Oil Spill Report Hits White House. Is it Fair?

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Sometimes a President can’t catch a break—a lesson the current, beleaguered resident of the Oval Office keeps learning. The latest bit of bad news came from a commission the President himself appointed back in the spring to study the BP oil spill  in the Gulf of Mexico. President Obama announced the creation of the study group on May 22, when the four-month hemorrhage of crude was only a month old, and just today, it issued its report. Parts of it will not make for happy reading in the White House.

The report covered four major topics: the decision-making process during the crisis, the use of surface and subsurface oil dispersants, the lessons learned from previous spills that can be applied to this one, and the ever-changing estimates of the rate of the flow and the amount of oil remaining in the water in the months after the spill. It’s this last area that will give the administration the most heart burn.

The commission was reserved if unmistakable in the language it used to criticize the government for its rosy early estimates of how much oil was leaking, its reluctance to raise those estimates at first and its willingness to rely on BP—the perpetrator of the crime—for initial data on how bad the damage was:

The federal government’s estimates of the amount of oil flowing into and later remaining in the Gulf of Mexico in the aftermath of the Macondo well explosion were the source of significant controversy, which undermined public confidence in the federal government’s response to the spill.  By initially underestimating the amount of oil flow and then, at the end of the summer, appearing to underestimate the amount of oil remaining in the Gulf, the federal government created the impression that it was either not fully competent to handle the spill or not fully candid with the American people about the scope of the problem.

Candid and frank, as diplomats like to say. But is the criticism fair? Yes—and no. The commission is right that there was a random, wheel-of-fortune quality to the ever-changing estimates of the flow rate, with the only constant being that the numbers kept going up. In the first days after the April 20 explosion that wrecked the Deepwater Horizon oil rig and caused the spill, the official figure was a messy but manageable 1,000 bbl. per day, according to BP’s own assessment. By April 27, independent estimates put it at 5,000 bbl. That ballooned to 26,500 on May 1, and kept growing to broad estimates of 40,000, then 60,000, throughout the month. (The current—and final—estimate is that from 52,700 to 62,200 bbls. leaked per day from April 20 to July 15 when the well was effectively capped, for a total of about 4.9 million bbl.—or 205 million gal.)

Part of the reason for the uncertainty was the lack of good monitoring data. The Obama administration did show regrettable credulousness in accepting BP’s initial lowball figure, but there weren’t a lot of alternatives since BP was the only party with access to the well and the robot subs that could begin to take the measure of the flow rate. Public cries for the military to “take over” the spill response were always uninformed, since the question that raised was, How? This isn’t Venezuela; the oil companies haven’t been nationalized and it’s those companies that have the best technology and are in the best position to do assessment and repair. If they spin their findings, it can be hard to tell at first.

Things got clearer as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began to deploy satellite imaging and other tools—and clearer still when scientists at Columbia University; the University of California, Berkeley; and Purdue University conducted studies of their own, using sophisticated analysis of a 30-sec. video of the oil spilling from the riser pipe that BP grudgingly released. The government finally tried to bring these and other analyses together under a single coordinator on May 19 when the Incident Command Group created the Flow Rate Technical Group to study the volume of the oil more precisely.

Groups creating groups sounds like exactly the kind of bureaucratic silliness governments practice when they don’t know what else to do, but the flow analysis was smart and detailed, relying on three streams of data: video analysis of the plume, aerial reconnaissance of the surface slick and readings provided by an insertion tool positioned in the riser pipe. It also helped that the government leaned hard on BP to establish a constant, real-time, hi-def video feed of from the ocean floor—providing the stomach-turning plume images that filled TV screens for a fair share of the spring and summer, but that kept everybody honest and gave scientists  all the visual data they needed. The fact that the final estimates were so close to the now agreed-upon spill rate at least suggests that when the Incident Command Group found its footing, they did get things right.

The fate of the oil that poured from the pipe was another mystery—and another cause for the report to scold the White House. Industry apologists and right-wing bloviators insisted that even several million barrels of oil would amount to nothing in the vastness of the Gulf, and that in any event, nature is a self-correcting system that would find ways to break the oil down on its own. Environmentalists and lefties, meantime, did their usual end-of-the-world dance.

On June 11, the Incident Commander ordered the creation of what was called an Oil Budget Tool—essentially a very sophisticated spreadsheet that would allow crisis managers to keep track of how much oil had been skimmed, burned, siphoned, and chemically dispersed and how much had dispersed by natural action of the currents or had evaporated away. On August 4, it issued its first report and surprise! The right was right. Only 26% of the millions of barrel were still considered at large, while the rest had been eliminated one way or another. The Admistration endorsed—and crowed about—these figures. But as it turned out, the Administration—and the far right—were wrong.

Oil that has been chemically dispersed (which accounted for 8% of the total), naturally dispersed (16%),  burned (5%) or evaporated or dissolved (25%), doesn’t simply cease to exist. It lingers in the water and, to a lesser extent, in the atmosphere, albeit in slightly different form. Yes, over time it will break down to the point that it is truly harmless, but nobody knows how long that will take, and just because oil isn’t visibly floating on the surface or gumming up the marshes doesn’t mean it’s as good as gone

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco did take a somewhat more cautious view, saying that “at least 50% of the oil that was released is now completely gone from the system.” More conservative—and more accurate—still would have been 20%, made up of the 17% that was directly siphoned from the wellhead and the 3% that was skimmed from the surface.

It’s a measure, perhaps, of how comparatively well the crisis was handled that as the six-month anniversary approaches, the majority of the discussions are over post-mortem analyses like the new report as opposed to over how to handle a still-unfolding environmental disaster. The oil spill was nowhere near “Obama’s Katrina” as many claimed it would be. But nor was it the Administration’s finest hour. The President likes to talk about teachable moment; let’s hope this was one of them—and that the White House itself learned a few things too.