Devastating report on the “other” oil spill in the Gulf

From time to time, I’ve been honored to use this blog to highlight the work of a colleague and a tireless crusader for the environment, Bonny Schumaker. A former NASA engineer and a pilot, Bonny began to focus on the Gulf in the days immediately following the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, and her aerial photography has brought the public information about not just the BP oil spill but about other ecological crises offshore — information that Big Oil and the feds would rather that you not know. It was Bonny and her organization, On Wings Of Care,  that called attention to ongoing leaks at the Deepwater Horizon site in 2011 and again in 2012 when BP and the Coast Guard were denying a problem.

But perhaps Bonny’s most valuable contribution has been to keep the spotlight shinning on an unacceptable situation that’s been festering in the Gulf even longer than the BP mess, the Taylor Energy site. This is an accident that occurred when Hurricane Ivan struck the Gulf in 2004 — 11 years ago! — and toppled the rig 10 miles off the Louisiana coast that continues to leak crude today, even as the rig’s operator Taylor Energy has essentially ceased operations. Earlier this month, I wrote about an Associated Press report that called attention to the fiasco — much of the AP’s reporting was based on Bonny’s exhaustive research. Now, Bonny and Wings of Care have published their own report on Taylor Energy, and it’s a blockbuster.

Their lengthy, well-illustrated paper shows that the extent of the Taylor spill has been grossly underestimated:

Perplexed by the continuing unreasonably low estimates for the amounts of observed oil in these reports, the author undertook to compare those estimates with other available observational data on MC20 and also to re-calculate the Taylor estimates using the Coast Guard’s own standard for aerial assessment of open water oil sheens, the so-called “Bonn” or “BAOAC” guidelines.2 It didn’t take long to recognize that the Coast Guard has allowed the fox to guard the chicken coop and is neither watching the fox nor heeding warnings from good neighbors. 

But is it really surprising that government has not been more forceful or effective in its efforts to prevent such pollution “incidents”?  To them, these waters are minerals, which they own and which they allow companies to harvest, in return for royalties.  For our government, the primary casualty of an accidental “spill” is a temporary drop in royalties. Income from fines assigned to the Responsible Parties under the Clean Water Act may be used to appease the citizens, but the government’s primary interest is revenue, and that is best gained by letting the Responsible Parties get back to the business of “mining.”

The NRC reports filed by Taylor, which to date number 1,958 since they began in spring of 2008, have understated the amount of oil present in the surface sheen by more than an order of magnitude compared to realistic amounts implied by observations from independent credible sources, such as NOAA and the author’s non-profit On Wings Of Care (OWOC).3  The inaccurate reports from Taylor continue to be published by the Coast Guard, unchallenged, despite the fact that the primary fault in their estimates is failure to use the Coast Guard’s own adopted standard. When the Taylor estimates are re-calculated using the Bonn guidelines, they increase by about a factor of 12.  But the Taylor estimates appear to be even more wrong than that.

Independent observations by OWOC, made approximately monthly since mid-2011, suggest amounts about 25 times larger than Taylor’s reported average daily amounts for the same days — 500 vs. 20 gallons per day.  The average and median sheen areas for OWOC and Taylor on the same days are within 30% of each other, so the discrepancy stems primarily from assumptions about sheen thickness, and much less from reported sheen area or coverage.

This is a remarkably valuable piece of research — it’s long, but I urge you to check out the whole thing. It documents, meticulously, the mistakes and bogus information that brought us from 2004 to today. But it also illustrates a much broader and critical point: The ways the government protects the agenda of powerful corporations — and specifically Big Oil — at the expense of the environment, and the public. One reason that the problem has persisted for 11 years is that the critical information had been hidden from the citizenry. Bonny Schumaker has defined public service with this report.

Read the report on the Taylor Energy spill by On Wings Of Care:

Here’s my post on the Taylor spill from earlier this month:

To read more about our early efforts in 2010 to show the truth about size of the the BP spill, check out my book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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