The 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout and our energy future
April 28, 2011 7:51 AM   Subscribe

This is really interesting stuff. Excerpt:
BP had a federally approved Gulf of Mexico spill response plan that explained what it would do for walruses and sea lions—creatures that don't live in the Gulf of Mexico. Major sections were merely cut-and-pasted from Arctic plans. No one paid attention to them.
posted by memebake at 8:03 AM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Fascinating and sad.
posted by Splunge at 8:21 AM on April 28, 2011

One of the best (short) articles I've read on the subject. The section examining the idea that Macondo may have been "the worst" environmental disaster in US history is particularly sobering. In particular, his comparison the impact of the spill on the Gulf coastline ecosystems to the on-going destruction of delta marshlands by river engineering, dredging, canal building and sediment shunting. Unfortunately, as humans we're far more likely to pay attention to the singular and spectacular, rather than the slow, chronic and corrosive.
posted by bumpkin at 8:51 AM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

I second bumpkin. Here's a nice quote from the article:

"I was very critical of dispersants as a response, partly because they exemplified the lack of real preparation, their chemical components were being kept secret, and they served BP's interests in hampering understanding of the amount of oil leaking. Legal liability is based on how much oil enters the environment. This gives an oil company strong incentive to minimize or hide the amount of oil. Critics used the analogy of putting the perpetrator in charge of securing and cleaning up a crime scene. (BP's liability assessment will largely be based on how much oil leaked. BP's first estimate of the amount of oil leaking was 1,000 barrels/d, one-sixtieth the amount—roughly 60,000 barrels/d—later determined and used by the US Coast Guard [1 barrel = 42 US gallons, ≈160 liters]. In December 2010, BP announced it would contest the official and academic estimates of the total amount of oil.)."
posted by ReWayne at 10:16 AM on April 28, 2011

It's a nice summary of events, and he's right to say that the whole story is really just starting to unfold here.

From the responders' point of view, the oil was in the water, no way to put it back in the well. The well, indeed, can't even be turned off or slowed. Decisions have to be made about how to handle the oil in the water and the oil yet to come from the well.

There are no magic answers during an oil spill. By the most likely estimates (p 40/Fig13, the Oil Budget Calculator, warning: a big PDF), about a quarter of the oil evaporated (and dissolved). Simmers, all those boats that BP hired, accounted for, removed about 3%. Burning remoevd about 5%. Something less than 20% was recovered by the various tophats. About 15% "naturally dispersed" as droplets in the water.

That leaves roughly half of the oil after all options but chemical dispersants were exhausted. By using dispersants, the majority of that remainder, roughly a quarter of the oil was pushed into the ocean. The last quarter came ashore, fell to the bottom or formed floating globs of oil (tarballs) that recirulated into the Gulf currents.

The scenario that everyone was concerned about was the oil coming ashore and destroying habitats and ecosystems along 500 miles of coastline, some of the most productive, diverse and fragile coasts in North America. We're still finding oil just below the surface in Prince William Sound twenty years after the Exxon Valdez. If you dig down on the right beaches in Texas, you can still find traces of oil from the Ixtoc spill of 1971 in the Mexican part of the Gulf. The stuff sticks around on land.

So the choice, rightly or wrongly, was made (by USCG Admiral Thad Allen ultimately, but with the backing of most of the scientists and engineers he had at his disposal) to make Hobson's choice, to sacrifice the ocean at the expense of the shore.

Articles like this and the ones Safina links to are a critical part of these trade-off decisions. We're doing the science right now to make the judgement call next time this happens. What comes out of this event will be hugely influential in terms of what happens next time, as were the concerns about the Valdez were during the MC-252 DWH event.

It's very clear, as Safina points out, that there were major problems with preparedness, both on the part of the companies involved and with what got through the regulators and permitters. It's also true that oil spill research has been in a freefall for the last decade, both publically and privately.

What's essential at this stage is to get more public involvement. Was that choice, to keep the oil at sea, the right call? Was the damage to the ocean worth it to protect the land? Science can talk about risks, but ultimately, the public needs to tell spill responders what things they want saved when the house is on fire. What should the priorities be?

Now is a great time for public engagement. Discussion of priorities for spill response are really key. The issues are still fluid even a year following the spill. Research needs to be talk about. The response technologies used during DWH were indeed essentially the same as they were for the Valdez in 1989. Priorities need to be set.
posted by Anonymous 5$ Sockpuppet at 12:14 PM on April 28, 2011 [5 favorites]

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