Their Name Is Mud

Stephen Power at Wall Street Journal:

Oil giant BP PLC told congressional investigators that a decision to continue work on an oil well in the Gulf of Mexico after a test warned that something was wrong may have been a “fundamental mistake,” according to a memo released by two lawmakers Tuesday.

The document describes a wide array of mistakes in the fateful final hours aboard the Deepwater Horizon—but the main revelation is that BP now says there was a clear warning sign of a “very large abnormality” in the well, but work proceeded anyway.

The rig exploded about two hours later.

The congressional memo outlines what the lawmakers say was a briefing for congressional staff by BP officials early Tuesday. Company representatives provided a preliminary report on their internal investigation of the April 20 disaster, which killed 11 workers and continues to spill thousands of barrels of oil daily into the Gulf of Mexico.

The new developments come as President Barack Obama, working to tame a political storm over the spill, is expected to announce Thursday that the government will impose tougher safety requirements and more rigorous inspections on off-shore drilling operations.

According to the memo, BP identified several other mistakes aboard the rig, including possible contamination of the cement meant to seal off the well from volatile natural gas and the apparent failure to monitor the well closely for signs that gas was leaking in, the congressmen wrote in their post-meeting memo. An immense column of natural gas, erupting from the oil well, fueled the fireball that destroyed the rig.

Randy Rieland at Grist:

Here’s something to fill you with confidence on the eve of BP’s risky “Top Kill” gambit: Workers on the Deepwater Horizon rig missed warnings that something was seriously wrong before the rig exploded. BP itself, in a memo to a House committee, reveals that crewmen failed to heed signs of a “very large abnormality” underwater. In fact, they apparently missed one warning sign after another that day.

Third time’s the charm?

Or will it be three strikes you’re out? Later today, BP will try, try, try again to — as the president put it — “plug the damn hole.” This latest attempt is the “top kill,” in which a mix of heavy mud and cement is shot into the well to counteract the upward pressure of leaking oil and gas. If the top kill fails, BP will move on to the “junk shot,” in which a gumbo of rope, tires, and golf balls gets pumped into the leak. If the junk shot doesn’t work, it’s “top hat” time — the smaller of the two containment domes will be lowered over the well to hopefully capture leaking oil and pump it to the surface.

And if that doesn’t work, well, we’re pretty much screwed.

Now that the oil giant relented to pressure from the feds, we can watch it all go down on the BP webcam.

Naked Capitalism:

But the one that got my attention was the exclusive interview of BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg in the Financial Times, in which he remarked:

The US is a big and important market for BP, and BP is also a big and important company for the US, with its contribution to drilling and oil and gas production. So the position goes both ways.

This is not the first time something has gone wrong in this industry, but the industry has moved on.

Yves here. This is simply stunning. First, the BP chairman essentially puts his company on an equal footing as the United States, implying their relation is not merely reciprocal, but equal. BP doesn’t even approach the importance of Microsoft in its heyday, a-not-very-tamed provider of a near monopoly service. And his posture “this is just one problem like others, no biggie” is an offense to common sense and decency.

Many readers have pointed to signs that BP’s order of battle in combatting the leak is seeking to maximize recovery rather than minimize damage, again a sign of backwards priorities. The widely cited gold standard for crisis management, Johnson & Johnson’s 1982 Tylenol tamperings, had the company immediately doing whatever it took, no matter how uneconomical it seemed, to protect the public. BP instead has been engaging in old school conduct: keep a wrap on information as long as possible, minimize outside input, and (presumably) contain costs.

What is worse is the complete lack of any apology or sign of remorse. Even if BP engaged in more or less the same conduct, it would be far more canny for its top officials to make great shows of empathy for all the people who are suffering as a result of the disaster, remind the public that they lost their own men too, and make great speeches about not resting until the leak is plugged, and then add the caveat” “but we have to proceed in a deliberate manner, rushing could make matters worse. We know this is frustrating, and we wish we could hurry the pace.”

The inability to perceive the need to fake remorse shows how wildly out of touch many corporate leaders are with reality. Let’s face it, they are surrounded by sycophants and image-burnishers, they get paid beyond the dreams of mere avarice whether they perform well or abjectly screw up. Unless one happens to be an exception that proves the rule like Jeff Skilling, the worst that might happen to them is a little ritual hazing by Congress for an hour or two and being the subject of the occasional unflattering news story. Real aristocrats, by contrast, at least recognized the importance of noblesse oblige, even if they didn’t always live up to it.

And BP’s outsized institutional ego is making mincemeat of Obama. It is clear that the Administration has NO Plan B if BP continues to get nowhere. And it has tolerated less than comprehensive disaster responses. Why hasn’t BP been asked to do more to contain the oil spill? Given the magnitude of the outflow, even limited success would make a difference. Why hasn’t the Navy been brought in? Trust me, if Al Qaeda had somehow gotten a missile cruise ship with a nuke or two into the Deepwater Horizon location, I’m sure all sorts of military hardware would be dispatched. If the leak turns out to be as bad an many fear, this disaster will be far worse than any readily imaginable terrorist incident, yet our response is sorely wanting.

Tom Diemer at Politics Daily:

BP began Wednesday shooting dense mud into a wellhead 5,000 feet below the waters of the Gulf of Mexico in the oil company’s latest attempt to stop a gusher spewing into the Gulf — polluting Louisiana beaches and marshlands.

There were no guarantees the procedure would work, as even the head of BP admitted, and as President Obama also noted during a trip to northern California. The so-called top kill maneuver pumps mud into the well with the aim of damming the spilling oil and then sealing it with cement.

BP spokesman Steven Rinehart said the process would go on for hours, but it may take a couple of days before anyone knows for sure whether it has worked, the Associated Press said

Andrew Moseman at Discover Magazine:

This procedure is no sure bet, because a top kill hasn’t been attempted 5,000 feet down in the sea before. BP’s CEO Tony Hayward estimates the percentage chance of success in the 60s.

The procedure requires an elaborate and precise orchestration among five vessels at the surface, whose duties range from housing pumping equipment to storing a total of 50,000 barrels of drilling mud, and several remote-controlled undersea robots. If all goes as planned, the dense mud will be pumped through a single 6-5/8-inch-diameter drill pipe from one vessel, which will then enter two 3-inch-diameter hoses. Those hoses will deliver the material to the sea floor, where they will intersect with the choke and kill lines of the damaged blowout preventer, which sits atop the well [Christian Science Monitor].

Whether this works may depend on whether the weight of the mud is enough to push the oil back into the well, which isn’t certain. If it fails, the junk shot option—trying to plug up the leak with tires and golf balls and other trash—is still on the table.

Jake Tapper and Huma Khan at ABC:

The White House is seemingly making an increased show of pressuring BP, but President Obama is facing political heat from within his own party for what some say has been a lackluster response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The “political stupidity is unbelievable,” Democratic strategist James Carville said on “Good Morning America” today. “The president doesn’t get down here in the middle of this. … I have no idea of why they didn’t seize this thing. I have no idea of why their attitude was so hands off here.”

On Thursday, Obama will announce new measures the federal government will take to try to prevent any future BP oil spills, administration officials said. And on Friday, the president will visit the Gulf coast, his second trip to the region since the environmental disaster happened last month.

But Carville said the Obama administration’s response to the BP oil spill has been “lackadaisical,” and that rather than place the blame on the previous administration, it should’ve done more to deal with BP and “inept bureaucrats,” which would’ve in turn helped boost Obama’s approval ratings.

Conn Carroll at Heritage:

The federal government’s failure to know how to handle the Deepwater Horizon oil spill does not end with the EPA. It goes all the way to the top. Frustrated by his government’s inability to master the problem, President Barack Obama reportedly cut aides short recently, ordering them to “plug the damn hole.” As if no one had thought of that already. But instead of focusing on the problem at hand, President Obama moved to appoint an unaccountable commission to study the problem substituting process for action at a time when leadership was needed. The commission shifts the responsibility from the persons we elect to oversee these issues to unelected bureaucrats.

The Pew Research Center has released a poll showing a majority of Americans give President Obama and his administration bad marks for its handling of a massive oil spill.  To combat this rising discontent, the Obama administration flew Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen up to Washington to provide some clear answers as to who was in charge of the operation. Just this past Sunday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar had said of BP: “If we find that they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, we’ll push them out of the way appropriately.” But when asked about Salazar’s comments Monday, Allen responded: “Well, I would — I would — I would say that that’s more of a metaphor. … You need equipment and expertise that’s not generally within the government — federal government, in terms of competency, capability or capacity. There may be some other way to get it, but I’m a national incident commander. And right now, the relationship with BP is the way I think we should move forward.”

BP, rather than taxpayers, should be held responsible for the costs of the clean-up and liability, and under current federal law that is the case. BP is currently responsible for every penny it costs to clean the mess up. Furthermore, they are responsible for up to $75 million in liability costs (i.e. the secondary costs incurred by businesses and communities) directly, and up to $1 billion additionally comes from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. And the $75 million cap is waived if the responsible party is found to be grossly negligent. Calls to increase these caps retroactively are not needed and are more political expediency then either stopping the leak or mitigating its consequences. Equally frustrating are calls to raise the gas tax, and transfer the costs of this spill onto American consumers.

And that right there, in a nutshell, is the problem not only with the Obama administration’s handling of this crisis, but with the entire regulatory state. The Obama administration is set to announce new and stricter regulations on the oil industry tomorrow. But as the NEPA waivers and MMS failures of this accident show, the existing regulatory framework is already not being enforced. So how will new regulations piled on top of the old ones fix the problem? When government micromanages how private enterprises are run, those entities are not incentivized to prepare for the worst outcomes. Now no one has developed a plan or the expertise to deal with this spill.

John Cole:

I know that no matter what I say, some of you are going to claim I am shilling for Obama while others of you will read the same piece and claim I am unfairly attacking Obama, but I have a serious question- what exactly is the Obama administration supposed to do about the oil spill?

I’ve thought about it, and there are some things that really have pissed me off:

1.) BP keeps missing deadlines they themselves set to cap the spill

2.) BP keeps trying to hide the size of the spill anyway they can, whether it be using dispersants to keep the oil under the water so no one can see it, refusing to allow independent sources access, or just flat out lying.

3.) The government is, as we speak, issuing more permits to drill, even though it is perfectly clear we aren’t prepared for this kind of catastrophe.

Of course, the obvious damage to the gulf and the wildlife has me livid, but these are specific things that have pissed me off about the government and BP’s response. I also almost through something at the wall yesterday when I read Jake Tapper report that the Coast Guard called BP their “friends.”

Having said that, I just don’t know what the administration is supposed to do. What can be done? That, I think, is the real lesson from this- that we can’t really do anything about this sort of disaster, and i think the administration has done a really shitty job of getting that message out.

I hear screams to “take over” the operations from BP. And do what? Is there some secret naval division that handles deep-sea drilling that we have not deployed? Does the government have some elite unit with better equipment than BP? I’m as pissed at them as anyone and want the government to make them pay for every penny of the clean-up, but I have to believe that all the people with experience fighting these things and all the equipment to deal with this sort of thing is already there with BP. And that if we “took over” from BP, it would still be the same people.

In short, I just don’t know what kind of federal response there really could be to this kind of disaster. In Katrina, the reason fro anger was clear- there were people who needed food, shelter, water, and medical treatment, things we have a lot of all over the country, and we just dropped the ball getting it to them. But with this- what are we supposed to do?

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