Thursday, April 21, 2011

As We Drill, Baby, Drill


A year ago yesterday, 205 million gallons of oil and 225,000 tons of methane were released into the Gulf of Mexico, and eleven men died, following an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig off the coast of Louisiana. Though the greatest fears of the impact have not been realized, according to The Associated Press

biologists are concerned about the spill's long-term effect on marine life.

"There are these cascading effects," D'Elia said. "It could be accumulation of toxins in the food chain, or changes in the food web. Some species might dominate."

Meanwhile, accumulated oil is believed to lie on the bottom of the Gulf, and it still shows up as a thick, gooey black crust along miles of Louisiana's marshy shoreline. Scientists have begun to notice that the land in many places is eroding.


And the Center for Biological Diversity concludes

The price paid by wildlife in the Gulf for the BP oil spill will continue to rise. Although it is the largest to date, the Gulf oil spill was simply the latest in a string of ongoing and inevitable spills produced in the Gulf. More than 320 known spills involving offshore drilling have occurred there since 1964. Spills massively degrade ecosystems and all of the wildlife dependent on those ecosystems in the Gulf. Clean-up efforts only remove a fraction of the persistent oil and gas spilled. The remainder of the oil, including millions of gallons remaining in the Gulf, will continue to poison wildlife for generations. Besides the direct harm to wildlife, the spill impoverishes the people of the Gulf and the nation, who depend on this rich body of water for food, culture, environmental enrichment and recreation.

The Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Republican Darrell Issa of California, notes in his report issued two days ago noting the harm to the victims of the region, the seafood industry, and the area's diverse habitats and ecosystems. But Issa, who demonstrated fealty to corporate America shortly before he became chairman, used the occasion primarily to blast President Obama, charging

the real and harsh effects the Administration’s subsequent assault on off-shore drilling has had on economically vulnerable communities. This retreat from efforts to achieve energy independence from foreign oil isn’t appreciated by Gulf communities whose local economies depend on off-shore oil production or millions of Americans who find themselves paying $4 gallon for gasoline. The legacy of this spill should be an increased emphasis on safety, not a full-scale retreat from off-shore energy production.

But in the past two months U.S. regulators have granted ten deepwater drilling permits despite the failure of the petroleum industry to rectify the problems which led to the blowup on the Transocean-owned rig. On March 24, Rachel Maddow found (transcript here; video below)

The blowout preventer is basically a piece of equipment that`s attached to the top of an oil well, right? And when pressure surges up the drilling well -- drilling pipe the blowout preventer is supposed to kick into action. It essentially seals up the well and holds all of that pressure in.

If the blowout preventer does not work, you get this. You get disaster -- disaster not just for the environment but for the crew that`s stationed on top of that malfunctioning oil rig. Eleven crew members were killed when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew in the Gulf of Mexico last April.

Soon after that explosion and the historic oil spill that followed, it was pretty obvious that the blowout preventer had failed to prevent that blowout. That was pretty clear. But what we know now, what we have learned this week in fact is that the blowout preventer in question was not built wrong, it wasn`t broken, and it was used as directed.

The Coast Guard hired a Norwegian firm to do an expert forensic analysis of what went wrong with that blowout preventer in the BP disaster. The Coast Guard, I should say, oversaw this. The government hired this firm.

The firm set up shop at a NASA facility in New Orleans in mid- November. Yesterday, they release what`d they found -- what they found is that in our metaphor from earlier, the air bags in this case, and maybe in every case, don`t work. More specifically, they found air bags work unless there`s a car crash, and then they don`t work.

The forensic analysis of what went wrong in the BP disaster found a big burst of pressure that causes a well blowout can also render the blowout preventer useless. If the shock that causes the initial accident misaligns the rig`s pipes and valves, the blowout preventer won`t be able to work, won`t be able to seal off the pipe, even when used as directed, even when you do everything right.


Noting that the blowout, the disaster which causes the need for the blowout perventer, blows out the blowout preventer itself, Maddow explained

fears right now about possible nuclear meltdown in Japan is because the backup plan there failed, right? An earthquake and tsunami knocked out the power at the reactor. You need that power at all times to cool the radioactive fuel rods. But don`t worry, there`s a backup power source. A backup power source that was also knocked out by the same quake and tsunami that knocked out the first-line power source. The same disaster that caused the need for the backup plan also killed the backup plan.

Used as designed, cigarettes cause cancer and other diseases. The blowout preventer can fail when operated as designed and is effective except when needed. Maddow's guest, former industry oil executive Bob Cavnar, maintains that the new regulations put into effect by the Department of Interior

are primarily around safety training and in third-party certification that supposedly assures the government that the companies who normally self-regulate are actually doing what they say they`re doing.

There`s real no -- no real change to deepwater drilling. The only real kind of systematic change is this subsea well containment procedure that they`ve developed, that a company has to certify that they are a part of before they receive a drilling permit....

There`s no fundamental change to the way we drill the deepwater, Rachel. We`re doing it with the same equipment, the same blowout preventers on all the deepwater rigs that are in the Gulf that failed on the Macondo well. And the issue here is that these new regulations regulate an unreliable piece of equipment, and regulating something that`s unreliable doesn`t make it more reliable. It just makes it more regulated.


Senate Democrats have proposed measures to increase our supply of oil, safely. That is not likely to impress Darrell Issa, who has cozied up to the petroleum industry. Not coincidentally, the push for a rational energy policy in light of the explosion in the Gulf seems to be as elusive as the effort to rein in the excesses of Wall Street after the financial catastrophe it was primarily responsible for.









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