What Obama’s talking about sounds O.K.” But, he said, “You have to remember: we went through federal programs after Katrina, Gustav, Rita and Ike, and we’re still fighting over that money.”


Robbie Brown contributed reporting from New Orleans.

    BP to Suspend Dividend and Set Up Claim Fund, NYT, 16.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/17/us/politics/17obama.html

 

 

 

 

 

BP’s Shareholders Take It on the Chin

 

June 16, 2010
The New York Times
By CHRISTINE HAUSER

 

Just how big is this oil spill, really? For BP shareholders, about $88 billion big — and growing.

That is roughly how much money investors have lost on paper as the oil giant’s share price has plunged. And, in the grim calculus of the spill — the lives and livelihoods lost, the barrels of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico — the financial toll keeps mounting, too.

BP is so big, and its stock is so widely held, that its troubles are being felt throughout the investment world. Large insurance companies in Britain, big money management companies in the United States, government-controlled investment funds in Norway, Kuwait, China and Singapore rank among the company’s largest stockholders. BP may be British, but Americans own half its stock.

After weeks of gut-churning market losses, shareholders were dealt another blow Wednesday when BP announced that it would suspend paying dividends for the rest of the year and establish a $20 billion fund to pay claims arising from the worst spill in American history. While BP’s share price stabilized after that news — the stock closed up 45 cents at $31.85 in New York trading — the developments did little to ease the anxiety of investors.

No single institution has more money riding on BP than BlackRock, the money management firm that is BP’s largest shareholder. On behalf of clients, BlackRock funds held more than 1.1 billion shares, or 6 percent of the shares, as of the end of last year.

Along with Barclays Global Investors, which BlackRock owns, the combined stock was worth $14.57 billion on April 20. But as of Wednesday, those shares were worth about $7.5 billion.

BlackRock’s chief equity strategist, Bob Doll, declined to comment.

Governments, too, have lost big on an investment that, for them, has been both financial and strategic. As of May 1, Norway’s government pension fund, a long-time BP investor, given that nation’s own oil wealth, held 336.5 million shares. The Kuwait Investment Authority owned nearly that much. China and Singapore owned about 200 million shares apiece.

Public pension funds in the United States are reviewing their BP investments. The State of Wisconsin Investment Board, which holds $30 million in BP stock as part of an indexed investment that tracks the broader market, is monitoring the developments closely, said Vicki Hearing, a spokeswoman for the board. Its BP investment represents a small fraction of the fund’s $74.8 billion in assets.

“We will continue to look at this investment and make a day-to-day decision,” she said.

The Canada Pension Plan Investment Board is staking a similar wait-and-see approach. Like Wisconsin, it owns BP stock as part of a passive, rather than actively managed, portfolio. “We have an extremely long-term investment horizon,” said Linda Sims, a spokeswoman.

But many investors are not willing to wait. The Teacher Retirement System of Texas, for instance, has sold several million shares in recent weeks, bringing its BP holdings to an estimated 14 million shares. The board is scheduled to meet on Thursday, and BP could come up , said Howard J. Goldman, a spokesman.

Tim Hoyle, vice president for research at Haverford Investments, said his firm sold its shares in BP in early May, when the spill was still relatively young. “We didn’t believe the risks were worth it,” he said. “We saw an unquantifiable liability at that time, and we couldn’t put our client’s assets at risk.”

A big question is whether investors who had fled BP stock will return now that the uncertainty over this year’s dividend payments has been lifted. Many remain deeply worried about the political antagonism toward BP, both real and potential.

“They think the government is going into a lynch mob mentality,” said Fadel Gheit, a managing director at Oppenheimer Funds. “The worst for investors is uncertainty.”

Among analysts, BP’s decision to suspend dividend payments and create a cleanup fund had been widely expected. Many were hoping BP would start to quantify its potential liabilities.

Some large sovereign funds see the share as a buying opportunity.

But Thomas S. Hull, the chief investment officer at Lowry Hill Investment Advisors, said it was nonetheless difficult to assess BP’s stock given the lingering uncertainties. “It’s difficult to value a company in this situation,” he said. His firm sold a significant portion of its BP holdings early last month.

BP, for its part, said in a statement on Wednesday that its board “remains strongly committed” to resuming dividend payments and “delivering long-term value to shareholders.”

But Mr. Gheit, the Oppenheimer analyst, said that investment funds that required dividends under their charters, like pension funds, would now be forced to sell their BP shares, if they hadn’t already. And, given the potential cost of the cleanup, BP may not be able to share its profits with shareholders again soon.

“We know the dividend will be suspended for three quarters,” after which there will be a board review, Mr. Gheit said. “But there is nothing sure.”


Susanna Kim contributed reporting.

    BP’s Shareholders Take It on the Chin, NYT, 16.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/17/business/energy-environment/17investors.html

 

 

 

 

 

Administering Fund, a Master Mediator

 

June 16, 2010
The New York Tilmes
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG

 

WASHINGTON — Kenneth R. Feinberg bristled when reporters dubbed him the compensation czar for his Treasury Department job monitoring executive pay at companies that received government bailouts. The term, he lamented to ABC News last year, “makes it sound like I’m going to issue some imperial decree.”

Mr. Feinberg, named Wednesday by President Obama as the independent administrator of a $20 billion fund set up by BP to compensate victims of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, may not have the powers of a king. But he does seem to specialize in Solomon-like decisions.

Over the course of his long career as a mediator, he has helped settle a variety of thorny disputes, including a class-action suit by Vietnam veterans protesting the use of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, and a determination of the fair market value of the Zapruder film of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

At the Treasury Department, he has repeatedly slashed the pay of Wall Street and auto company executives, confronting outraged citizens and bankers alike.

“He has an enormously thick skin,” said his law partner, Michael Rozen.

Mr. Feinberg, 64, is perhaps best known as special master of the federal September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which distributed nearly $7 billion to more than 5,000 survivors and families of victims. He presided personally over hundreds of hearings, a role that required him to grapple with the deepest sort of human pain and make agonizing decisions about the value of each life lost, a task he recounted in a 2005 memoir, “What Is a Life Worth?”

So when the Obama White House proposed requiring BP to set up the escrow fund, Mr. Feinberg seemed the obvious choice to run it.

“Before I knew they were picking him, I had mentioned him to people as the right guy to do this,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York. “It’s a natural fit, after the job he did on 9/11.”

In at least one respect, Mr. Feinberg’s task in managing the BP compensation fund will be more complicated than it was after the 2001 attacks. The suffering caused by the terrorists was, in most cases, immediately clear. But with oil expected to spew into the gulf throughout the summer, it is impossible right now to assess, for example, the harm to a fisherman who may be out of work for months, or even years.

Mr. Obama said Wednesday that the fund does “does not supersede” the rights of individuals and states to sue. Experts say Mr. Feinberg’s biggest challenge will be to persuade the countless claimants — from shrimp processors to fishermen, hotel owners to restaurateurs — to settle claims through the escrow fund rather than sue.

John C. Coffee Jr., a professor at Columbia Law School who has known Mr. Feinberg for years, said persuasion was Mr. Feinberg’s real specialty.

“Feinberg can get both sides to realize that it’s better to settle and be unhappy than to go to trial and face disaster,” he said. “And that’s the most important skill of all.”

    Administering Fund, a Master Mediator, NYT, 16.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/17/us/17feinberg.html

 

 

 

 

 

With Criminal Charges for Oil Spill, Costs to BP Could Soar

 

June 16, 2010
The New York Times
By JOHN SCHWARTZ

 

As BP watches its bill rise quickly for the oil spill, including $20 billion it is setting aside for claims, it could find the tally growing much faster in coming months if the United States Department of Justice files criminal charges against the company.

Based on the latest estimates, for example, the daily civil fine for the escaping oil alone could be $280 million. But criminal penalties, if imposed, could cause the costs to balloon still further, said David M. Uhlmann, a law professor at the University of Michigan, who headed the environmental crimes section of the Justice Department from 2000 to 2007.

Others note that such penalties could lead to loss of government contracts.

Even misdemeanor convictions under environmental laws could produce stunningly large fines under general federal criminal statutes, Mr. Uhlmann added. That is because the Alternative Fines Act allows the federal government to request twice the gain or loss associated with an offense if the Justice Department shows that a crime was committed.

Predictions by analysts of the overall cost of the spill to BP, when criminal penalties are included, have been rising. On Wednesday, Pavel Molchanov, an analyst at Raymond James, estimated the total legal cost, including criminal fines, at $62.9 billion, which would dwarf the $20 billion escrow account to be used to pay claims of economic loss.

The agreement to create the fund would not pre-empt people from using the courts to resolve disputes with BP over the spill.

Proving a criminal case beyond misdemeanor crimes under federal environmental laws could be difficult. The standard for proving environmental misdemeanors can be relatively low: merely negligent actions can lead to misdemeanor penalties under the Clean Water Act.

Prosecutors would probably prefer, given the severity of the ecological crisis caused by the spill, to seek tougher penalty charges, Mr. Uhlmann said. But those carry a tougher standard of proof. The government would have to show that the company knew its actions would lead to the gushing well on the ocean floor.

A BP spokesman, Toby Odone, said, “We wouldn’t comment on either current or future legal matters.”

Andrew Ames, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said there was no timeline for the civil or criminal investigations, and that the department was “looking for all possible violations of the law.”

The department is reviewing the actions of all companies involved in the spill, and focusing on several environmental laws in particular, including the Clean Water Act, which carries civil and criminal penalties, and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act, which provide penalties for injury and death to wildlife, could come into play, along with “traditional criminal statutes,” Mr. Ames said.

The investigation would almost certainly take into account prior criminal plea agreements from the company, like the guilty plea in the 2005 refinery explosion that killed 15 people in Texas City, Tex.

Prior criminal charges can be used during a trial to support arguments that the Deepwater Horizon disaster is not a unique occurrence, but the result of a corporate culture that lets schedule and budget pressures lead to increases in risk.

Any criminal charges are unlikely to reach up to the executive suite, and would apply to the company as an entity.

Few of the laws under consideration by the Justice Department have felony provisions that would lead to incarceration, and even those require a direct and intentional connection between the defendant and the crime.

Stanley L. Alpert, a former federal prosecutor of environmental crimes, said that even if decisions that might have contributed to the disaster are found to be criminal in nature, they are rarely made by top executives. “It’s likely it was done at a much lower, operational level,” Mr. Alpert said.

Criminal indictments alone could have substantial ripple effects on a company’s fortunes, said Steven L. Schooner, a professor at George Washington University Law School. A company that is indicted risks being blacklisted from future sales contracts with the government under procedures officially known as suspension and debarment.

BP sold $1.6 billion worth of aviation fuel and other products to the military last year, according to the government’s procurement site, usaspending.gov. If a company were given a short-term suspension or debarment, which can last three years, it would not be eligible to get a new contract during that time, Mr. Schooner said.

The point of debarment under the law, he said, is not to punish, but to protect the government from suppliers that do not perform.

Still, he added, “It would not surprise me at all if somebody in the White House decided that we ought to suspend or debar BP just because it will make it look like we’re doing something.”

Many states monitor the federal debarment list, Mr. Schooner said, and so sales to airports, fire departments, school districts and more could be imperiled by a listing. “The trickle-down can often exceed the initial problem,” he said.

Mr. Uhlmann said that if the federal government took an extremely aggressive approach, it might try to argue in court that suspension or debarment should also be applied to the company’s federal drilling and operating licenses — potentially, a devastating blow.

But, he added, it would be a risky tactic that would stretch the definition of the blacklisting process. Even if it were successful, it could stay in place only “as long as the condition giving rise to the violation remained in effect.” If the company overhauled its processes as part of a settlement, he said, the ban would have to be lifted.

State law enforcers, working from state environmental statutes, might step in as well, predicted Tracy D. Hester, who teaches environmental law at the University of Houston Law Center.

“BP may think they are dealing with one big man across the ring,” Mr. Hester said. “The fact is, they are going to have a tag team.”

    With Criminal Charges for Oil Spill, Costs to BP Could Soar, NYT, 16.6.2010,  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/17/us/17liability.html

 

 

 

 

 

In Oval Office Speech, Obama Calls for New Focus on Energy Policy

 

June 15, 2010
The New York Times
By HELENE COOPER and JACKIE CALMES

 

WASHINGTON — President Obama summoned Americans on Tuesday to a “national mission” to move away from reliance on oil and develop alternative sources of energy, casting the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as an imperative for Congress to act quickly to overcome “a lack of political courage and candor.”

Speaking to a national television audience for the first time from the Oval Office, Mr. Obama also promised a long-term plan to make sure that the gulf states suffering from the oil spill are made whole again. He said he was appointing Ray Mabus, the secretary of the Navy and the former governor of Mississippi, to develop a Gulf Coast restoration plan in cooperation with states, local communities, tribes, fishermen, conservationists and gulf residents.

Even as Mr. Obama was preparing his speech, the government on Tuesday released a new estimate of the amount of oil flowing from the well. It said as much as 60,000 barrels could be spewing into the Gulf of Mexico each day, a sharp increase over the estimate last week of 25,000 to 30,000 barrels a day.

The new estimate, reflecting the increased oil flow that began after a pipe was deliberately cut to help capture some of the oil coming from the well, continues a pattern in which every new estimate has been sharply higher than the one before. With the broken well’s owner, BP, capturing roughly 15,000 barrels a day, the new estimate suggests that as much as 45,000 barrels a day is escaping into the gulf, punctuating the scale of the substantive and political problems facing Mr. Obama.

“Today, as we look to the gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude,” Mr. Obama said. “We cannot consign our children to this future. The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now.”

Mr. Obama’s 18-minute address, delivered at his desk, took place in an atmosphere far different from the crowded campaign rallies and international university halls where he has produced some of his most soaring speeches. This time, Mr. Obama, wearing a dark blue suit and light blue tie, struck a solemn but hopeful tone, invoked military terminology to create a sense of urgency around his response to the crisis, and spoke of the American ingenuity he said was needed to help the country rein in its reliance on oil.

He said he had authorized the use of 17,000 National Guard members to help with the cleanup effort, but only a small number have actually been dispatched by the governors in the region even though Mr. Obama has said that BP will pick up the cost. He also continued to strike an adversarial tone toward BP.

“We will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long as it takes,” he said. “We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused. And we will do whatever is necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy.”

Seizing on the widening calamity in the Gulf of Mexico to push for legislation he has advocated since his campaign, Mr. Obama said he was willing to look at approaches from Republicans as well as Democrats, including raising efficiency standards for buildings as well as cars and trucks.

He said progress had been blocked time and time again by “oil industry lobbyists,” and he suggested that achieving energy independence was an issue of national security, saying the time has come for the United States to “seize control of our own destiny.”

But, he warned: “The one approach I will not accept is inaction. The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is too big and too difficult to meet.”

Mr. Obama delivered the speech the evening before he was to meet at the White House with the top executives of BP to demand that they agree to establish an independently administered escrow account of billions of dollars to pay claims stemming from the disaster.

He said he would inform the chairman of BP’s board, Carl-Henric Svanberg, “that he is to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company’s recklessness.”

Lawyers at the White House and for BP have been negotiating for days about an escrow account. While Mr. Obama has not put a figure on the account, Senate Democrats have called for $20 billion.

BP released a statement after Mr. Obama’s address. “We share the president’s goal of shutting off the well as quickly as possible, cleaning up the oil and mitigating the impact on the people and environment of the Gulf Coast,” the company said from London. “We look forward to meeting with President Obama tomorrow for a constructive discussion about how best to achieve these mutual goals.”

Mr. Obama also moved to address one of the weaknesses exposed by the spill, lax oversight from the agency with the most direct authority to regulate offshore drilling, the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service. He said he had named Michael R. Bromwich, a former Justice Department prosecutor and inspector general, to restructure the agency to make it a tougher regulator.

Administration officials said the speech marked “an inflection point” in the nearly two-month-old crisis: the end of a phase in which BP tried and failed to stop the leak using the quickest available options, and the beginning of the “new reality” that plugging the leak could take months and the cleanup months or even years past that.

The new estimate for the amount of oil spewing from the well is far above the figure of 5,000 barrels a day that the government and BP clung to for weeks after the spill began. It reflects a possible increase in the flow rate that occurred after BP cut an underwater pipe called a riser on June 3 to install a new device to capture part of the oil.

It is based on new information, including high-resolution video made after the riser cut, and on pressure readings taken by a device that was inserted this week into the equipment at the sea floor. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, was personally involved in using those pressure readings to help make the latest calculation.

“This estimate brings together several scientific methodologies and the latest information from the sea floor, and represents a significant step forward in our effort to put a number on the oil that is escaping from BP’s well,” Secretary Chu said in a statement. “As we continue to collect additional data and refine these estimates, it is important to realize that the numbers can change.”

The company has proven in recent days that it can capture roughly 15,000 barrels of oil a day, though the operation was interrupted briefly on Tuesday by a small fire after the Discoverer Enterprise drilling ship was apparently struck by lightning.

BP has outlined plans to deploy new equipment so that it can capture a minimum of 40,000 barrels a day by the end of June, and a minimum of 60,000 barrels a day by mid-July.

If the new range of flow estimates proves correct, and if BP is ultimately found guilty of gross negligence in actions it took that led to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, that would mean the company could be assessed fines of up to $258 million a day. Those fines could come on top of payments for cleanup costs and economic damage to Gulf Coast businesses.

Fearful that the spill could ultimately cost BP tens of billions of dollars, investors have driven the company’s market valuation down by 48 percent since the spill began, erasing $91 billion of shareholder value. BP shares rose more than 2 percent during regular trading on Tuesday, but then gave up all that gain and more in after-hours trading.

Mr. Obama has said all along that BP will pay for everything. People close to BP said that as asset-rich as the global oil giant is, its holdings are not so liquid that it can instantly set aside as many billions of dollars as the White House and leaders in Congress are seeking. Also being worked out are the terms by which BP would have to replenish the fund as it is drawn down.

BP officials are adamant that the company should not be liable for the lost wages of oil workers laid off because of the six-month moratorium that the Obama administration imposed on deepwater offshore drilling after the Deepwater Horizon explosion and fire. But Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and other administration officials repeatedly have cited idled oil workers as among those who could press claims.


Justin Gillis contributed reporting from New York.

    In Oval Office Speech, Obama Calls for New Focus on Energy Policy, NYT, 15.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/16/us/politics/16obama.html

 

 

 

 

 

Earthquake Shakes Southern Calif.

 

June 15, 2010
Filed at 3:57 a.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

 

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- The U.S.-Mexico border was rocked by a magnitude-5.7 earthquake Monday night, rattling nerves in a region still recovering from the deadly Easter jolt.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake was centered five miles southeast of Ocotillo in Imperial County -- about 85 miles east of San Diego. It struck Monday at 9:26 p.m. PDT.

The quake was an aftershock of the deadly Easter Sunday magnitude-7.2 quake that shook Baja California and Southern California, said Egill Hauksson, a seismologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He said the epicenter of Monday's quake occurred in the same zone of the quake in April.

''Aftershocks can go on for months and years,'' he said.

Thousands of aftershocks have occurred since the Easter earthquake. More than 100 aftershocks were recorded immediately following Monday's 5.7 quake, with the largest measuring at magnitude-4.5.

A 5.7-magnitude earthquake ''could break windows, it could throw things on the floor, it could create cracks on the wall, but we don't expect things to collapse,'' Hauksson said.

San Diego County Office of Emergency Services had no reports of significant damage. Louis Fuentes, chairman of the Imperial County board of supervisors, also said he had no immediate reports of damage.

''As soon as it hit, my wife said, 'Grab the baby.' My daughter ran out to the back yard,'' said Fuentes, who was in his garage in Calexico, about 30 miles east of the epicenter. ''It thumped really hard.''

Fuentes said his chandeliers swayed at his home and metal objects banged but nothing fell off the shelves. Imperial County suffered significant damage in April's Easter Sunday quake.

''All the lamps, the liquor bottles and the TV hanging from the ceiling shook, but nothing dropped,'' said Marina Garcia, an employee at the Burgers and Beer restaurant in El Centro, about 30 miles east of Ocotillo.

The quake was felt as a gentle rolling motion in the Los Angeles area.

San Diego's Petco Park swayed during the quake, causing a momentary pause at the Toronto Blue Jays-San Diego Padres game. The public address announcer asked that everyone remain calm. The crowd cheered.

David Eckstein of the Padres had just grounded out in the bottom of the inning when the stadium began shaking. The next batter, Chase Headley, stayed out of the batter's box for a few seconds, then stepped in.

San Diego County sheriff's dispatch supervisor Becky Strahm said some of her colleagues reported things falling off their shelves, but there were no immediate reports of significant damage or injury.

The quake followed a series of temblors that struck Southern California over the weekend, including a pair of moderate earthquakes that rattled a desert area east of San Diego. Residents in downtown San Diego felt the ground rumbling during at least one of the Saturday quakes.

------

Associated Press Sports Writer Bernie Wilson in San Diego and Associated Press writers Alicia Chang, Daisy Nguyen and Denise Petski in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

    Earthquake Shakes Southern Calif., NYT, 15.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2010/06/15/us/AP-US-California-Quake.html

 

 

 

 

 

Obama Will Take to Oval Office With a Familiar Theme

 

June 14, 2010
The New York Times
By JACKIE CALMES

 

WASHINGTON — The venue says it all. By choosing to speak to the nation on Tuesday night for the first time from the Oval Office, where his predecessors have spoken of wars and disasters, President Obama is conveying the gravity of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Yet his theme should feel familiar to the millions of Americans who tune in. Aides say Mr. Obama will describe the eight-week-old oil spill as a slow-motion crisis, resistant to the best efforts and billions of dollars from government and industry. Ultimately, he will say, the nation will recover, just not soon.

Sound like the economy?

In the year and a half since Mr. Obama became president at the height of the worst recession since the Great Depression, he has repeatedly tried to balance a message of hope, amid signs that the economy is mending, with a frank concession that recovery will continue to be painfully slow.

Now the president must strike the same sort of balance in talking to the nation about the oil spill. And he has chosen to do so from the familiar office that Americans since the dawn of the television age have come to associate with big moments — for them, and for presidents.

In the nearly two months since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, BP and government scientists have tried and failed at the quick options for plugging the spewing leak in the gulf. Now they are left with the slowest but surest solution, drilling a relief well a mile down. As with the economy, Americans have grown uncertain and fearful about the spill’s environmental and economic impact, and even more skeptical that government is competent enough to do anything about it — a sentiment that, more broadly, is roiling this midterm election year and threatening Democratic majorities in Congress.

It is Mr. Obama’s goal, advisers say, to acknowledge the uncertainties and what one called “the new reality,” allay people’s fears and give reason to hope.

“We now can give people a very frank assessment of what this is going to be like over the next several months and the steps the federal government is going to take to ensure full recovery and restoration for the region,” said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director.

Among the memorable Oval Office addresses, President Ronald Reagan consoled the country on the night of Jan. 28, 1986, after the Challenger space shuttle exploded that morning on liftoff, killing its crew of seven, including Christa McAuliffe, who was to be the first ordinary American in space. And President George W. Bush sought to reassure the nation on the night of Sept. 11, 2001, as the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon smoldered.

“This is inherently different than those events,” Mr. Pfeiffer said. “It’s not an event; it’s an ongoing crisis, and you treat it differently.”

Administration officials describe an approach resonant of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats amid the Depression. As he toured the coastlines of Mississippi and Alabama on Monday, Mr. Obama made remarks that hinted at the possible flavor of his planned 15-minute speech.

At a staging site for cleanup efforts in Theodore, Ala., Mr. Obama referred to the fishermen, shrimpers, oystermen and others he had met in four visits to the Gulf Coast and described their fear that the spill “can have a long-term impact on a way of life that has been passed on for generations.”

“And I understand that fear,” he said.

Mr. Obama contrasted the still-unfolding disaster with the region’s experience with Hurricane Katrina: “It’s not simply one catastrophic event. It’s an ongoing assault whose movements are constantly changing.”

Then he struck the familiar balance of realism and hope.

“Now I can’t promise folks that the oil will be cleaned up overnight,” Mr. Obama said. “It will not be.” More businesses will be hurt and people will be angry. “But I promise you this, that things are going to return to normal.”

    Obama Will Take to Oval Office With a Familiar Theme, NYT, 14.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/15/us/politics/15obama.html

 

 

 

 

 

Obama, Visiting Gulf, Tries to Lift Economy and Mood

 

June 14, 2010
The New York Times
By HELENE COOPER and HENRY FOUNTAIN

 

THEODORE, Ala. — President Obama on Monday stepped up his efforts to limit the economic fallout from the oil spill, announcing steps to assure consumers that seafood from the Gulf of Mexico is safe and promoting tourism in the region as BP, under pressure from the White House, agreed to accelerate the cleanup.

On his fourth trip to the region since the rig explosion that set off the leak, Mr. Obama visited Mississippi and Alabama, a day before he was to deliver an address from the Oval Office in his most visible step yet to show that his administration is in command of what he has called the nation’s worst environmental disaster.

Responding to a request by the administration over the weekend, BP announced a plan to siphon 40,000 to 53,000 barrels of oil a day from its leaking well by the end of June, up from the current 15,000 barrels a day.

Under the plan, which essentially pushes BP’s containment schedule forward by two weeks, the company will also bring in more vessels and other backup equipment to cope with bad weather or unforeseen problems. BP’s optimism about its previous efforts to deal with the situation has frequently proven unfounded.

BP’s board met on Monday to consider a White House demand that it establish an account to pay spill claims, as investors and officials raised questions about the company’s long-term financial strength.

The board did not make a final decision about the account, pending a meeting between its chairman and Mr. Obama in Washington on Wednesday.

The company’s $10.5 billion annual dividend has become a point of contention, with a host of critics in the United States saying that it should not be paying out profits to stockholders when huge cleanup costs still loom and when fishermen, oil workers and small-business owners say they are having trouble getting compensation from the company. While BP has billions of dollars in cash flow that presumably can cover the costs, there is concern about its future.

Internal BP documents, including an e-mail message calling the well drilled by the Deepwater Horizon a “nightmare,” show a pattern of risky choices made to save time and money in the weeks before the disastrous April 20 blowout, according to a letter sent to the oil company by the leaders of a House committee on Monday.

The committee leaders cited five areas in which the company had made decisions that “increased the danger of a catastrophic well,” including choosing the design of the well, preparing for and testing the cement job and assuring that the well was properly sealed on the top.

Taken together, the documents offer the strongest case yet that BP bears much of the responsibility for the explosion that killed 11 workers and the still-unchecked leaking of millions of gallons of oil into the gulf.

Some of the decisions appeared to violate industry guidelines and were made despite warnings from BP’s own employees and outside contractors, said Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, and Representative Bart Stupak, Democrat of Michigan, the leaders of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. They sent their letter to BP’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, in advance of his testimony on Thursday before the committee.

An investigation suggested that delays in completing the well “created pressure to take shortcuts,” the letter said.

After a meeting with Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana in Gulfport, Miss., Mr. Obama urged Americans to come down to visit the area’s beaches, many of which were virtually deserted on Monday. “There’s still a lot of opportunity for visitors to come down here,” Mr. Obama said after the meeting at the Coast Guard station in Gulfport.

The president made a point of eating local seafood for a lunch in Gulfport, where he chatted with a hotel owner who told him that her business was down 40 percent, and then again for dinner in Orange Beach, Ala., where he ordered crab claws, crawfish tails, ribs and nachos.

“Seafood from the gulf today is safe to eat,” he said earlier in Theodore, where he said government agencies were increasing their monitoring of seafood processors and of fish caught outside of areas where fishing has already been banned because of the spill. “But we need to make sure it stays that way.”

Mr. Hayward, the BP executive, is sure to come under intense questioning on Thursday when he appears before a subcommittee of the House energy and commerce committee.

The committee leaders said that shortly before the blowout, BP engineers chose a faster, less expensive design for the final string of casing, the steel pipe that lines the well. The design that was chosen, which used a so-called tapered string, cost about $7 million to $10 million less than another method. But the tapered string afforded less protection if the cementing job were poor and gas were to rise up the well, the congressmen wrote. The New York Times reported on the casing design previously.

In an exchange of e-mail messages in the week before the blowout, BP drilling engineers discussed the casing plans, with one, Brian P. Morel, asking another for a quick review of one schematic diagram. “Sorry for the late notice,” Mr. Morel wrote, “this has been nightmare well which has everyone all over the place.”

Time and money were both concerns, the House chairmen wrote, because the well was behind schedule. A problem in March had forced the company to apply for a “bypass,” in which the well is drilled around the problem area. By the day of the blowout, the Deepwater Horizon, leased by BP from Transocean for about half a million dollars a day plus contractors’ fees, was 43 days late for its next drilling location, the chairmen wrote.

The choice of a tapered string meant that the well had only two barriers to upward gas flow that could cause a blowout: cement near the bottom of the well and a seal assembly near the top.

In a letter to Rear Adm. James A. Watson, the government’s on-scene commander of the spill cleanup, Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer, said that by Tuesday a drill ship, the Q4000, would be able to burn 5,000 barrels to 10,000 barrels of oil a day collected through pipes connected to the so-called choke line at the wellhead.

That would bring its capacity to 20,000 barrels to 28,000 barrels a day. A team of scientists assembled by the government has estimated the flow rate at 25,000 barrels to 30,000 barrels a day, but the team is working on new estimates that may be higher.

By the end of the month, Mr. Suttles wrote, BP will add to the capacity by connecting a large flexible pipe to a second line at the wellhead, called the kill line. This oil would be collected by a ship that can handle 20,000 barrels to 25,000 barrels a day, bringing the total number of barrels collected daily to 40,000 to 53,000.


Helene Cooper reported from Alabama, and Henry Fountain from New York.

    Obama, Visiting Gulf, Tries to Lift Economy and Mood, NYT, 14.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/15/us/15spill.html

 

 

 

 

 

Efforts to Repel Gulf Oil Spill Are Described as Chaotic

 

June 14, 2010
The New York Times
By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON

 

GRAND ISLE, La. — Deano Bonano, the emergency preparedness director for Jefferson Parish, marched from a motor home being used as a command center to an office across the street filled with BP officials.

It was late May. Oil had been creeping into the passes around Grand Isle. Two fleets of fishing boats were supposed to be laying out boom, the long floating barriers to corral oil and protect the fragile marshes of Barataria Bay.

But the boats were gathered on the inland side of the bay — the wrong side — anchored idly as the oil oozed in from the Gulf of Mexico. BP officials said they had no way of contacting the workers on the boats, Mr. Bonano recalled.

“You’re watching the oil come in,” Mr. Bonano said, “and they can’t even move.”

For much of the last two months, the focus of the response to the Deepwater Horizon explosion has been a mile underwater, 50 miles from shore, where successive efforts involving containment domes, “top kills” and “junk shots” have failed, and a “spillcam” shows tens of thousands of barrels of oil hemorrhaging into the gulf each day.

Closer to shore, the efforts to keep the oil away from land have not fared much better, despite a response effort involving thousands of boats, tens of thousands of workers and millions of feet of containment boom.

From the beginning, the effort has been bedeviled by a lack of preparation, organization, urgency and clear lines of authority among federal, state and local officials, as well as BP. As a result, officials and experts say, the damage to the coastline and wildlife has been worse than it might have been if the response had been faster and orchestrated more effectively.

“The present system is not working,” Senator Bill Nelson of Florida said Thursday at a hearing in Washington devoted to assessing the spill and the response. Oil had just entered Florida waters, Senator Nelson said, adding that no one was notified at either the state or local level, a failure of communication that echoed Mr. Bonano’s story and countless others along the Gulf Coast.

“The information is not flowing,” Senator Nelson said. “The decisions are not timely. The resources are not produced. And as a result, you have a big mess, with no command and control.”

They were supposed to be better prepared. When the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska in 1989, skimmers, booms and dispersants were in short supply for the response, which was led by a consortium of oil companies in which BP was the majority stakeholder.

A year later, lawmakers passed the federal Oil Pollution Act to ensure that plans were in place for oil spills, so the response effort would be quick, with clear responsibilities for everyone involved.

Every region of the country was required to have a contingency plan, tailored for its unique geography, for responding to a spill.

But Leslie Pearson, a private oil-spill response consultant, said federal oversight of spill contingency plans largely amounts to accepting what oil industry operators say they can do, rather than demanding they demonstrate that they can actually do it.

“Their plans don’t say, ‘Within X amount of time it has to be controlled and industry needs to prove how the heck you’re going to do that,’ ” she said.

She and other critics of the federal government’s response point to parts of the world where they say foreign governments have stricter rules for offshore operators. In the Canadian Arctic, for example, some offshore operators are required to have ships on close standby to drill relief wells more quickly than the ones being drilled in the gulf.

While the United States requires operators to be prepared to drill relief wells, their contingency plans do not have to specify a firm timeline for how quickly they will do so, experts said.

Some states have tried to establish tougher rules within their jurisdictions. In Prince William Sound, where the Valdez ran aground, for example, Alaska requires all tankers to be accompanied by two escort vessels. Enough equipment also has to be at the ready to remove up to 300,000 barrels of oil in 72 hours.

Scott Schaefer, the deputy administrator of California’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response, said his state’s regulations also went beyond federal law, requiring, among other things, repeated tests of response equipment.

Mr. Schaefer, who is now in Mobile, Ala., working to fight the oil spill there, declined to characterize the level of preparation in the gulf. He did note, though, that many other experts had flown in from California, including scientists trained in gauging damage to sensitive areas and experts in aerial imaging to study the density of oil in the water.

“They’ve got their programs here and they’re pretty proud of them,” he said. “I think on the West Coast it’s just much bigger and better funded.”

Still, said Ms. Pearson, the consultant, states have limited tools to deal with offshore drilling in federal waters, as was the case with the Deepwater Horizon.

And by the time oil arrives at a coastline, she said, “you’ve lost the response.”

Many experts also said that no plan could really fight this leak perfectly, and that the problem was more with the regulations that allowed it to happen in the first place.

“I don’t think there’s a person in the spill world who would have thought that whole thing would be contained and recovered,” said Elise DeCola, a response consultant based in Massachusetts. “Whether or not you decide to drill is a policy decision, a calculated risk. Everyone at the end of the day understands that risk. It’s kind of damage control from the start.”

 

Beyond the Worst Case

There were at least five plans governing the response to this spill, including national and regional plans drawn up by the Coast Guard and federal and state authorities, as well as lengthy plans prepared by BP. Each one either failed to consider a continuing blowout or drastically underplayed the effects of one.

“I will tell you that nobody in their plan foresaw this incident,” said Capt. Roger Laferriere of the Coast Guard, who is directing cleanup efforts in Houma, La. “Nobody.”

The contingency plan for southeast Louisiana, which was drawn up by a committee led by the Coast Guard and a state representative, specifically mentions the possibility of a blowout and includes a worst case of a million-barrel spill, which is significantly short of even conservative estimates of the current spill.

But like other federal plans, it does not anticipate the possibility that the leak could continue for weeks. It concludes, for example, that such a spill would require the use of 38,400 gallons of dispersant, or roughly 3 percent of what has been applied in the last two months.

The BP plans do consider an uncontrolled blowout, one that releases 240,000 barrels a day into the gulf for at least 100 days — far worse than the current spill.

In the event of such an enormous spill, according to these plans, “no significant adverse impacts are expected” to beaches, wetlands or coast-dwelling birds.

Toby Odone, a BP spokesman, said in an e-mail message that the company’s oil spill response plan was “fully approved” by the Minerals Management Service.

“The plan does not, and cannot, prevent an oil spill or any impact from the spill, but it establishes the framework under which the company will respond,” he wrote. “This is the framework we and the unified command have been using in what is the largest oil spill response in US history.”

Adm. Thad W. Allen of the Coast Guard, the national commander for the spill, said in an interview that shortcomings in the response did not stem from the actions described in the plans, but from the risk assessment on which those plans were based.

“I think they’re adequate to the assumptions in the plans,” Admiral Allen said. “I think you need to go back and question the assumptions.”

Admiral Allen said that in the future, the Coast Guard would probably need to review the oil company contingency plans — which are approved by the Minerals Management Service and not the Coast Guard — “for the purpose of executability” in a response. But mostly, he said, everyone would need to re-examine the worst-case scenarios.

The potential spills contemplated in the plans drawn up by federal authorities are monolithic slicks. The spill in the gulf, Admiral Allen said, is a series of large spills spreading in every direction from Louisiana to Florida, underwater and on the surface.

This creates a different situation entirely.

“The Coast Guard will need to take a look at this new scenario, and how we are going to address this happening in the future,” Captain Laferriere said. “This is the new, defining worst-case scenario.”

The reason for the inclusion of worst-case scenarios in these plans is for officials to ensure that enough supplies, like boom and oil skimmers, are on hand to respond to a spill.

Now critical boom is being flown in from the north shore of Alaska and oil skimming boats are coming from as far away as Norway. Requirements for more so-called mechanical response equipment, as opposed to chemical dispersant, fell short of current needs.

A 1999 Coast Guard report recommended that a mechanical response — using equipment like boom, skimmers and absorbent materials largely marshaled by boat and from land — should be increased by as much as 25 percent.

But over the next several years, lobbyists for oil companies pushed to keep the existing standard in place and emphasized the use of chemical dispersant.

Fred Felleman, an environmental consultant based in Seattle who has worked to strengthen spill prevention and response efforts in Northwest ports, said the oil industry’s preference for dispersants was driven in part by economics.

“It’s very expensive to have people on the ground trained and ready to deploy, under contract,” Mr. Felleman said.

In rules formally published last August, the Coast Guard effectively overruled its 1999 report, declining to require the substantial increase in the amount of mechanical response equipment.

However, in comments published along with the rules, the Coast Guard said that it “recognizes that the amount of mechanical recovery equipment is still inadequate to address the worst-case threat.”

There is no excuse for the failure in the plans to anticipate the situation now unfolding, said Mark Davis, director of the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy and a longtime advocate for the protection of Louisiana wetlands.

He pointed out that it has been more than 30 years since the catastrophic Ixtoc I blowout in Mexico in 1979, which lasted for 10 months and released 3.7 million barrels of oil.

But, Mr. Davis acknowledged, hindsight will not help with the operation in the gulf.

“You pull the ripcord on the parachute you packed,” he said. “Not the parachute you wish you had packed.”

 

Unclear Leadership

At the very least, these plans, which devote pages and flow charts to command structure, were meant to have an efficient hierarchy in place as soon as a spill occurred. That structure has often been unwieldy, and to some, hardly evident at all.

“I still don’t know who’s in charge,” Billy Nungesser, the president of Plaquemines Parish, said at the Senate hearing on Thursday, seven weeks after the Deepwater Horizon rig sank. “Is it BP? Is it the Coast Guard?”

Governance is inherently complicated by the players who are thrown together: BP officials work alongside federal officials who rebuke them publicly, and federal officials work closely with officials at the state level, who have been equally public in their condemnation of the response.

Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, for example, has drawn local support for his fact-filled critiques of the response plans, but every 48 hours a state representative cooperates on those same plans with BP and the Coast Guard.

“I told him, when he signs the plan he’s endorsing our projects,” said Captain Laferriere, adding that he and the representative sit in the same office. “Louisiana is still learning the process.”

But Garret Graves, the governor’s senior coastal adviser, said that the state’s power was limited: the state strongly disapproves of the amount of chemical dispersant being used, he said, and feels that the supply of boom is drastically inadequate.

The main problems, many here say, have been sluggish response times and a consistent impression that no one is in charge.

Reports of oil reaching shore have been made days before any vessels were seen in the area. After squalls, booms have ended up tangled like spaghetti on the shores of wildlife-rich islands, only to remain like that for days with no response workers in sight.

“We are making adjustments every day to improve our efforts,” Mr. Odone of BP wrote. “For example, we initially struggled with the logistics of getting crews to work, but have made major improvement since to make sure this happens.”

Requests to the response operation, no matter how small, have required approval, a process that state and local officials said could take days or weeks. Some requests were never answered at all.

“You would throw it into the dark black hole and it might not ever come back,” Ralph Mitchell, the public safety director for Terrebonne Parish, said of early requests for boom.

On the other hand, the flurry of planning on the parish and state levels meant just that: more plans, more officials and more chains of command in an effort that was already sprawling. Parish officials have taken helicopters to observe coastline shortly after Coast Guard or BP officials did, duplicating efforts out of distrust.

Admiral Allen, echoing Mr. Nungesser, said that he had had to learn the lines of authority within Louisiana, and that in recent weeks, he had adapted the centralized command structure to the “home rule economy” of the parishes.

More decision-making authority has been given to Coast Guard officers at the local level, a move that has been broadly welcomed here after weeks of growing frustration.

“The effectiveness of the effort came way late,” said Forrest A. Travirca III, a field inspector for a local land trust that includes the nine-mile beachfront at Port Fourchon, La., and 35,000 acres of marshland behind it.

Until recently, Mr. Travirca said, “there was no direction. It was just chaotic. There was this group doing something, that group doing something. Nobody knowing who was doing what.”

 

Crews on the Ground

BP’s growing cleanup operation, which includes more than 100 companies and has already cost $1.6 billion, has left an often dangerous vacuum of guidance and direction in one of the most fragile ecosystems on earth.

Cleanup workers on Queen Bess Island, La., have been spotted trampling pelican nesting grounds and tossing around pelican eggs.

Yellow caution tape has been strung up on beaches to keep the news media and civilians out, only to end up in the marsh, where it could harm birds and small mammals.

On the beach at Port Fourchon, Mr. Travirca said, cleanup workers left oil-soaked mops on the beach for days, where the tides buried them in the sand. The workers were finally told to pick up the mops and put them in garbage bags, which they did — but not before shaking the mops out and strewing the beach with oil again.

While officials and residents of southern Louisiana have criticized a response that has sometimes been absent, they have also often criticized the cleanup crews that do show up.

“BP could fire all their contractors because they’re doing absolutely nothing but destroying our marsh,” Mr. Nungesser told the Senate panel.

David Camardelle, the mayor of Grand Isle and others complained that the employees in BP’s sprawling response are often outsiders who are not familiar with the fragile marshes and not local fishermen who most need the jobs.

Typically, spill cleanup workers are men and women who are found by temporary staffing agencies in unemployment lines and through classified ads, often with little education and few job prospects. They receive training and then wait to be called into action when an accident occurs.

These staffing agencies have contracts with environmental cleanup firms, which in turn have contracts with another company, in most cases the responsible party. But this spill operation is different from others because of the sheer number of contractors involved, making it difficult not only for officials demanding accountability but for the contractors themselves.

The agencies, some of them quite small, are paying out hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, in wages, but in many cases have not been able to reach through layers upon layers of contractors to the ultimate paymaster, BP.

Several expressed concern that if the labor needs increased with the scale of the cleanup and they still did not have guarantees from BP, they may have to pull out.

“There’s way too many players in it,” said an owner of one of the staffing agencies involved, who did not want to publicly criticize the process. “You don’t know who’s getting money from where.”

For now, the problem is not that people are working without pay, but the opposite. Trained workers are brought in by the hundreds to an area so that they will be in place if work needs to be done. In some of these areas, there is no work to be done. But under the contract, they need to be paid anyway.

“Our people aren’t out on the beach,” the owner of another agency said, lamenting the lack of organization. “They’re sitting under a tree and getting paid a full day.”

The cleanup operation has also been, at times, a casualty of politics. One staffing agency sent more than 150 trained workers to the Gulf Coast only to be told that in light of local and state insistence on exclusively local employment, too many of the workers were from out of state. They were all let go the next day.

 

A Barrier’s Limits

One of the most vivid images in news reports on the oil spill has been boom, the lengths of orange and yellow barrier that are anchored to the seafloor and either keep oil at bay or corral it so it can be skimmed. From the earliest days, politicians have been demanding it, officials have been promising more of it and now nearly 400 miles of it is in place in gulf waters.

But it has also become a potent symbol of the problems with the response effort.

Boom, which is easily swamped by waves, provides only limited protection, something even politicians who have thundered for more to be installed will concede. It also requires constant maintenance, as squalls moving in from offshore regularly break the chains apart, and effective deployment, something officials at all levels say has been lacking.

“The boom has been a disaster from the beginning,” Mr. Nungesser said, citing improper training for workers laying it out, as well as their unfamiliarity with the area’s waterways.

But proper deployment also requires a thorough plan and a detailed map of effective locations, with precise measurements of passes and other waterways.

The southeast Louisiana contingency plan, which includes environmental sensitivity maps, had not been updated in seven years — a lifetime after intense coastal erosion and a series of hurricanes that have turned, by some estimates, nearly 500 square miles of wetlands into open water.

So after the spill, with no new plan forthcoming, state and parish officials gathered one Saturday night in an office tower in Baton Rouge, and drew up a new set of booming maps.

Such plans work best when they can be tested ahead of time. They also are dependent on certain kinds of boom.

But response crews have often had to make do with the kind of boom that was on hand, even when it was the wrong kind. And since everything was being concocted on the fly, “they hadn’t had a chance to validate the plan,” Captain Laferriere said.

“I’d fly out every day and notice the boom,” he said. “And it was failing.”


William Yardley contributed reporting from Seattle and John Collins Rudolf from Grand Isle, La.

    Efforts to Repel Gulf Oil Spill Are Described as Chaotic, NYT, 14.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/15/science/earth/15cleanup.html

 

 

 

 

 

As Mess Is Sent to Landfills, Officials Worry About Safety

 

June 14, 2010
The New York Times
By FELICITY BARRINGER

 

PORT FOURCHON, La. — Cleanup crews here wear a common uniform of straw hat, white rubber boots and a sheen of sweat as they collect the bedraggled and oil-soaked pompoms that are strung along Fourchon Beach.

The pompoms — balls of absorbent streamers laid down to soak up the oil as it reaches shore — are part of a growing mass of waste that is springing from the cleanup of what has been estimated as the worst oil spill in United States history.

About 35,000 bags — or 250 tons — of oily trash have been carted away from this beach, said Lt. Patrick Hanley of the Coast Guard, who is stationed at Port Fourchon. And as of Monday, more than 175,000 gallons of liquid waste — a combination of oil and water — had been sent to landfills, as had 11,276 cubic yards of solid waste, said Petty Officer Gail Dale, also of the Coast Guard, who works with at the command center in Houma.

Michael Condon, BP’s environmental unit leader, said that tests have shown that the material is not hazardous, and can safely be stored in landfills around the region that accept oil industry debris. The checklist and procedures involved, Mr. Condon said, are part of a process “we do very well and have done for a long time.”

But some local officials, environmental lawyers and residents who live near landfill sites are not convinced.

“There’s no way that isn’t toxic,” said Gladstone Jones III, a New Orleans lawyer who has spent much of his career trying to get compensation for plaintiffs he says have been harmed by exposure to toxic waste.

In fact, waste from oil exploration and production falls into a regulatory no man’s land, neither exactly benign nor toxic on its face. The compounds in oil most dangerous to human health — like benzene, a carcinogen — are volatile and tend to dissipate when crude oil reaches the ocean surface, or soon thereafter. But some toxicologists say it is impossible to know whether the toxic chemicals are entirely gone.

Marlin Ladner, a supervisor in Harrison County, Miss., spoke angrily about the prospect of debris from the spill being deposited in the local Pecan Grove landfill in his district.

His worry, he said, is that toxic material could leach into local aquifers from which more than 300 homes draw water.

“BP oil is responsible for polluting our sand beaches and our estuaries,” Mr. Ladner said.

Now, he added, “They pick it up, put it on trucks, take it four or five miles north and dump it on us again.”

And Brenda Dardar-Robichaux, the leader of the Houma Indian tribe, which has some members who live in Bourg, about 30 miles north of Port Fourchon, went to Congress to express her concern that some of the BP waste would end up in a landfill there that has long been a focus of local anger.

“I think these communities are properly concerned,” said Marianne L. Horinko, a chemist who led the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response at the Environmental Protection Agency in the early years of the George W. Bush administration. The toxicity of oil waste, Ms. Horinko said, “is very concentration-dependent. If you have a sufficient concentration, it will exhibit the characteristics of toxicity.”

Local communities, she said, need to be vigilant that the proper safeguards are applied to ensure that toxic concentrations do not develop.

For some observers, like Mr. Jones, there is a disconnect between the televised images of cleanup workers in Tyvek suits designed to protect against toxic substances and the assertion by BP and federal officials that the oiled waste need not be given the special treatment required for toxic materials. Lieutenant Hanley said that the protective gear for cleanup workers was designed largely to keep oil from their skin.

Mr. Condon of BP said that tests conducted in April and early May on samples of waste from the oil spill showed none of the characteristics of toxic materials, which have the potential to leach into the soil and the water tables, or to spontaneously ignite or emit volatile fumes. More tests are scheduled, Mr. Condon said.

The waste from the oil spill — retrieved from beaches, barges that collect oily water skimmed from the ocean surface and wildlife refuges where oiled carcasses are stored — goes to a sorting facility; on Saturday, a truck took a large waste bin from the beach near here to the C-Port docks at Port Fourchon. At such facilities, Mr. Condon said, the debris is sorted, labeled and sent on to designated landfills, like the River Birch Landfill outside New Orleans, and the Colonial Landfill in Sorrento, between Houma and Baton Rouge.

The process is managed by a large group of contractors — local hauling, tracking and barging companies, environmental cleanup operations, testing companies and landfill operators — all organized for BP, Mr. Condon said, by Heritage Environmental Services, a waste disposal company.

Mr. Condon said more tests of the waste’s potential toxicity will take place in the near future.

Victor Culpepper, the technical director of the River Birch Landfill, said Mr. Ladner, the supervisor, had no reason to be worried. The liquids, Dr. Culpepper said, would go though a separator, with the recovered oil resold and the contaminated water injected into sandstone layers well below any aquifer.

Speaking of material like the 20,000 gallons of waste liquid that had already come to his landfill from the spill, he said, “If it goes to a proper landfill, the proper landfill has all the controls necessary to keep it from reaching the aquifer.”

    As Mess Is Sent to Landfills, Officials Worry About Safety, NYT, 14.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/15/science/earth/15waste.html

 

 

 

 

 

Flood Strands Cars in Oklahoma City

 

June 14, 2010
Filed at 12:32 p.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

 

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Flash flooding across the Oklahoma City area stranded motorists on their morning commutes Monday, prompting at least a half-dozen rescues and at least three interstate closures, authorities said.

No injuries were immediately reported but drivers were being warned to stay off the roads, Oklahoma Police Lt. Gamille Hardin said. Portions of interstates 35, 44 and 235 were closed, as were numerous smaller thoroughfares in and out of the metro area.

''There are cars where you can see just the rooftops, they're totally submerged in water,'' Hardin said. Footage from KOCO-TV showed a person bailing water out of the passenger-side window of a half-submerged car before being rescued by crews on a boat.

''There are various swift-water rescues that have occurred and are currently taking place across the city,'' said Oklahoma City emergency management director Frank Barnes.

Fire crews went door-to-door in the northwest neighborhood of Ski Island, asking residents whose homes back up to Spring Creek to voluntarily evacuate while a nearby dam is evaluated. Rising water was creeping toward the top of the dam by late morning, Oklahoma City spokeswoman Kristy Yager said.

Anywhere from 1 to 3 inches of rain an hour were falling on parts of the city, and the National Weather Service said a few spots had received 9 inches of rain in a matter of hours. Lightning knocked out electricity to some areas.

''There's been showers and thunderstorms almost continually for the better part of six hours,'' said weather service forecaster Forrest Mitchell. ''There are road closings too numerous to mention across Oklahoma County.

The main roadway into Will Rogers World Airport was shut down for more than an hour early Monday, and airport officials said several flight delays were reported.

''Downtown is flooded,'' Yager said. ''We have a few traffic lights that are out causing problems. Stalled vehicles are causing problems. Crews are in the same situation that our travelers are in. They are stuck in this traffic as well.''

    Flood Strands Cars in Oklahoma City, NYT, 14.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2010/06/14/us/AP-US-Okla-Storms.html

 

 

 

 

 

Body of Last Person Missing in Flood Is Found

 

June 14, 2010
The New York Times
By JOHN ELIGON and KEVIN SACK

 

LANGLEY, Ark. — Crews searching dozens of square miles of riverbank and muddy, rugged vegetation in steamy heat and humidity on Monday found a 20th victim of the deadly flash floods that swept through a cherished family campground area early on Friday.

Bill Sadler, a spokesman for the Arkansas State Police, said the crews had found the last person that authorities believed was in the campground and had not been accounted for. Nevertheless, he said, the search would continue at least until Monday night, because they could not be certain yet that no one had been overlooked.

“We never had a direct count of any names of the individuals” who were camping when the floods overwhelmed them, Mr. Sadler said.

The 20th body was found floating in the Little Missouri River, which flows through the Ouachita National Forest where the campgrounds were set. Heavy rains sent the normally placid river careening far over its banks in the small hours of Friday with little warning.

John Nichols, a spokesman for the United States Forest Service, said that more than 100 government employees and volunteers had combed the terrain three times up and downstream from the campground, which was set on a flat area at the bottom of a bowl of hills. “We are now focusing on large debris piles,” he said, using excavators, backhoes and other heavy earth-moving equipment to pull the flood-tossed debris apart. One of the piles was 150 feet long, 15 feet tall and 3o0 feet wide.

Confusion over how many people were missing was caused in part by numerous calls from people who said they had not heard from loved ones but were not sure if they had been camping in the flooded area, Capt. Mike Fletcher of the Arkansas State Police said Sunday at a news briefing.

Estimates on the number of people who may be missing have fluctuated widely. On Friday, just hours after the search and rescue operation began, it was put at 24.

The Associated Press reported that 18 of the 20 bodies recovered had been identified by Monday morning. Three were from Arkansas, eight were from Louisiana and seven from Texas. Seven of the 18 were young children, the A.P. said.

Some anxious family members of those caught in the flood got to see the damage firsthand on Sunday morning. Forest Service officials escorted about 25 members of two extended families into the campground area, which is in the Ouachita National Forest in a mountainous area of western Arkansas, about 75 miles from Little Rock.

Each family had lost a relative in the flood, said the Rev. Graig Cowart of Pilgrim Rest Landmark Missionary Baptist Church in Lodi, Ark., who accompanied the group.

The riverside campground, a place of fond memories for generations of families, is now a wasteland, littered with wrecked campers, flattened trees and displaced slabs of asphalt roadway. For two hours, the families took it all in, went through possessions and retrieved pictures of children and keepsakes like baby blankets.

“It was for them just to go and have a little time,” Mr. Cowart said. “It’ll help with their closure as they move forward and reflect and they can see where they were at. It was just a heart-wrenching experience, but at the same time I think they received a little solace. They could understand it a little better.”

Mr. Cowart, unshaven after three days of ministering to the families that took refuge from the flooding in his church’s activities building, said the damage looked as if it had been caused by “a tornado that just hung around.” It made him appreciative, he said, that there had not been even more deaths.

Mr. Cowart and Forest Service officials praised local residents and companies for providing more food and supplies than the families could possibly use. Wal-Mart, he said, had sent a truck with ice and bottled water. An appliance store delivered portable freezers.

“We’ve had local people here drive up with checks they’d signed blank,” Mr. Cowart said.

The church canceled its regular Sunday service, but Mr. Cowart said he would share a private devotional with the families on Sunday night.

Charles Wade, a former Arkansas legislator, told The Associated Press that his granddaughter, Leslie Jez, and her 3-year-old son, Kaden, had been killed in the flood. He said that Leslie and Adam Jez had packed a camper and met up with family on Thursday, hours before floodwaters rising as swiftly as eight feet per hour poured through their campsite.

Mrs. Jez’s mother, Sherry Wade, was also killed; Mr. Jez survived, the authorities said.

Kaden’s “only vocabulary when it wasn’t ‘mama’ and ‘daddy’ consisted of tractors and horses,” Mr. Wade said. “I can just see her holding the baby” during the flood, Mr. Wade told the A.P., choking with emotion.

Forest Service officials said they began letting residents return to their houses in the area on Sunday, and they started towing damaged vehicles out of the campground. Captain Fletcher said that 18 vehicles had been towed, and that officials were still matching the license plate numbers to the owners. Two mangled pickup trucks were carted past the rescue command post at a gas station in Langley.

Divers were deployed on Sunday and searchers began using dogs and horses to aid search efforts, Captain Fletcher said. Mike Quesinberry, who was overseeing the search operation for the federal Forest Service, said crews had searched around 50 miles of waterway at least twice.

Vynn Stuart, who runs a dog search team called Four States Search and Rescue, was on her second day traveling through the jagged brush amid swarming mosquitoes.

Guiding a German shepherd tethered to a long neon orange leash, Ms. Stuart, who lives about 90 minutes away in Little River, came across numerous signs of devastation some eight miles south of Albert Pike: uprooted trees, a tipped-over canoe, and plastic chairs and a table. Sticks, dirt and other debris wrapped around trees like twine lashing together sticks. A grassy, open field was like a muddy marsh in parts.

Ms. Stuart, who has been working on rescue operations for 17 years, said her team had to cut its search short on Sunday because of the heat. Temperatures in the area were near 90 degrees on Sunday with high humidity and little wind, and were headed higher on Monday.

“It’s been really challenging,” she said. “The debris is so bad. It’s so hot and humid. Snakes are everywhere. We had bear tracks in our area, so we have to keep our eyes out for that. It’s just the worst thing that’s happened.”


John Eligon reported from Langley, Ark., and Kevin Sack from Lodi, Ark. Joseph Berger contributed reporting from New York.

    Body of Last Person Missing in Flood Is Found, NYT, 14.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/15/us/15flood.html

 

 

 

 

 

Under a Withering Sun, Spill Cleanup Workers Must Break Frequently

 

June 13, 2010
The New York Times
By MIREYA NAVARRO

 

GRAND ISLE, La. — On a beach where the sea breeze reeks of oil, about a dozen workers stoically shoveled contaminated sand into plastic bags on a recent afternoon, while others lolled on chairs and beverage coolers under a white tent nearby, chatting and dozing against the tent’s poles.

But there was a logic to the latter group’s inactivity. Cleanup crews have come up against a foe even more unyielding than the spill in the Gulf of Mexico: the heat.

Officials with BP, which is responsible for the cleanup, say that the gulf region’s soaring temperatures have slowed the work because of added measures to protect more than 18,000 workers on land and at sea across four states from the scorching sun.

With the heat index, a measure of how hot it feels when humidity is taken into account, at 110 degrees or more in some locales, at least 100 workers have had heat-related illnesses, some of which required hospitalization, said David Michaels, assistant secretary for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration at the Department of Labor.

Mr. Michaels said the department had assigned more than 20 inspectors from OSHA to watch over workers on boats and beaches and at about 20 cleanup staging areas from Louisiana to Florida.

“This is potentially a life-threatening situation,” he said. “OSHA has been concerned about this from the very start. I’m not saying that BP is doing a terrible job, but we’re concerned and we’re vigilant.”

The most vulnerable are the workers on beaches like the one on this barrier island, some 112 miles south of New Orleans. Parts of the seven-mile beach, lined with vacation homes on stilts, resemble military construction sites, with snaking orange booms, portable restrooms and cruising Bobcat loaders and National Guard Humvees.

Out in the open, workers in groups of 10 to 15 — mostly men but also a few women — labored in white protective suits or T-shirts and jeans and accessories like sunglasses, straw or floppy hats, plastic gloves and rubber boots.

Depending on temperatures and whether the workers wear the bulkier protective clothing needed for handling oil, they may work for 20 minutes and rest for 40, or the other way around, a BP spokesman, Ray Viator, said.

Security personnel prevented reporters from approaching workers on the beach, but some of them, approached later, said they were able to cope with the heat because of the long breaks and the availability of water and sports drinks. Some said they drank up to 30 bottles a day.

“You need it,” a 21-year-old worker from Raceland in Lafourche Parish said on his way to his motel room after his shift. (He declined to be identified out of concern that he might jeopardize his cleanup job.) “I’m used to the heat, but it’s so hot that in 20 minutes you’re exhausted. One day, we worked for 15 minutes and took a break for 45. They said the heat index was 116.”

All the same, the sight of workers resting under canopies has caused some grumbling among residents angered by the loss of beaches, fishing, seafood and livelihoods.

Thomas Himel, 51, a home improvement contractor who was painting a beachfront home near the cleanup operations here, said he had run into workers who “actually care about the situation and how it’s hurting us” and others who he felt were taking advantage of the disaster.

“They already have people with itchy eyes,” he said, suggesting that some workers were weighing personal injury lawsuits. “Some people are fully into that.”

The health risks from the heat alone are undisputed, said Laura Leckett, a nurse with West Jefferson Medical Center in Marrero, La., who has been running a first-aid tent here since May 31. Ms. Leckett said she had treated about 50 of the workers for heat-stress symptoms like headaches and muscle cramps.

“They feel sluggish,” she said. More serious symptoms can include rapid breathing, unresponsiveness and disorientation.

But some of the workers said the money they were making made the risks worthwhile.

A 28-year-old worker who said he had traveled here from Dallas said he was making $15 an hour scooping up oil at sea.

The worker from Raceland, a technical school student, said he had worked here three weeks so far for $12 an hour — enough to persuade him to postpone his studies so he could work on the cleanup for at least a year.

Still, he said, the gravity of the devastation is not lost on him.

“The more we clean it up, the more oil washes on the beach,” he said. “It’ll take more than just shovels.”

    Under a Withering Sun, Spill Cleanup Workers Must Break Frequently, NYT, 13.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/14/science/earth/14heat.html

 

 

 

 

 

Search Narrows After Arkansas Flood

 

June 13, 2010
Filed at 2:14 p.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
 

 

LANGLEY, Ark. (AP) -- Crews got to work Sunday looking for bodies in the many piles of debris that collected after a flash flood swept through a popular campground, as police drastically cut their search to just three missing campers.

Authorities haven't been able to contact some of the nearly two dozen people who hadn't been accounted for Saturday, but they don't believe those people were in the Albert Pike Recreation Area, the section of the Ouachita National Forest hardest hit by flooding, State Police spokesman Bill Sadler said.

He said those people are likely camping elsewhere in Arkansas, and that's why they haven't been reachable.

''Typically when people go on vacation or camping trips, they want to turn those cell phones off,'' Sadler said. ''That's the reason they're on vacation.''

The number of missing has varied wildly since the floods hit partially because authorities have struggled to figure out exactly who was in the campground. Cell phone service is poor in the area, and authorities fielded calls about at least 73 people who couldn't be reached after the pre-dawn Friday flood that killed at least 18 people. A register that would have showed who was staying at the campground was washed away.

Crews have searched most of the 20-mile area down river of the campground, so they focused their search effort Sunday on using bulldozers and chainsaws to clear the many tangled piles of debris that collected along Little Missouri River.

Hopes of finding anyone else alive wilted in the oppressive heat and humidity that blanketed the area all weekend. Temperatures Sunday were expected to reach 97 degrees.

Friday's powerful surge leveled trees, forming listing debris piles that reached up to 30 feet high and snagged articles of clothing and camping gear.

Bud Bunson, the assistant emergency coordinator for Howard County who coordinated Sunday's search efforts, warned volunteers before they went out to use caution when cutting and picking through listing heaps.

''They can shift and fall on you,'' Bunson said. He also warned searchers to look for snakes and spiders and urged them to drink as much water as possible because of the heat.

At the command, ''Moki. Go,'' a light yellow Welsh Labrador sniffed through a 10-foot pile, occassionally alerting its handler to a flip-flop, propane bottle, toy or shaving kit that still held its owner's scent, but not finding any bodies.

Divers who had scoured parts of the river declined to say if they found anything of note.

Meanwhile, anxious survivors and relatives of the missing who had taken refuge in a church in nearby Lodi were taken on a tour of the campground on Sunday. The group had thinned considerably by Sunday, and only about a dozen people from two families remained, said Suzanne Horsley, spokeswoman with American Red Cross.

Graig Cowart, the church's pastor, said the family members were very emotional during the tour, and that some tried to recover their loved ones' personal belongings.

''It's just overwhelming for them. It looks like a war zone here.''

The last time someone was found alive was late Friday morning. Only two bodies were found Saturday as swollen rivers subsided and anguished relatives awaiting word of loved ones grew more and more frustrated, knowing that at some point the search mission would become one of recovery.

''They're just devastated. The time for shock has probably gone and now it's just anxiety building. They're beginning to fear the worst,'' Cowart said.

Five of the 16 victims identified, including three young children, were from a single Louisiana town, Gloster. Three other victims also were from Louisiana, and seven were from Texas. Funerals were scheduled for Tuesday for three victims in Texarkana, Texas.

The only Arkansas victim identified was Leslie Jez, a 23-year-old mother and wife from Foreman whose husband, Adam Jez, was listed among the flood's survivors.

''So ready to go camping this weekend,'' she wrote on her Facebook page Monday. ''Kaden is going to love it!!'' Authorities haven't said whether the child survived.

Floodwaters rose as swiftly as 8 feet per hour, pouring through the remote valley with such force that they peeled asphalt from roads and bark off trees. Cabins dotting the river banks were severely damaged, and mobile homes lay on their sides.

Forecasters had warned of the approaching danger in the area during the night, but campers could easily have missed the advisories because the area is isolated.

Hundreds of searchers have combed through rugged wilderness between the campground and Lake Greeson, a large body of water some 20 miles down river that would be the furthest any of the bodies could have traveled.

The last body found Friday night was retrieved 8 miles downstream from the campground, and authorities have vowed to keep searching until all the missing are accounted for.

------

Associated Press writers Justin Juozapavicius in Langley, Tony Winton in the Albert Pike Recreation Area and Jill Zeman Bleed in Little Rock contributed to this report.

    Search Narrows After Arkansas Flood, NYT, 13.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2010/06/13/us/AP-US-Arkansas-Flooding.html

 

 

 

 

 

Obama Plans to Force BP’s Hand on Oil Spill Fund

 

June 13, 2010
The New York Times
By JACKIE CALMES

 

WASHINGTON — President Obama for the first time will address the nation about the ongoing oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday night and outline his plans to legally force BP executives to create an escrow account reserving billions of dollars to compensate businesses and individuals if the company does not do so on its own, a senior administration official said on Sunday.

“The president will use his legal authority to compel them,” said Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman.

Mr. Gibbs did not elaborate on the legal basis for such a move but said that White House lawyers have been researching the matter for days. The president is seizing the initiative after reports on Friday from London that BP would voluntarily establish an escrow account — either for compensating victims or for delaying a planned dividend for BP shareholders — turned out to be less certain than the White House initially thought.

The escrow account that the White House envisions would be roughly modeled after the fund established for victims of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and it would be administered by a third party to provide greater independence and transparency and to guard against the company too narrowly defining who is entitled to payments and how much.

“We want to make sure that money is escrowed for the legitimate claims that are going to be, and are being made, by businesses down in the Gulf — people who’ve been damaged by this,” said David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s senior White House strategist, on NBC’s “Meet the Press” television news program on Sunday. “And we want to make sure that that money is independently administered so that [they] won’t be slow-walked on these claims.”

The plans for a prime-time speech and Mr. Obama’s ultimatum on an escrow account escalate Mr. Obama’s personal engagement in the eight-week-old environmental and economic crisis. And they set the tone for a week of events that will have the oil giant publicly on the defensive more than at any time in the nearly two months since the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig a mile below the Gulf’s surface.

The BP board is to hold an emergency meeting on Monday at which it is expected to discuss both the escrow issue and other issues company officials will address in a meeting at the White House on Wednesday that Mr. Obama has summoned them to.

Mr. Obama on Monday and Tuesday will make his fourth trip to the Gulf coast since the disaster struck on April 20. It will be his first overnight visit and, after three trips to Louisiana, his first to the states to its east — Mississippi, Alabama and Florida — which are in the direction of the spewing oil’s drift.

The president will return to Washington in time to report to the nation on Tuesday night, and on Wednesday will meet with the chairman of BP’s board, Carl-Henric Svanberg, accompanied by the company’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, who has been criticized for statements that many people considered insensitive and self-serving. And Mr. Hayward will be in the hot seat on Thursday, testifying before one of several Congressional committees investigating the calamity.

Administration officials say that Mr. Obama, in his speech from the White House on Tuesday, will not only discuss the issue of claims against BP but also update the nation on efforts to capture and contain the oil, and on his proposals to reorganize the federal system for regulating offshore oil drilling.

Amid some grumbling from Britain that the Obama administration and the country are unfairly bashing BP, the president on Saturday discussed the oil spill and the London-based company in a phone call with the new British prime minister, David Cameron. A White House statement afterward described a wide-ranging conversation that covered the countries’ alliance in Afghanistan, sanctions against Iran, the global economy and the upcoming G of 20 summit meeting of developed nations, and the day’s World Cup soccer game between England and the United States, which later ended in a tie.

But the statement also noted, “The President and the Prime Minister discussed the impact of the tragic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, reiterating that BP must do all it can to respond effectively to the situation.”

Inside BP, there is a view that President Obama’s unflinching criticism of BP and its chief executive represents an unprecedented example of a chief of state interfering in the affairs of a corporation.

And while some officials inside the company recognize that the president faces severe political pressures, there is also a resentment that the company has become a whipping boy even as it does its best on the clean-up.

“In the long history of British-American relations, this sort of thing has never happened,” said a BP director who declined to be identified because the person was not authorized to speak on the record. “You are innocent until proven guilty.”

Coast Guard Admiral Thad W. Allen, who is heading the federal response to the disaster, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that he expected an answer later on Sunday to his request to BP late last week asking its officials for “a faster plan” to siphon off and collect the gushing oil, one with “greater redundancy and reliability.”

He also acknowledged the recent determination from government scientists that the volume of spewing oil could be higher than estimated — up to 40,000 barrels a day. But Adm. Allen tempered his estimate by saying that the “mid-30,000 range is what we’re looking at.”

Meanwhile, the governors of three of the affected Gulf Coast states continued to complain that the news media were harmfully exaggerating the impact of the oil on their beaches and coastal waters, with Mississippi’s Haley Barbour calling the coverage “very sensational.” Mr. Barbour said that so far his state has had a “a couple of incursions” of oil on its barrier islands, but as a result of the coverage on cable television and other news outlets, “we’ve lost the first third of our tourist season.”

“They have been clobbered because of the misperception that our whole coast is knee-deep in oil,” he said of his state’s tourist businesses.

Gov. Bob Riley of Alabama and Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida echoed his criticism, with Mr. Crist calling his beaches “clean and pristine” and Mr. Riley urging Americans to “come down and rent a condo, stay in a hotel, play golf.”


Joseph Berger contributed reporting from New York and Landon Thomas Jr. from London.

    Obama Plans to Force BP’s Hand on Oil Spill Fund, NYT, 13.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/14/us/14spill.html

 

 

 

 

 

New Estimates Double Rate of Oil That Flowed Into Gulf

 

June 10, 2010
The New York Times
By JUSTIN GILLIS and HENRY FOUNTAIN

 

A government panel on Thursday essentially doubled its estimate of how much oil has been spewing from the out-of-control BP well, with the new calculation suggesting that an amount equivalent to the Exxon Valdez disaster could be flowing into the Gulf of Mexico every 8 to 10 days.

The new estimate is 25,000 to 30,000 barrels of oil a day. That range, still preliminary, is far above the previous estimate of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day.

These new calculations came as the public wrangling between BP and the White House was reaching new heights, with President Obama asking for a meeting with BP executives next week and his Congressional allies intensifying their pressure on the oil giant to withhold dividend payments to shareholders until it makes clear it can and will pay all its obligations from the spill.

The higher estimates will affect not only assessments of how much environmental damage the spill has done but also how much BP might eventually pay to clean up the mess — and it will most likely increase suspicion among skeptics about how honest and forthcoming the oil company has been throughout the catastrophe.

The new estimate is based on information that was gathered before BP cut a pipe called a riser on the ocean floor last week to install a new capture device, an operation that some scientists have said may have sharply increased the rate of flow. The government panel, called the Flow Rate Technical Group, is preparing yet another estimate that will cover the period after the riser was cut.

The new estimate appears to be a far better match than earlier ones for the reality that Americans can see every day on their televisions. Even though the new capture device is funneling 15,000 barrels of oil a day to a ship at the surface, a robust flow of oil is still gushing from the well a mile beneath the waves.

The question of how much oil is pouring into the gulf has been a nagging one for weeks, especially since early estimates from BP and the government proved woefully low. And the new estimates come as the company, after weeks of failed efforts, is enjoying its first substantial success at preventing a significant volume of oil from entering the gulf.

The new numbers are certain to ratchet up the already intense political pressure on BP.

For days Mr. Obama and his advisers have fended off questions about why he has not spoken with the chief executive of BP, Tony Hayward. The president’s commander for the spill response, Adm. Thad W. Allen of the Coast Guard, wrote on Thursday to the chairman of the BP board, Carl-Henric Svanberg, requesting that he and “any appropriate officials from BP” meet with administration officials next Wednesday. Mr. Obama will participate in part of the meeting, he wrote.

Administration officials suggested that they had no immediate plans to directly block BP from paying the dividend, even as the White House and its allies made clear that they would pressure the company to ensure that it made paying spill-related claims its top financial priority. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, told reporters that BP should withhold dividends to shareholders until it paid small-business owners along the gulf for their loss claims. Representative Edward J. Markey, who is chairman of one committee investigating the spill, suggested that the government would take action to block the payments if necessary.

“This company, I think, will stay solvent,” said Mr. Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts. “And we’re going to make sure that the shareholders wait until the victims are paid first.”

Andrew Gowers, a BP spokesman, said “there is no change in the position” of retaining the dividend. “We intend to meet all our obligations to all our stakeholders,” he said. “We are a very financially strong company.”

In coming weeks, BP hopes to start capturing the vast bulk of the oil emerging from the well. The new high estimate of 30,000 barrels, however, would exceed BP’s current processing capacity, which is expected to reach 25,000 barrels a day by next week. The company plans to move an additional ship into position by early July to improve its ability to manage the flow.

Mr. Gowers said that the flow-rate group was doing “appropriate” work and that the new estimate would not affect the company’s planned containment efforts.

Mr. Gowers noted that BP had supplied the information that allowed the technical group to make its calculation. “It’s their job to produce the estimate, and we have nothing to add,” he said.

As investors have fled BP stock over uncertainties about the company’s future and its ability to pay what it will end up owing, BP has lost nearly half its market capitalization since April, and its bonds are now trading at junk levels.

Credit Suisse estimates the cleanup costs could end up at $15 billion to $23 billion, plus an additional $14 billion of claims. But analysts make much of BP’s financial flexibility: it had net profit of $17 billion last year alone.

Mr. Gowers said the company did not have an estimate of what its potential liability costs would be. But he said that as of Thursday morning, the company had already spent $1.43 billion, including claims payments, the costs of trying to plug and cap the leak, and payments of block grants to gulf states.

On the new estimates of the flow rate, Marcia McNutt, director of the United States Geological Survey and chairwoman of the technical panel, said the new figures were based on a more detailed analysis of information like video of the gushing well. The new range was also based on the first direct measurement of the flow rate, using sonar equipment lowered to the ocean floor.

Two scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Richard Camilli and Andy Bowen, made that measurement on May 31, Mr. Bowen said.

As with the government’s previous estimate, Dr. McNutt said subgroups of the panel applied various analytical techniques to come up with estimates. The best overlap among the techniques was the range of 25,000 to 30,000 barrels a day, she said, and that became the new official estimate.

Dr. McNutt added, however, that the range of estimates the technical panel considered plausible was actually wider, more like 20,000 to 40,000 barrels a day.

A barrel is 42 gallons, so 30,000 barrels would equate to nearly 1.3 million gallons a day. The Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 is estimated to have spilled 10.8 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound in Alaska.

Ira Leifer, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a member of the flow-rate group, said the new figures confirmed a suspicion he had developed, based on looking at satellite data, that the rate of flow for the well was increasing even before BP cut the riser pipe.

“The situation is growing worse,” Dr. Leifer said.


Jackie Calmes contributed reporting from Washington, and Graham Bowley and Liz Robbins from New York.

    New Estimates Double Rate of Oil That Flowed Into Gulf, NYT, 10.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/11/us/11spill.html

 

 

 

 

 

Imagining Life Without Oil, and Being Ready

 

June 5, 2010
The New York Times
By JOHN LELAND

 

As oil continued to pour into the Gulf of Mexico on a recent Saturday, Jennifer Wilkerson spent three hours on the phone talking about life after petroleum.

For Mrs. Wilkerson, 33, a moderate Democrat from Oakton, Va., who designs computer interfaces, the spill reinforced what she had been obsessing over for more than a year — that oil use was outstripping the world’s supply. She worried about what would come after: maybe food shortages, a collapse of the economy, a breakdown of civil order. Her call was part of a telephone course about how to live through it all.

In bleak times, there is a boom in doom.

Americans have long been fascinated by disaster scenarios, from the population explosion to the cold war to global warming. These days the doomers, as Mrs. Wilkerson jokingly calls herself and likeminded others, have a new focus: peak oil. They argue that oil supplies peaked as early as 2008 and will decline rapidly, taking the economy with them.

Located somewhere between the environmental movement and the bunkered survivalists, the peak oil crowd is small but growing, reaching from health food stores to Congress, where a Democrat and a Republican formed a Congressional Peak Oil Caucus.

And they have been resourceful, sharing the concerns of other “collapsitarians,” including global debt and climate change — both caused by overuse of diminishing oil supplies, they maintain.

Many people dispute the peak oil hypothesis, including Daniel Yergin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power” and chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a company that advises governments and industry. Mr. Yergin has argued that new technology continues to bring more oil.

Andre Angelantoni is not taking that chance. In his home in San Rafael, Calif., he has stocked food reserves in case an oil squeeze prevents food from reaching market and has converted his investments into gold and silver.

The effects of peak oil, including high energy prices, will not be gentle, said Mr. Angelantoni, a Web designer whose company, Post Peak Living, offers the telephone class and a handful of online courses for life after a collapse.

“Our whole economy depends on greater and greater energy supplies, and that just isn’t possible,” he said. “I wish I could say we’ll quietly accept having many millions of people unemployed, their homes foreclosed. But it’s hard to see the whole country transitioning to a low-energy future without people becoming angry. There’s going to be quite a bit of social turmoil on the way down.”

Transition US, a British transplant that seeks to help towns brace for life after oil, including a “population die-off” from shortages of oil, food and medicine, now has 68 official chapters around the country, since starting with just two in 2008. Group projects range from community vegetable gardens to creating local currency in case the national one crashes.

Bleak books like James Howard Kunstler’s “The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century” and Richard Heinberg’s “The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies” have sold 100,000 and 50,000 copies, respectively, according to their publishers.

In Congress in 2005, Representative Roscoe G. Bartlett, Republican of Maryland, and Senator Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat who was a representative at the time, created the Congressional Peak Oil Caucus. Web sites, online videos and numerous social networks connect adherents in ways that would once have been impossible.

Mr. Angelantoni, 40, came to his concern about peak oil from an interest in climate change, because he felt its impact would be more precipitous. “The peak oil conversation is where the climate change conversation was 20 years ago,” he said. He distinguished the peak oil crowd from the environmental movement. “The Sierra Club tells people that if we use less energy, the underlying model is sound,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the case.”

Like several people in the telephone class, he said his concern with peak oil had strained his relationship with his spouse, creating an “unbridgeable” distance between them.

“It’s very difficult for people to hear that this form of the economy is breaking down,” he said. “They think that because it hasn’t happened yet that it won’t ever happen.”

Mrs. Wilkerson has now read two dozen books about peak oil and related topics. For a while, she became depressed at work and had trouble discussing her feelings with her husband because the conversations were so dire, she said. At work, her colleagues told her directly “that they were tired of hearing about it,” she said. “They felt I was going to an extreme, thinking collapse was going to happen.”

She added, “I was ready to move out to the country and be an organic farmer, but I learned that’s not the way to do it. You need a community.”

Despite the rapid growth of Transition US, the movement was much easier to sell in England, said Raven Gray, who came to this country to found a branch here. While Americans embrace doomsday scenarios, they are less likely to work together on how to live afterward, she said.

“There’s lot of apocalyptic people in environmental circles,” she said. “A lot of those people were outraged that we presented an optimistic view of the future. There’s a dark vision driving us, but we’re about moving toward a positive picture of what can be done.”

For Mrs. Wilkerson, who is now growing vegetables in her kitchen, the course, which cost $175, gave her encouragement to move in that direction.

“Whether or not collapse happens, being able to teach other people to grow food so they can weather any adversity is a good investment of my time,” she said.

    Imagining Life Without Oil, and Being Ready, NYT, 5.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/us/06peak.html

 

 

 

 

 

Before Oil Spill, It Was Unclear Who Was in Charge of Rig

 

June 5, 2010
The New York Times
By IAN URBINA

 

NEW ORLEANS — Over six days in May, far from the familiar choreography of Washington hearings, federal investigators grilled workers involved in the Deepwater Horizon disaster in a chilly, sterile conference room at a hotel near the airport here.

The six-member panel of Coast Guard and Minerals Management Service officials pressed for answers about what occurred on the rig on April 20 before it exploded. They wanted to know who was in charge, and heard conflicting answers.

They pushed for more insight into an argument on the rig that day between a manager for BP, the well’s owner, and one for Transocean, the rig’s owner, and asked Curt R. Kuchta, the rig’s captain, how the crew knew who was in charge.

“It’s pretty well understood amongst the crew who’s in charge,” he said.

“How do they know that?” a Coast Guard investigator asked.

“I guess, I don’t know,” Captain Kuchta said. “But it’s pretty well — everyone knows.”

Looking annoyed, Capt. Hung Nguyen of the Coast Guard, one of the chief federal investigators, shook his head. The exchange confirmed an observation he had made earlier in the day at the hearing.

“A lot of activities seem not very tightly coordinated in the way that would make me comfortable,” he said. “Maybe that’s just the way of business out there.”

Investigators have focused on the minute-to-minute decisions and breakdowns to understand what led to the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, killing 11 people and setting off the largest oil spill in United States history and an environmental disaster. But the lack of coordination was not limited to the day of the explosion.

New government and BP documents, interviews with experts and testimony by witnesses provide the clearest indication to date that a hodgepodge of oversight agencies granted exceptions to rules, allowed risks to accumulate and made a disaster more likely on the rig, particularly with a mix of different companies operating on the Deepwater whose interests were not always in sync.

And in the aftermath, arguments about who is in charge of the cleanup — often a signal that no one is in charge — have led to delays, distractions and disagreements over how to cap the well and defend the coastline. As a result, with oil continuing to gush a mile below the surface in the Gulf of Mexico, the laws of physics are largely in control, creating the daunting challenge of trying to plug a hole at depths where equipment is straining under more than a ton of pressure per square inch.

Tad W. Patzek, chairman of the Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department at the University of Texas, Austin, has analyzed reports of what led to the explosion. “It’s a very complex operation in which the human element has not been aligned with the complexity of the system,” he said in an interview last week.

His conclusion could also apply to what occurred long before the disaster.

 

Exceptions Are the Rule

Deepwater oil production in the gulf, which started in 1979 but expanded much faster in the mid-1990s with new technology and federal incentives, is governed as much by exceptions to rules as by the rules themselves.

Under a process called “alternative compliance,” much of the technology used on deepwater rigs has been approved piecemeal, with regulators cooperating with industry groups to make small adjustments to guidelines that were drawn up decades ago for shallow-water drilling.

Of roughly 3,500 drilling rigs and production platforms in the gulf, fewer than 50 are in waters deeper than 1,000 feet. But the risks and challenges associated with this deeper water are much greater.

“The pace of technology has definitely outrun the regulations,” Lt. Cmdr. Michael Odom of the Coast Guard, who inspects the rigs, said last month at a hearing.

As a result, deepwater rigs operate under an ad hoc system of exceptions. The deeper the water, the further the exceptions stretch, not just from federal guidelines but also often from company policy.

So, for example, when BP officials first set their sights on extracting the oily riches under what is known as Mississippi Canyon Block 252 in the Gulf of Mexico, they asked for and received permission from federal regulators to exempt the drilling project from federal law that requires a rigorous type of environmental review, internal documents and federal records indicate.

As BP engineers planned to set certain pipes and casings for lining the well in place in the ocean floor, they had to get permission from company managers to use riskier equipment because that equipment deviated from the company’s own design and safety policies, according to internal BP documents obtained by The New York Times.

And when company officials wanted to test the blowout preventer, a crucial fail-safe mechanism on the pipe near the ocean floor, at a lower pressure than was federally required, regulators granted an exception, documents released last week show.

Regulators granted yet another exception when BP sought to delay mandatory testing of that blowout preventer because they had lost “well control,” weeks before the rig exploded, BP e-mail messages show.

The Minerals Management Service, which regulates offshore drilling, went along with these requests partly because the agency has for years had a dual role of both fostering and policing the industry — collecting royalty payments from the drilling companies while also levying fines on them for violations of law.

Its safety inspections usually consist of helicopter visits to offshore rigs to sift through company reports of self-administered tests.

Even Ken Salazar, the interior secretary, who oversees the minerals agency, has said that oil companies have a history of “running the show” at the agency, a problem he has vowed to correct.

The minerals agency shares responsibility for oversight of drilling in the gulf with many others. The Environmental Protection Agency and others review offshore drilling for potential damage to wildlife and the environment. The Coast Guard inspects vessels for seaworthiness and licenses crew members to work on the rigs. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration monitors dangerous weather conditions over deep seas.

And regulatory duties extend even past the federal government. Foreign countries, or “flag states,” where many oil rigs are registered, have their own sets of safety requirements and inspections.

Regulations have not kept up with the risks that deepwater drilling poses.

On the Deepwater Horizon, for example, the minerals agency approved a drilling plan for BP that cited the “worst case” for a blowout as one that might produce 250,000 barrels of oil per day, federal records show. But the agency did not require the rig to create a response plan for such a situation.

If a blowout were to occur, BP said in its plan, the first choice would be to use a containment dome to capture the leaking oil. But regulators did not require that a containment dome be kept on the rig to speed the response to a spill. After the rig explosion, BP took two weeks to build one on shore and three days to ship it out to sea before it was lowered over the gushing pipe on May 7. It did not work.

(The rig’s “spill response plan,” provided to The Times, includes a Web link for a contractor that goes to an Asian shopping Web site and also mentions the importance of protecting walruses, seals and sea lions, none of which inhabit the area of drilling. The agency approved the plan.)

More broadly, regulators have not required technology and strategies for dealing with deepwater spills to be improved.

Engineers trying to control the blowout are using the same tactics they used in 1979 when the Ixtoc I well blew up in the Bay of Campeche off the coast of Mexico. In the earlier blowout, they first tried lowering a containment dome over the leak. When that failed, they unsuccessfully tried to inject golf balls and other material in a move called a junk shot, which was also tried and abandoned for the Deepwater Horizon.

Questions of oversight also came up in the New Orleans hearings last month. For example, Michael J. Saucier, an official with the Minerals Management Service, said that his agency “highly encouraged” — but did not require — companies to have backup systems to trigger blowout preventers in case of an emergency.

“Highly encourage?” Captain Nguyen of the Coast Guard asked. “How does that translate to enforcement?”

“There is no enforcement,” Mr. Saucier answered.

 

Problems Early On

In some ways it was jinxed from the start.

As early as June 2009, BP engineers had expressed concerns in internal documents about using certain casings for the well because they violated the company’s safety and design guidelines. But they proceeded with those casings.

Mechanical problems started in March with the Deepwater, setting the stage for the April 20 explosion.

More than five weeks before disaster, the rig was hit by several sudden pulsations of gas called “kicks” and a pipe had become stuck in the well. The blowout preventer, designed to seal the well in an emergency, had been discovered to be leaking fluids at least three times.

Dealing with these problems required teamwork, a challenge to the throng of different companies with responsibilities on the rig. Of the 126 people present on the day of the explosion, only eight were employees of BP. The interests of the workers did not always align.

In testimony to government investigators, rig workers repeatedly described a “natural conflict” between BP, which can make more money by completing drilling jobs quickly, and Transocean, which receives a leasing fee from BP every day that it continues drilling.

Halliburton was also on hand to provide cementing services, while a subsidiary monitored various drilling fluids. A different company provided drilling fluid systems, another provided technicians to operate the remote-control vehicles that are they eyes of the rig crew deep underwater, and yet another provided the well casing.

Amid this tangle of overlapping authority and competing interests, no one was solely responsible for ensuring the rig’s safety, and communication was a constant challenge.

“I don’t have a feeling that there is somebody who has a handle on the coordination of all the activities on this vessel, going from routine to crisis,” Captain Nguyen said during one hearing. “BP is in charge of certain things, Transocean is in charge of certain things.”

Financial concerns added pressures on the rig.

BP had fallen behind schedule and over budget, paying roughly $500,000 a day to lease the rig from Transocean. The rig was 43 days late for starting a new drilling job for BP by the day of the explosion, a delay that had already cost the company more than $21 million.

With the clock ticking, bad decisions went unchecked, warning signs went unheeded and small lapses compounded.

On April 1, a job log written by a Halliburton employee, Marvin Volek, warns that BP’s use of cement “was against our best practices.”

An April 18 internal Halliburton memorandum indicates that Halliburton again warned BP about its practices, this time saying that a “severe” gas flow problem would occur if the casings were not centered more carefully.

Around that same time, a BP document shows, company officials chose a type of casing with a greater risk of collapsing.

Despite noticing cementing problems, BP skipped a quality test of the cement around the pipe. Federal regulators also gave the rig a pass at several critical moments. After the rig encountered several problems, including the gas kicks and the pipe stuck in the well, the regulators did not demand a halt to the operation. Instead, they gave permission for a delay in a safety test of the blowout preventer.

An initial investigation by BP points to a range of missteps.

Tests shortly before the well blew out found a buildup of pressure that was an “indicator of a very large abnormality,” BP concluded and disclosed to Congress in a preliminary report last month. Yet, the rig team was satisfied after another test was deemed successful, and it proceeded.

About 10 hours before the explosion, the challenges of trying to keep the pressure in the well under control led to an argument among the workers about how best to finish the well and move the rig to the next site.

Douglas Brown, a Transocean mechanic on the rig, told investigators that an unnamed BP official whom he called “the company man” had instructed rig workers to execute a new plan for removing the riser and sealing the well. Mr. Brown testified that workers thought the plan was too risky. But he could not hear details of the argument that ensued.

“The company man was basically saying, ‘Well, this is how it’s going to be,’ ” Mr. Brown told investigators at a hearing on May 26 near New Orleans, adding that the Transocean rig workers “reluctantly agreed.”

When the explosion occurred around 9:50 p.m. on April 20, there was pandemonium on the rig. Most workers headed for lifeboats. Others rescued shipmates trapped under equipment. On the bridge, Captain Kuchta gathered with at least eight other managers and crew members to decide on an emergency plan.

Steve Bertone, the chief engineer for Transocean, wrote in his witness statement that he ran up to the bridge where he heard Captain Kuchta screaming at a worker, Andrea Fleytas, because she had pressed the distress button without authorization.

Mr. Bertone turned to another worker and asked him if he had called to shore for help but was told he did not have permission to do so. Another manager tried to give the go-ahead, the testimony said, but someone else said the order needed to come from the rig’s offshore installation manager.

 

A Strained Partnership

After the spill, the government and BP were supposed to cooperate, partly a consequence of laws written after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill that were intended to make polluters more accountable for cleaning up their own messes.

One example of what was supposed to be a unified front was the Joint Information Center. Housed in a Shell-owned training and conference center in Robert, La., the center includes roughly 65 employees, 10 of whom work for BP. Together, they write and issue news releases and coordinate posts on a Web site, Facebook and Twitter.

But the partnership between BP and the government has strained along with the failure of efforts to plug the well. Mr. Salazar, for example, assured the public on May 2 that the administration was keeping its “boot on the neck” of BP. Next he was being publicly chastised by President Obama for using antagonistic language.

BP’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, told reporters at one point that the spill was “relatively tiny.” Federal officials soon released estimates indicating that the spill had far outpaced the Exxon Valdez disaster.

Under intense media scrutiny, at least a dozen federal agencies have taken part in the spill response, making decision-making slow, conflicted and confused, as they sought to apply numerous federal statutes.

In one stark example of government disputes, internal e-mail messages from the minerals agency obtained by The Times reveal a heated debate over whether to ignore some federal environmental laws about gas emissions in an effort to speed the drilling of relief wells.

One agency official, Michael Tolbert, warned colleagues on April 24 that emissions of nitrous oxide from the well were “pretty far over the exemption level,” an issue that his colleague Tommy Broussard said could result in “BP wasting time” on environmental safeguards in a way that would be “completely stupid.”

But a third colleague, Elizabeth Peuler, intervened to demand that the agency take “no shortcuts.”

“Not even for this one,” she said. “Perhaps even especially for this one.”

Debates over the speed — or lack thereof — of the government response have also played out in Louisiana, where state officials spent much of May repeatedly seeking permission from the federal government to construct up to 90 miles of sand barriers to prevent oil from reaching the wetlands.

For three weeks, as the giant slick crept closer to shore, officials from the White House, Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Environmental Protection Agency debated the best approach.

They ultimately approved the use of only one barrier, called a berm, to be paid for by BP.

Comparing the federal government’s response to “telling a drowning man to wait,” Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana asked: If one berm is safe, then why not the 23 others that he had requested? Slowly, the federal government approved more berms.

From the start, BP had played down the extent of the problem in miscalculating the rate of the leak and in denying the existence of underwater oil plumes. By deferring to the company, federal officials underestimated the problem they were facing and thus what was needed to respond to it.

It took more than a week after the explosion for the homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, to declare, on April 29, “a spill of national significance” a legal categorization that was needed before certain federal assistance could be authorized.

Because of such delays, critics have charged, more coastline will be hit, more animals will die, more habitats will be ruined and more money will be lost in tourism, fishing and real estate.

And yet, the administration is limited in its ability to divorce itself from BP, because federal officials rely on the company for technology, personnel and financing for the cleanup. The relationship reached a turning point last week when the administration said the national incident commander, Adm. Thad W. Allen of the Coast Guard, would start giving solo briefings. He will no longer share a podium with BP, which will offer its own briefings.

That move, however, does not resolve the matter of who is actually in charge in the gulf — of ensuring safety and regulating the dangerous extraction of vast riches under the deepest waters there, as well as of handling the continuing emergency.

The question is proving equally vexing as investigators try to place blame for events on the rig the day of the explosion— as was clear on Tuesday when Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced that he had begun a criminal investigation.

Citing “a wide range of possible violations,” Mr. Holder declined to specify the target of the investigation, because, he said, the authorities were still not clear on “who should ultimately be held liable.”


Robbie Brown contributed reporting from New Orleans, and Tom Zeller from New York.

    Before Oil Spill, It Was Unclear Who Was in Charge of Rig, NYT, 5.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/us/06rig.html

 

 

 

 

 

A Disaster Reaches Beyond the Gulf Coast
 

June 4, 2010
The New York Times
By JESSE McKINLEY, WILLIAM YARDLEY, ABBY GOODNOUGH and MARK LEIBOVICH

 

As BP continues to struggle to plug the leak at the bottom of the sea,
the president tries to convince the country that he is on top of the crisis,
and the first oil laps the coasts of previously untouched states,
Americans far from the gulf are feeling touched by the disaster. A sampling:



Wyoming: An ‘Oil City’ Fears for Its Future
Washington: Grief After Another Kind of Oil Disaster
New England: Fishermen Watch From Far Away
Protest: Environmental Groups Call for Alternative Energy
Full Coverage: Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill »




Kevin Moloney for The New York Times

WYOMING

An ‘Oil City’ Fears for Its Future

CASPER, Wyo. — The lobby of the elegant old Casper Petroleum Club is filled with suggestions of its pro-oil ethos: a sign listing current crude and natural gas prices; a wall of plaques recognizing local companies in the business; and dozens of photographs of beaming engineers and executives who have served on the board of the private club over the years.

But in recent weeks, some club members’ smiles have been replaced by more fraught expressions as worries have grown not only about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but also about the potential blowback to Casper’s No. 1 industry.

“Honestly, the first concern is the problem it is causing the Gulf Coast, because a lot of us have spent time down there,” said Jimmy E. Goolsby, a geologist who lived in Texas before decamping to Casper some 35 years ago.

“But secondary to us, and very important to all of us, is what impact it’s going to have on the oil and gas industry in the U.S.,” Mr. Goolsby said. “Is it going to be what Three Mile Island was to nuclear?”

In Casper, a city of 52,000, oil and natural gas production and refining are as central to the lives of many residents as pick-up trucks and big sky. That concern spreads all the way from the white-tablecloth confines of the petroleum club to the white-bibbed customers at the Rialto Barber Shop.

Ed Heatherington, who wields the razor beneath the watchful gaze of a stuffed pronghorn antelope at the Rialto, was measured in his response. “It’s a shame it happened,” he said. “But we’re not living in an accident-free world.”

But some of Mr. Heatherington’s patrons were less forgiving Thursday morning as they chided President Obama for what they saw as a slow, haphazard response, as well as for his remarks Wednesday that he intended to roll back tax credits for the oil industry.

“He’s just on another campaign trip,” said Dee Beardsley, a 81-year-old retiree who worked for years as an operations manager in the energy industry. “They’re brain dead.”

That Mr. Obama would be unpopular in this red state stronghold — this is Dick Cheney’s hometown, after all — is not surprising. But BP, the London-based oil giant, also drew an angry response from some local residents.

“We kicked the British out of here 200 years ago,” said Ken Melder, a drilling consultant from Glenrock, Wyo., in a neighboring county. “And we ought to do it again.”

Oil and gas have long been a part of life in Wyoming, where the first oil well was drilled in 1884, six years before the territory joined the union. Casper is no exception; sometimes known as “the Oil City,” it has a refinery on one edge of town, with gigantic oil reserve tanks on the other. Rail tracks, where piping and tanker cars are a constant presence, run through the center of town, not far from one of its tallest structures — the six-story Petroleum Building.

Most of those in the oil and gas business here are not big, multinational companies, Mr. Goolsby said. “Most people here are like farmers: they just produce product,” he said, meaning oil and natural gas. “They don’t have pipelines. They don’t have refineries. They don’t have outlets. They just produce.”

Residents here are used to boom and bust cycles. In 2008, the oil and gas industry employed about 30,000 people and poured nearly $3 billion in Wyoming’s coffers in taxes, royalties and other fees, according to the Petroleum Association of Wyoming. But local residents say the current oil scene is in a slump, and some said they feared more scrutiny from the government could prolong the slump.

“Back in the ’80s, when the bubble burst, you’d go to lunch and come back and the doors would be locked,” Mr. Beardsley said. “I just hope that doesn’t happen again.”

Others — particularly the young and able — were not concerned that all that much would change because of the current slump, caused in part by the recession, or the gulf spill.

Lucas Strawn, 21, had come to Casper to train for oil work after four years of working methane gas rigs north of here. He had more fear of dying on the job — “everything on a rig has a potential to kill you” — than his job dying on the vine.

“People still want to drive their cars,” said Mr. Strawn, a Wyoming native, as he played pool in a local hall Thursday night. “And if we don’t drill, they don’t drive.” —JESSE McKINLEY

 

 

 

 

 

WASHINGTON

Grief After Another Kind of Oil Disaster

ANACORTES, Wash. — Hershel and Bonita Janz say they have been struck by how little media attention has been given to the 11 people who died in the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20.

They understand that the nation is consumed with the environmental consequences of the spill, and they understand the worries Gulf Coast residents have over losing a way of life. But what about the loss of life?

“Today is the day, you know,” Mrs. Janz said, the evening news on the television as the couple sat down for dinner. “Two months today.”

It was June 2, two months to the day after an explosion at the Tesoro oil refinery killed seven people. The Janzes’ son, Lew, died after clinging to life for 11 days in a hospital burn unit, all but his eyes swaddled in blood-soaked bandages.

“It was a terrible, terrible way to die,” Mr. Janz said.

Will Lamphiear, an operator at the refinery 80 miles north of Seattle, said that having the gulf spill constantly in the news at the same time Anacortes has been holding memorial services for the Tesoro victims had made him realize that news coverage, however omnipresent, is not necessarily intimate. “That’s noise, that’s a news story,” he said. “We feel this.”

“These were people you saw every day,” he said. “It’s a balancing act, doing your job and dealing with the grief.”

Homes here rattled with the explosion that night. The plant is still shut down and investigators are still at work. Yet even though the accident had much in common with what would happen in the gulf three weeks later — the oil industry, a fiery explosion, tragic deaths, a pristine setting on the water, hard questions over what happened — there was no oil spill here, no seemingly unsolvable environmental disaster. Grief is what people are trying to contain.

But they remain committed to the industry.

“These things happen,” Mr. Janz said, invoking the spill in the gulf as well as the 29 people who died in the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia in April. “But we’re not going to stop using coal and we’re not going to stop using oil. Bad things happen to good people, and Lew was one of the best.”

Officials say the refinery will reopen. Mr. Lamphiear and as many as 500 other employees and contractors are working to repair the facility. While the Tesoro plant had been fined for serious safety violations in the past, there has been no prominent effort to shut it down.

“I think things are really going to be up to snuff when they reopen,” Mr. Janz said.

—WILLIAM YARDLEY


Katherine Taylor for The New York Times

 

 

 

 

 

NEW ENGLAND

Far Away, Fishermen Watch: ‘If It Was Us, That Would Be It’

CHATHAM, Mass. — The fishermen unloading thousands of pounds of cod from weathered boats Thursday in Chatham, Mass., appeared untouched by the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico; it was business as usual, and some predicted it would stay that way.

“We won’t feel it,” Peter Taylor, a native of Cape Cod who has spent his life fishing its waters, said as seals hungrily circled his boat at the Chatham Fish Pier. “The only long-term outcome is there’ll never be any drilling up here on Georges Bank.”

But others suspect the spill might affect their livelihood, for worse or even for better. It depends partly on whether the spill kills the hatchlings of bluefin tuna, a prized New England catch that spawns in the gulf before migrating to Cape Cod.

“That’s first and foremost on everyone’s minds,” said Rick Thompson, who was packing the day’s catch in ice for shipment to markets and restaurants, “but that’s not going to be felt right away — probably down the road.”

Some are also wondering whether, in the shorter term, a shortage of seafood from the gulf might increase demand — and prices — for their own catch.

“If markets open up for ground fish to be shipped down there,” said Neil Kelly, operations manager at the Nantucket Fish Company, a wholesaler, “that would be great for the guys around here.”

Mr. Kelly’s boss, Andy Baler, said typical New England species like haddock, pollock and cod were not popular in the South, so people there would not be likely to turn to New England for replacement fish.

“It’s hard to change appetites,” he said, “but we’ll keep working on it.”

The one exception could be oysters, Mr. Baler said, adding that the cold-water varieties are far more expensive than those caught in the gulf.

“We’ll probably start seeing calls from down South,” he said. “We’ll probably see a little jump in price there.”

So far, Mr. Baler said, the biggest impact on Cape Cod fishermen has been the stress of imagining what would happen if they ever had a similar spill.

“The main effect is all of us losing sleep at night,” he said, “thinking about what’s happened down there. If it was us, that would be it — we’d be done as an industry. We’d fold.”

Still, New England fishermen are facing a legion of problems themselves, from depleted fish stocks to what they consider overly burdensome regulations governing when, where and how much they can fish. Those obstacles feel far more threatening than an oil spill more than a thousand miles away, Mr. Taylor said.

“If the oil companies had the kind of government oversight that the fishing industry has to deal with,” he said, “there would never have been a spill.”

—ABBY GOODNOUGH


Brendan Smialowski for The New York Times

 

 

 

 

 

PROTEST

Environmental Groups Stage ‘Citizen’s Arrest’ of BP Leader

WASHINGTON — BP’s embattled chief executive, Tony Hayward, was placed under “citizen’s arrest” by a coalition of environmental advocates Friday in front of the company’s Washington offices. Not surprisingly, Mr. Hayward did not show up.

But 70 or so demonstrators did, along with about half as many reporters and photographers.

In sweltering midday heat, the protesters waved homemade signs ( “Crude Awakening” ), brandished pictures of oil-soaked birds and delivered megaphone speeches next to a 20-foot-high inflatable yellow oil drum.

“BP, you’re under citizen’s arrest,” declared Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth. “And it will be us, the U.S. citizens, who will be your judge and jury.”

According to the demonstrators, everyone wants clean energy, and they want it right now. There was also a motley cry of “Hey hey, ho ho, BP’s negligence has got to go.”

In the scene’s emotional crescendo, Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen, one of the organizers of the gathering, led the protesters to the front entrance of the glass building that houses BP’s offices on the seventh floor. But a beefy security guard denied them entrance.

Standing nearby, a spokeswoman for Public Citizen, Barbara Holzer, tried to speak over the din of a “Spill, baby, spill” chant. “I think Mr. Hayward should turn in his pinstripes for prison stripes,” she said.

The Obama administration did not escape indictment. Activists described the White House reaction to the spill as “uneven,” “lackluster” and “insufficiently tough” on BP, and some expressed frustration that the administration had not seized on the spill as a chance to promote a bolder energy agenda.

“Until recently, the administration has not used this as a chance to talk about clean energy or reducing dependence on oil,” said Nick Berning of Friends of the Earth. “You don’t have moments like this often in the energy debate. And it seems like the administration could be using this more.”

—MARK LEIBOVICH

    A Disaster Reaches Beyond the Gulf Coast, NYT, 4.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/05/us/05oilintro.html

 

 

 

 

 

Murray Stein, Crusader Against Water Pollution, Dies at 92

 

June 4, 2010
The New York Times
By DENNIS HEVESI

 

Murray Stein, who for more than 20 years led the federal government’s fight against water pollution and did much to overcome the prevailing attitude that the nation’s waterways could serve as sewers, died May 24 at his home in Falls Church, Va. He was 92.

His daughter Judith Sloane confirmed his death.

Mr. Stein, who retired in 1976, was something of a diplomat without portfolio, traveling from state to state with the difficult mission of seeking compliance through steps that avoided penalties or court action. His technique was to preside over hearings at which local officials and corporate executives were confronted with evidence of pollution and then invited or cajoled into adopting remedial programs.

It was not easy. Most polluters were reluctant to cooperate, much less spend millions of dollars to remediate. State officials often challenged the constitutional right of the federal government to intervene.

Mr. Stein usually dealt with resistance through soft-spoken amiability. His standard lines were: “We’re dealing with facts subject to scientific measurement. Once we get agreement on the facts, the solutions will present themselves.”

In 1967, he presided over a conference in Manhattan during which federal and state officials agreed on a 1972 deadline for ending water pollution in the Hudson River.

A year later, he negotiated an agreement in which officials from four states bordering Lake Michigan unanimously approved a program that called for full treatment of all waste, chlorination of effluent to further purify it and a ban on the dumping of all dredging materials into the lake.

Sometimes Mr. Stein pushed for precautionary measures. He was the principal negotiator of an agreement in 1966 in which officials from California and Nevada approved an unusual engineering program to prevent pollution of Lake Tahoe, one of the world’s clearest bodies of water. As federal authority over water-pollution control was reorganized and transferred from one agency to the next between 1955 and 1971, Mr. Stein also made the shifts: from the Public Health Service to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to the Department of the Interior and to the Environmental Protection Agency.

William D. Ruckelshaus, the first E.P.A. administrator, depended on him. In a 2005 profile of Mr. Ruckelshaus, The Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, said, “In the course of his travels, Murray Stein had learned where all the worst water pollution problems were, and when Bill Ruckelshaus wanted to move out with an aggressive enforcement program, Murray could tell him where to begin.”

Born in Brooklyn on Oct. 16, 1917, Mr. Stein was one of two children of Leonard and Mary Newmark Stein. His father was a food distributor to grocery stores, his mother a clerk at Macy’s. Mr. Stein studied at City College of New York for two years before moving to Washington. During World War II, he served as a medic in the Army.

After the war, while completing his bachelor’s degree at George Washington University, and earned his law degree there in 1949.

Mr. Stein’s wife of 65 years, the former Anne Kopelman, died in 2005. Besides his daughter Judith, he is survived by another daughter, Toby Mullvain, and two grandchildren.

Not all of Mr. Stein’s dealings with local officials were amiable.

In 1969, he was aboard a boat inspecting the Passaic River in New Jersey when it ran aground on putrid muck lining the river bottom. The boat was soon freed, but an argument ensued. “This is not a pristine, babbling brook,” a state official told Mr. Stein. “This is an industrial river.”

“Industrial river is a euphemism for open sewer,” Mr. Stein replied, adding that the river was “a disgrace to the United States.”

    Murray Stein, Crusader Against Water Pollution, Dies at 92, 4.4.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/05/science/earth/05stein.html

 

 

 

 

 

The Spill and Energy Bill

 

June 4, 2010
The New York Times

 

The nation’s political leaders have had a lot to say in recent years about America’s addiction to fossil fuels and the need to find cleaner, more climate-friendly alternatives. In recent weeks, they have had a lot to say about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. On Wednesday, President Obama put them together.

In a speech at Carnegie Mellon University, he invoked the spill to pound on Congress about its duty to pass a comprehensive energy bill that addresses oil dependency and global warming. The House has passed such a bill, but a companion measure in the Senate languishes, hostage to solid Republican opposition, exaggerated fears about its costs and timidity on the part of the Democratic leadership. “I will work with anyone from either party to get this done,” he said.

Mr. Obama’s task is to follow up that vow with action. We are not optimistic that his implacable Republican opposition will work with him on anything. But perhaps the spreading nightmare on the waters of the gulf will get a few to break with the party line.

The Senate bill is far from perfect. It coddles the coal companies, and its provisions for off-shore drilling will now have to be revised or at least tightened up with multiple safeguards. But for the first time, the bill would set a price on carbon-dioxide emissions, which are now dumped without penalty into the atmosphere. This is an essential prerequisite for shifting private and public investment to cleaner energy sources.

The oil savings would be substantial. According to a new study by the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics, the bill’s mandates for alternative fuels and more efficient vehicles would reduce oil imports one-third by 2035.

But instead of embracing this positive bill, the Senate is expected to vote soon on a measure that would move the country in exactly the wrong direction — a resolution sponsored by Lisa Murkowski, the Alaska Republican, that would undercut the government’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases and reduce the anticipated oil savings from the tough new fuel economy standards the White House announced last April.

As this page has noted before, persuading the Senate to act is not only a matter of leadership, but a matter of international obligation. At the Copenhagen climate conference in December, Mr. Obama committed the United States to a 17 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020 — the minimum that scientists believe necessary to begin steering the world away from the worst impacts of a warming planet.

Delivering on that pledge is even more urgent now than it was then. As he demonstrated at Carnegie Mellon, Mr. Obama knows how to hit all the right notes rhetorically. Passing a comprehensive bill would be good for the economy, by creating new jobs; good for the environment, by reducing emissions; and good for national security, by reducing our dependence on unstable oil-producing countries. The president’s task now is to convert that rhetorical fervor into actual, filibuster-proof votes.

    The Spill and Energy Bill, NYT, 4.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/05/opinion/05sat1.html

 

 

 

 

 

Pelicans, Back From Brink of Extinction, Face Oil Threat

 

June 4, 2010
The New York Times
By JOHN COLLINS RUDOLF and LESLIE KAUFMAN

 

FORT JACKSON, La. — For more than a decade, the hundreds of brown pelicans that nested among the mangrove shrubs on Queen Bess Island west of here were living proof that a species brought to the edge of extinction could come back and thrive.

The island was one of three sites in Louisiana where the large, long-billed birds were reintroduced after pesticides wiped them out in the state in the 1960s.

But on Thursday, 29 of the birds, their feathers so coated in thick brown sludge that their natural white and gray markings were totally obscured, were airlifted to a bird rehabilitation center in Fort Jackson, the latest victims of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Another dozen were taken to other rescue centers.

Six more pelicans were brought here on Friday, and as visitors to the center looked on, the birds huddled together in makeshift plywood cages and, in their unnatural stillness, looked as if the gooey muck had frozen them solid. The 29 pelicans brought in Thursday were being treated in hot rooms by workers in protective clothing.

“The pelicans are in dire trouble,” said Doug Inkley, a senior scientist with the National Wildlife Federation, who worried that the oil spill could put an end to the bird’s recovery in Louisiana.

The images of oil-covered birds — pelicans, northern gannets, laughing gulls and others — are eerily reminiscent of the Exxon Valdez disaster 21 years ago, and have in recent days have become the most vivid symbol of the damage wrought by the hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil that have poured into the Gulf of Mexico since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20. Since the spill, 612 damaged birds had been cataloged as of Friday, most dead but some alive and drenched in oil, federal officials said.

Yet the brown pelican, because of its history of robust recovery in the face of extreme peril, has a special significance for the public.

The birds were once so common on the coastline here that they grace the state flag. They were frequent companions for fishermen, who shared their waters and admired their skill at spotting fish from afar and diving from great heights to scoop them up in their bills.

At the turn of the 20th century, observers estimated the brown pelican population in Louisiana at close to 50,000. But by 1961, no nesting pair could be spotted along the state’s entire coast, according to LaCoast, a Coast Guard Web site. Like another subspecies of the brown pelican found in California, the local birds had been hard hit by DDT and other pesticides, which acted to thin the shells of their eggs. The eggs were crushed when the adults sat on them. (DDT was banned in the United States in 1972.)

In 1968, Louisiana took birds from a surviving Florida colony and reintroduced them along the state’s southern coast in three spots. One was Queen Bess Island, which had been the site of one of the last breeding pairs before extinction, said Kerry St. Pé, program director of the nearby Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program.

Still, the birds struggled, threatened this time by the loss of their habitat. The local wetlands, hurt by levees in the Mississippi that blocked sediment from flowing downstream and by canals cut by oil companies looking to lay pipe, were sinking into the gulf at an astonishing rate. Queen Bess was going under as well until 1990, when a coastal restoration project financed a rock barrier around the island, which stabilized it. The pelican colony began to flourish and the birds’ offspring helped repopulate the coastline, Mr. St. Pé said.

Last year, the birds were officially taken off the endangered species list. But the oil spill, experts said, could change that. Like all birds, pelicans are very sensitive to oil, said Melanie Driscoll, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society’s Louisiana Coastal Initiative. It prevents them from regulating their body temperature when it gets on their feathers, she said, and in Louisiana the pelicans are subject to overheating. The oil can also poison the fish the pelicans feed on and seep through the shells of pelican eggs, killing the embryos.

The potential for damage was frighteningly apparent at the rescue center set up here by the International Bird Rescue Research Center with BP and federal and state officials. All day Thursday, oiled birds, including the 29 brown pelicans, arrived at the makeshift veterinary emergency room built in a hangar on a former military base. They were carried from Coast Guard helicopters in dog kennels and cardboard boxes with air holes punched in them.

Most of the birds were so thoroughly coated in crude that they could not stand up. Some were stuck to the floor of their cages. Workers wiped off thick globs of oil with towels, then gave them fluids and fed them a fish slurry.

The pelicans were placed in plywood pens covered with blankets. The next morning, workers began to clean them using hot water and Dawn, a mild dish detergent.

So far, even the most heavily oiled pelicans have survived. Had they not been treated immediately, however, they would have almost certainly drowned or died of starvation or exposure, according to a veterinarian with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

The birds at the rehabilitation center, said Sharon Taylor, a veterinarian here, represent a lucky few — far more are certain to die in the wild.

“A lot of them will just disappear into the environment,” she said. “We will probably only find a very, very small percentage of what’s been impacted out there.”

Still, she worried that because there are so many large rookeries nearby, far more pelicans would soon be headed to the center.

“Tomorrow or tonight we could get a hundred pelicans, we could get a thousand pelicans,” Ms. Taylor said.


John Collins Rudolf reported from Fort Jackson, La., and Leslie Kaufman from New York.

    Pelicans, Back From Brink of Extinction, Face Oil Threat, NYT, 4.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/05/us/05pelican.html

 

 

 

 

 

Obama Cancels Asia Trip as Concern on Spill Mounts

 

June 4, 2010
The New York Times
By PETER BAKER

 

WASHINGTON — President Obama canceled his trip to Australia, Indonesia and Guam late Thursday night as oil continued to stream into the Gulf of Mexico in what he has called the worst environmental disaster in American history.

His decision came as officials reported progress containing the oil leak at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

Mr. Obama is to visit the Gulf Friday to assess the situation and meet with officials responding to the crisis. While the White House statement offered no reason for scratching the Asia trip this time, officials in recent days had grown increasingly convinced that it was untenable for the president to leave the country for a week with the oil spill still unchecked.

Mr. Obama telephoned Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia to tell them he could not come after all, the White House said in a statement issued at midnight.

“President Obama expressed his deep regret that he has to postpone his trip to Asia that was scheduled for later this month,” the statement said. “The president looked forward to rescheduling so that he can visit both countries soon.”

In the Gulf, officials reported making some headway in the latest effort to place a cap over the well that would funnel at least some of the oil and gas to a ship at the surface. Earlier Thursday, 20-foot-long shears were used to snip the damaged riser pipe at the wellhead, and technicians began to lower the cap over it.

Late Thursday, Adm. Thad W. Allen of the Coast Guard, who is commanding the federal response to the disaster, announced that the cap had been put in place, but warned that “it will be some time before we can confirm that this method will work and to what extent it will mitigate the release of oil into the environment.”

Among the concerns was that the cap would not fit tightly and would allow seawater into the oil. That could lead to the formation of icelike hydrates that could block the flow. But the cap was outfitted with pipes for injecting methanol, which acts as a kind of antifreeze to prevent hydrates from forming.

Live video feeds from the sea bed appeared to show oil spewing from valves at the top of the cap, as planned. As oil gradually begins to flow up through a pipe to the drillship, these valves would be closed. “It’s looking hopeful,” a BP spokesman said.

Mr. Obama’s decision to cancel his Asia trip underscored the way the oil spill is forcing the White House to recalibrate plans for this summer. BP and the government have given up trying to plug the leak and are focusing now on siphoning or containing it until relief wells can be completed, perhaps by August. As a result, the president faces another two months in crisis management before he can even turn his focus exclusively to cleanup and recovery.

White House officials said they will not let the focus on the oil spill detract from the rest of the president’s economic, legislative and foreign agenda, pointing out that he still seems likely to sign financial regulation reform by next month, push through his Supreme Court nominee and win sanctions against Iran at the United Nations Security Council.

“The American people don’t elect somebody, I think, that they don’t believe can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, told reporters earlier Thursday. “Sometimes it feels like we walk and chew gum and juggle on a unicycle all at the same time. I get that.”

But, he added, “there’s a whole lot of people working on a whole lot of things in the White House, and we’re able to do more than several things at once.”

To get through the crisis without letting it detract from the rest of the president’s agenda, the White House plans to try to wall off those dealing with the spill from the rest of Mr. Obama’s team, particularly John Brennan, the homeland security adviser, and Carol Browner, the energy and climate adviser. The White House is counting on a strong jobs report on Friday to reassure Americans that its programs are bolstering the economy.

Yet the president’s time and energy are finite and every day devoted to the oil spill is one that he cannot focus as much of his own resources on other issues. The juggling of his schedule Friday showed the complexities in store for the White House over the next two months – the president will visit a commercial truck dealership and truck parts supplier in Maryland to highlight the jobs report in the morning, then fly to New Orleans to assess the latest efforts to combat the spill in the afternoon.

This was the second time Mr. Obama has scrubbed the trip to Australia and Indonesia. He was originally scheduled to travel there in March but canceled at the last minute to stay in Washington to lobby for passage of his health care legislation. He also had passed up a trip to Indonesia in connection with a regional summit meeting held in Singapore in November 2009.

The White House announced no date for rescheduling the Australia-Indonesia trip. But Julian Aldrin Pasha, the spokesman for the Indonesian president, told the financial newspaper Bisnis Indonesia that it had been rescheduled for November.

At a separate event on Thursday, Mr. Obama announced he will visit India in November.

The Australia-Indonesia trip is the most prominent example so far of what will have to be sacrificed on the president’s agenda as a result of the spill. While not the highest foreign policy priority, the trip was considered important by administration officials because Australia is one of America’s strongest allies and because Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation. Mr. Obama also spent several years of his youth in Indonesia.

In its statement, the White House signaled that it was not abandoning its allies: “President Obama underscored his commitment to our close alliance with Australia and our deepening partnership with Indonesia. He plans to hold full bilateral meetings with Prime Minister Rudd and President Yudhoyono on the margins of the G-20 meeting in Canada.” The Group of 20 major industrial nations will be meeting in Toronto in late June.

But Mr. Obama has called the spill his “highest priority” and the White House understands it will absorb a considerable portion of the president’s time this summer. The failure to stop the leak after more than six weeks has fed concern about the administration’s powerlessness in the face of this crisis, and the White House has been determined to show that it is fully engaged.

Earlier on Thursday, the White House announced that it had sent a $69 million bill to BP for the first installment of clean up costs. The White House has made a point of criticizing BP lately and the Justice Department has opened criminal investigation into what caused the April 20 explosion that ultimately sank the Deepwater Horizon rig, killed 11 workers and touched off the leak.

Mr. Obama, who has also been confronted by questions about his cool public reaction, said Thursday night that he is “furious at this entire situation” but does not show it because it does not accomplish anything.

“I would love to just spend a lot of my time venting and yelling at people,” he said on “Larry King Live” on CNN. “But that’s not the job I was hired to do. My job is to solve this problem and ultimately this isn’t about me and how angry I am. Ultimately, this is about the people down in the Gulf who are being impacted and what am I doing to make sure that they’re able to salvage their way of life.”

    Obama Cancels Asia Trip as Concern on Spill Mounts, NYT, 4.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/05/us/politics/05obama.html

 

 

 

 

 

Prosecuting Crimes Against the Earth

 

June 3, 2010
The New York Times
By DAVID M. UHLMANN

 

Ann Arbor, Mich.

“IF our laws were broken ... we will bring those responsible to justice,” President Obama pledged on Tuesday, in announcing an investigation of the events leading to the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. His words may have been, in part, political damage control; efforts to contain the spill remain dire. But federal prosecutors have been working behind the scenes for weeks to determine whether BP, Transocean (the owner of the rig) and Halliburton (the company that did the cementing job on the deep-ocean well) should be charged with crimes.

Now, it’s up to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to ensure that the legal response to the calamitous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is better than the emergency response.

If the spill had resulted from a hurricane or lightning strike, or if it had been an unavoidable accident — an equipment failure that happened without warning — it wouldn’t warrant criminal prosecution. Increasingly, however, it appears that there was negligence or worse in the events leading to the explosion of the rig.

News reports have described warning signs that went unheeded and deviations from standard industry practice: Gas was seeping into the well. The blowout preventer was leaking. Concerns were raised about the well casing. There were signs of trouble with the cement in the well. Mud circulation was limited. A final concrete plug was not properly installed. And when disaster struck, the blowout preventer failed.

Prosecutors must examine all witness statements, internal documents and any physical evidence that remains after the explosion. But if the news articles are accurate, the Justice Department should bring criminal charges against BP, and possibly Transocean and Halliburton, for violations of the Clean Water Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Refuse Act — the same charges brought in the Exxon Valdez case. Exxon ultimately paid a criminal fine of $125 million, the largest ever for an environmental crime.

In this case, though, a fine of that size may not satisfy the many people who are outraged by the gulf spill. The public expects felony charges and multibillion-dollar fines.

All three of the environmental laws that may have been broken provide for criminal penalties, but only the Clean Water Act includes felony charges. For the government to prove a felony violation of the act it would need to demonstrate that the defendant knew oil would be discharged into United States waters. A felony violation can be easy to prove when a business dumps waste into a river, but it’s harder in the case of an oil spill.

No one thinks BP, Transocean or Halliburton intended to spill oil into the gulf. But given good evidence, the government could argue that the companies cut corners or deviated so much from standard industry practice that they knew a blowout could happen. Or, the government could argue that, even if the initial gusher involved only negligence (a misdemeanor under the Clean Water Act) each additional day represents a knowing violation. Both approaches are untested, because there have been so few oil spill cases — but the gulf disaster warrants trying aggressive strategies.

Ultimately, the public would like to see oil company executives brought up on felony charges, leading to jail time that might inspire more careful drilling in the future. But only those directly involved in misconduct can be charged with crimes, and it is likely that executives of BP, Transocean and Halliburton played no such personal role in the disaster.

Faced with these challenges, the Justice Department must find out whether BP or the other companies misled the government about the integrity of the well, or the amount of oil gushing from it. This could be the basis for charges of felony obstruction of justice against the companies and individuals involved.

The Justice Department’s case against BP will be strengthened by the company’s history of criminal violations, which offer evidence of a culture that puts profits before the environment and worker safety. After a 2005 explosion at its Texas City refinery, which killed 15 workers, BP pleaded guilty to violating the Clean Air Act by failing to maintain a safe facility. It also pleaded guilty to violating the Clean Water Act by having corroded pipelines that caused oil spills in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay in 2006.

Criminal prosecution cannot restore the gulf or end the suffering of the people who live along its shores. But it could ensure just punishment. And it would make it more likely that the companies involved would pay all claims for damage to the gulf coast, because the $75 million cap on liability, set by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, does not apply in criminal cases.

Most important, criminal prosecution would send a clear message that an environmental disaster of this magnitude cannot be allowed to happen again.


David M. Uhlmann, a law professor at the University of Michigan, was the chief of the environmental crimes section at the United States Department of Justice from 2000 to 2007.

    Prosecuting Crimes Against the Earth, NYT, 3.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/04/opinion/04uhlmann.html

 

 

 

 

 

Another Torrent BP Works to Stem: Its C.E.O.

 

June 3, 2010
The New York Times
By JAD MOUAWAD and CLIFFORD KRAUSS

 

BP, already bedeviled by an out-of-control well spewing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, now finds itself with one more problem: Tony Hayward, its gaffe-prone chief executive.

Among his memorable lines: The spill is not going to cause big problems because the gulf “is a very big ocean” and “the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest.” And this week, he apologized to the families of 11 men who died on the rig for having said, “You know, I’d like my life back.”

But rather than receiving a limited public role, Mr. Hayward, a geologist who has led the company for three years, has become even more the public face of the company. On Thursday, BP began showing a new television ad in which Mr. Hayward, speaking directly into a camera, pledges to spare no effort to clean up the spill.

It ends with a heartfelt promise: “We will get it done. We will make this right.” (The same day, in an interview published in The Financial Times, he said, “What is undoubtedly true is that we did not have the tools you would want in your tool kit.”)

Instead of reassuring the public, critics say, Mr. Hayward has turned into a day-after-day reminder of BP’s public relations missteps in responding to the crisis, which began six weeks ago and looks likely to continue well into the summer.

Mr. Hayward and the company have repeatedly played down the size of the spill, the company’s own role in the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, and the environmental damage that has occurred. At the same time, they have projected a tone of unrelenting optimism despite repeated failures to plug the well.

The chief executive’s tendency to utter provocative statements has prompted a surge of criticism from politicians, bloggers and television pundits, who took particular offense at the “I’d like my life back” comment.

But Mr. Hayward, an earnest-looking man with cherubic red cheeks and a soft British accent, remains ever present in BP’s response efforts.

One Louisiana congressman, Charlie Melancon, has started a petition campaign calling on BP’s board of directors to fire Mr. Hayward, and financial analysts are increasingly predicting that he will get the boot before the crisis is over.

“People want to know someone is in charge, that the right person is there, but someone who says the stuff that Hayward has said doesn’t engender confidence,” said Sydney Finkelstein, a professor of strategy and leadership at Dartmouth University’s Tuck School of Business. “We understand he is overwhelmed, but that also might suggest he’s not the right man for the job.”

Robert Wine, a BP spokesman, said that Mr. Hayward “has the full support of the board, and he is very much at the heart of the response managing everything we are doing.”

Mr. Hayward, 53, ascended to the top job when his predecessor, John Browne, resigned after a personal scandal and a series of major accidents. Mr. Hayward promised to refocus the company culture on safety.

Much is at stake for BP, the top oil and gas producer in the United States and the largest deepwater operator in the Gulf of Mexico. The company has already spent about $1 billion to deal with the accident, and it faces billions of dollars in additional damage claims and government penalties, with the liability growing every day that the leak continues. In addition, the Justice Department, an independent panel and numerous Congressional committees are investigating the company.

Shareholders are worried about the cost to the company, based in London, whose stock has fallen about 35 percent since the explosion.

To be sure, BP is facing an unprecedented technological and engineering challenge, battling formidable odds in trying to plug a damaged oil well in the darkness and pressure found 5,000 feet below the ocean surface. After several efforts to stop the oil flow failed, the company is now seeking to install a temporary dome to capture most of the spilled oil until it can drill two relief wells.

Those relief wells, which would be used to inject cement into the damaged well to permanently kill it, are not expected to be completed before August, and the environmental damage would linger well after that — which means that the company and Mr. Hayward face a public relations crisis that will last for many months.

The company has enlisted the help of the Brunswick Group, a public relations and crisis management firm, to deal with the accident. It has dedicated the home page of its Web site, BP.com, to the crisis and taken out full-page advertisements in major newspapers.

BP has also hired a new head of media relations in the United States, Anne Womack Kolton, who worked at Brunswick and is a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and Energy Department spokeswoman.

In Washington, BP has become a toxic political symbol that is a target on all fronts, even as it is seeking to work with the government get out of its current predicament.

Before the spill, BP had maintained a low profile in Washington relative to other companies, with its lobbying work and political contributions usually trailing other oil-and-gas giants like Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Conoco Phillips. Unlike many other companies with federal interests, BP kept most of its lobbying work in-house, although it had retained several prominent Washington lobbyists, including Ken Duberstein and Tony Podesta, to make its case on issues including tax incentives for gas production and climate control regulations.

From the start, BP promised to be transparent about the spill. But the company has wavered between providing information to the public and strictly limiting it. For example, it resisted for weeks putting up a live video feed of the underwater spill, agreeing to it only after intense pressure from Congress. The company has consistently refused to use widely used scientific techniques to measure the spill, saying it was focused on shutting down the well.

Administration officials and Congressional leaders have accused BP of hiding the true dimensions of the leak for financial reasons. Carol M. Browner, the White House energy and environment adviser, has noted that BP has a “vested financial interest” in minimizing the size of the leak because the fines the company will eventually pay will in part be based on the amount of oil that has escaped.

BP and the government initially estimated the well was leaking 1,000 barrels a day. But since then, government scientists have come up with a new and much larger rate of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day.

“They have tried to control the message, including controlling facts, because they have a direct financial interest in this,” said David Pettit, a senior lawyer with Natural Resources Defense Council. “The government is letting BP clean up their own crime scene. On TV cop shows, they don’t do that.”

Perhaps trying to tamp down the outcry over his own comments, Mr. Hayward’s remarks to reporters on Thursday in Houston were more tame. He promised that the company would clean up every drop of oil and “restore the shoreline to its original state.”

The chief executive added: “We will be here for a very long time. We realize this is just the beginning.”


Jad Mouawad reported from New York and Clifford Krauss from Houston. Eric Lichtblau contributed reporting from Washington and Stuart Elliott from New York.

    Another Torrent BP Works to Stem: Its C.E.O., NYT, 3.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/04/us/04image.html

 

 

 

 

 

Oil Companies Weigh Strategies to Fend Off Tougher Regulations

 

June 2, 2010
The New York Times
By ERIC LICHTBLAU and JAD MOUAWAD

 

WASHINGTON — When the Obama administration imposed new restrictions last week on offshore drilling in the wake of the BP oil spill, officials carved out an exemption that received little public attention: Companies working in shallow waters, unlike deep-sea operators like BP, could again begin drilling for oil and gas.

The decision, which followed a furious appeal from lawmakers allied with the oil industry, represented a surprising victory for the shallow-water drillers in the midst of what could prove the biggest environmental disaster in United States history. And it reflected the intense lobbying efforts at work from all sides, as Congress and the administration consider ways to prevent another drilling disaster off the nation’s coasts.

Environmentalists and their supporters in Congress, hoping to seize the political momentum, are working to push through measures to extend bans on new offshore drilling, strengthen safety and environmental safeguards and raise to $10 billion or more the cap on civil liability for an oil producer in a spill.

“You don’t want to let a good crisis get away,” said Athan Manuel, the director of lands protection for the Sierra Club’s legislative office, which is pushing for a permanent moratorium on new offshore drilling.

Oil industry executives acknowledge the stiff political resistance that they face. Despite the success of shallow-water drillers in avoiding a continued ban on their end of the industry, executives and industry analysts say the daily images of oil wafting onto the coastline will make it tougher for them to fend off calls for tougher regulations that extend far beyond BP and the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Bruce Vincent, president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, which represents both deep-sea and shallow-water drillers, said Wednesday that he was concerned about a “domino effect” sweeping through Washington, with new regulations now under discussion threatening to cut oil production, jobs and industry profits.

“It’s amazing to see the impact that one company can have for all sorts of other people,” he said. “When a plane crashes, you don’t just shut down every airline in the fleet until you find out what happened.”

The oil and gas industry is a formidable presence in Washington. It spent more on federal lobbying last year than all but two other industries, with $174.8 million in lobbying expenditures, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group.

Political action committees set up by the oil and gas producers contributed an additional $9 million last election cycle to Congressional candidates, with Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, Valero Energy and Chevron leading the way, the data showed. (BP ranked 19th, with $75,500 in contributions, most to Republicans.)

For decades, the oil industry had showcased and developed its latest technology in the Gulf of Mexico. But the spill now casts a pall over offshore oil and gas operations, just as the industry thought it had snatched a major victory from the administration, which agreed to expand oil and gas drilling earlier this year.

Rex Tillerson, the chairman and chief executive of ExxonMobil, admitted last week that the industry faced a huge challenge.

“The most difficult challenge confronting the whole industry at this point is regaining the confidence and trust of the public, the American people, and regaining the confidence and trust of the government regulators and the people who oversee our activities out there,” he said in response to questions from reporters after a shareholder meeting.

The industry was already grappling with the prospect of tighter scrutiny over some of its drilling practices even before the gulf spill. Congress has been looking at the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing, where water is pumped at high pressure to break rocks and free natural gas, a technique that some environmental groups believe can pollute underground water sources.

Now the industry is facing a much graver threat as it seeks to determine how long the administration’s deepwater drilling ban will last. The Interior Department said last weekend that all drilling activity in the waters deeper than 500 feet was to stop for six months. But some analysts fear the ban could be prolonged until a commission appointed by the president provides its conclusions.

That could extend the ban for a year, and the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s main trade group, forecasts that a longer delay could crimp future production by as much as 400,000 barrels a day by 2015.

As well as imposing a drilling ban in the Gulf of Mexico, the administration also halted new drilling off Alaska and Virginia for the time being. The announcement stalled plans by Shell to drill three exploration wells in the Beaufort Sea this summer. It also put off a long-awaited sale of new leases off Virginia for the first time since the administration lifted a longstanding moratorium on drilling in the Atlantic.

With the environmental damage growing from the BP disaster, the industry’s most persuasive argument in trying to fend off tougher regulations may prove to be jobs. That was one of the crucial elements used by the shallow-water operators — mostly smaller companies that produce about 20 percent of the gulf’s daily oil production of 1.7 million barrels — to earn an exemption from the new restrictions at the Interior Department.

Representative Gene Green, a Texas Democrat who led about 50 lawmakers in appealing to the administration to lift the ban on shallow-water drillers, said he did not want to see 6,000 employees working in shallow waters risk being put out of work.

The Interior Department said that its decision to lift the restrictions on shallow-water drilling “recognizes that there are different challenges in the deepwater, and our approach with the moratorium recognizes that.”

Kendra Barkoff, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, said in a statement: “The safety recommendations contained in the 30-day report to the President will be implemented as soon as practicable and will apply to all operators on the Outer Continental Shelf, including in shallow water. Operators will need to demonstrate compliance with the safety requirements in due course.”

The political pressure on the entire industry will keep growing as long as the spill lasts, bringing with it daily images of soiled coastlines.

“The oil companies know that if this is not resolved quickly, the well has been poisoned for everybody,” said Lawrence Goldstein, a veteran energy economist. “They are going to be painted with a broad brush. They are on the hook here.”


Eric Lichtblau reported from Washington, and Jad Mouawad from New York.

    Oil Companies Weigh Strategies to Fend Off Tougher Regulations, NYT, 2.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/03/us/03lobby.html

 

 

 

 

 

Plan for Relief Wells Spurs Hope Amid Caution

 

June 3, 2010
The New York Times
By HENRY FOUNTAIN

 

As engineers made headway Thursday in containing the oil leak at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, crews on two floating rigs flanking the spot where the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank were doing what rig crews normally do: drilling wells.

The two wells, aimed at the bottom of the runaway well that has spewed millions of gallons of oil into the gulf, represent the most conventional solution to the disaster and the one that experts say is all but certain to succeed. Once either of the relief wells strikes pay dirt, the plan is to pump heavy drilling mud and cement down it to bring the blowout under control and permanently seal the damaged well.

Given the string of engineering problems so far - shears were used to cut the riser pipe near the wellhead, for example, because a diamond-laced wire saw had become dull, perhaps from objects pumped into the well as part of an earlier failed effort - the relief well plan has faced its share of skepticism. Doubters have pointed to past problems with relief wells, including one drilled during a blowout off southern Mexico 30 years ago that was unable to stop the gusher for three months after it was completed, and another off Australia last fall that did not hit its target until the fifth try.

BP officials say that the first relief well already extended more than 12,000 feet below sea level, about halfway to the target, but because drilling gets slower as a well gets deeper, it is not expected to be finished before August. The second well was started later and is not yet as deep. President Obama said federal officials ordered BP to drill the second well as a backup shortly after the rig exploded on April 20; the company said it was planning two wells anyway.

The wells cost about $100 million each and are being drilled from rigs owned by Transocean, the company that owned the Deepwater Horizon.

The work could be delayed by hurricanes or by equipment or drilling problems, and the wells might initially miss the target, causing further delays as the drill bits are backed up and redirected. But BP officials and outside experts say that the relief wells will work. It is a matter of when, they say, not if.

“This is the answer,” said Walt Warchol, a retired drilling engineer in Houston. “It’s just going to take some time.”

The previous engineering efforts at the sea bed have felt like a mash-up of “Groundhog Day” and “Armageddon” without the Hollywood ending, and each operation has come with the caveat that it has never been tried a mile under water. By contrast, relief wells are within an engineer’s comfort zone. They have been drilled many times in many places and, except for the target, are not much different than normal oil wells. And engineers have drilled plenty of normal wells in 5,000 feet of water.

The wells start out on the vertical, but then are drilled at an angle to intersect the existing well, which was drilled vertically. This directional drilling, which uses steerable drill bits and other specialized equipment and software, is commonplace, although with relief wells, engineers must take care to create gentler turns to allow more efficient pumping of the mud used to stop the blowout.

While the drilling process involves locating the original well’s bottom casing — a 7-inch-diameter steel pipe roughly 18,000 feet below sea level— it is not a typical needle-in-a-haystack problem. Because the existing well was constantly surveyed while it was being drilled, engineers know with a high degree of certainty where in the haystack the needle is.

“Essentially, they have every inch of the well measured,” said John Hughett, a petroleum engineer in Dallas who is not involved in the effort.

That certainty, plus the constant surveying that is being done on the relief wells, should make it relatively easy for the engineers to locate the existing well using three-dimensional display software and other tools, Mr. Hughett and others said.

“It would sort of surprise me if they don’t get it on the first try,” Mr. Hughett said.

An oil industry expert familiar with the relief well effort said the data on the existing well was much better than the information that was available for the Australian blowout last fall. That well was an older one that was surveyed less often, making it harder for the relief well to intersect, said the expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment.

The technology used in surveying and drilling is also much better now than it was 30 years ago when the blowout at the rig off Mexico, Ixtoc 1, occurred, said Mr. Hughett. He said he drilled some relief wells in the 1970s “where we kind of poked around” and it took time to find the existing well.

BP began drilling the first relief well on May 2 and the second one two weeks later. Last week, the company decided to suspend operations on the second well, saying that some equipment on the rig would be better used in the containment effort. That decision was overruled by the government, and drilling has continued. In the United States, there is no requirement that oil companies drill relief wells pre-emptively as a precaution.

Experts said that once one of the relief wells reached the existing 7-inch pipe, at a point just above the oil reservoir, engineers would probably cut a hole in it. Then they would begin pumping mud down the relief well and into the existing well. The experts said this so-called bottom kill would put far less stress on the well than the “top kill” method that was halted late last month, partly out of concern that high pressure might damage the pipe in the well and make the situation worse.

Once there was enough of the heavy mud in the well to counteract the pressure of the rising oil, cement would be pumped into the well to plug it permanently. A BP official said the relief wells could be used later to produce oil from the reservoir.

    Plan for Relief Wells Spurs Hope Amid Caution, NYT, 3.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/04/science/earth/04relief.html

 

 

 

 

 

U.S. Opens Criminal Inquiry Into Oil Spill

 

June 1, 2010
The New York Times
By HELENE COOPER and PETER BAKER

 

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said Tuesday that it had begun civil and criminal investigations into the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, as the deepening crisis threatened to define President Obama’s second year in office.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in New Orleans that he planned to “prosecute to the fullest extent of the law” any person or entity that the Justice Department determines has broken the law in connection with the oil spill. On Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrial average fell 120 points shortly after Mr. Holder’s announcement as energy stocks tumbled on expectations of the federal investigations. BP lost 15 percent of its market value during the day’s trading.

BP and government officials said flatly for the first time that they had abandoned any further plans to try to plug the well, and would instead try to siphon the leaking oil and gas to the surface until relief wells can stop the flow, most likely not before August.

Mr. Holder’s comments, which echoed those of Mr. Obama earlier in the day in the Rose Garden, reflected deepening frustration within the administration at the inability to stop the spill, along with wide concern that the government and the president appear increasingly impotent as oil laps at the shorelines of Louisiana, and now Alabama and Mississippi.

One person briefed on the inquiry said it was in an early stage and that no subpoenas had been issued yet to BP, the owner of the well. It was unclear whether any had gone to Transocean, which leased the Deepwater Horizon, the nine-year-old drilling rig that exploded and sank in April, to BP; Cameron, the company that manufactured a “blowout preventer” that failed to function after the explosion; or Halliburton, which performed drilling services like cementing.

Administration officials said they were reviewing violations of the Clean Water Act, which carries criminal and civil penalties and fines; the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which can be used to hold parties responsible for cleanup costs; the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act, which provide penalties for injury and death of wildlife.

“BP will cooperate with any inquiry that the Department of Justice undertakes, just as we are doing in response to the other inquiries that already are ongoing," the company said in a statement.

Having abandoned the attempt to plug the gushing well, BP and the government moved ahead on the latest plan, to contain the oil and gas as it flows from the floor of the gulf and siphon it to the surface. BP prepared to sever the pipe that once connected the well to the surface and is now snaking along the sea floor from the wellhead. That pipe, called a riser, had been attached to a blowout preventer, a stack of valves sitting on top of the well.

Removing the pipe could increase the flow of oil into the gulf until response crews can complete the next phase of the operation, affixing a cap to the remaining stub of the riser at the blowout preventer and siphoning the leaking oil into the cap through a new riser and up to a ship on the surface.

The more confrontational tone from Washington underscored concerns within the administration about the long-term effect of the oil spill, not only environmentally, economically and politically, but on the national psyche as well.

Like no other, the topic of the oil spill now dominates the national conversation. Early comparisons to Hurricane Katrina have dissolved into comparisons to the hostage crisis with Iran — an episode that spanned 444 days and beleaguered the presidency of Jimmy Carter. The spill has kept Mr. Obama from focusing attention on other issues, like creating jobs and carrying out the new health care law, at a time when polls suggest that public trust in government is declining and when his party is fighting to retain control of Congress.

“It’s an interesting disaster because it’s one that doesn’t stop — it’s as if Katrina sat on top of New Orleans for six weeks without going away,” said George Haddow, a disaster management consultant from New Orleans who was a senior Federal Emergency Management Agency official under President Bill Clinton.

Tuesday amounted to the administration’s most intensive effort yet to show that it is doing everything possible to respond and to hold BP and the other companies accountable. Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said Mr. Obama has been “enraged at the time that it’s taken” to stop the leak.

“I’ve seen rage from him,” Mr. Gibbs said, describing the president’s “clenched jaw” at meetings. Mr. Gibbs added that the White House did not think BP “was forthcoming on what the impact would be of cutting the riser off.”

For Mr. Obama, part of the problem has been that the solution to the BP disaster is at its heart an engineering problem, and one the government has already acknowledged it is in no position to fix on its own. Former Attorney General William P. Barr said the administration’s move to investigate risked looking like political damage control while chilling cooperation with the company at the time it is needed most.

“The Department of Justice has to be very careful about using criminal prosecution to respond to political pressure,” Mr. Barr, who ran the department from 1991 to 1993, said in an interview. But Mr. Obama said Tuesday that “we have an obligation to determine what went wrong.” He appeared after meeting with the two men he has appointed to lead an inquiry into the spill — former Senator Bob Graham of Florida, a Democrat, and a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator, William Reilly, a Republican.

During the meeting in the Oval Office, the president was adamant that the government and the industry had to find a way to make offshore drilling safe because the nation needs the oil, and stressed to Mr. Reilly and Mr. Graham that that was part of their charge, according to people familiar with the meeting.

The decision to try to siphon off the leaking oil came after the failed “top kill” procedure, in which heavy drilling mud was pumped at up to 80 barrels a minute into the well in hopes of overcoming the pressure of surging oil and gas. But, response teams were never able to drive the mud far enough down in the well to overcome the oil, said Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer for exploration and production, in an interview during a helicopter ride over coastal areas.

Officials suspect that the mud could have been escaping from the well far below the ocean floor, possibly through a rupture disk, a built-in weak point in the steel pipe that lines the well.

This concern is what led officials to decide to end attempts to plug the well, Mr. Suttles said. If the well were capped — such as by a new blowout preventer — the resulting pressure could force oil out through a flaw in the well, and another leak could sprout on the ocean floor.

Mr. Suttles said he expected the cap being readied this week would be able to siphon off the “vast majority” of the oil, though not all of it, and that subsea dispersants would be still be needed.

The challenges facing the maneuver are similar to the problems that bedeviled the 98-ton containment dome which was lowered over one of the leaks several weeks ago. That dome failed when hydrates — icelike crystals of gas and water — formed at the dome’s opening and prevented oil from escaping. The cap-and-riser system is designed to fit fairly snugly to reduce the influx of water, and methanol and heated water will be used to further reduce the chances that hydrates form.


John M. Broder and Charlie Savage contributed reporting from Washington, Robbie Brown from New Orleans and Campbell Robertson from Port Fourchon, La.

    U.S. Opens Criminal Inquiry Into Oil Spill, NYT, 1.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/02/us/02spill.html

 

 

 

 

 

Deep Underwater, Oil Threatens Reefs

 

June 1, 2010
The New York Times
By JOHN COLLINS RUDOLF

 

Last September, marine scientists studying deep-sea biology in the northern Gulf of Mexico lowered a submersible robot off the side of a government research vessel and piloted it 1,300 feet to the ocean floor.

There, in complete darkness and near-freezing temperatures, the robot’s lights revealed a thriving colony of corals, anemones, fish, crustaceans and other sea life rivaling that of any shallow-water reef in the world. Researchers onboard were elated.

“We flipped on the lights, and there was one of the largest coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico sitting right in front of us,” said Erik Cordes, a marine biologist at Temple University and chief scientist on the vessel, the Ronald H. Brown.

Nine months later, the warm thrill of discovery has cooled into dread. The reef lies just 20 miles northeast of BP’s blown-out well, making it one of at least three extensive deepwater reefs lying directly beneath the oil slick in the gulf.

Yet it is not the slick that troubles scientists. They fear a more insidious threat: vast plumes of partly dissolved oil apparently spreading in the deep ocean.

The latest research team in the gulf to detect these plumes observed one extending roughly 22 miles northeast of the well site, in the vicinity of at least two major deepwater reefs, including the one discovered last fall. Preliminary images of the plume show layers of it touching the sea floor. Marine scientists have no firm grasp yet on what the impact on the corals will be, but they are bracing for catastrophe.

“The worst-case scenario is that there’s oil coating some of the corals,” Dr. Cordes said. “It would basically suffocate them.”

The composition and distribution of these plumes remain a mystery, and several government research vessels are aggressively pursuing them in the gulf. Scientists believe that the plumes are not pure oil, but most likely a haze of oil droplets, natural gas and the dispersant chemical Corexit, 210,000 gallons of which has been mixed into the jet of oil streaming from the seafloor.

This oily haze could prove highly toxic to coral reefs. Both oil and dispersants, which chemically resemble dishwashing detergent, hamper the ability of corals to colonize and reproduce. And these effects are amplified when the two are mixed.

Studies on the effects of oil and chemicals on coral are limited to the shallow-water variety, however. Essentially no research has been conducted on their slow-growing deepwater cousins. So BP’s spill has prompted scientists to embark on a sudden crash course on the interaction of deep-sea biology with these toxins.

“Everybody’s scrambling,” said Steve W. Ross, a marine biologist at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and an expert on deepwater corals. “There’s a lot of evaluation that has to be done.”

But some believe that studies on the impact of oil and dispersants should have been done long ago, given the proliferation of drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Some of these studies were proposed years ago, and the agencies decided not to fund them,” Dr. Ross said. “We’re paying the price for it now.”

The BP spill coincides nonetheless with a fertile period of deep-ocean exploration in the Gulf of Mexico. Over the past decade, the Minerals Management Service — the federal agency criticized by lawmakers for its oversight of the offshore drilling industry — has financed extensive research into mapping the life of the deep ocean.

On numerous voyages, researchers have scanned the sea floor for anomalies and deployed submersible robots to search for life in the icy depths. The result has been a string of discoveries across the northern gulf, among them prolific deepwater reefs the size of football fields or larger. The identification of new species has become commonplace.

Yet even as such discoveries have multiplied, little has been done to protect the sea life. An environmental impact statementprepared by the Minerals Management Service in 2007 that covered a vast area of the gulf being opened up to oil and gas drilling, including the lease area where the BP well is located, concluded that drilling posed no serious risk to deepwater reefs. Deep-sea rigs were required to avoid damaging coral sites directly with anchors or pipelines, but few other restrictions on drilling were deemed necessary.

The nearly 1,000-page document mentions only in passing the potential of oil released under high pressure to form undersea plumes, despite previous studies showing the distinct likelihood of such an event.

The study also failed to explore the application of dispersants deep underwater. This use of the chemicals, approved by federal authorities, is essentially unprecedented. It appears to have reduced the extent of the slick, limiting its impact on wetlands, beaches and surface life. But officials know little about its potential impact on life underwater.

“The long-term effects on aquatic life are still unknown,” Lisa P. Jackson, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said at a news conference in May on the use of dispersants.

The application of dispersants is already highly discouraged in areas like the Florida Keys because of their known toxic effects to coral, said Billy D. Causey, Southeast regional director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Sanctuaries program.

“We consider the dispersed oil more harmful than a sheen passing over the reef,” said Dr. Causey, who served as superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Deepwater reefs have their own distinct biology — they do not rely on photosynthesis for energy, for instance, but scavenge food from the water column — so their sensitivity to such pollutants is deeply uncertain.

If enveloped by toxic plumes, one consequence for reefs could be a sudden lack of oxygen, as bacteria that feed on hydrocarbons rapidly multiply. This would kill off the algae and micro-organisms corals need for food.

“It might be locally catastrophic, particularly if there’s an oxygen-depleted mass that develops,” said Jeffrey Short, Pacific science director for Oceana, a conservation group, and a former research chemist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration specializing in oil pollution.

At least a hundred deepwater coral sites have been charted between the Texas and Florida coasts. More remain undiscovered. “We know 1 percent of what’s out there in deep waters — perhaps 1 percent,” Dr. Causey said.

There is reason to hope that deepwater corals far from the blowout will escape serious harm. Deep-sea currents are slower than surface currents, limiting the ability of the deeper plumes to spread extensively. And oil and chemicals will disperse as they migrate away from the site of the blowout.

The existence of large natural oil seeps into the Gulf of Mexico — estimated as high as one million barrels per year — also suggests that deepwater corals may have adapted to the presence of low-level concentrations of oil.

Still, as more and more oil enters the ocean each day, the likelihood that at least some reefs will be overwhelmed only grows. Anxiety thus runs high among deepwater biologists.

Dr. Cordes, for one, is itching to return to the gulf to examine the reef he discovered last year.

“We’re in the process of getting down there sooner rather than later,” he said. “I hope for the best and fear for the worst.”

    Deep Underwater, Oil Threatens Reefs, NYT, 1.6.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/02/us/02coral.html