Groups try to agree on Gulf spill size as oil pushes into Louisiana’s marshlands

Publish date: May 23, 2010

NEW YORK – Scientists and BP are still searching for an accurate measure of how much oil is gushing from the well in the Gulf of Mexico that began leaking after the explosion of the BP- operated Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank last month, killing 11, as oil has already crept deep into Louisiana’s bayous and marshlands, devastation local residents.

Lisa Jackson, Environmental Protection Agency administrator, was on the ground in Louisiana on Sunday. Last week, Jackson had told BP to stop using the chemical oil dispersant Corexit 9500 because of its high toxicity.

“Because of (Corexit’s) use in unprecedented volumes and because much is unknown about the underwater use of dispersants, EPA wants to ensure BP is using the least toxic product authorized for use,” the EPA said. 

But BP Chief Operating Oficer Doug Suttles in a letter to the EPA Saturday declined on his company’s behalf to stop using Corexit. It remains unclear what the EPA can do to halt its use. Phone calls and email messages to EPA spokesmen from Bellona Web were not returned Sunday and Monday. Jackson will hold a press conference later Monday that will likely include her opinions on the use of dispersants.

Several US environmental organisations have come under attack for their affiliations with BP, some of which have accepted donations and land grants from BP hovering around $10 million over several years. Some purists in the environmental movement consider this a serious conflict of interest, where others, including Bellona USA, say that such partnerships, when applied correctly, are an influential bridge with industry that foster better environmental stewardship.
Oil washing into the coastal marshlands of Louisiana on Thursday signalled loss of the bayou territories and the death of several hundred species of water bird and sea life, and hacks away at one of the natural dampers against hurricanes, the season for which starts on June on – and this one is predicted by the national weather service to be an especially rough.

Should a hurricane hit while oil is still at sea, one spokesman for the National Weather Service described the possibility as “worthy of some Hollywood disaster movie – it could mean oily water coating thing for 80 or so miles inland.”

The spill’s impact now stretches across 150 miles, from Dauphin Island, Alabama to Grand Isle, Louisiana.

How much oil?

How much oil is still gushing from the geyers in a cracked pipe at the floor of the seabed 50 miles south of Venice Louisiana, however, remains in question.

At least 6 million gallons of crude have spewed into the Gulf, though some scientists have said they believe the spill already surpasses the 11 million-gallon 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off Alaska as the worst in US history.

Steven Wereley, an associate professor of mechanical engineering from Purdue University, told Congress on Wednesday that by using a technique called particle image velocimetry, he estimated the well could be spewing 90,000 barrels of oil daily into the gulf – 70,000 from the main breach and another 25,000 from another hole in the pipe.

These towering figures are backed by Dr. Ian MacDonald, an Oceanographer from Florida State University who estimated from satellite imagery that the gusher is likely close to 60,000 barrels a day day.

New measurement methods proposed

David Valentine, a University of California Santa Barbara geochemist suggested another method Sunday by which to measure the gusher’s size by dragging gas sensors through the waters near the spill.

could provide data on how much methane was lurking in the ocean. From that figure, the volume of oil could be derived, he told The Lost Angeles Times.

The leaking oil has high concentrations of methane, perhaps as much as 40 percent by mass, he said. But unlike oil, methane dissolves in water and can be measured empirically, Valentine said. Once the level of methane is determined, the amount of oil can be calculated, he said.

“What it gives you is a very good lower limit” on how much oil is flowing, said Valentine, whose research focuses in part on how methane behaves in the ocean.

BP still balks at upping estimates over liability issues

Yet BP has only reluctant acknowledged over that the spill may be more that the official Coast Guard estimated 5,000 barrels a day, a figure arrived at only days after the oil geyser began.

Last week, BP was finally successful in an effort to staunch some of the spill by inserting a siphon into the main breach in the pipe last Monday to divert some of the oil onto tankers. BP said then it was siphoning some 5,000 barrels onto the tankers by Friday, forcing BP to acknowledge that the spill was larger than the official estimate. BP, however has refused to indicate how much larger they think the spill might be.

As long as the Obama administration allows the 5,000 figure – or lower – to stand, BP could be in a better position to avoid paying millions of dollars more from lawsuits because settlements will take into account the size of the spill.

Many federal officials have supported BP’s public stance that measuring the rate of the leak is not as important as stopping it.

On Sunday’s CNN’s State of the Union programme, Admiral Thad Allen, who heads the oil spill response operation, was asked why the US federal government did not completely take over the spill containment operation from the London-based firm.

“What makes this an unprecedented anomalous event is access to the discharge site is controlled by the technology that was used for the drilling, which is owned by the private sector,” Allen said in televised remarks. “They have the eyes and ears that are down there. They are necessarily the modality by which this is going to get solved.”

At the same time, Government officials are growing tired of watching the spill spread barely abated even a month later.

If the government finds out that BP is “not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, we’ll push them out of the way appropriately, and we’ll move forward to make sure everything is being done to protect the people of the Gulf Coast, the ecological values of the Gulf Coast and the values of the American people,” Ken Salazar told CNN’s State of the Union programme.

The ‘top kill’

The next effort to stop the leak will be called a “top kill,” which BP spokesmen said would be tried on Wednesday or early Tuesday – rescheduled from the weekend. 

A top kill, according to BP, involved pumping thick, viscous fluid twice the density of water at a high rate into the site of the leak to stop the flow so the well can then be sealed with cement. If the top kill does not work, the company will try a “junk shot,” which would involve plugging the well with rubber, golf balls and other debris, BP’s managing director Robert Dudley said on State of the Union.

Marcia McNutt, director of the U.S. Geological Survey, told reporters that the “top kill” approach remained complicated.

“Don’t think we’re out of the woods yet,” she said. Other officials warn the leak may not be completely stopped until a relief well is dug, a project that could take months.

Federal officials tour marshlands to mull cleaning

Last week, Louisiana Gov. Boddy Jindal made several helicopter and boat trips through Louisiana’s bayous following the sludge as continued to push at least 12 miles into the marshlands beginning Wednesday. Jindal has for weeks been imploring the federal government for funding to build rock and sand berms around the precious marsh territory.

Jindal and officials from several coastal parishes say the berms would close the door on oil still pouring from a mile-deep gusher about 50 miles to the south of the marshes.

“We are not waiting for them. We are going to build it,” Jindal said.
Jindal said the state has already identified and started initial work on 40 sites for the berms, but will keep pushing for federal approval, which would free up Corps-controlled dredges for the operation.

Meanwhile, several highly placed government officials toured the marshlands Sunday, finding pelicans too soaked with oil to fly away, the Associated Press Reported.

Several pelicans were coated in oil on Barataria Bay off Louisiana, their usually brown and white feathers now jet black. Pelican eggs were glazed with rust-coloured gunk, and new hatchlings and nests were also coated with crude.

It is unclear if the area can even be cleaned. It is also unknown how much of the Gulf Coast will end up looking the same way because of a well that has spewed untold millions of gallons of oil since an offshore rig exploded more than a month ago, said AP.

In Barataria Bay, orange oil had made its way a good six inches onto the shore, coating grasses and the nests of brown pelicans in mangrove trees. Just six months ago, the birds had been removed from the federal endangered species list.

Wildlife survival anyone’s bet

Wildlife officials tried to rescue oil-soaked pelicans Sunday, AP reported, but they suspended their efforts after spooking the birds. They said they weren’t sure whether they would try again, and that sometimes it is better to leave the animals alone than disturb their colony.

Pelicans are especially vulnerable to oil. Not only could they eat tainted fish and feed it to their young, but they could die of hypothermia or drowning if they’re soaked in oil, the agency reported.

The gambling website placed odds today on what species would be first to become extinct as a result of crude belching from BP’s ruptured well in the Gulf.

Odds are the Kemp’s ridley turtle, and endangered species that migrates to the Gulf this time of year, would go first. A $5 bet on the turtle would win $9 if it’s listed as extinct at any time because of the spill. Less likely species — the gulf sturgeon, smalltooth sawfish and elkhorn coral — have payout rates of 20-to-1.

In a statement announcing the extinction pool, the Irish bookmaker said it hoped the betting would “highlight the environmental catastrophe” and the “sure bet” that it would lead to the loss of some marine species.

“We kind of have a very simple philosophy at Paddy Power – within reason if there is a very newsworthy event that are people are talking about, people should be allowed to back up their opinion with some cash,” Ken Robertson, a company spokesman, told ClimateWire.

Cleaning marshes almost impossible

That oil would seep into marshlands was one of wildlife officials worst nightmares.

Globs of oil have soaked through containment booms set up in the area. Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said BP, which leased the rig and is responsible for the cleanup, needed to send more booms. He said it would be up to federal wildlife authorities to decide whether to try to clean the oil that has already washed ashore, AP reported.

“The question is, will it do more damage because this island is covered with the mess?” Nungesser told AP.

Officials have considered some drastic solutions for cleaning the oil — like burning or flooding the marshes — but they may have to sit back and let nature take care of it.

Plants and pelican eggs could wind up trampled to death by well-meaning cleanup workers. If the marshes are too dry, setting them ablaze could burn plants to the roots and obliterate the wetlands.

Flooding might help by floating out the oil, but it also could wash away the natural barriers to flooding from hurricanes and other disasters — much like hurricanes Katrina and Rita washed away marshlands in 2005. State and federal officials spent millions rebuilding the necessary buffer against tropical storms, said AP.

BP credibility on the line

Asked on CNN about comments made by Democratic Congressman Ed Markey who alleged BP has “lost all credibility,” BP’s Dudley said. “Those words hurt a little bit.”

Asked too about eroding confidence in BP CEO Hayward, Allen said: “I trust (BP CEO) Tony Hayward. When I talk to him, I get an answer”.

“We are all united in wanting the same result,” McNutt said, referring to BP and the federal government. “We want to stop polluting the ocean, and we want to kill this well. We are all on the same page about that.”

But Salazar pointed out the explosion and subsequent spill was “never supposed to happen in the first place,” and occurred because of the failure of safety measures designed to prevent such an incident.

Environmental group ties to BP – good or bad?

Meanwhile, several supporters of some of the United States’ largest environmental groups were disturbed to learn of the ties many of them had to BP.

Nature Conservancy came under special fire. It has received nearly $10 million in cash and land contributions from BP and affiliated corporations over the years, The Washington Post reported Sunday.

“Anyone serious about doing conservation in this region must engage these companies, so they are not just part of the problem but so they can be part of the effort to restore this incredible ecosystem,” Conservancy chief executive Mark Tercek wrote on his group’s Web site after criticism from a Conservancy supporter.

Likewise, about 20 energy and environmental groups, including the Conservancy, the Sierra Club and Audubon, joined with BP Wind Energy to form the American Wind and Wildlife Institute, which works to protect wildlife through “responsible” development of wind farms.

Conservation International has accepted $2 million in donations from BP over the years and partnered with the company on a number of projects, including one examining oil-extraction methods. From 2000 to 2006, John Browne, who was then BP’s chief executive, sat on the nonprofit’s board.

In response to the spill, the Conservation International plans to review its relationship with the company, Justin Ward, a Conservation International vice president, told The Washington Post.

The Environmental Defense Fund, which has a policy of not accepting corporate donations, joined with BP, Shell International and other major corporations to form the Partnership for Climate Action, which promotes “market-based mechanisms” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet few, if any, of these groups hide their affiliations.

Bellona’s Oslo offices support the B7 programme in which science and industry, including Norwegian state oil giant StatoilHydro, partner with Bellona to find more ecologically sound methods of operation. Bellona strongly believes that through such cooperation, new solutions to environmental problems can be found and implemented.

But Bellona’s programme does not hamper criticism of the industries whose support it receives. In particular, Statoilhydro has been heavily criticised by Bellona for its involvement in Arctic drilling in Russia’s Shtokman field, and for the safety of Statoil’s rigs, which was featured on Bellona Web last week.

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