The BP Well Is Dead, but Challenges Live On
Hurt by the Industry, but Defending It
One of the supreme ironies of this disaster is that many of those hurt most by the spill find themselves having to defend the industry that caused it.
While acknowledging that we are only slightly better prepared to handle a big spill now than we were five months ago, Gulf state officials have joined oil interests in fighting a federal moratorium on deepwater drilling. A government report released Thursday says the ban may have temporarily cost 8,000 to 12,000 jobs on oil rigs and elsewhere.
The current ban on new deep-sea drilling is set to expire on Nov. 30. But there is little doubt the oil and gas industry will face even tougher regulations afterward.
Immediately after the explosion, it became apparent that BP, the industry and the government were woefully unprepared. There was no ready plan for capping a leak so deep underwater, and the cleanup and containment equipment had to be cobbled together on the fly.
The situation was unprecedented, industry and government officials told the public.
Gary Rook, technical director of Edison Chouest Offshore, whose vessels played a key role in the containment effort, says the industry needs to develop higher storage capacity for recovered oil, design and deploy more effective skimming boats and create a game plan that allows critical response assets to be deployed immediately after a disaster.
But Rook said some federal regulations — such as the ones that limit the size of offshore response vessels — also need to be revised.
"We need to get equal to the rest of the world," he says.
Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's point man on the BP spill response, says there also needs to be a reevaluation of existing contingency plans. That should include a look at what people think about the role that responsible parties should have in the cleanup effort, and how much autonomy and flexibility state and local governments should have to act outside the national command structure. For instance, federal officials clashed with their counterparts in Louisiana over plans to build artificial barrier islands off the coast to block incoming oil.
Four oil industry giants have pledged to spend $1 billion developing equipment and procedures to better address spills in the future. But that effort is not expected to bear fruit anytime soon.
"I think we're getting there," says Michael Bromwich, director of the newly formed Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, successor to the disgraced regulatory agency, the Minerals Management Service. "The progress is visible, but we need to make sure and ensure the public that the bar has in fact been raised."
Meanwhile, BP executives and owners of independent U.S. gas stations that carry its name plan to gather next month to craft a new marketing strategy and try to revive the BP brand.
Loop Current: How Close Disaster Really Was
There's an old saying among fishermen: It's better to be lucky than smart. Bad as things are in the Gulf, Steve Murawski, a pretty smart guy, says we got damned lucky.
On April 29, a mere nine days after the rig explosion, the Gulf's so-called Loop Current was at full strength, says Murawski, chief fisheries scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Under those conditions, it had the potential to take any oil that got into its pinwheel-like effect and spin it into the Florida Keys and up the U.S. East Coast.
Then, just days later, a large eddy blocked the current and broke the Loop's back. The threat disappeared.
"This is the closest thing to an act of God that we've seen," says Murawski.
As the oil continued to gush, scientists and others feared a near-knockout blow to the Gulf's already stressed ecosystem. Early signs suggest that didn't happen.
In parts of Louisiana, some marshlands seem already to be recovering. The oil-munching microbes that scientists feared would create dead zones ultimately failed to reduce oxygen levels as severely as predicted.
Yes, oil continues to wash up in places, but the streaky surface sheens have all but vanished. And while nearly 6,600 dead birds, sea turtles and other animals were recovered, new victims are rarely found.
"I think the resiliency of the Gulf has been endorsed and exceeded even optimistic estimates," says George Crozier, director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama.
But underwater, things get a bit murkier.
Scientists have found plumes of oil — microscopic and unseen — below the surface. A University of Georgia expedition this month found patches of oil, some up to 2 inches thick, on the Gulf floor.
That's oil that can be brought back to the surface and onshore with a storm, says University of South Florida chemical oceanographer David Hollander.
Hollander has found plankton, the base of the marine food web, that bear the hallmarks of having been poisoned. He worries about what that means for fish larvae and eggs — future generations of sea life.
An August federal report declared that all but about 52.7 million gallons of BP's oil had been burned, skimmed, chemically dispersed, naturally dispersed, evaporated or dissolved. Scientists roundly criticized that report as too rosy.
Things are as positive as they are, Hollander and others say, because we were lucky AND smart.
In addition to the fortunate change in the Loop Current, wind patterns kept the oil from spreading and staying close to the shore in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, says Murawski. Of course, those states' fortune was Louisiana's misfortune.
Credit also goes to those who decided to use massive amounts of chemical dispersants deep underwater to break up the oil. Some say we traded certain slicks for unknown problems below the surface, but Crozier and other initial opponents now concede that it seems to have been the right move.
But the effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and the 1979 Ixtoc disaster off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula are still unfolding, so only time will tell.