Category Archives: Energy

And Even In This, We Find The Simpsons Reference

David E. Sanger and Matthew L. Wald at NYT:

As the scale of Japan’s nuclear crisis begins to come to light, experts in Japan and the United States say the country is now facing a cascade of accumulating problems that suggest that radioactive releases of steam from the crippled plants could go on for weeks or even months.

he emergency flooding of stricken reactors with seawater and the resulting steam releases are a desperate step intended to avoid a much bigger problem: a full meltdown of the nuclear cores in reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. On Monday, an explosion blew the roof off the second reactor, not damaging the core, officials said, but presumably leaking more radiation.

Later Monday, the government said cooling systems at a third reactor had failed. The Kyodo news agency reported that the damaged fuel rods at the third reactor had been temporarily exposed, increasing the risk of overheating. Sea water was being channeled into the reactor to cover the rods, Kyodo reported.

So far, Japanese officials have said the melting of the nuclear cores in the two plants is assumed to be “partial,” and the amount of radioactivity measured outside the plants, though twice the level Japan considers safe, has been relatively modest.

But Pentagon officials reported Sunday that helicopters flying 60 miles from the plant picked up small amounts of radioactive particulates — still being analyzed, but presumed to include cesium-137 and iodine-121 — suggesting widening environmental contamination.

Instapundit:

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOT MUCH: 7th Fleet repositions ships after contamination detected. “For per­spec­tive, the max­i­mum poten­tial radi­a­tion dose received by any ship’s force per­son­nel aboard the ship when it passed through the area was less than the radi­a­tion expo­sure received from about one month of expo­sure to nat­ural back­ground radi­a­tion from sources such as rocks, soil, and the sun.”

Ed Morrissey:

Still, if that’s the dose received 100 miles away after wind dispersal and dissipation, it’s small wonder that the Japanese are evacuating the area near the plant.  No nation has the history of radiation poisoning that Japan does, and one has to believe that this danger will loom the largest among the people even after the tsunami damage that killed thousands of people.  The government will face a great deal of scrutiny for years to come for its actions in these few days, and they appear to understand that.

David Kopel:

That’s the title of a post on the Morgsatlarge, reprinting a letter from Dr. Josef Oehman of MIT. According to his web page, his main research interest is “risk management in the value chain, with a special focus on lean product development.” Although he’s a business professor and not a nuclear scientist, his father worked in the German nuclear power industry, and the post provides a detailed and persuasive (at least to me) explanation of how the endangered Japanese nuclear power plants work, and why their multiple backup systems  ensure that there will be neither an explosion nor a catastophic release of radiation. The American cable TV channels, by the way, seem to be taking a much more sober approach than they did yesterday, when Wolf Blitzer was irresponsibly raising fear of “another Chernobyl.”

John Sullivan at ProPublica:

As engineers in Japan struggle to bring quake-damaged reactors under control [1], attention is turning to U.S. nuclear plants and their ability to withstand natural disasters.

Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who has spent years pushing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission toward stricter enforcement of its safety rules, has called for a reassessment. Several U.S. reactors lie on or near fault lines, and Markey wants to beef up standards for new and existing plants.

“This disaster serves to highlight both the fragility of nuclear power plants and the potential consequences associated with a radiological release caused by earthquake related damage,” Markey wrote NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko in a March 11 letter [2].

Specifically, Markey raised questions about a reactor design the NRC is reviewing for new plants that has been criticized for seismic vulnerability. The NRC has yet to make a call on the AP1000 reactor [3], which is manufactured by Westinghouse. But according to Markey, a senior NRC engineer has said the reactor’s concrete shield building could shatter “like a glass cup” under heavy stress.

The New York Times reported last week [4] that the NRC has reviewed the concerns raised by the engineer, John Ma, and concluded that the design is sufficient without the upgrades Ma recommended. Westinghouse maintains that the reactor is safe [5].

Boiling water reactors [6], like the ones hit by the Japanese earthquake, are built like nested matroyshka [7] dolls.

The inner doll, which looks like a gigantic cocktail shaker and holds the radioactive uranium, is the heavy steel reactor vessel. It sits inside a concrete and steel dome called the containment. The reactor vessel is the primary defense against disaster — as long as the radiation stays inside everything is fine.

The worry is that a disaster could either damage the vessel itself or, more likely, damage equipment that used to control the uranium. If operators cannot circulate water through the vessel to cool the uranium it could overheat and burn into radioactive slag — a meltdown.

Steve Mirsky at Scientific American

Maggie Koerth-Baker at Boing Boing:

This morning, I got an email from a BoingBoing reader, who is one of the many people worried about the damaged nuclear reactors at Fukushima, Japan. In one sentence, he managed to get right to heart of a big problem lurking behind the headlines today: “The extent of my knowledge on nuclear power plants is pretty much limited to what I’ve seen on The Simpsons“.

For the vast majority of people, nuclear power is a black box technology. Radioactive stuff goes in. Electricity (and nuclear waste) comes out. Somewhere in there, we’re aware that explosions and meltdowns can happen. Ninety-nine percent of the time, that set of information is enough to get by on. But, then, an emergency like this happens and, suddenly, keeping up-to-date on the news feels like you’ve walked in on the middle of a movie. Nobody pauses to catch you up on all the stuff you missed.

As I write this, it’s still not clear how bad, or how big, the problems at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant will be. I don’t know enough to speculate on that. I’m not sure anyone does. But I can give you a clearer picture of what’s inside the black box. That way, whatever happens at Fukushima, you’ll understand why it’s happening, and what it means.

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Let’s Go Back To WikiLeaks And Learn Something Interesting!

John Vidal at The Guardian:

The US fears that Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest crude oil exporter, may not have enough reserves to prevent oil prices escalating, confidential cables from its embassy in Riyadh show.

The cables, released by WikiLeaks, urge Washington to take seriously a warning from a senior Saudi government oil executive that the kingdom’s crude oil reserves may have been overstated by as much as 300bn barrels – nearly 40%.

The revelation comes as the oil price has soared in recent weeks to more than $100 a barrel on global demand and tensions in the Middle East. Many analysts expect that the Saudis and their Opec cartel partners would pump more oil if rising prices threatened to choke off demand.

However, Sadad al-Husseini, a geologist and former head of exploration at the Saudi oil monopoly Aramco, met the US consul general in Riyadh in November 2007 and told the US diplomat that Aramco’s 12.5m barrel-a-day capacity needed to keep a lid on prices could not be reached.

According to the cables, which date between 2007-09, Husseini said Saudi Arabia might reach an output of 12m barrels a day in 10 years but before then – possibly as early as 2012 – global oil production would have hit its highest point. This crunch point is known as “peak oil“.

Husseini said that at that point Aramco would not be able to stop the rise of global oil prices because the Saudi energy industry had overstated its recoverable reserves to spur foreign investment. He argued that Aramco had badly underestimated the time needed to bring new oil on tap.

One cable said: “According to al-Husseini, the crux of the issue is twofold. First, it is possible that Saudi reserves are not as bountiful as sometimes described, and the timeline for their production not as unrestrained as Aramco and energy optimists would like to portray.”

It went on: “In a presentation, Abdallah al-Saif, current Aramco senior vice-president for exploration, reported that Aramco has 716bn barrels of total reserves, of which 51% are recoverable, and that in 20 years Aramco will have 900bn barrels of reserves.

“Al-Husseini disagrees with this analysis, believing Aramco’s reserves are overstated by as much as 300bn barrels. In his view once 50% of original proven reserves has been reached … a steady output in decline will ensue and no amount of effort will be able to stop it. He believes that what will result is a plateau in total output that will last approximately 15 years followed by decreasing output.”

Kevin Drum:

This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been following the oil industry over the past few years. Matthew Simmons’ Twilight in the Desert, which I reviewed six years ago, made a detailed case that Saudi Arabia’s production capacity had pretty much maxed out already, and Business Week published an article three years ago based on internal Saudi documents that said much the same: the Saudis could pump 12 million barrels a day in short spurts but only 10 million barrels on a steady basis — and that’s all there is. Production capacity just isn’t going up.

Steve LeVine at Foreign Policy:

The issue is pivotal. Put simply, the price of oil — the price you are paying at the pump, indeed the cost of everything in your home — is wholly determined by what oil traders think Saudi reserves and production capability really are. As an example, oil plunged yesterday to their lowest price of the year — $87.87 a barrel — when Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi (pictured above) suggested that the kingdom will put new oil supplies on the market to compensate for any uptick in global demand.

The thing is, the Saudis are highly secretive about these figures — unlike almost every important petro-state on the Earth outside the Middle East, the Saudis will not permit their oilfields to be independently audited. One might wonder why that would be the case, and the late Matt Simmons, for example, made much hay suggesting that the reason is that the Saudis simply don’t have as much oil as they claim. I myself got ahold of documents back in 2008 suggesting the same. Sensible voices, however, said such are the thoughts of the conspiratorial-minded, and that the Saudis genuinely possess what they claimed — they were denying the right to verify because … well because that’s just what they do.

Ryan Avent at Free Exchange at The Economist:

It’s interesting to look at recent production data with this kind of news in mind (to see production numbers you can download  this PDF, or check out charts at the Oil Drum). What we observe is that from around 2004, oil production hasn’t increased very much, even as prices have soared. Now, one reason for this plateau may be the lag in bringing new supply online. During the cheap oil 1990s, production growth and exploration were limited. As prices rose in the early 2000s, producers brought existing, high-cost facilities online, adding to supply. But once existing production was running at capacity, the industry had to wait to get new facilities up to increase supply, and that process doesn’t happen overnight. So it could be that, globally, we’re experiencing a temporary period of high prices and stagnant supply while new extraction is set up.

Of course, in an environment of growing demand, a temporary supply limit can be costly.

But let’s think about one other potential dynamic. In the old days, OPEC attempted to use its cartel status to artificially limit supply and raise prices. This, however, was difficult to orchestrate; there was always the incentive to cheat and sell more than one’s quote of oil at the artificially high price, and as more participants cheated the supply limit fell apart. But as global supply runs against natural limits, incentives begin shifting the other way.

If an individual gains information suggesting that oil reserves are overstated, then they’re likely to expect an increase in future prices. Such an individual could bet on this outcome by buying oil futures, but this behaviour is limited by the nature of the contract; at some point traders may need to take delivery of actual oil, in which case they’ll need a place to store it, and that storing activity would be highly visible in the form of rising inventories.

But what if you’re an oil producer, and you learn this information? Well, obviously you’d like to make the same bet, and hold on to your oil until you can sell it at a higher price. Fortunately for you, oil producer, nature has provided a natural storage tank. All you have to do to make your bet is not produce any more oil than you need to sell to cover costs.

All of which is to say, the world doesn’t need to experience declines in potential oil production to see a rise in oil prices. All it needs is for oil producers to see that such limits loom and begin betting on the near-certainty of rising prices. Of course, different countries will face different liquidity constraints; some leaders may find themselves producing full out in order to sustain their socialist paradise, particularly when prices temporarily dip thanks to recession. But at those times, other countries with fiscal room to spare should cut back their production further—to buy more, essentially, when prices are low in order to sell more when prices are high.

Ariel Schwartz at Fast Company:

Even Jeroen van der Veer, the chief executive of Royal Dutch Shell, has admitted that oil supply may no longer keep up with demand by 2015. But the just-released cables, which detail a back-and-forth between the U.S. consul general and geologist Sadad al-Husseini, the former head of exploration at Saudi Aramco, confirms that the situation is serious.

Weasel Zippers

Israel Matzav:

If this is taken seriously, it should accelerate the search for alternative energy sources and reduce the influence of ‘our friends the Saudis.’ Both those results would be blessings.

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So The Summer Will Be Ending Just The Way The Summer Began

Max Fisher at The Atlantic:

An oil rig off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico has exploded, sending all 13 oil workers into the Gulf, one of whom remains missing. A search and rescue effort by the U.S. Coast Guard is already underway. The explosion comes shortly after oil finally stopped flowing into the Gulf (for the moment) from another rig that had been severely damaged by a large explosion. Fortunately, early reports say this explosion occurred at an oil rig that is not currently producing, drastically reducing the potential for further environmental damage.

Despite strong encouragement from many liberals and environmental activists, that crisis did not secure sweeping energy reform legislation or the full Democratic backing of long-sought cap and trade proposals. Even President Obama’s offshore drilling moratorium was initially knocked down by a state court. In the wake of that long and difficult episode, many are greeting this most recent event with deep, almost macabre cynicism about our ability to learn from disaster.

Michelle Malkin:

Pray for the workers. Brace for the political aftermath.

Allah Pundit:

DHS claims that the rig wasn’t producing oil and gas when the explosion hit. Time to breathe easy? Maybe not: CNN’s Ed Henry is hearing from the Coast Guard that the platform was in production and that it … wasn’t equipped with a standard blowout preventer. (The crew did, however, allegedly start emergency shutdown before bailing out.) As of an hour ago, the rig was still on fire but I’m not sure what the status is now. Jindal is set to speak within an hour or so. Stand by for updates galore.

Update: WDSU says that because it’s a platform, not a rig, it’s not actively engaged in drilling.

Update: A tip from a reader who, unlike me, knows what he’s talking about:

If the platform is not a drilling platform then it doesn’t need a traditional blowout preventer. The difference being is that with drilling the oil is being forced out at a high rate, therefor need a blowout preventer that can hold back all that pressure. If this platform is a production platform, all it needs is something to stop the flow in the pipes which is flowing with much lower pressure.

Update: How much oil and gas was the platform churning out? CNN:

“Mariner has notified and is working with regulatory authorities in response to this incident,” the statement said. “The cause is not known, and an investigation will be undertaken. During the last week of August 2010, production from this facility averaged approximately 9.2 million cubic feet of natural gas per day and 1,400 barrels of oil and condensate.”

Update: Oh boy. Here we go:

The Coast Guard is saying that a mile-long oil sheen is spreading from the site off an offshore petroleum platform that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana.

The site of the explosion is west of where BP’s massive spill occurred.

Update: Ah, a comforting explanation for the sheen. It’s not oil bubbling up from the seabed; it’s oil that had already been captured and stored on the rig.

Also, Mariner indicated that the fire — which was first reported to the Coast Guard by workers on a nearby rig around 9:20 a.m. (10:20 a.m. ET) — was not sparked by an explosion. It started at one of the platform’s seven active wells, the company said, though its cause is under investigation…

Jindal said that Mariner has told him that all seven wells have been closed off and that what is burning now is from fuel in storage, and not from an active leak.

Jonathan Cohn at TNR:

The Coast Guard says it has rescued all 13 workers and, so far, it looks like we’re not in for a repeat of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, according to New Orleans Times-Picayune. This rig, which is owned by Mariner Energy, was in much shallower waters–340 feet deep rather than a mile.

And while the well was producing oil, Mariner officials say that workers shut down the operation before evacuating. The officials also said they observed no leaking oil during a flyover, conducted while the rig was still burning.

The Times-Picayune reports that the drilling “had nothing to do with the drilling operations that fell under the government’s controversial moratorium after the BP spill.” But oil and gas industry officials remain worried this incident will set back efforts to end the moratorium:

…oil and gas industry insiders, who have fought for months to get the moratorium lifted, are concerned that the accident will be perceived as something that a moratorium would prevent.

“It’s certainly disheartening, and it is going to be yet another challenge for the industry,” said Chris John, president of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil & Gas Association.”We were making some progress on the moratorium. This certainly will complicate matters.”

Yes it will. And I can’t say it upsets me. While this incident may not strengthen the case for the existing moratorium, it should certainly remind people that there are hazards inherent in offshore oil operations–and that we should be working harder to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

Update: Coast Guard officials are now saying they did not see an oil slick on the water, following reports suggesting they had.

Mary Katherine Ham at The Weekly Standard

James Joyner:

Aside from snark about the irony that this didn’t happen when oil men Bush and Cheney were at the helm, I’m not sure what to make of this.  Clearly, federal regulation of Gulf oil drilling has been spotty — and that certainly extends to the Bush-Cheney tenure, when this well was drilled.  And some companies seem to have markedly more violations than others, with no meaningful penalty.

Choire Sicha at The Awl:

Why should we care? We all know that oil apparently just goes away. Just like Gulf War I prepared us for Gulf War II, so has Gulf Spill I inured me to this latest.

Also I don’t really need to think about the fact that Mariner Energy, which owns the blown-up oil rig, has at least two top executives who worked at Enron, right?

Richard Lawson at Gawker:

Luckily, it was non-producing and there are no reported deaths. But man, oil companies really shouldn’t have listened to that sinister Explode-O-Rig 5000™ salesman.

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Faster, Static! Kill! Kill!

Heather Horn at The Atlantic with the round-up

Bryan Walsh at Time:

BP stopped pumping heavy mud into the blown well around eight hours after beginning on Tuesday afternoon, saying that the procedure had achieved its “desired outcome.” Here’s part of the press release from BP:

The well is now being monitored, per the agreed procedure, to ensure it remains static. Further pumping of mud may or may not be required depending on results observed during monitoring.

The start of the static kill was based on the results of an injectivity test, which immediately preceded the static kill and lasted about two hours.

That doesn’t mean things are over—BP vice president Kent Wells told reporters yesterday that he wasn’t sure if mud alone would be enough to fully plug the well. But the fact that BP was able pump drilling mud into the well—at the weight of about 13.2 lbs. per gallon—means that its physical structure is likely still in good condition. And that should clear the way for the relief well, still set to be completed by mid-August. Most importantly, though, more than 100 days after the Deepwater Horizon exploded, it’s hard to imagine oil flowing from BP’s well again.

And it may turn out that the 4.9 million barrels of oil that did spill from BP’s well may leave less of a mark on the Gulf than first expected. According to the New York Times, the government is expected to announce today that nearly three-quarters of the oil has already evaporated, dispersed, been skimmed or burned—and that what’s left isn’t likely to do further damage, as White House energy czar Carol Browner told NBC’s Today show this morning:

The oil was captured. It was skimmed. It was burned. It was contained. Mother Nature did her part. And that’s good news.

According to the government’s report, a full quarter of the oil dispersed on the surface of the Gulf or dissolved in seawater, and another 16% dispersed naturally as the oil gushed out of the well. The actual cleanup played a smaller role—5% of the oil was removed in controlled burns, and 8% was broken up using chemical dispersants. The warm Gulf ecosystem—accustomed to breaking down oil—was the more significant factor.

Joel Achenbach at WaPo:

The static kill is underway. Whether it will kill, slightly impede, or merely pester BP’s Macondo well remained unknown late Tuesday, as engineers and scientists at BP’s headquarters in suburban Houston scrutinized pressure readings from the hole in the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

Federal officials huddled in BP’s operations center are trying to manage expectations, saying that even if the static kill goes as hoped, Macondo won’t be kaput until it is intercepted and cemented by a relief well that’s been three months in the drilling.

“You want to make sure it’s really dead dead dead. Don’t want anything to rise out of the grave,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu told The Washington Post late Tuesday afternoon.

BP initiated the process of pumping mud into the blown-out Macondo well at about 4 p.m. Tuesday. The static kill is not a quick operation by design, pumping mud at a leisurely rate of 2 barrels per minute. About 2,000 barrels will be needed to fill the well, engineers have calculated.

Ben Popkin at The Consumerist:

Doesn’t BP know the power of language? I don’t think the use of intense code names for the various operations has really helped assuage the public consciousness throughout this whole fracas. “Static Kill,” “Top Kill,” “Junk Shot,” really, much too exciting. How about “Containment Orocedure # 74 or “Earthen Inflowment Filling Process”? They should catch up on the collected works of your native son, Orwell.

And a new report says that 3/4 of the escaped oil has been burnt off, skimmed off, chemically dispersed, evaporated, or dissolved in the ocean, “like sugar.” That leaves only, ohh, about 53.5 million gallons floating around in the Gulf. Ballpark, that’s about 5 times the Exxon Valdez disaster. In the words of Borat, great success!

Dan Amira at New York Magazine:

There’s a strange amount of good news coming out of the Gulf today. Not only has the vast majority of the leaked oil now been wiped from the face of the Earth, but BP’s latest violently named leak-stopping effort is being declared successful. First there was the top kill, and now, the static kill, in which more of that heavy drilling mud we always hear about was pumped into the well to stabilize the pressure within.

BP called it a “significant milestone,” while CNN said it was “the biggest development in the long-running saga involving BP’s ruptured well since a tightly fitting cap was placed on it in mid-July, stopping oil from flowing into the Gulf for the first time in almost three months.”

The leak won’t be truly dead for good, though, until BP’s ultimate kill maneuver — the “bottom kill,” otherwise known as the relief well — is complete. Carol Browner, director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, explains, “The static kill is going well, but ultimately, it’s the relief wells we ordered drilled that will be the ‘final kill-kill.'” You can tell by the nomenclature that they really are not very fond of this leak.

Dan Froomkin at The Huffington Post:

The Obama administration on Wednesday delivered an upbeat verdict on the fate of the estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil that spewed out of BP’s blown out well in the Gulf of Mexico, saying that most of it has either been dispersed, burned off, skimmed up, directly recaptured through containment efforts, evaporated or dissolved.

Relatively little, they announced, remains on the surface of the Gulf.

That last part is certainly cause to celebrate. But much of the dissolved or dispersed oil may still be causing massive environmental damage beneath the surface, even if it can’t easily be seen.

So along with the 26 percent of the oil that federal scientists still can’t fully account for, that means more than half could still be posing a serious and present danger to sea life and Gulf ecosystems.

A new report, which was authored by senior officials from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey, was based on findings from government and non-government scientists. The underlying measurements and methodology were not made public, however, leaving much of it looking like so much guesswork. It did, however, include this neat graphic

[…]

President Obama himself weighed in earlier in the day. “A report out today by our scientists shows that the vast majority of the spilled oil has been dispersed or removed from the water,” he said.

But that’s a big “or”.

Under questioning by the White House press corps, Lubchenco was somewhat less upbeat. “No one is saying it’s not a threat anymore,” she said. “Diluted and out of sight doesn’t necessarily mean benign.”

She said the subsurface oil is biodegrading rapidly, but nevertheless may already have had a devastating effect on the young of many species — for instance, it may have wiped out a whole year’s worth of bluefin tuna eggs.

“I think the common view of most of the scientists inside and outside government is that the effects of this spill will likely linger for decades,” she said. “The fact that so much of the oil has been removed and in the process of being degraded is very significant and means that the impact will not be even worse than it might have been. But the oil that was released and has already impacted wildlife at the surface, young juvenile stages and eggs beneath the surface, will likely have very considerable impacts for years and possibly decades to come.”

Lubchenco also said that dissolved oil (like “sugar into your coffee or your teacup”) is not necessarily less dangerous than dispersed oil (“broken up from large chunks into smaller chunks”).

But there was a definite sense of triumphalism in the briefing room. “I think it is fairly safe to say that because of the environmental effects of Mother Nature, the warm waters of the Gulf and the federal response, that many of the doomsday scenarios that were talked about and repeated a lot have not and will not come to fruition because of that,” Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said.

“I think the original scenario was off the coast of Delaware and halfway to England by September, if I’m not mistaken.”

Lubchenco announced that there is “virtually no threat to the Keys of the East Coast remaining.” And she and White House environmental advisor Carol Browner refused to entertain the notion that their estimates might end up being off.

“We have a high degree of confidence in them,” Lubchenco said of the findings.

“The likelihood of large-scale change is very, very small, because we have so much certainty in some of the numbers,” Browner said.

One particularly unresolved issue, however, remains how much risk there is that dispersed oil will get into the Gulf’s food chain — and eventually to the dinner table.

Lubchenco notably ducked two food-chain questions on Thursday.

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Wait, This Article Didn’t Appear In Slate?

Michael Grunwald at Time:

President Obama has called the BP oil spill “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced,” and so has just about everyone else. Green groups are sounding alarms about the “catastrophe along the Gulf Coast,” while CBS, Fox and MSNBC are all slapping “Disaster in the Gulf” chyrons on their spill-related news. Even BP fall guy Tony Hayward, after some early happy talk, admitted that the spill was an “environmental catastrophe.” The obnoxious anti-environmentalist Rush Limbaugh has been a rare voice arguing that the spill — he calls it “the leak” — is anything less than an ecological calamity, scoffing at the avalanche of end-is-nigh eco-hype.

Well, Limbaugh has a point. The Deepwater Horizon explosion was an awful tragedy for the 11 workers who died on the rig, and it’s no leak; it’s the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. It’s also inflicting serious economic and psychological damage on coastal communities that depend on tourism, fishing and drilling. But so far — while it’s important to acknowledge that the long-term potential danger is simply unknowable for an underwater event that took place just three months ago — it does not seem to be inflicting severe environmental damage. “The impacts have been much, much less than everyone feared,” says geochemist Jacqueline Michel, a federal contractor who is coordinating shoreline assessments in Louisiana. (See pictures of the Gulf oil spill.)

Yes, the spill killed birds — but so far, less than 1% of the number killed by the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska 21 years ago. Yes, we’ve heard horror stories about oiled dolphins — but so far, wildlife-response teams have collected only three visibly oiled carcasses of mammals. Yes, the spill prompted harsh restrictions on fishing and shrimping, but so far, the region’s fish and shrimp have tested clean, and the restrictions are gradually being lifted. And yes, scientists have warned that the oil could accelerate the destruction of Louisiana’s disintegrating coastal marshes — a real slow-motion ecological calamity — but so far, assessment teams have found only about 350 acres of oiled marshes, when Louisiana was already losing about 15,000 acres of wetlands every year. (Comment on this story.)

The disappearance of more than 2,000 sq. mi. of coastal Louisiana over the past century has been a true national tragedy, ravaging a unique wilderness, threatening the bayou way of life and leaving communities like New Orleans extremely vulnerable to hurricanes from the Gulf. And while much of the erosion has been caused by the re-engineering of the Mississippi River — which no longer deposits much sediment at the bottom of its Delta — quite a bit has been caused by the oil and gas industry, which gouged 8,000 miles of canals and pipelines through coastal wetlands. But the spill isn’t making that problem much worse. Coastal scientist Paul Kemp, a former Louisiana State University professor who is now a National Audubon Society vice president, compares the impact of the spill on the vanishing marshes to “a sunburn on a cancer patient.” (See TIME’s interactive graphic “100 Days of the BP Spill.”)

Marine scientist Ivor van Heerden, another former LSU prof, who’s working for a spill-response contractor, says, “There’s just no data to suggest this is an environmental disaster. I have no interest in making BP look good — I think they lied about the size of the spill — but we’re not seeing catastrophic impacts.” Van Heerden, like just about everyone else working in the Gulf these days, is being paid from BP’s spill-response funds. “There’s a lot of hype, but no evidence to justify it.”

The scientists I spoke with cite four basic reasons the initial eco-fears seem overblown. First, the Deepwater oil, unlike the black glop from the Valdez, is unusually light and degradable, which is why the slick in the Gulf is dissolving surprisingly rapidly now that the gusher has been capped. Second, the Gulf of Mexico, unlike Alaska’s Prince William Sound, is very warm, which has helped bacteria break down the oil. Third, heavy flows of Mississippi River water have helped keep the oil away from the coast, where it can do much more damage. And finally, Mother Nature can be incredibly resilient. Van Heerden’s assessment team showed me around Casse-tete Island in Timbalier Bay, where new shoots of Spartina grasses were sprouting in oiled marshes and new leaves were growing on the first black mangroves I’ve ever seen that were actually black. “It comes back fast, doesn’t it?” van Heerden said.

Rich Lowry at The Corner:

I said last week that I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a major story in the mainstream press in the months ahead saying that the spill isn’t going to be as much of a disaster as advertised. And here come those stories, much sooner than I expected. First, we had the New York Times saying that the spill, at least on the surface, has gone missing. And, now, we have Time magazine reporting the environmental damage has probably been exaggerated (h/t Mike Allen’s Playbook)

Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones:

In short, the story is classic man-bites-dog, knee-jerk counterintuitivism. In reality, we have no idea yet how bad the damage in the Gulf is. The federal government is still only in the early stages of a natural resources damage assessment, a process to determine the full extent of the destruction. The government hasn’t even come up with an estime of how much oil leaked into the Gulf. And BP hasn’t yet finished the relief wells, meaning the disaster isn’t over yet. Meanwhile, the environmental impacts of the natural gas that has also been seeping into the Gulf remain unclear. And the article gives scant attention to the nearly 2 million gallons of dispersant applied by BP to break up the spill, which the country’s top environmental official has acknowledged is a science experiment of monumental proportions.

“The amount of oil and toxic dispersant pumped into the Gulf is unprecedented, and we know the marine impacts will be massive, we simply don’t know how long it will take for the ecosystem to rebound, and how significant the decrease in productivity will be until it recovers,” says Aaron Viles, campaign director at the Gulf Restoration Network.

Referring to the Time article’s author, Michael Grunwald, National Resources Defense Council lawyer David Pettit says, “I’m not sure what boats he’s been out on. When I went out from Plaquemines Parish two weeks ago, there were oiled marshes as far as the eye could see, plus all the islands we saw were oiled. I would agree that it’s too early to say what the long-term effect of that oiling will be, but by the same token I don’t think anyone can credibly say that there will be little or no effect.”

The article mentions the 488 dead sea turtles found in the Gulf, but says “only 17 were visibly oiled.” What it doesn’t mention, however, is that nearly 80 percent of those dead turtles are Kemp’s Ridley turtles, the most endangered species of sea turtle in the world. “When you get to that level of peril, every individual makes a difference,” says Doug Inkley, a wildlife biologist with the National Wildlife Federation who was in the Gulf last week. Nor does a turtle need to be visibly oiled to die because of it; ingesting the oil, and the oil-dispersant mix, can also be deadly. And then there are the turtles that may have been burned alive.

I have quite a bit of respect for Grunwald, whose work on the Army Corps of Engineers and Hurricane Katrina was spectacular. But if he’s going to criticize folks for making premature doomsday predictions, then he, too, shouldn’t engage in making preemptive declarations that the problem is exaggerated, either. Doing so not only lets BP off the hook, but also contributes to the already waning interest in the disaster among the American public—nothing to see here, folks, back to your regularly scheduled environmental apathy.

Tom Maguire:

The oil was light, the water warm, and the bacteria feasted.  I recall a lot of talk that comparisons to the Valdez made no sense because Prince William Sound is so much colder, but still.

Here is a Rush flashback:

“The ocean will take care of this on its own if it was left alone and left out there,” Limbaugh said. “It’s natural. It’s as natural as the ocean water is.”

Well, doing nothing made no political sense, and I assume all the skimming and booms accomplished something.  That said, the after-action reports will be compiled by the same people that insisted Something Be Done, so the results may not be entirely unbiased.

Digby:

Rush Limbaugh has been saying the oil spill is nothing more than a little leak that has caused almost no damage. Time Magazine is backing him up saying since the news that the slick “disappearing” evidence points to the fact that the whole thing was over-hyped for ratings and fundraising by environmental groups. (Seriously.)

But perhaps “disappearing” the wrong word. The right word is “dispersing.” And there are just a few niggling issues to discuss about that

[…]

BP seems to have ably headed off the worst of the PR disaster by keeping the worst of the oil more or less off the shoreline. The actual disaster may have been made worse by the use of toxic chemicals. So it’s all good.

James Joyner:

It’s a fascinating contra-conventional wisdom story, although the bottom line seems to be not so much that the disaster was hyped but that we just don’t have the ability to forecast the effects of these incidents with great confidence.   And that nature seems to have enormously strong coping mechanisms.

Let’s hope this is right.

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We Won’t Have Tony To Kick Around Anymore

Jad Mouawad and Clifford Krauss at NYT:

BP’s board is expected on Monday to name an American, Robert Dudley, as its chief executive, replacing Tony Hayward, whose repeated stumbles during the company’s three-month oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico alienated federal and state officials as well as residents of the Gulf Coast.

The planned appointment of an American to run the London-based company, which was confirmed by a person close to BP’s board, would underscore how vital the United States has become to BP. About one-third of the company’s oil and gas wells, refineries and other business interests are in the United States, and 40 percent of its shareholders are Americans.

The move would also be a recognition by the board that even though the oil has stopped spewing into the gulf, dealing with the consequences of the Deepwater Horizon accident — from tens of billions of dollars in claims to possible criminal charges and new regulations on offshore drilling — is likely to dominate the company’s agenda for years.

Bryan Walsh at Time:

When Tony Hayward became CEO of BP in 2007, replacing a disgraced Lord John Browne, he was taking over a company in turmoil. BP was still recovering from a 2005 fire at its Texas City refinery that killed 15 people—one of the worst industrial accidents in recent memory, and a result of Browne putting profits over safety. Hayward—a skilled geologist and dedicated BP lifer—was meant to be a practical antidote to the flashy, globe-trotting Browne, a professional executive who promised to consolidate the company’s sprawling multinational operations. Most of all, Hayward would change BP’s careless corporate culture; he pledged in an early speech to focus “like a laser” on safety.

It was a line that, like much else, Hayward would come to regret. The Deepwater Horizon accident showed that there was still something deeply wrong with BP, and Hayward’s tone-deaf performance during the early days of the oil spill only made things worse. By mid-June Hayward had stepped back from the oil spill, ceding day-to-day control of the response to the American BP executive Bob Dudley. Now it seems Hayward is gone for good. According to a senior U.S. official speaking to the Associated Press early Sunday afternoon, Hayward will be replaced as BP’s CEO, possibly as early as Monday when the company’s board meets in London.

Though BP was officially denying the rumors, Hayward’s departure has long been considered of when, not if. Since the spill began on April 20, Hayward has been a gaffe machine.

Christopher Helman at Forbes:

The timing of this move is significant for two reasons. First, it coincides with the Tuesday release of BP’s sure-to-be-disastrous second-quarter results. Second, and more importantly, it indicates that BP believes the blowout at the Macondo well has been stopped, that the cap in place now will continue to hold back the gusher until the relief wells can kill it for good.

Image is everything, and the image that BP needs to present is one of a heroic Dudley Do-Right arriving on the scene to rescue Nell from the clutches of Snidely Whiplash. Tall, blondish Robert Dudley even looks kind of like his namesake hero from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, though with none of the bombast. No matter that Dudley has been with BP for a decade, having come over in the 1998 acquisition of Amoco. As we wrote in this piece when he assumed responsibility for oil spill oversight a month ago, Dudley has proven his managerial toughness over the years (especially in tangles with the Russian government when he was head of TNK-BP). And vitally, Americans will find another American a more trustworthy oil spill cleaner than they would another Brit.

Jim White at Firedoglake:

Yes, the twit who famously told us that this pesky spill had been such a nuisance that he wanted his life back is about to get just that.

And what a life it will be. Despite being at the helm as the company’s negligence unleashed the worst oil spill in US history and the subsequent loss of almost half the company’s value, Hayward will still be rich beyond the wildest dreams of almost anyone.

CNN gives us the details on Hayward’s likely exit package and current compensation. First, CNN informs us that Hayward won’t get a huge, American-style Golden Parachute. I don’t know about you, but I certainly would settle for the chrome bungee jump or whatever this is that Hayward is getting:

“He will be lucky to get a single year’s salary,” said Paul Hodgson, a senior researcher at The Corporate Library, a governance group. “And even that could be mitigated in certain circumstances.”

His compensation package — including salary and bonuses — was worth 3.158 million British pounds ($4.87 million), according to the company’s 2009 annual report. He’s also due an annual pension of 584,000 pounds ($901,000).

Additionally, he held more than 535,000 shares in the company as of December 31, which would currently be worth about 212 millon pounds (about $327 million).

That’s right, Hayward will be “lucky” to get an extra lump of almost $5 million to go away, while pulling in a pension of almost a million dollars a year on top of his stock worth $327 million.

Poor thing, I sure hope he doesn’t feel insulted by that paltry package.

If Hayward’s exit package, pension and stock ownership are indeed as reported by CNN, I’d like to nominate his life as the ultimate definition of moral hazard. He will have destroyed the Gulf of Mexico, made billions of dollars worth of stock held around the world go poof and still will walk away with riches beyond imagination. If he is to suffer nothing more uncomfortable than the “humiliation” of losing his job, then there simply is no incentive for other CEO’s to act responsibly in the future.

Joe Gandelman at Moderate Voice:

TV and other stand-up comedians had a ball making fun of a CEO could not keep a lid on his enjoyment of his “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” lifestyle for even the comparatively fleeting few moments of his life required to do press briefings and who could not put off avoid being photographed in settings that underscored the stark contrast between wealthy him and those who face losing their livelihoods in the Gulf. To wit:

“BP CEO Tony Hayward said recently, ‘No one wants this thing over more than I do. I’d like my life back.’ Tony, I’m so sorry you had your summer disrupted. I’d buy you a drink, but you’d probably spill that too … and make me clean it up.” –Craig Ferguson

“This Tony Haywire guy, whatever his name is, he told the BBC on Sunday that he believes the new oil cap that they’ve installed will eventually capture the vast majority of oil spewing from the well. You know, if they could capture half the BS spewing from Tony Hayward, people would be thrilled.” —Jay Leno

“BP CEO Tony Hayward said he would just like to get his life back. He wants to get his life back. You know, I say give him life plus 20.” —Jay Leno

…..”Obama’s not the only one on the hot seat right now. The CEO of BP is taking a lot of flak. His name is Tony Hayward. Today, President Obama had a meeting with Hayward at the White House. It got off to the wrong start. Hayward arrived in a Hummer limo powered by baby seals.” –Craig Ferguson

A Tony Hayward doll was even marketed in the U.S.:

Modelled on BP oil spill hate figure Tony Hayward, it’s the toy no kid wants – Inaction Man.

The 12-inch doll depicts the gaffe-prone boss as jobless with a placard reading: BP Executive Needs Work.

Made by American firm Hero Builders, it sells for £22.75 and describes Hayward’s qualities as “whiny little b*tch”, and an “all around w*****”.

Toy company boss Emil Vicale said: “We don’t expect to sell any. That’s how reviled he is.”

The doll – which does absolutely nothing – is the latest insult to Hayward, 53.

Meanwhile, BP doesn’t seem to want to let go of its image as a company that isn’t above board but will say what it thinks it needs to say in a given moment – even if everyone thinks or knows it’s just saying what it thinks it needs to say:

BP Sunday refused to confirm reports that its embattled chief executive Tony Hayward is on the verge of leaving the oil giant.

“Tony Hayward remains our chief executive and has the full support of the board and senior management,” company spokesman Mark Salt told CNN.

So expect the Tony Hayward spirit to linger on at BP long after Tony Hayward has left the leaking oil well.

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Uh… They’re Number One?

Frank James at NPR:

The U.S. is no longer the single largest consumer of the world’s energy resources. That distinction now goes to China, according to the International Energy Agency.

The IEA says that according to an analysis of its data for 2009, China, with a population of 1.33 billion compared with the U.S.’s 310.2 million, has outstripped the U.S.

It’s been known for some day that this day would come. But it happened faster than was forecast because China was hurt less by the global recession than the U.S.

Nicholas Deleon at Crunch Gear:

The actual numbers are pretty impressive, particularly when you consider that a mere 10 years ago China was quite a bit behind the U.S.

China consumed some 2,252 millions tons of the oil equivalent of sources such as coal, nuclear power, natural gas, and hydropower. The U.S. consumed 4 percent less. These are numbers from last year, by the way.

But that’s where energy efficiency comes into play. Since the year 2000, the U.S. has increased its energy efficiency by about 2.5 percent annually. China? 1.8 percent. So not a huge difference, but a difference nonetheless.

Does this really mean anything to you? Eh, maybe. Certainly it’ll have implications for the world at large though. Now that China is the biggest consumer of energy, it alone is in the position to tell energy providers, “Look, we’re willing to pay X for Y units of energy.” If China’s X is bigger than the U.S.’s X, then we may be looking at a situation where energy prices will go up simply because “someone else” is willing to pay more.

Which could mean that all the factories that produce all the lovely electronic gizmos we talk about day in, day out, could see their costs of doing business go up. And who would make up the difference? Yes, you!

Then again, it could have the very opposite effect, and end up lowering prices.

Mark Wilson at Gizmodo:

A different metric? Three years ago, China was the world’s biggest exporter of coal. Now it’s the leading importer. And last year, for the first time ever, Saudi Arabia sold more oil to China than the US.

Given that China’s consumption will give them more negotiation power in the world’s power market, it may be a good time to buck our trend of a mere 2.5% energy efficiency increase per year.

Frank Holmes at Wall Street Pit:

While most, if not all, had predicted China would become the world’s largest energy user, many didn’t think it was going to happen for another five years. China’s rise to the top can largely be attributed to a decline in energy usage in the U.S. China’s 2009 energy usage was below that of the U.S. from 2004-2008, before the financial crisis.

In fact, just ten years ago China’s energy consumption was less than half that of the U.S., according to the Wall Street Journal. The U.S. remains the biggest energy consumer on a per capita basis, the IEA economist said, consuming three times more per citizen than China. The U.S. also consumes more than twice the amount of oil that China does in a day.

But like most things with China, that statistic won’t last long. The IEA reported in last year’s World Energy Outlook that China and India will represent more than half of all incremental demand increases by 2030.

Well aware of the global politics of energy, the Chinese government was quick to dismiss the story as an overestimation by the IEA. Probably not the last time we’ll see modesty from Beijing as the country continues to put “world’s largest” in front of more and more resources.

Paul Denlinger at Forbes:

This is why the Chinese government has chosen to invest in developing new green energy technology.

The country is very fortunate in that most of the discovered deposits of rare earths used in the development of new technologies are found in China. While these deposits are very valuable, up until recently, the industry has not been regulated much by the Chinese central government. But now that Beijing is aware of their importance and value, it has come under much closer scrutiny. For one, Beijing wants to consolidate the industry and lower energy waste and environmental damage. (Ironically, the rare earth mining business is one of the most energy-wasteful and highly polluting industries around. Think Chinese coal mining with acid.)

At the same time, Beijing wants to cut back rare earth exports to the rest of the world, instead encouraging domestic production into wind and solar products for export around the world. With patents on the new technology used in manufacturing, China would control the intellectual property and licensing on the products that would be used all over the world. If Beijing is able to do this, it would control the next generation of energy products used by the world for the next century.

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