The Worse Case Scenario Gets Worse for BP as New Documents Come to Light

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Representative Edward Markey, the pugnacious Boston Democrat who has emerged as one of the political stars of the oil spill, may have the final word on what caused the accident—philosophically, at least. On NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, Markey released internal BP documents that showed the company believed that as much as 100,000 barrels a day—that’s 4.2 million gallons, or nearly half a Valdez spill—could gush from a damaged well in the Gulf of Mexico if all equipment slowing the flow were removed. Markey noted that when BP submitted the documents to Congress in May, it was publicly estimating that around 5,000 barrels a day were leaking—and they told Congressional investigators that the worst case flow would be 60,000 barrels a day, which happens to be the high range of current estimates. But the document (access the PDF here) shows that BP knew the spill could get much, much worse, as Markey pointed out:

First they said it was only 1,000 barrels, then they said it was 5,000 barrels, now we’re up to 100,000 barrels.  It was their technology, it was their spill cam, they’re the ones that should have known right from the beginning; and either to limit their liability or because they were grossly incompetent, they delayed a full response to the magnitude of this disaster.

On Sunday BP spokesperson Tony Odone told Reuters that the company hadn’t played down the size of the spill. “We’ve always said we would deal with whatever volume of oil was being spilled, and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” he said. “We’ve mounted the biggest spill response in history.” Like a lot of things BP has said during over the past two months, that’s partially true and mostly not. It’s true that BP has mounted the biggest spill response in history—though even a much reduced leak rate over this much time would have easily eclipsed the Exxon Valdez spill, and over a much larger affected area. But it’s self-evident that as it became public just how large this spill is, the government has tried to kick its response up considerably. And BP is after all run—at least for now—by Tony Hayward, a guy who famously downplayed the severity of the spill this way: “”The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.” (Though after Hayward attended a yacht race on Saturday, even he may have crossed a PR bridge too far.)

Note that Hayward said that on May 14. By that time, if we use the current high-end estimate of 60,000 barrels a day, more than 1.3 million barrels—55 million gallons—of oil would have already spilled into the Gulf.

Markey has it right: “From the beginning, BP was either lying or grossly incompetent.” Although most likely it’s both—and they weren’t the only ones. That becomes obvious immediately in the New York Times’s mammoth investigation into the failures of the failsafe device, the blowout preventer that was supposed to shut off the well and prevent a spill in the case of a major accident on the rig. Obviously that didn’t happen, but the Times shows that the blowout preventer failure, far from being the one-in-a-million freak accident that oil industry executives have tried to portray it as, was nearly inevitable—if not on Deepwater Horizon on April 20, than on some other rig in the Gulf some day. They show that the Deepwater Horizon rig’s blowout preventer had just one blind shear ram when newer rigs were already beginning to use two of them for redundancy’s sake. They show that blowout preventer problems were not unusual among deepwater rigs, but that the oil industry still pushed for lighter regulations. And they show that the federal government fundamentally failed to provide oversight of the drilling industry:

An examination by The New York Times highlights the chasm between the oil industry’s assertions about the reliability of its blowout preventers and a more complex reality. It reveals that the federal agency charged with regulating offshore drilling, the Minerals Management Service, repeatedly declined to act on advice from its own experts on how it could minimize the risk of a blind shear ram failure.

It also shows that the Obama administration failed to grapple with either the well-known weaknesses of blowout preventers or the sufficiency of the nation’s drilling regulations even as it made plans this spring to expand offshore oil exploration.

“What happened to all the stakeholders — Congress, environmental groups, industry, the government — all stakeholders involved were lulled into a sense of what has turned out to be false security,” David J. Hayes, the deputy interior secretary, said in an interview.

It’s worth reading the entire piece, which seems to have been written by half the newspaper’s staff. But there’s one bit that really sums up that combination of incompetence and deception that Markey pointed at, on the part of the oil industry and the government:

A draft of another industry-financed study this year contended that companies cut corners on federally mandated tests of blowout preventers. A copy obtained by The Times described a mentality of “I don’t want to find problems; I want to do the minimum necessary to obtain a good test.”

That might be the epitaph of the Deepwater Horizon—an accident that has cost BP $2 billion and counting—and perhaps, the Gulf coast as well.

Update: Richard Heinberg at the Post Carbon Institute has a scary rundown of worse than worst-case scenarios:

So far, up to 3.6 million barrels of oil have spilled into the Gulf. The size of the Macondo oilfield has been estimated as being anywhere from 25 to 100 million barrels. It is unclear how much of that oil-in-place would escape upward into Gulf waters if its flow remained completely unchecked, but it is safe to assume that at least half, and probably a much greater proportion, would eventually drain upward. That means many times as much oil would enter the Gulf waters as has done so until now.

Already Deepwater Horizon is the not only the worst oil spill, but the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. Multiplying the scale of this existing catastrophe multiple times sends us into truly uncharted territory.