Ecocentric

Why the Early Failure to Measure the Oil Spill Was So Important

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The oil spill can frustrate in many ways. The mix of regulatory failures and oil industry cost cutting that appeared to directly lead to the Deepwater Horizon accident—that’s pretty galling. The inability of BP and the government brain trust to successfully shut off the leak, more than a month and a half after it began—that’s depressing. The chaotic inefficiencies of the response to the oil spill on the surface—that’s annoying. The tone-deaf public statements of BP leaders and certain members of Congress—that’s infuriating. And the fact that I had to cancel part of my vacation to come back and cover this…well, that’s actually not a big deal.

But what I’ve found most frustrating throughout the entire 59 days and counting is simple lack of honesty—and nowhere is that more obvious than in the way both BP and the government have played games with the true rate of the oil leak from the blown Deepwater Horizon well. Since the start of the spill, the figure has gone from 1,000 barrels a day; to 5,000 barrels a day; to 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day; to between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels a day. Now, I understand that a partially blown well 5,000 feet below the surface presents enormous technical challenges—that’s been demonstrated on an almost daily basis. And maybe in the immediate days after the spill began, the focus needed to be on shutting it down as soon as possible—or trying and failing to do so—rather than properly metering it. But as the spill continued and it became clear this would not be shut down soon, at some point it should have become ovbvious that getting a proper fix on the amount of oil flowing out of the well would be pretty important. After all, wouldn’t you want to know how much oil might be heading for the shore if you were planning a cleanup? Wouldn’t that seem to be important?

Not exactly. Here’s what Jane Lubchenco, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said to reporters on May 20: Jane Lubchenco teleconference May 20 (doc):

Without having access to the kinds of better instrumentation or better imaging or direct measurements that are feasible – we do have the knowledge and the instruments to do that – the decision was made that the first priority had to be to stop the flow.  And that is not to say that anyone thought that the estimates were unimportant – everybody thinks it is important to get a good estimate – but that our effort, the response has not been pegged to a low estimate; it has been pegged to a worst-case scenario.

This isn’t to blame Lubchenco—other government officials and BP executives were saying much the same thing. But the events of the past week make it pretty clear that the response was not pegged to the worst-case scenario (putting aside how you’d know what the worst-case scenario is without measuring it). Speaking to reporters this morning, Coast Guard Admiral Thad W. Allen talked about the changes the Unified Command was making to the surface response, creating a command structure that can better organize the thousands of boats—known as “vessels of oppourtunity”—involved in laying boom and skimming:

This reflects a change…because of the change of the flow rate estimate number to we think around 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day. To that end we need to redouble our effort for skimming.

So there is Admiral Allen, the man in charge of the oil spill response, saying that a significant increase in the estimate of the oil leak rate required a significant intensification in the response. I’m not sure why it took nearly 60 days for that to become clear, but that’s where we are. It’s obvious that no one—not BP, not the other oil companies, not the federal government, not the local governments, not the media—were ready for an oil spill of this size and this magnitude, one that stretches from the coastal wetlands of Louisiana to the western beaches of Florida, and thousands of feet below the surface of the ocean. But there were numerous independent experts making predictions about the size of this spill early on—predictions that turned out to be surprisingly accurate. Maybe if we’d listened to those voices earlier, we would have had a response for a truly worst-case scenario in place far earlier. As it is, the oil has penetrated the marshes and wetlands of Louisiana, poisoning one of the most productive coastal ecosystems on the planet. Cleaning it up will be arduous—and may do as much harm as good. “One of my greatest fears is that people will do even more damage to the habitats in responding than the oil is doing,” Bill Finch, the Alabama-based director of conservation for the Nature Conservancy, told me yesterday. “We have to get these habitats back and we need to get them back quick.”

But we may have missed our best chance already. Though maybe it’s understandable that BP and the government would have tried to minimize the true scale of the oil spill in its earlier stages. As day after day of oil passes, the reality is too hard to bear.

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