A top BP official said Thursday that the company “threw everything at” the gushing Macondo well as soon as it began spewing crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico more than two months ago, but contends that knowing exactly how much oil has been flowing out is irrelevant to efforts to stop or contain the spill.
“The flow rate has never impacted the response,” said BP America’s chief operating officer, Doug Suttles, in an interview with The Times-Picayune. He went on to say that the process of estimating how much oil was flowing into the Gulf — a task he said BP does not involve itself with — is “extraordinarily imprecise and we took a view very early on that we didn’t think you could do it and we didn’t think it was relevant either.”
But as estimates of the flow rate have steadily grown — starting at zero, in the wake of the spill, and inching up to an early estimate of 1,000 barrels per day, then 5,000, and most recently up to 60,000 barrels a day — the political pressure on BP and the company’s efforts to contain the oil have ratcheted up just as steadily.
‘Maximum mobilization’ needed
And on at least one occasion, federal officials chided BP for relying on outdated estimates and not bringing enough resources to bear as a result. A June 11 letter to Suttles from the federal on-scene coordinator, Coast Guard Rear Adm. James Watson, said BP’s plan for collecting the oil was based on unrealistically low flow rates. Watson ordered BP to put more resources into the effort to reflect new, substantially higher estimates.
“I am concerned that your current plans do not provide for maximum mobilization of resources to provide the needed collection capacity consistent with the revised flow estimates,” Watson wrote to Suttles.
In his response letter June 13, Suttles seemed to acknowledge that knowing the scope of the spill was in fact relevant. Whether BP’s efforts would be sufficient “will also depend on the actual flow rate,” Suttles wrote. “The systems outlined here are designed based on the current best independent assessment of flow from the FRTG (the group of scientists estimating the flow of oil). We will continue to adapt our plans as more is learned about the flow-rate from the well.”
Fines for flow
Ultimately, the flow rate will be important to the company, whether it wants to focus on it or not. The federal government is charged with imposing fines under various environmental laws on parties responsible for spills, and those fines will be based on total barrels spilled and range from $1,100 to $4,300 per barrel.
Based on the most recent federal estimates, as many as 3.5 million barrels have spewed so far — an amount that would yield more than $15 billion in fines if the spill is determined to be the result of negligence.
BP executive Doug Suttles told The Times-Picayune repeatedly that flow rates are irrelevant. The company’s plan has always been to ‘overreact,’ he said.
But when it comes to BP’s containment and cleanup operations, Suttles told The Times-Picayune repeatedly that flow rates are irrelevant. The company’s plan has always been to “overreact,” he said.
“Not only did we take everything that was in the Gulf of Mexico, we brought things in from all over the world, well beyond the capacity that was here when we started,” Suttles said.
Turning down offers of help
Yet foreign companies with boats designed specifically to fight spills have either been turned away or met with delays. Specialized skimming equipment from the Netherlands, for example, known as the “sweeping arm system,” began making its way to the Gulf in early June, a month after the Dutch government first proposed it to U.S. officials.
And BP has turned down the use of a 300-foot specialized skimming vessel from Shell in Alaska, called the Nanuq, which is sitting idle in Seward, Alaska, according to a Shell spokesman.
“We’re getting things here as quick as we can,” Suttles said, noting that BP is bringing processing vessels from Brazil and tankers from Britain, but warning that they require a lot of new equipment. “All of these things we’re constructing at lightning speed.”
The company is trying to complete two relief wells in August so one of them can intercept the renegade well and plug it with mud from below, stopping it up for good. Meanwhile, BP is collecting 25,000 barrels of oil a day using containment systems installed June 3 and June 15. Suttles said another collection process will be in place by the end of the month to capture about 50,000 barrels a day. In addition, vessels and equipment are being constructed so they will be able to collect as much as 80,000 barrels a day by mid-July.
That’s more than the well is actually spewing, according to the most recent estimates, which put the flow at between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels a day.
Before early June, BP’s attempts to collect the oil were mostly failures. BP responded to what were initially three leak sites in a bent and broken riser pipe extending from the failed blowout preventer by capping one leak and attempting to cover another with a 78-ton containment box. The box was deployed May 7, but the device was declared a failure the next day after ice crystals formed inside it, blocking the flow of oil and making it buoyant.
Hoping to keep out the near-freezing sea water, which formed the crystals when it mixed with hot oil and natural gas, BP began to lower a second, smaller containment box known as a “top hat” into the sea May 11.
But the company never used the top hat, deciding instead to suck oil from the broken riser pipe with a 3-inch tube. The tube sucked about 22,000 barrels of oil from the well over a nine-day period, on average about 2,200 barrels per day, as oil gushed around it and into the sea. It was removed before the next attempt, the “top kill.”
The top kill, which involved pumping the well full of mud, was the company’s first attempt at permanently stopping the flow. After three days, it was deemed a failure.
He’s proud of BP’s actions
During his interview at the newspaper, Suttles repeatedly declined to answer questions about what went wrong on the rig, saying he has been totally focused on the cleanup since April 20.
But he said he is proud of how BP has reacted to the spill and defended the company’s safety record, saying BP has completely reengineered itself since an explosion rocked its Texas City refinery in 2005. Similarly, Bob Dudley, who has just assumed the role of president and CEO of BP’s new Gulf Coast Restoration Organization and met with reporters Thursday in Washington, said he realizes as long as oil is still gushing into the Gulf, it is futile to try to improve BP’s image. But he hopes history will judge the company and its workers to have given everything they had to deal with the catastrophe.
“I hope the world will someday recognize the incredible response (by BP) in the U.S.” he said. “Some day it would be nice for that to come out.”