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Environment/Sustainability Fri Jun 11 2010

A Gusher of Oil, A Trickle of Truth


Above: Live video of the crude oil gushing from the BP well in the Gulf, right now.

Imagine if a tanker the size of the Exxon Valdez capsized off New Orleans, unleashing a flood of oil on the magnitude of that 1989 environmental disaster. Now imagine that a crash and spill like that happened once a week for the past month-and-a-half. Would that get your attention?

The latest best estimates from the U.S Geological Service's Flow Rate Technical Group gauge the gush from the BP well at between 25,000 to 30,000 barrels per day, with a possibility of as high as 40,000 barrels per day. That's an estimate, note, of the rate before the recent cutting of the riser pipe, which may have increased flow further. In other words, tanker-size volumes of crude oil, equivalent to the 250,000 barrels that poured out of the Exxon Valdez, have been spewing into the Gulf at least every eight to 10 days since April 20, and maybe every six days. This is not just the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. waters, it's rapidly becoming one of the worst pollutings of the planet's oceans, ever, under our very noses. Yet today it was buried on p.16 of the Tribune, trailing not only the Blagojevich trial and the Blackhawks pub crawl, but stories about the Burge torture trial, a little girl whose kayak capsized, and -- this is news? -- the pope coming out in favor of celibacy for priests.

The other day, some activists demonstrating in front of Jan. Schakowsky's office for removing oil companies' liability caps (which Schakowsky supports) reported back that numerous passers-by had no idea about the BP spill. In other words, one of the worst environmental disasters of our time is ongoing, but to many Americans and much of the media, it's a yawner -- or even a non-event. How can this be?

The answer lies at least in part in the under-reporting and downplaying of the disaster that began almost immediately. If there has been a frog-in-the-crockpot lack of awareness about the magnitude of the gusher, it's in part because a flow of misinformation has accompanied the flow of oil from Day One. A review shows that this misinformation almost certainly had to be deliberate. If the threat of criminal prosecution by the Justice Department is anything more than show, the obfuscation of reality ought to be a target of the investigation as well.

Reel back to April 23, the day after the rig sank. I was at a local business group meeting, and worried aloud to an elected official about the coming environmental disaster. I was cut short and assured that there was no oil coming from the well. My elected friend had heard it on the radio.

As did millions of other Americans. After the Deepwater Horizon sank into the Gulf after burning out-of-control for 36 hours, Reuters flashed around the globe the headline, "Oil not flowing from sunken rig or well -- USCG." The story was redistributed by more popular outlets such as USA Today. The source for that feel-good one-liner we now know was completely inaccurate? A U.S. Coast Guard Admiral, Mary Landry.

Coast Guard said "no oil flowing"

On early-morning American TV stations on April 23, Landry appeared for interview. Specifically asked on CBS how much oil was flowing from the pipes of the now-destroyed drilling operation, and how hard it would be to plug it, Landry surprised her interviewer by stating, "At this time, there is no crude emanating from that wellhead at the ocean surface, er, at the ocean floor." Asked then about the broken riser, Landry said, "There is not oil emanating from the riser either." She dismissed the surface oil slick as "residual."

That description was repeated all day on April 23, as in this NBC interview where Landry maintained that "24/7" video from an underwater ROV was showing no oil coming from either the wellhead or the kinked riser. Still, all manner of "assets" from the "response framework" were being brought to bear, just in case.

An AP story entitled "Coast Guard: No Oil Currently Leaking" went out with an easy-to-digest figure calculating the "worst-case scenario" at 336,000 gallons (8,000 barrels) per day, and saying that it would take "more than a month" at that rate to equal the Exxon Valdez. The accompanying video clip was even more reassuring, with a talking head transforming that daily figure into a total spill of that size. So everyone could rest easy. "Nothing to see here, folks! Move along!"

"No oil" report contradicted fact and common sense

To anyone looking at the situation closely, the assertion of "no flow" and then the lowball figures from the first weeks should have made absolutely no sense. You don't have to be a petro-engineer to know that oil reservoirs are under enormous pressure; pop culture from Giant to There Will Be Blood has shown us gushers, and anyone over 30 should remember seeing the Kuwait wells blaze out of control for months after the first Gulf war. When explosions first rocked the Deepwater Horizon, it was attributed to a well blowout, which by definition means pressure from undersea was sufficient to blast oil and gas a mile upward to the surface, and we could all see the fueling of a fire several stories high for more than a day.

So what could cause anyone to believe that that monstrous flow magically stopped when the rig sank? How could there be any logical conclusion but that huge volumes of crude oil were now spewing into the ocean, only far beneath the surface?

The answer is that there couldn't be any such conclusion. The very first reports from the Coast Guard came not from an admiral but from on-site officers. On the morning of April 22, 2010, when the rig went under, Coast Guard Petty Officer Ashley Butler told CNN that "oil was leaking from the rig at the rate of about 8,000 barrels of crude per day."

Asked specifically by CNN if the oil that had been fueling the fire now was in danger of escaping into the sea, Coast Guard Senior Chief Petty Officer Michael O'Berry agreed and used the same figure as Butler. CPO O'Berry said that 336,000 gallons a day of sweet, light crude had been coming out of the well and "that oil will be released into the water now." BP and the Coast Guard were supposedly considering using a robot sub (referred to as "remotely-operated vehicle," "ROV" or "submersible") to "stanch the oil."

Obviously, these Coast Guard officers had to have gotten that info first-hand from workers or supervisors. Undoubtedly, following their duty to protect the U.S. Coast, they had asked the obvious questions of people who would know, based on the exploratory well's prior performance. As to where the oil was going, that was obvious. It had to be going into the sea.

But by April 24, both Butler and O'Berry were following the company line and saying no oil. How did their initial estimates get turned into "no oil flowing" in the next 24 hours?

Who Killed the Spill Story?

Obviously, petty officers were not going to contradict an admiral. Just as obviously, Admiral Landry did not personally go below the sea. She relied on information supposedly gathered from one or more ROVs. Supposedly two ROVs were sent down to attempt to cap the well, but had been unsuccessful. Apparently those first two attempts were made while the rig was still burning.

Question: why did ROVs try to cap the well unless oil was flowing? And if they were unsuccessful, how could anyone say with a straight face that oil was not still flowing?

Absent from almost every report about the ROVs is any mention of who was operating them. Their operations are phrased in the passive tense. Whose ROVs were those? Not the Coast Guard's. Not even BP's. The ROVs are owned and operated by a third-party contractor, Oceaneering International, under contract to BP. We also know that the subs were deployed by BP, not the Coast Guard, by virtue of BP's own statement on April 22 that it was sending one to the site to assess whether oil was flowing from the well.

So, on April 23, when the first statements of officers Ashley and Butler were overwritten by Admiral Landry who instead appeared all over the airwaves to assure Americans and the world that there was no oil flowing from the well, from where did the admiral get that information? It could only have come from BP.

The next day, April 24, Landry reversed direction and announced that the wellhead was indeed leaking oil into the Gulf and described it as "a very serious spill." However, that story broke on a Saturday, the weekend, when viewership is down and markets are closed, and also used a much smaller figure of 1,000 barrels per day. That low figure held while the story was still fresh. A week after the rig's sinking, the DoD was still publicizing the 1,000-barrel-a-day figure and BP's Doug Suttles's assurance that BP was "on pace" to contain the spill, and that the cleanup would take two to four weeks.

Only by April 29, nine days after the explosion, did the flow rate estimate -- at prodding of NOAA -- get revised upward to 5,000 barrels a day. But even then, the media assured viewers that it would be two months before the spill approached Exxon Valdez levels. Actually, at 5,000 barrels a day, it would only take 52 days, of which eight had already passed.

Scientists all along disputed the lowball figures. The figure of 5,000 barrels per day was based on satellite observations, which obviously could not see what was going on below the ocean's surface. Numerous parties complained that BP was blocking access to information, ranging from bottling up ROV video to barring scientists from making independent measurements. Meanwhile, some news media also complained of being blocked from fact-gathering. Meanwhile, the figure of 5,000 barrels per day was used for most of the crisis.

Did anyone have a vested interest in the misinformation of April 23 and the subsequent trickle of truth about the real extent of the gusher? The day the "no oil leak" story dominated the news, BP stock actually rose 30 cents, approaching its pre-explosion $60 level not much seen since the market collapse of August 2008. Yet over 5 million shares were sold. After the revelations on April 24, BP declined by $3.50 on Monday, on volume of 18 million shares, and then when the 5,000-barrel figure was adopted on April 29, the stock dropped again to $52.56 with an enormous 85 million shares sold. By June 9, BP shares had lost more than half of their April 20 value. Anyone who got out on the day most of the world thought there was no oil leaking saved themselves a world of financial hurt. Anyone who shorted BP made money.

Meanwhile, only now, seven weeks after the explosion, is most of America starting to realize the true, horrible extent of the gusher that's been fouling our waters. An Exxon Valdez, weekly. As Admiral Landry said in one of those early interviews, once you get behind, it's hard to play catch-up. But in the early days of this disaster, the media focused on this as a search-and-rescue human interest story, coupled with spectacular fire footage. The most widespread broadcast media accounts portrayed it as a non-spill and then a small-volume "leak" that would soon be controlled. An admiral dutifully repeated what BP told her, and in turn our news agencies and the American public swallowed a story line that made no logical scientific sense.

An oil flow from an enormous, high-pressure reservoir of crude doesn't suddenly stop flowing all by itself. Neither, unfortunately, does misinformation.

 
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John P. Jankowski / June 13, 2010 8:57 AM

My sentiments, exactly. I have been frustrated and mystified by how this has played out, failing to understand the lack of outrage. Perhaps there is an unvoiced understanding that we're all culpable, given our fossil-fueled lifestyles, and that our silence is an acknowledgement of that guilt.

gary Jones / June 29, 2010 5:58 PM

There are only two ways for the media to be under control.
First is through coersion. Second through co-operation.
The first is nearly impossible with current technology.
The second is likely in anticipation of public panic.
Things must be in place before the truth be told.

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