Thursday, July 8, 2010

Gulf Oil Update: Day 80

Censorship and Cover-up in the Gulf Oil Disaster
World Socialist Web Site,
6 July 2010

The Obama administration has intensified its cover-up of the BP oil disaster. On July 1 it issued an order barring the public and the news media from coming within 65feet of clean-up operations without permission from the Coast Guard. The transparent aim of the order, which purports to protect the safety of clean-up workers, is to prevent the population from viewing the devastation wrought by the BP oil blowout.

The gag order states that that anyone not authorized by the Coast Guard “must not come within 20 meters [65 feet] of booming operations, boom, or oil spill response operations under penalty of law.” The wording—“oil spill response operations”—could be construed as covering the entire affected region, which stretches from the Mississippi Delta to the Florida Panhandle.

Journalists who “willfully” defy the White House order could be prosecuted as Class D felons and face up to five years in prison and a $40,000 fine. Exceptions to the ban will be considered on a case-by-case basis by the Coast Guard captain of the Port of New Orleans.

In defending the order, Coast Guard Commander Thad Allen stated that the measure aims to protect clean-up workers, but he failed to cite a single incident of safety being compromised by “unauthorized personnel.”

The real concern the White House has is that clean-up workers might reveal something about the dangerous conditions under which they work and the real scale of the environmental devastation—defying a gag order imposed by BP. An unknown number of these workers—likely hundreds, perhaps thousands—have become sick from exposure to oil and toxic dispersants and may well face a lifetime of chronic ailments.

The new effort to gag the media continues a campaign launched three weeks ago by the administration to reach what Obama adviser David Axlerod called an “inflection point” in the Gulf crisis. In a string of public relations events from June 11 through June 17, President Obama visited the Gulf for two days, gave a nationally televised Oval Office speech on the blowout, and met in the White House with BP CEO Tony Hayward and Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg.

That meeting resulted in the announcement that BP would finance a $20 billion settlement fund, which would be “independently” administered. This was presented by Obama as a major concession wrenched from the oil company and a boon to the many thousands of Gulf residents whose livelihoods have been destroyed as a result of BP’s actions.

In reality, the deal was a boon to BP, effectively placing a cap over its major liabilities—for a disaster whose total costs will be reckoned in the hundreds of billions of dollars—and shielding it from lawsuits and damage claims.

“Investors in BP should know that there’s now an alternative to the litigation system in place,” Independent Claims Facility administrator Kenneth Feinberg told CNBC. “I think that’s a really helpful sign if you’re an investor.”

Feinberg has already declared that the fund will be off limits to the majority of those affected by the blowout—people in the tourism industry, fishermen who operate on a cash basis, Gulf coast homeowners whose property values will plunge.

The carefully scripted and orchestrated series of events in mid-June was meant to signal a halt to the anti-BP posturing by the government and begin a tamping down of media coverage of the catastrophe. In effect, the American people were told the poisoning of the Gulf, with all of its consequences, would continue at least until BP completed its relief wells some time in August—and they should get used to it!

The latest move to censor coverage of the Gulf crisis is in keeping with this strategy and is in line with the Obama administration’s policy ever since the Deepwater Horizon rig blew up on April 20, killing 11 workers. The primary concern of both BP and the White House has been to cover up the gravity of the pollution of vast parts of the Gulf of Mexico and beaches and wetlands in at least four US states.

At stake is not only the population’s right to know what is happening to the seas, shores and wildlife that are now treated as the private property of BP, it is quite simply impossible to formulate an adequate response outside of an independent assessment of the extent of the damage.

There are by now countless reports of journalists and citizens being ordered away from beaches or blocked from viewing the spill from the land, air and sea by BP, the Coast Guard and hired security agents. In mid-June, the White House banned airplanes from flying over the spill zone at altitudes below 3,000 feet, and helicopters below 1,500 feet, without a special exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

CNN’s Anderson Cooper reported last week that journalists have been repeatedly barred from a government mobile hospital in Venice, Louisiana that is treating clean-up workers.

BP and its supplier Nalco, have even refused to reveal to scientists the chemical composition of Corexit, the dispersant that has been dumped by the hundreds of thousands of gallons into the Gulf to break up the oil, because, they say, it is a trade secret. BP simply defied an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) order issued one month ago, to cease use of Corexit pending further testing. Obama decided not to pursue the matter.

For nearly two months, BP and government stonewalling made it impossible even to assess how big the blowout was. Insisting from the first that BP was “in charge” of the clean-up, the administration colluded with the oil giant to block independent analysis of the gusher one mile beneath the surface of the Gulf. Only under steady criticism from scientists did the administration repeatedly revise upward the rate of the oil erupting from the sea floor. The spill is now, by all accounts, the largest in history.

All of this underscores the necessity to take the response to the oil disaster out of the hands of BP and the Obama administration.

The Gulf disaster requires a mass response. It is first of all necessary to bring together the best scientists and engineers in the world, give them full and unfettered access to all information related to the disaster, and place them in charge of hundreds of thousands of well-trained, well-equipped and well-paid workers.

The resources necessary for this undertaking can be realized by nationalizing BP and the entire oil industry and converting the industry into a public utility, democratically run by the working population in the interests of society as a whole.

This, in turn, requires the mass mobilization of the working class, independently of both parties of big business, based on a socialist program that rejects the “right” of corporations and financiers to unfathomable wealth at the expense of the people and the environment of the planet.

l27,000 abandoned oil wells in Gulf of Mexico
By Hiram Lee
8 July 2010

There are 27,000 abandoned oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico. In spite of the potential for oil leaks due to corrosion and underground pressure, the wells are not inspected by the US government or any agency within the oil industry. These revelations were uncovered as part of an investigative report conducted by the Associated Press which describes the Gulf of Mexico as “an environmental minefield.”

According to the AP, over half of the 50,000 wells which have been drilled in the federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico have been abandoned, with 23,500 of them considered permanently sealed. As many as 3,500 of the wells are considered “temporarily abandoned.” The oldest of the abandoned wells investigated by the AP date back to the 1940s.

Wells are abandoned by oil companies when they are considered to no longer be profitable, or when the potential for the amount of oil to be drawn from the well is not as high as the company may have initially believed. According to the AP, “Some owners temporarily abandon wells to await a rise in oil prices.”

The standard procedure for plugging a well to be abandoned permanently by an oil company involves cutting riser piping 15 feet beneath the seabed, filling the well with heavy liquid, often referred to as drilling mud, to prevent the flow of oil and capping the well with cement plugs which can be up to 200 feet in length.

Several factors can cause abandoned wells to leak or fail, including erosion or aging in the cement used to plug the wells and repressurization of wells due to changes in geological conditions. Erosion in well casing or other areas of the well structure can allow oil and gas to escape to the surface. This can occur gradually or in a sudden catastrophic blowout.

The permanent sealing of an offshore well is costly and time consuming, costing as much as $200,000 and taking as many as 10 days work. Many oil companies get around this by classifying their wells as “temporarily abandoned,” so they can plug the wells in a less thorough and expensive process. Federal regulations only mandate that companies provide a yearly plan stating their intentions to either return to the well or to seal it permanently in the future.

Using this loophole, companies can leave their wells in a kind of legal limbo for years. They can do so knowing they will face no repercussion from governmental regulating industries. The AP found that the federal Minerals Management Service (MMS) has issued fines of “just $440,000 on seven companies from 2003-2007 for improper plug-and-abandonment work.”

The AP reports that “About three-quarters of temporarily abandoned wells have been left in that status for more than a year, and many since the 1950s and 1960s—even though sealing procedures for temporary abandonment are not as stringent as those for permanent closures.”

BP has abandoned no less than 600 wells in the Gulf of Mexico.

Relief wells could be ineffective.

A contractor with BP has said the company is ahead of schedule in drilling its first relief well. Billy Brown, the president of Blackhawk Specialty Tools, a company hired by BP to work on the cementing process of the relief well plan, claims BP is within ten feet of intersecting with its leaking Macado well. Brown recently told reporters “hopefully in the next two weeks we are going to be hearing some very good things.”

National Incident Commander Thad Allen gave reporters a different estimate on Tuesday saying, “They have about 264 feet left to go before they can get to a point where they can potentially intercept the well.” Allen is standing by the timeline which places completion of the first relief well in mid-August, even though he says BP is a week ahead of schedule.

The relief wells are intended to intersect the blown-out Macado well at a depth of 18,000 feet. Once the wells intersect, a heavy liquid will be pumped into the leaking well in order to stop the flow of oil. The Macado well will then be plugged with concrete.

While BP’s plan to stop the leak with relief wells has been promoted as the ultimate solution to the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the more trustworthy fall-back plan once all other efforts to stop the leak had failed, there is a real possibility the relief wells could also be ineffective.

David Rensink, the incoming president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, has discussed the difficulties involved with intersecting the leaking well. Rensink told reporters, “You’re trying to intersect the well bore, which is about a foot wide, with another well bore, which is about a foot wide.” Rensink has said making contact on the first attempt “would truly be like winning the lottery.”

There is a danger that if BP misses its target, it could drill into a high-pressure zone and cause a gas “kick” which might lead to a blowout in the relief well itself. However, even if the company does hit its target on the first try, there is still no guarantee of success.

In an online discussion hosted by the Washington Post, John Hofmeister, the former president of Shell Oil and the current CEO of Citizens for Affordable Energy, discussed the possibility that the Macado well casing could have been damaged during the April 20 blowout or eroded by the leaking oil, putting the success of a relief well in doubt. Damage to the casing could allow the mud to be forced into the well to escape and prevent it from bringing the flow of oil to a halt.

“If the casing is compromised,” wrote Hofmeister, “the well is that much more difficult to shut down, including the risk that the relief wells may not be enough. If the relief wells do not result in stopping the flow, the next and drastic step is to implode the well on top of itself, which carries other risks as well.”

Oil spill reaches Texas and Lake Pontchartrain
By Tom Eley
7 July 2010

Laboratory analysis on Tuesday confirmed that tar balls found washed ashore on beaches in Galveston, Texas, over the weekend originated from the BP’s Macondo well, which is gushing out millions of gallons of oil per day 50 miles southeast of Venice, Louisiana.

Oil has now washed ashore in all the Gulf states—Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida—in a 550-mile stretch, about equivalent to the length of Great Britain from its northern to southern tips.

Tar balls and oil sheen have also been discovered in Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain, the estuary located directly to the north of New Orleans. Since the large saltwater lake is connected by only a thin strait to the Gulf, the arrival of the tar balls suggests that the oil and its toxic effects will increasingly penetrate into inland areas.

On Monday the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expanded its ban on Gulf fishing to more than 81,000 square miles, about a third of all federal waters in the Gulf. The ban already includes most of the region’s richest fishing areas, effectively shutting down one of the coast’s largest industries.

BP’s efforts to collect the oil, meanwhile, are floundering.

In its skimming operations, BP has been able to collect less than 1,000 barrels of oil per day by its own count. Yet in an environmental impact statement produced only one month before the April 20 blowout on the Deepwater Horizon, BP told the federal government that it would have the ability to skim and remove 491,721 barrels per day, the Washington Post reports.

Obama administration regulators did not question the estimate before approving BP’s operations at the Macondo site. BP’s daily collection average, 900 barrels, has been about two tenths of one percent of what the oil giant assured the federal government it could remove. In fact the total amount of oil skimmed in the 77 days of the disaster—67,143 barrels—is but 13 percent of what BP claimed prior to the blowout that it could remove in a single day.

BP and the Obama administration have sown confusion about the effectiveness of the skimming, reporting on Monday that 671,428 barrels had been skimmed. This would be an impressive figure, were it not the case that it was at least 90 percent seawater.

Skimming operations have been made ineffective in recent days by choppy waters, conditions which are expected to continue for the next week.

Walter, a skimming boat captain, told World Socialist Web Site reporters that skimming is ineffective. “We’re barely doing anything. Out of 150 million gallons, we haven’t picked up two million,” he said. “They deliberately sunk all the oil to the bottom as a PR move. There just isn’t much for us to skim.”

John, a cleanup worker from Missouri, said that a six-man boat crew, working all day, sometimes can gather only fifteen gallons of oil. Dean Blanchard, a shrimper, has seen boats return after a day’s work with only 4-5 gallons.

BP has burned a much larger share of the oil, 238,095 barrels in all, and it claims that 632,410 barrels have been recovered from siphoning operations at the wellhead. The burning of the oil has been harshly criticized over concerns about potential damage to human health caused by the resulting airborne pollutants.

But the largest amount by far has been lost into the deeper waters of the Gulf. At the high-end spill rate estimate, according to PBS, the blowout has produced 300 million gallons, or about 7,143,000 barrels. The low end in the range of official estimates, 87 million gallons or just over 2 million barrels, is simply not credible, given BP’s claim that it has siphoned, burned, or skimmed about half of that amount.

With each passing day the social and ecological catastrophe caused by the spill worsens. The fishing and tourism industries have been all but shut down. The consequences to human health are only now beginning to come into focus, with hundreds or perhaps thousands of clean-up workers developing health problems from acute exposure to the toxic mix of oil and chemical dispersants. Entire species, some already endangered, now face annihilation.

Scientists have expressed fear that the Gulf region could reach an ecological tipping point where a substantial share of sea life will vanish from vast areas of what was once one of the most biologically rich zones in the Western Hemisphere.

Now a British team of scientists has warned that the oil disaster is likely to raise the level of arsenic in the sea water substantially.

Arsenic, a highly poisonous metallic element, occurs naturally in sea water. Normally it is deposited in sediment on the seafloor and covered up. However, oil seems to disrupt this natural settling process, and also carries substantial levels of arsenic itself. Fish and other organisms consume the arsenic, and it accumulates and concentrates as it moves its way up the food chain toward humans. In addition, arsenic can disrupt photosynthesis in simple marine plants and cause genetic defects in animals.
“Oil spills stop the normal process because the oil combines with sediment and it leads to an accumulation of arsenic in the water over time,” said Professor Mark Sephton of Imperial College. “Our study is a timely reminder that oil spills could create a toxic ticking time bomb, which could threaten the fabric of the marine ecosystem in the future.”

This week BP announced that it will proceed with high-risk oil exploration in spite of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. It made the declaration in response to opposition from a group of shareholders.

“The position is the same now as it was at the strategy update earlier in the year. We are committed to three core areas of deep-water oil, unconventional gas and enhanced recovery on super-sized fields,” a spokesman said in London. “The world needs oil to meet growing demand and total risk aversion would just drive up prices.”