Thursday, October 07, 2010

Oil Spill Commission Releases Draft Papers Critical Of Response

Oct 6: The National Oil Spill Commission released four new draft working papers prepared by its staff. The bipartisan Commission was established by President Obama by an executive order on May 21, and is led by co-chairs including former two-term Florida Governor and former Senator Bob Graham and former Administrator of U.S. EPA William Reilly [See WIMS 5/24/10]. The Commission staff prepares draft working papers to inform the Commissioners' on-going examination of the root causes of the Gulf spill and options to guard against and mitigate the impacts of future spills. The Commissioners' decisions regarding these matters will be contained in the Commission's final report, expected to be issued on January 11, 2011.
    The topics of the staff draft working papers are: Decision-Making within the Unified Command (WP#2, 25-pages); The Amount and Fate of the Oil (WP#3, 29-pages); The Use of Surface and Subsea Dispersants during the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill (WP#4, 21-pages); and The Challenges of Oil Spill Response in the Arctic (WP#5, 22-pages). A previous working paper, A Brief History of Offshore Oil Drilling (WP#1, 18-pages), was issued on August 23.
    Working paper No. 3, on the Amount and Fate of the Oil indicates that , "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.
    "Federal government responders may be correct in stating that low flow-rate estimates did not negatively affect their operations. Even if responders are correct, however, loss of the public's trust during a disaster is not an incidental public relations problem. The absence of trust fuels public fears, and those fears in turn can cause major harm, whether because the public loses confidence in the federal government's assurances that beaches or seafood are safe, or because the government's lack of credibility makes it harder to build relationships with state and local officials, as well as community leaders, that are necessary for effective response actions." The working paper tells the story of the government's struggle to accurately estimate the rate of oil flow from the Macondo well. It next discusses the debate surrounding the governments report on the fate of the oil [See WIMS 8/17/10].
    Working Paper No. 4, on the use of dispersants indicates that, "The use of dispersants in the aftermath of the Macondo deepwater well explosion was controversial for three reasons. First, the total amount of dispersants used was unprecedented: 1.84 million gallons. Second, 771,000 of those gallons were applied at the wellhead, located 5,067 feet below the surface. Little or no prior testing had been done on the effectiveness and potential adverse environmental consequences of subsea dispersant use, let alone at those volumes. Third, the existing federal regulatory system pre-authorized dispersant use in the Gulf of Mexico without any limits or guidelines as to amounts or duration. Faced with an emergency, the government had to make decisions about high-volume and subsea dispersant use within time frames that denied officials the opportunity to gather necessary information. The resulting uncertainty even fueled unfounded suspicions that BP was using dispersants without authorization from the government in an effort to mask the oil and to limit its ultimate liability."
    The dispersant paper considers two issues. The first is how well the government handled the dispersant issues it faced in the absence of necessary scientific information and pursuant to a regulatory regime that had failed to anticipate this kind of problem. The second is how, in light of lessons learned from this recent experience, government procedures and existing laws might be improved to allow for sounder decisions regarding the use of dispersants in the future.
    In defense of its actions, OMB Acting Director Jeffrey Zients and NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco issued a joint statement responding to some points raised in the working papers. The agency heads said, "NOAA produced a report at the request of the Unified Command to project the most likely movement of oil. As part of its function to coordinate and review all interagency materials developed in response to the BP oil spill, OMB led a review of a preliminary report and provided comments to ensure the analysis reflected the best known information at the time and accurately reflected the limitation of the model and available information, including response actions. For example, the initial analysis did not include the fact that there was use of boom, skimming, burning, and/or other methods to contain and remove the oil and therefore ran the risk of not accurately reflecting response actions taken. NOAA incorporated the feedback, and the eventual report reflected this improved analysis which is available online (see link below). . . The facts bear out that the federal response significantly mitigated the impact of the spill.

    "As for the predictions about the spill flow rate, senior government officials were clear with the public what the worst-case flow rate could be: in early May, Secretary Salazar and Admiral Thad Allen told the American people that the worst case scenario could be more than 100,000 barrels a day. In addition, BP reported in 2009 that a blowout of the Deepwater Horizon (MC 252) could yield 162,000 barrels of oil a day. . . (see link below).

    "Since the Deepwater Horizon explosion the night of April 20, federal authorities, both military and civilian, have been working on-site and around the clock to respond to and mitigate the impact of the resulting BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The federal government response was full force and immediate, and the response focused on state and local plans and evolved when needed.  As directed by the President, the response was based on science, even when that pitted us against BP or state and local officials, and the response pushed BP every step of the way. Finally, and most importantly, the response provided results for the people of the Gulf Coast."

    Access the Oil Spill Commission website for additional information (click here). Access links to each of the working papers (click here). Access the joint agency response statement (click here). Access the NOAA report on mitigated impacts (click here). Access the agencies information on the spill rate (click here). Access links to various media reports on the Commission's investigation (click here).