The Second Coming of Macondo: How Long Has Oil Been Leaking from BP’s Deepwater Horizon Site – This Time?


BP’s Macondo Well spewed sweet Louisiana crude for 87 straight, miserable days last summer. By April 30, 2010, Macondo oil choked nearly 4,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico. The gushing well surrounded itself with an 80-square-mile “kill zone,” void of any life of any kind (other than unprotected cleanup workers). It fouled more than 320 miles of coastline in Louisiana alone, much of it delicate, ecologically vital marshland. At its height, the Macondo Well was producing a spill the size of the Exxon Valdez every five days. By the time it was capped on July 15, 2010, the rogue well had pumped a colossal 205 million gallons of petroleum into the body of water that produces more than 40 percent of all the seafood caught in the continental United States.

Today, oil from the Macondo Well complex is once more polluting the Gulf of Mexico, inflicting new damage on its fragile ecosystem and the lives of tens of thousands of Gulf residents.

Fifteen months after BP’s crippled Macondo Well unleashed the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, scientific analysis has confirmed that oil is again rising from the site where the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank to the seafloor in April of last year. In an email to the Mobile Press-Register, LSU chemist and NOAA contractor Ed Overton, wrote this: “After examining the data, I think it’s a dead ringer for the MC252 [Macondo Well] oil, as good a match as I’ve seen.”

Confronted with an overwhelming body of evidence – scientific data, photos and video of oil in the water and credible reports of the “stench of oil” at the site – BP and the U.S. Coast Guard continue to deny not only that the Macondo Well is leaking but that there is any oil at all in the vicinity the Deepwater Horizon site. According to a report from Fuel Fix, a news source for the energy industry:

The Coast Guard said observations Thursday failed to confirm a report by an Alabama newspaper of oil billowing to the surface near the site where BP’s Macondo well blew out last year.

After the report in Mobile’s Press-Register, the Coast Guard deployed a boat to Mississippi Canyon 252, the federal block about 40 miles off the Louisiana coast where the well is located, and also conducted an aerial survey of the site by helicopter.

“Both observed nothing,” said Capt. Jonathan Burton, who is based in Morgan City, La.

BP, in addition, said neither a vessel it had on the scene late in the day nor a science vessel on site throughout the day reported seeing any oily sheens.

How convenient, don’t you think? I am a huge supporter of our men and women in uniform, but the reported “nonobservation” from both the Coast Guard’s boat patrol and aerial survey doesn’t instill much public confidence in that military branch’s ability to fulfill its ultimate mission of guarding our coast. The fact that a news organization and a host of environmental groups have been successful in tracking down the oil in question both by sea and by air brings into question the competence of the Coast Guard leadership on this investigation. Here are a few previously posted photos from the Deepwater Horizon site. How well-trained, well-equipped Coast Guard crews could have missed this expanse of highly visible surface oil in a relatively tight target area is beyond strange.

Photo credit to the Mobile Press-Register.

Our Aug. 17 report (see link below) that oil is rising again from the Macondo field prompted pilot Bonny Schumaker, from the California-based nonprofit On Wings of Care, to fly out to the Deepwater Horizon site to conduct aerial surveillance. Her Aug. 19 flyover with Jonathan Henderson and Tarik Zawia of the nonprofit Gulf Restoration Network (GRN) provided initial footage of large “oily globules” in the water at the Deepwater Horizon site (see links below to reports and footage). Schumaker flew over the site again late last week and again she saw oil in the water. She commented: “I don’t know why others do not find these things from the air. Maybe they’re flying too high or fast or not looking carefully. I have yet to have professional cameras or photographers on board, and we capture the stuff just fine.”

More from the Fuel Fix report:

…the British oil giant sent a remotely operated vehicle down Thursday night to inspect the Macondo wellhead a mile beneath the Gulf surface, and the oil giant found no evidence of a leak, according to a company release.

“BP confirmed through a standard visual wellhead inspection that there is no release of oil from the Macondo well,” the release said. “In addition, BP also conducted a visual inspection of the Macondo relief well confirming the same result.”

Of course, we’ve heard denials before – early and often – so we shouldn’t put any stock in this new round of refutations. We should also note that BP officials left themselves a little wiggle room (as is usually the case) by stating there was no release from the Macondo Well while saying nothing about leaks from the seafloor around the wellhead – a “scenario of interest” that we’ve been looking at for some time.

In January 2011, a prominent “geohazards specialist” wrote an urgent letter to two members of Congress – U.S. Reps. Fred Upton, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and John Shimkus, chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment and Economy – suggesting that the Macondo site is leaking oil like a sieve. Here’s an excerpt from that letter (see it in its entirety below):

There is no question that the oil seepages, gas columns, fissures and blowout craters in the seafloor around the Macondo wellhead… have been the direct result of indiscriminate drilling, grouting, injection of dispersant and other undisclosed recover activities. As the rogue well had not been successfully cemented and plugged at the base of the well by the relief wells, unknown quantities of hydrocarbons are still leaking out from the reservoir at high pressure and are seeping through multiple fault lines to the seabed. It is not possible to cap this oil leakage.

But again, we’ve heard flurries of denials and reversals from BP over the course of this disaster. So when weighing the credibility of BP’s latest denial, consider this from an Aug. 22 Huffington Post piece detailing the ongoing Justice Department investigation of the spill:

An early report from BP on the morning of April 23 was positive, declaring that the ROVs had determined that the well had been sealed and that there was no leak. (Rear Adm. Mary) Landry immediately relayed the good news to the public in appearances on all the major network morning shows.

“There is no crude oil at this time leaking from the wellhead. There is no crude oil leaking from the riser,” she told one interviewer.

Meanwhile, of course, the reality was tens of thousands of gallons of oil were already spewing from the crippled well. More from John Rudolph’s HuffPo piece:

Shortly after informing the nation that the well was secure, Landry received a call from Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer for global exploration and production. Suttles was one of the first senior BP executives on the scene after the rig explosion and, during the initial days of the spill, was BP’s public face for its response to the disaster.

Suttles had bad news: the ROVs had discovered a leak at the end of the riser, where it had ripped off the bottom of the rig.

So, on April 23, BP announced through the Coast Guard that there was no oil leaking from the well. Hours later, BP reversed itself. So clearly mistakes can, and have been, made – even when ROVs are providing visuals from the seafloor. Leaks can be missed, and flow rates can be grossly misinterpreted as we saw during the early days of the spill. More from HuffPo:

What is clear is that BP failed, throughout the event, to produce an accurate estimate of the size of the leak to the federal government or the public. Also readily apparent is the company’s strong vested interest in downplaying the size of the spill: federal pollution laws stipulate fines as high as $4,300 for every barrel of oil unlawfully discharged into U.S. waters.

Obviously, there’s a clear motive for BP to overlook leaks and lowball flow rates: To avoid fines – big fines.

The ongoing Justice Department investigation into BP’s lowballing of the flow rate, could bring criminal charges and jail time for those found to be lying. That scenario certainly holds true for this second phase of the Macondo leak. If BP officials are lying to the government about what’s currently happening 5,000 feet below the surface, they could end up in jail – and they should. According to John Rudolph:

“Anybody who lied or misled the government could face charges, there’s no question of that,” said Sam Buell, a law professor at Duke University and former federal prosecutor. “When they charge those cases, they usually charge individuals.”

The federal government must demand that BP make the ROV footage of both the Macondo Well and the relief well immediately available to the public. I, for one, am very interested in seeing the video – and I know I’m not alone. Suspicions are running high. I am among those who doubt that BP sent an ROV down to look at the wellhead on Thursday night as reported, because nobody that I’ve spoken to, including pilot Bonny Schumaker who was in the area at the time, saw a vessel.

So where do we go from here? With scientific confirmation that fresh oil from the Macondo field is again fouling the Gulf, our focus must shift to finding the leak and stopping it as quickly as possible. That much is rudimentary. What will need to happen – after the immediate crisis is dealt with – is to determine how much oil has been released from the “phantom leak.” Part of that process will center on how long the oil has been leaking. Clearly there are implications here pertaining to a range of issues, including cleanup efforts, BP fines and victim compensation.

As reported here on May 10, we have data that indicate oil from the Macondo Well was coming ashore on Breton Island in late March 2011. That revelation suggests that oil has been leaking for at least five months, which could translate into a lot of oil in the water. Consider this from my May 10 post (see lab report at bottom):

In late March 2011, Paul Orr and his team from the Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper conducted a 50-mile boat patrol and sampling tour of Breton Sound, which lies just off the southeast coast of Louisiana. The excursion was triggered by sightings of oil in the area by fishermen and others, including pilot Bonny Schumaker and her nonprofit group On Wings of Care.

…The beach sample Mr. Orr and his team took is remarkable, according to civil engineer Marco Kaltofen, because it contains crude oil that appears only slightly weathered – a puzzling finding in light of the fact that the Macondo Well was capped last July. The test results on the recent sample (taken March 28) look more like those from original oil seen in the early days of the spill, instead of the heavily weathered and degraded oil we’ve come to expect in recent days.

And this from my July 25 post that features histograms showing the fresh oil sampled in late March 2011 is “chemically identical” to oil sampled in the early days of the spill:

As you’ll notice from the histograms, the Breton Island sample mirrors the submerged oil sampled from Pensacola Bay on Nov. 5, 2010 (BretonSamplevsPensacola11.5.10) and a sample taken from Panama City Beach on July 14, 2010 (BretonsamplevsPCB7.14.2010). You don’t have to be a marine biologist to see that this is the same oil with nearly identical weathering.

So we had fresh oil with BP’s signature on it coming ashore in March – more than eight months after the Macondo Well was capped. And since then, members of my team and other researchers have reported fresh oil, of the “only slightly weathered” variety from Grand Isle to Pensacola. One charter boat fishing captain, who frequents the waters around Louisiana’s barrier islands, is describing the current, hauntingly familiar situation on the Gulf as the “second wave” of the BP disaster.

Thus, we have a “fresh oil” timeline that appears to begin as early as March. The clock is ticking for BP and the Gulf Coast. And nerves are stretched to the snapping point. The undeniable psychological aspect to all this is something that response commander retired Adm. Thad Allen touched on last summer as the well was being “sealed.” From a Sept. 18, 2010 Washington Post article:

About 4 p.m. Friday, authorities began the long-awaited – and now, rather anti-climactic – “bottom kill,” filling in that empty space with cement. The cement should be set by Saturday afternoon, Allen said, and a final pressure test will allow the declaration of death.

After the American people spent the summer watching the fearsome oil well spill, Allen said this last step was as much for our benefit as it was for the gulf’s.

He said the intent was “psychologically, for people in the gulf to understand that there is a stake in the heart of this beast.”

Well, unfortunately for all of us, the beast didn’t die.

Read my Aug. 17 post that broke the “new leak” story:

Read Bonny Schumaker’s flyover reports – and please donate to her nonprofit organization On Wings of Care so she can continue these crucial flights:

Check out Jonathan Henderson’s flyover footage and blog post at the Gulf Restoration Network (GRN) website:

Here’s my May 10 post and lab report on oil coming ashore on Breton Island:

Here’s my July 25 post titled Is BP’s Macondo Well Site Still Leaking?:

Read the entire HuffPo report here:

Read BK Lim’s Jan. 2011 letter to Congress suggesting that oil is leaking from cracks and fissures in the seafloor around the Macondo wellhead:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2011 – All Rights Reserved


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