Oil companies making unrealistic projections about spill-fighting abilities, review suggests


A Press-Register examination of response plans for the first deepwater drilling permits approved since the Gulf oil spill suggests companies continue to make unrealistic projections about spill-fighting abilities, and are drilling without ready access to basic spill response equipment that is required by law in Alaska and South America.

In addition, a spill response plan for a newly permitted well, jointly owned by Noble Energy Inc. and BP PLC, forbids company officials from making “promises that property, ecology, or anything else will be restored to normal” after a spill.

In an emailed statement to the Press-Register, officials with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement wrote that improved regulations governing well design, plus the availability of two capping systems similar to the one BP used to finally shut in its leaking well, improved safety in the Gulf.

The agency also wrote that the government is still in the process of drafting new standards for spill response plans. In the interim, it said, companies have been allowed to resume drilling even if their revised plans have not been formally approved or completed. The agency said its actions were in keeping with the Clean Water Act, which requires companies prove they are able to respond to “the maximum extent practicable” to a worst case spill.

“We are involved in a government-wide effort to upgrade existing spill response regulations and ensure that industry’s spill response capabilities are updated and upgraded,” the agency wrote. “The unfortunate fact is that there had been very few advances over the last several decades.”

BP referred questions about its joint venture with Noble to that company. Noble officials did not responded to requests for comment.

‘Unrealistic’ rating factor

In the permit for its first well since the BP spill, Shell Offshore Inc. claimed that it could skim 36 million gallons of oil per day from the Gulf’s surface. After the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, BP managed to skim less than 3 million gallons total over the course of three months, much less than the 17.6 million gallons per day claimed in its response plan.

“It appears the companies are still using the same rating factor for skimmers that BP used, even though it was proven to be unrealistic,” said John Amos, a former oil industry geologist who heads the Skytruth environmental group.

Amos said the two new capping devices — created by industry consortiums in the wake of last year’s spill — were likely an improvement in terms of stopping a spill. But more needs to be done, he said, particularly regarding fighting oil on the surface.

“We’re still talking about two to three weeks of uncontrolled oil flow in a best case scenario before they could get one of these untested devices loaded onto a ship, hauled to sea, and deployed,” Amos said. “That means we would be looking at 60 million gallons of oil released into the Gulf.”

Amos based that number on the new Shell well’s reported worst-case spill rate of 7 million gallons daily.

“We’ve got to have improvements in the (skimming and burning) technologies,” Amos said, “or we’ll be seeing oiled pelicans all over again.”

Federal officials determined that the BP spill dumped at least 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf.

Burning proved to be far and away the most effective technique for destroying that oil. Records show that the company managed to burn as much oil in one day as it skimmed in seven weeks. In the days after the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank, oil spill response experts suggested that a fleet of 40 boats equipped with fire booms could have contained BP’s oil at the well site.

But burning then was hampered by the fact that federal officials had to purchase fire boom to conduct even a test burn eight days after the rig exploded.

The new spill response plan submitted for the BP/Noble well — the first new permit by federal officials after Deepwater Horizon — reports access to only a single fire boom located on the Gulf Coast.

The plan details several additional fire boom sources on the Gulf Coast, but notes availability of “0000” feet in each instance.

Asked about the lack of a federal law requiring oil companies to have immediate access to fire boom, the BOEMRE official wrote, “certainly, the availability of fire-rated boom will be one of many issues that will be considered in making recommendations for enhanced regulations.”

Such boom is required by state law in Alaska.

‘Back to where we were before’

There have been changes in the new industry response plans.

For instance, the subsea application of dispersants is now considered one of the primary methods to fight a spill, with that capability built into the new capping systems.

“Dispersants worked great at keeping some oil underwater and off the beaches, but we still haven’t settled the science questions,” Amos said. “We don’t know what effect that had on the environment, but it is now one of the primary approaches.”

The plan also makes subtle changes to the items needed to set up a Joint Information Center for a spill response. Where BP’s Deepwater Horizon response plan stated that a telephone and an answering machine would be needed, the new Noble/BP plan states that the center will have “ample” phones. The plan later elaborates that a “phone bank” of four to six phones will be needed.

The revised plans detail stockpiles of dispersants and warehouses on the coast stuffed with various leftover response supplies, including dozens of miles worth of the ubiquitous floating boom that in many instances failed to corral oil pushed by ocean waves.

“We are basically back to where we were before the BP spill. We have these broad assurances from the oil industry that they can handle these problems,” said Derb Carter, with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “They certainly weren’t able to live up to their assurances the last time.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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