Gulf of Mexico oil spill endangers birds throughout Americas

Bird conservationists fear the spreading Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will affect not only local birdlife but migratory bird populations as far north as Alaska, and as far south as South America. The spill, now 100 miles long by 48 miles wide, is being pushed onshore by the prevailing southeast winds and is expected to hit the Louisiana’s Chandeleur Islands imminently.

The state bird of Louisiana, the brown pelican, removed from the US Endangered Species list only late last year, nests on the coastal islands of Breton National Wildlife Refuge, which encompasses the Chandeleur Islands. Their breeding season just began and many pairs are already incubating eggs.

“This spill spells disaster for birds in this region and beyond,” says George Fenwick, president of the nonprofit American Bird Conservancy. “The complexity of the Gulf coastline, with numerous bays, estuaries, inlets, marshes and creeks, will make cleanup extremely difficult. Impacts could last for decades for much of the habitat, and some species may suffer significant long-term population declines.”

The oil spill is fed by oil gushing at the rate of 5,000 barrels a day from a broken wellhead on the sea floor about 51 miles southeast of Venice, La. The pipe was left uncapped by the fiery explosion and sinking of the oil rig Deepwater Horizon last week, in which 11 crewmembers lost their lives. Now lying on the sea floor 1,500 feet from the wellhead, the rig is owned by the Swiss company Transocean and was leased by BP Exploration and Production.

BP as well as federal and state agencies are deploying skimmers and chemical dispersants in an attempt to control the oil spill, but on April 30 it reached the Louisiana wetlands at the tip of the Mississippi Delta.

“The terrible loss of 11 workers may be just the beginning of this tragedy as the oil slick spreads toward sensitive coastal areas vital to birds and marine life and to all the communities that depend on them,” said Melanie Driscoll, a conservation director with the National Audubon Society, who is monitoring the situation from her base in Louisiana.

“For birds, the timing could not be worse; they are breeding, nesting and especially vulnerable in many of the places where the oil could come ashore,” she said.

The Gulf Coast is important for hundreds of species of migratory birds, which breed, winter, and rest here during migration. The second Sunday in May is celebrated as International Migratory Bird Day, but this year there will be nothing to celebrate.

“It is ironic that next weekend is International Migratory Bird Day,” said Fenwick. “At a time when we should be celebrating the beauty and wonder of migratory birds, we could be mourning the worst environmental disaster in recent US history.”

All coastal nesting species–herons, terns, skimmers, plovers, gulls, rails and ducks–are now present on the Gulf coast, including several species on the US WatchList of birds of conservation concern.

Many North American summer songbirds fly nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico twice each year between their nesting grounds and wintering areas in Latin America. Most of the spring migrants, such as warblers, orioles, buntings, flycatchers and swallows, move across the gulf during a two-week period from late April to early May.

Songbirds, not normally directly affected by oil spills, could be harmed by smoke from the burning oil set aflame in an attempt to minimize damage to marine life.

“Millions of our songbirds are crossing the Gulf now, and will arrive stateside perilously weak and undernourished from their journey,” said Fenwick. “The smoke may well compound their precarious situation and potentially lead to birds failing to make it to shore, or arriving so weakened that they are unable to survive.”

The impact to all these bird species depends on how long the leak lasts and what happens with weather and currents. The leak could persist for weeks or months, and end up being the worst environmental disaster in US history, bird conservationists fear.

Sites designated as Globally Important Bird Areas by the American Bird Conservancy are directly in the path of the spill. Ten sites at most immediate risk are:

Gulf Coast Least Tern Colony, one of the world’s largest colonies of the threatened least tern.

Pascagoula River Coastal Preserve, coastal marshes at the mouth of the river support yellow and black rails, snowy plovers, and endangered wintering piping plovers.

Gulf Islands National Seashore, which hosts thousands of wintering shorebirds, including endangered piping plover, Wilson’s plover, and American oystercatcher, as well as brown pelican, black-crowned night-heron, white ibis, and black skimmer.

Breton National Wildlife Refuge, including the Chandeleur Islands, the largest tern colony in North America, as well as an important wintering area for magnificent frigatebird, and stopover site for redhead and lesser scaup

Dauphin Island, an important stopover site for migrant birds including shorebirds, gulls, terns, herons, and rails.

Fort Morgan Historical Park, also an important stopover site for migrant birds including shorebirds, gulls, terns, herons, and rails.

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, a satopover for thousands of trans-Gulf migrants.

Eglin Air Force Base, a significant coastal habitat for shorebirds and wading birds.

Delta National Wildlife Refuge, nesting area for large numbers of wading birds, including white ibis, snowy egrets, and herons; thousands of shorebirds use the mudflats in winter and during migration, including dunlin, long-billed dowitcher, and western sandpiper, as well as the endangered piping plover.

Baptiste Collette Bird Islands, an artificial barrier created from dredge spoil, and now habitat for the Caspian tern, brown pelican, gull-billed tern, and black skimmer.

“It is unfortunate that it takes a potential disaster to remind the nation of the risks involved with our addiction to oil,” said Audubon legislative director Mike Daulton. “This spill would give anyone pause regarding the pursuit of risky drilling in environmentally sensitive coastal areas. For the long term, we need to move as quickly as possible from the addiction to fossil fuels to the promise of clean, renewable energy.”

“Although we are encouraged by the White House announcement that no new areas will be opened up to drilling until this spill has been fully investigated, Shell has announced plans to move forward with drilling in the Arctic, an area just as ecologically fragile as the Gulf, and where cleanup technology doesn’t even exist,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife and former director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

“It is time for President Obama to reinstate the moratorium on all drilling off of US shores, ensuring that we can deal with the situation at hand without opening another part of our country up to similar disaster,” said Clark. “Hopefully this catastrophe will be a wake-up call for Congress to pass comprehensive climate change legislation that moves us beyond drilling along our fragile coastline and towards a cleaner greener energy future.” (Environment News Service, April 30)

See our last posts on the politics of oil spills.

  1. round up the usual suspects
    With an acoustic switch this may not have happened. They are in use all over the world except … Dick Cheney deregulated them from being required off the shore of the US early in the Bush administration. And it turns out Halliburton had completed the final cementing of the oil well and pipe just 20 hours before the blowout. And Daily Kos points out that Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu mocked the off shore oil rig safety regulations recently.

    This would be satire if it wasn’t such a big disaster.

  2. How big is the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, really?
    The Christian Science Monitor reported May 1 that many independent scientists believe the leak is spewing far more than the 5,000 barrels, or 210,000 gallons, per day being reported by most media sources. They believe the leak could be discharging up to 25,000 barrels (more than one million gallons) of crude oil a day right now.

    On May 11, Lamar McKay, president and chairman of BP America, was grilled on Capitol Hill by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) about what the company is prepared to take responsibility for. McKay kept repeating like a mantra that BP will honor “all legitimate claims.” When pressed by Cantwell as to whether this included compensation for longterm economic impacts, he refused to be nailed down, but again took refuge behind his mantra. (Huffington Post, May 11)

    In Biloxi, St. Michael Catholic Church went ahead with the annual “Blessing of the Fleet” marking the opening of the shrimping season. “We certainly want to celebrate how God has fed us out of the Gulf for many centuries,” said Fr. Greg Barras. “There seems to be some fear that with the oil spill, that it’s gradually getting closer to shore, and that will then cancel the Blessing of the Fleet.” But the pastor said the celebration will go on this year, and prayers for the fishermen are needed more than ever. (WLOX, Biloxi, May 11)

  3. 70,000 barrels a day?
    From The Guardian, May 13:

    National Public Radio in the United States last night reported that the well is spewing up to 70,000 barrels of oil a day – the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez disaster every four days. Nearly 11 million barrels of oil were spilled in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground, oiling beaches and poisoning marine life for generations. NPR said scientific analysis of newly released video footage from the ocean floor suggested the gusher was 12 times more powerful than estimates offered so far by the Coast Guard or BP.

    Its analysis was conducted by Steve Werely, an associate professor at Purdue University, using a technique called particle image velocimetry, a method was accurate to 20%. That puts the range of the oil spill from 56,000 to 84,000 barrels a day.

    Werely told The Guardian he based his estimate on techniques which track the speed of objects travelling in the flow stream.

    “You can see in the video lots of swirls and vortices pumping out of the end of the pipe, and I used a computer code to track those swirls and come up with the speed at which the oils is shooting out of the pipe,” he said. “From there it is a very simple calculation to figure out what is the volume flow.”

    1. An Exxon Valdez every four days…
      The above Guardian story confuses gallons and barrels. The Exxon Valdez disaster dumped nearly 11 million gallons, or 250,000 barrels. So if Steven Wereley is correct that the Deepwater Horizon is pouring 70,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico daily, that’s the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez disaster every four days. (NPR, May 14)

  4. Giant oil plumes under Gulf of Mexico
    From the New York Times, May 16:

    Scientists are finding enormous oil plumes in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, including one as large as 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and 300 feet thick in spots. The discovery is fresh evidence that the leak from the broken undersea well could be substantially worse than estimates that the government and BP have given.

    “There’s a shocking amount of oil in the deep water, relative to what you see in the surface water,” said Samantha Joye, a researcher at the University of Georgia who is involved in one of the first scientific missions to gather details about what is happening in the gulf. “There’s a tremendous amount of oil in multiple layers, three or four or five layers deep in the water column.”

    The plumes are depleting the oxygen dissolved in the gulf, worrying scientists, who fear that the oxygen level could eventually fall so low as to kill off much of the sea life near the plumes.

    Dr. Joye said the oxygen had already dropped 30 percent near some of the plumes in the month that the broken oil well had been flowing. “If you keep those kinds of rates up, you could draw the oxygen down to very low levels that are dangerous to animals in a couple of months,” she said Saturday. “That is alarming.”

    The plumes were discovered by scientists from several universities working aboard the research vessel Pelican, which sailed from Cocodrie, La., on May 3 and has gathered extensive samples and information about the disaster in the gulf.

  5. Coral reefs tainted by Gulf of Mexico oil spill
    Delicate coral reefs already have been tainted by plumes of crude oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, including the sensitive Pinnacles area that federal officials had tried to protect from drilling and other threats. And marine scientists fear that even more of the deep-sea reefs could be damaged as the thick goo creeps into two powerful Gulf currents. The Loop Current could carry oil from the spill east and spread it to the Florida Keys, while the Louisiana coastal current could move the oil as far west as central Texas. (AP, LAT, May 17)

    BP is now siphoning up to 1,000 barrels of oil a day from the undersea leak with a flexible tube inserted into one section of leaking pipe. The well has been leaking since April 20, when a blowout in BP’s Macondo well destroyed the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, killed 11 crew members, and triggered the spill threatening the Gulf Coast. (Houston Chronicle, May 17)

    The spill appears to have claimed its first bureaucratic head, with the resignation of Chris Oynes, head of offshore drilling for the Mineral Management Service. The resignation of Oynes, who was due to retire later this year, comes as President Barack Obama launched an independent commission into the huge oil spill. The panel will supplant the current investigation being carried out by the MMS and the Coast Guard. (London Times, May 18)

  6. Gulf disaster: from cap and trade to “cap and pray”
    With media accounts portraying the partial stemming of the flow of oil as a sign of “hope,” quotes from scientists warning of an underestimation of the disaster are invariably hidden in the small print. A May 17 AP story, “BP hopes to siphon up to half of oil in Gulf,” stated in the ninth paragraph:

    [R]esearchers said that in recent days they have discovered miles-long underwater plumes of oil that could poison and suffocate sea life across the food chain, with damage that could endure for a decade or more.

    And the last two paragraphs (keep in mind that newspaper editors cut from the bottom):

    Researchers have found more underwater plumes of oil than they can count from the well, said Samantha Joye, a professor of marine sciences at the University of Georgia.

    “The discovery of these plumes argues that a lot more oil and gas is coming out of that well every day, and I think everybody has gotten that fact except BP,” she said.

    The New York Times reported back on May 3 that BP was working on a large containment dome that is intended to cap the leak and catch the escaping oil so that it can be safely pumped to the surface. (Two weeks later, that hasn’t come to pass).

    Almost every report says that BP is doing everything it can to contain the spill and stop the leak, even though the company claims it is not technically at fault. According to a May 4 article from the UK Daily Mail, BP’s CEO Tony Hayward recently responded to the cleanup efforts by explaining, “This is not our accident but it is our responsibility to deal with it.”

    Swiss-based Transocean is the company that actually owned and operated the sunken rig. It manned the rig with its own crew and BP just leased it from Transocean (which makes you wonder why BP is so willing to take full responsibility for everything).

    BP says that it’s working on a relief well, but that it could take up to three months to complete. Until then, the company is trying several different approaches to at least slow the leak and hopefully stop it altogether.

    Mind you, almost all of the information about the spill from day one has come directly from BP which obviously has every incentive to downplay the true environmental destruction that could be caused by this oil spill.

    Even the word “spill” is incorrect. This isn’t some ship of oil that spilled into the ocean—it’s a “volcano” of oil spewing from the earth itself. It’s under extremely high pressure, it’s spewing a huge volume of oil directly into the ocean, and there so far seems to be no human-engineered way of stopping it… (Natural News, May 4)

  7. BP admits it…
    From AP, May 20:

    BP concedes Gulf oil spill is bigger than estimate
    NEW ORLEANS — BP conceded Thursday that more oil than it estimated is gushing into the Gulf of Mexico as heavy crude washed into Louisiana’s wetlands for the first time, feeding worries and uncertainty about the massive monthlong spill.

    Mark Proegler, a spokesman for oil giant BP PLC, told The Associated Press that a mile-long tube inserted into a leaking pipe over the weekend is capturing 210,000 gallons a day — the total amount the company and the Coast Guard have estimated is gushing into the sea — but some is still escaping. He would not say how much.

    Several professors who have watched video of the leak have said they believe the amount spewing out is much higher than official estimates.

    Proegler said the 210,000 gallons — 5,000 barrels — has always been just an estimate because there is no way to measure how much is spilling from the seafloor…

    A live video feed of the leak posted online Thursday at the insistence of lawmakers shows what appears to be a large plume of oil and gas still spewing next to the tube that’s carrying some of it to the surface. The House committee website where it was posted promptly crashed because so many people were trying to view it.

    “What you see are real-time images of a real-world disaster unfolding 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf,” said U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass. “These videos stand as a scalding, blistering indictment of BP’s inattention to the scope and size of the greatest environmental catastrophe in the history of the United States.”

    …Small amounts of light oil have washed up in delicate coastal areas of Louisiana over the past several weeks, but nothing like the brown ooze from the spill that started coating marsh grasses and hanging in the shallow water of a wetland Wednesday.

    “This is the heavy oil that everyone’s been fearing that is here now,” Gov. Bobby Jindal said during a boat tour Wednesday in southeastern Louisiana. The wetlands at the mouth of the Mississippi River are home to rare birds, mammals and a wide variety of marine life.

    A young brown pelican, one wing and its neck matted with oil, was found dead Thursday morning on a sand spit in the Breton National Wildlife Refuge, a renowned bird sanctuary eight miles off Louisiana’s coast that had so far been shielded from the worst of the spill. Scientists said it’s likely oil killed it.

    Much of southeast Louisiana’s coastal waters have been closed to fishing and oyster harvesting because of the oil. A vast area stretching east toward Florida in federal waters also has been closed to seafood harvesting.

    1. Oil Rig Disaster
      For the life of me, I can NOT comprehend why our president and this administration is giving the green light to start drilling for oil in the Arctic very soon–as in a few weeks. What is the rush? With the best of intentions, anything can go wrong with these rigs– fail proof or not. In the Arctic, if something similar occurs, then kiss that part of the Coastal World goodbye forever. I read that there is a much great chance for a similar oil rig disaster there than in the Gulf, there is no hope for rescue and restoration because of the type of conditions there.

      I am so thoroughly disgusted with choices being made to continue drilling- Clearly Big Energy and the Petroleum industry are wedded with our government. Big Energy being the domininate partner in that relationship; with our governmenent catering to their every whim while they turn a deaf ear to the masses.

  8. Gulf oil spill: government remains blind to underwater hazard
    Dan Froomkin on Huffington Post, May 20:

    The Obama administration is actively trying to dismiss media reports that vast plumes of oil lurk beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, unmeasured and uncharted. But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, whose job it is to assess and track the damage being caused by the BP oil spill that began four weeks ago, is only monitoring what’s visible—the slick on the Gulf’s surface—and currently does not have a single research vessel taking measurements below.

    The one ship associated with NOAA that had been doing such research is back in Pascagoula, Miss., having completed a week-long cruise during which scientists taking underwater samples found signs of just the kind of plume that environmentalists fear could have devastating effects on sea life of all shapes and sizes.

    Meanwhile, the commander of the NOAA vessel that the White House on May 14 claimed in a press release “is now providing information for oil spill related research” told HuffPost on May 18 that he’s actually far away, doing something else entirely.

    “We are in the Western Gulf doing plankton research,” said Commander Dave Score, reached by satellite phone on his research vessel, the Gordon Gunter. “So I really don’t know. I’m just on orders.”

    Indeed, you can track the Gordon Gunter right here.

    Two other NOAA research vessels are also in the area, but not monitoring the spill: The Thomas Jefferson, which has spent the last five days in Galveston, Texas; and the Oregon II, which has been under repair in Pascagoula for almost six months.

    NOAA director Jane Lubchenco on May 17 decried media reports about plumes of underwater oil as “misleading, premature and, in some cases, inaccurate.” (See the Huffington Post and New York Times coverage.)

    Lubchenco implicitly criticized scientists on the Pelican, a research vessel operated by the NOAA-affiliated National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology (NIUST), for being hasty in its pronouncements to the media.

    “No definitive conclusions have been reached by this research team about the composition of the undersea layers they discovered,” Lubchenco said in her statement. “Characterization of these layers will require analysis of samples and calibration of key instruments. The hypothesis that the layers consist of oil remains to be verified.”

    NIUST, while partially funded by NOAA, is a cooperative venture with the University of Mississippi and the University of Southern Mississippi. And it was the Pelican crew’s idea—not NOAA’s—to start taking underwater measurements, although NOAA was perfectly happy to take credit for it, initially…

    “The fact that NOAA has missed the ball catastrophically on the tracking and effects monitoring of this spill is inexcusable,” said Rick Steiner, a University of Alaska marine conservationist who recently spent more than a week on the Gulf Coast advising Greenpeace. “They need 20 research ships on this, yesterday.”

    When CBS tried to film a beach with heavy oil on the shore in South Pass, La., a boat of BP contractors, and two Coast Guard officers, told them to turn around, or be arrested. “This is BP’s rules, it’s not ours,” someone aboard the boat said. Coast Guard officials told CBS that they’re looking into it. As the Coast Guard is a branch of the Armed Forces, it brings into question how closely the government and BP are working together to keep details of the disaster in the dark. (Huffington Post, May 19)

  9. BP defies EPA warning on dispersant
    From AP, May 22:

    BP Plc says it’s going to stick with the main chemical dispersant it’s been using to fight the Gulf of Mexico oil spill because it’s the best option for breaking up the ooze before it reaches the surface.

    The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday directed BP to use a less toxic form of the chemical dispersant to break up the oil. The agency said Corexit 9500, one of the chief agents used, can pose health hazards.

    But BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles tells the EPA in a letter released Saturday that “Corexit remains the best option for subsea application.”

    Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, members of Congress and environmental groups have raised questions about the dispersants, which are being shot into the oil plume thousands of feet beneath the sea.

  10. Oil could be “impossible to remove” from wetlands
    From AP, May 22:

    The gooey oil washing into the maze of marshes along the Gulf Coast could prove impossible to remove, leaving a toxic stew lethal to fish and wildlife, government officials and independent scientists said.

    Officials are considering some drastic and risky solutions: They could set the wetlands on fire or flood areas in hopes of floating out the oil.

    More than 50 miles of Louisiana’s delicate shoreline already have been soiled by the massive slick unleashed after the Deepwater Horizon rig burned and sank last month. Officials fear oil eventually could invade wetlands and beaches from Texas to Florida. Louisiana is expected to be hit hardest.

    On Saturday, a major pelican rookery was awash in oil off Louisiana’s coast. Hundreds of birds nest on the island, and an Associated Press photographer saw some birds and their eggs stained with the ooze. Nests were perched in mangroves directly above patches of crude.

    “Oil in the marshes is the worst-case scenario,” said Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the head of the federal effort to contain and clean up the spill.

    Coast Guard officials said the spill’s impact now stretches across a 150-mile swath, from Dauphin Island, Ala. to Grand Isle, La.

    Meanwhile, you can watch the rate of oil gushing into the Gulf with the “ticker” posted by PBS


  11. BP “more interested in saving the well”?
    From the Times-Picayune, May 23:

    Meanwhile, in Houston, US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar blasted the British oil giant for consistently missing deadlines it had set for shutting off the massive well leak still spewing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico each day.

    “I am angry and frustrated that BP has been unable to stop the leak,” Salazar said at a news conference following hours of morning meetings with the company. “We’re 33 days in, and deadline after deadline has been missed.”

    Salazar specifically cited the company’s slow schedule for employing a “top kill” to block the oil spewing at the well head 50 miles off the Louisiana coast.

    The plan is to use two 6-5/8-inch hoses to blast 16.4-pound-per-gallon mud into the choke and kill lines of the failed blowout preventer, in hopes of stopping up the four-story-tall device through which the oil is flowing.

    Salazar noted that BP had originally promised to kill the well May 18. Five days later, it had planned to do it again, and then put the procedure off to Tuesday.

    Now, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said Sunday afternoon, officials expect to wait until Wednesday to conduct the top kill, allowing engineers enough time to run tests.

    As the well kill has been repeatedly delayed, rumblings have increased that BP is more interested in saving the expensive and potentially lucrative well.

    U.S. Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt bristled at that suggestion, calling on the gathered media in Houston to combat those perceptions.

    “When it comes to containing flow or killing the well, whether you’re a member of BP, others in the industry or the public sector, we are all united in wanting the same result. We all want to kill this well and stop polluting the ocean. We are all on the same page with that.”

    Nonetheless, demands are growing for the federal government to take over the clean-up, and hand BP the bill. “If we find that they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, we’ll push them out of the way,” Salazar said in response to such demands. (AFP, May 23)

  12. “Top Kill” not working
    From the New York Times, May 27:

    BP Resumes Work to Plug Oil Leak After Facing Setback
    HOUSTON — BP on Thursday night restarted its most ambitious effort yet to plug the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, trying to revive hopes that it might cap the well with a “top kill” technique that involved pumping heavy drilling liquids to counteract the pressure of the gushing oil.

    BP officials, who along with government officials created the impression early in the day that the strategy was working, disclosed later that they had stopped pumping the night before when engineers saw that too much of the drilling fluid was escaping along with the oil.

    It was the latest setback in the effort to shut off the leaking oil, which federal officials said was pouring into the gulf at a far higher rate than original estimates suggested.

    If the new estimates are accurate, the spill would be far bigger than the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 and the worst in United States history.

    Which brings us to…

  13. “Biggest spill in US history”
    From the New York Times, May 27:

    Estimates Suggest Spill Is Biggest in U.S. History
    Federal officials said Thursday that far more oil than they originally estimated was probably pouring into the Gulf of Mexico on a daily basis since the collapse of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.

    The new estimate—12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day—is two to five times higher than the 5,000 barrels a day figure given by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on April 28, and establishes the oil spill as the largest in American history.

    The government has been harshly criticized by scientists for underestimating the rate of the flow and for what appears to be its reluctance to force BP, the oil giant that owned the lease on the well, to more precisely measure the rate at which oil was gushing from the pipe into the gulf. The company’s liability is in part determined by the extent of the spill.

    President Obama, speaking at a White House news conference on Thursday, admitted that his administration, in dealing with BP officials, “should have pushed them sooner,” to release images that would have helped in estimating the flow rate.

    “There was a lag of several weeks that I think—that I think shouldn’t have happened,” Mr. Obama said.

  14. Lessons of Ixtoc I
    With BP’s “top kill” effort faltering, media reports are recalling the June 1979 Ixtoc I disaster in Mexican waters of the Gulf—the Bay of Campeche, off the Yucatan Peninsula, to be exact. As as with Deepwater Horizon, Ixtoc I was being drilled (by the Mexican state oil company Pemex) when it suffered a catastrophic wellhead blowout, leading to the platform’s collapse. Over the next nine months, it spewed some 3.3 million barrels into the waters of the Gulf—making it the largest accidental oil spill in history. It is exceeded only by the intentional spilling of some 8 million barrels into the Persian Gulf by the Iraqi army in the 1991 Gulf War.

    The Ixtoc I disaster happened in much more shallow waters than Deepwater Horizon. The oil gushed right to the surface, and currents slowly took it north as far as Texas, killing turtles, sea birds and other sea life. Pemex tried stopping the gusher with a dome (subbed a “sombrero”), but this failed. It was only brought under control with the drilling of a relief well to relieve the pressure. BP is to drill two relief wells to similarly halt the current gusher—but says that completion is at least two months away… (LAT, AP, May 30; Investopedia, May 26; McClatchy Newspapers, May 22; Incident News, NOAA)

  15. Justice Department to launch criminal probe of BP oil spill
    US Attorney General Eric Holder announced June 1 that the Department of Justice is reviewing whether any criminal or civil laws were violated by BP resulting in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Holder cited several statutes being examined by government lawyers including the Clean Water Act and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. The Clean Water Act includes both civil and criminal penalties, and the Oil Pollution Act can be used to hold parties liable for cleanup costs. Holder reiterated the government’s commitment to ensuring that justice is served: “[E]very cent of taxpayer money will be repaid and damages to the environment and wildlife will be reimbursed. We will make certain that those responsible clean up the mess they have made and restore or replace the natural resources lost or injured in this tragedy. And we will prosecute to the full extent any violations of the law.” (Jurist, June 1)

  16. “Cut and cap” hits snag
    From the NY Daily News, June 2:

    [BP’s] “top kill” solution – where mud was shoved into the gushing well in hopes of plugging it long enough to permanently cement the hole shut – failed miserably and was stopped last weekend.

    Tuesday, BP’s “cut and cap” try hit a snag, literally, as the saw used to sever a pipe leading to the well became stuck.

    Whenever the saw is removed and cutting resumes, the plan calls for a containment dome to sit atop the well.

    But don’t hold your breath.

    Once the 20-inch pipe sliced open, the rate of oil bleeding into the Gulf will temporarily surge until the 21-inch cap is placed over it by robots. “An engineer’s nightmare,” one LSU professor said.

    Even if the plan works, it is only aimed at containing the oil spill, not stopping it.

    BP says it will take at least two months to drill a relief well, viewed as the best chance to stop the non-stop underwater oil geyser.

  17. Oil hits Florida coast; will “cut and cap” backfire?
    For the first time, the impact of the worst oil spill in US history began to be felt in Florida—on Pensacola Beach, where 11 BP crews began cleanup operation June 4. The brunt of the spill has thus far fell on southern Louisiana, where oil struck the Queen Bess Island Pelican Rookery, coating 60 birds, including 41 pelicans. It has also ravaged marshland and crippled the state’s fishing industry. (Miami Herald, June 5)

    The oil has now reached the shores of four states—Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida—turning their marshlands into death zones for wildlife and staining their beaches rust and crimson in an affliction that some said recalled biblical plagues. Six weeks after the April 20 oil rig explosion, the well has leaked somewhere between 22 million and 47 million gallons of oil, by government estimates. (AP, June 4)

    BP now reports that the “cut and cap” operation is working But the Coast Guard’s Admiral Thad Allen said June 4 that the cap placed over the leaking well was only collecting oil at a rate of 42,000 gallons a day. Recent estimates put the leak’s flow at 500,000 to a million gallons a day. That figure may have increased by 20% after the pipe at the top of the blowout preventer was cut off during BP’s latest attempt to staunch the flow.

    “If the cap doesn’t work, we’re going to have three times the amount of oil in the Gulf of Mexico,” conservationist Rick Steiner told MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann June 3. As much as 46 million gallons have already leaked into the Gulf. If the “cut and cap” operation fails there could be more than 138 million gallons of oil spilled before a relief well is finished in August. (Raw Story, June 4)

    BP chief Tony Hayward hailed the cutting of the pipe as an “important milestone.” But even a best-scenario promises further grave damage. A detailed computer modelling study indicates that oil from the spill might extend along thousands of miles of the Atlantic coast and open ocean in the coming weeks. The National Center for Atmospheric Research said once oil entered the “Loop Current,” part of the Gulf Stream which sweeps around the Florida panhandle, it would be only weeks before it reached Florida’s Atlantic shores. (BBC, June 3)

  18. 30 years of pelican protection shot to hell…
    This story leads with a photo of a pelican so completely covered in oil that it looks like a piece of oily mud that his been shaped into the vague form of a pelican. From the LAT’s Greenspace blog:

    Gulf oil spill washes over a pelican rookery
    When Louisiana brown pelicans, an endangered species, were reintroduced into the wild in the 1970s, Queen Bess Island was the first place where fledglings were nurtured. They flourished there. The population grew and finally was declared secure only eight years ago.

    But today, the pelicans, Louisiana’s state birds, are among the wildlife most affected by BP’s massive oil spill. Driven by strong winds and tides, oil began washing onto the Queen Bess Island Pelican Rookery Thursday, coating 60 birds, including 41 pelicans, with oil. More avian victims were expected Friday.

    “These birds are being rescued and transported to the Fort Jackson Rehabilitation Center by well-trained and knowledgeable wildlife responders, veterinarians, biologists and wildlife rehabilitators,” the Unified Command, the umbrella group of state, federal and private officials, reported from Houma, La. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and a team of other wildlife responders…will continue to work around the clock to restore the rookery and its natural habitat.”

    The sudden escalation in the number of oil-coated birds came after six weeks where wildlife officials barely had enough to do, with fewer than a half dozen birds a day coming into Louisiana’s rescue center. Federal wildlife experts Thursday released two rescued and cleaned birds back into the wild, raising the total to 24.

    As of Friday morning, officials reported 527 dead birds, of which 38 were visibly oiled. Another 85 visibly oiled birds have been brought in for rehab. Also found: 235 dead sea turtles, two of which were visibly oiled; 27 sea turtles brought in for rehab, of which 24 were visibly oiled; 30 dead mammals, including dolphins and one visibly oiled brought in for rehab. Even if creatures are not visibly oiled, they may suffer by ingesting oil.
    The birds transported Thursday were being kept in wooden pens with mesh covers, and warmed by heat lamps until they can be washed.

    The New York Daily News this week quoted an unidentified cleanup worker alleging that BP has ordered its contractors not to publicize the plight of oiled birds. “There is a lot of coverup for BP,” he said, according to the News. “They specifically informed us that they don’t want these pictures of the dead animals. They know the ocean will wipe away most of the evidence.”

  19. Gulf oil leak may be bigger than BP says
    From AP, June 9:

    NEW ORLEANS — While BP is capturing more oil from its blown-out well with every passing day, scientists on a team analyzing the flow said Tuesday that the amount of crude still escaping into the Gulf of Mexico may be considerably greater than what the government and the company have claimed.

    Their assertions — combined with BP’s rush to build a bigger cap and its apparent difficulty in immediately processing all the oil being collected — have only added to the impression that the company is still floundering in dealing with the catastrophe.

    The cap that was put on the ruptured well last week collected about 620,000 gallons of oil on Monday and another 330,000 from midnight to noon on Tuesday and funneled it to a ship at the surface, said Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government’s point man on the crisis. That would mean the cap is capturing better than half of the oil, based on the government’s estimate that around 600,000 to 1.2 million gallons a day are leaking from the bottom of the sea.


    A team of researchers and government officials assembled by the Coast Guard and run by the director of the U.S. Geological Survey is studying the flow rate and hopes to present its latest findings in the coming days on what is already the biggest oil spill in U.S. history.

    In an interview with The Associated Press, team member and Purdue University engineering professor Steve Wereley said it was a “reasonable conclusion” but not the team’s final one to say that the daily flow rate is, in fact, somewhere between 798,000 gallons and 1.8 million gallons.

    “BP is claiming they’re capturing the majority of the flow, which I think is going to be proven wrong in short order,” Wereley said. “Why don’t they show the American public the before-and-after shots?”

    He added: “It’s strictly an estimation, and they are portraying it as fact.”

  20. US confirms second Gulf spill
    From CNBC, June 9:

    The U.S. Department of Interior confirmed Tuesday that oil has been leaking from a non-BP well into the Gulf of Mexico, but put the size of the leak at less than a barrel a day.

    “Small amounts of oil—an average of less than one-third of a barrel per day—have been leaking” from wells operated by privately held oil exploration company Taylor Energy, the Interior Department said late Tuesday.

    Taylor confirmed the leak in a statement after markets closed, but called it “minimal” and said the resulting oil sheen never made landfall.

  21. Oil spill flow exceeds low end of government estimates
    From International Business Times, June 9:

    The amount of oil flowing into the Gulf of Mexico from a ruptured BP well is now exceeding the low end of official government estimates, as the company works to adjust its containment system to capture more oil.

    Approximately 15,000 barrels of oil were captured from the well on Tuesday, an amount in-between the May 27 government flow estimate of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels of oil. The company had captured over 14,000 barrels of oil on Monday. An undetermined amount of oil, however, has conmtinued to leak from the well, which was ruptured in an April 20 explosion.

    BP has been diverting oil from the well, located 5,000 feet below the surface, since last Thursday. A containment cap connecting a mile long pipe to a container ship above has been sending oil into a container ship above…

    BP will know the limits of its current containment system within the next day or two, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said on Tuesday.

    Rough estimates of oil spilled into the gulf so far range between 25 million and 35 million barrels, at 42 gallons a barel, based on calculations made from the official daily flow rates.

  22. Gulf oil flow estimate revised upwards —again
    From AP, June 10:

    Researchers studying the flow of oil from the blown-out well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico say as much as twice the amount of oil than previously thought may have been spewing into the sea.

    The head of the group analyzing data and images said Thursday that as many as 50,000 barrels— or 2.1 million gallons—of oil may have been flowing daily from the well before the riser was cut on June 3 as part of BP’s latest containment effort.

    The government has previously estimated that 12,000 to 25,000 barrels of oil—or 504,000 to 1.05 million gallons a day—had been leaking from the well before the riser cut.

    Thursday’s new figures were announced by U.S. Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt. No estimates were given for the amount of oil gushing from the well after the June 3 riser cut.

  23. Gulf oil flow estimate revised upwards —again
    From Yobie Benjamin‘s Hacking Capitalism blog on SFGate, June 15:

    The Flow Rate Technical Group, which was created federal government to accurately gauge the oil being released into the Gulf after questions were raised about BP’s own estimates, has sharply increased its estimate of the flow rate from BP’s out-of-control well today Tuesday.

    The Flow Rate Technical Group said that as much as 60,000 barrels a day could be flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. That is roughly 2.5 million gallons a day, and it means an amount equal to the Exxon Valdez spill could be gushing from the well about every four days. It is the fourth time the Flow Rate Technical Group has had to increase its estimate of how much oil is pouring into gulf.

    Again… 2.5 million gallons per day could be gushing from the well. Every four days we get an Exxon Valdez sized catastrophe. Another way to count—143,640,000 gallons of oil could have been spilled since the start of the disaster 57 days ago

    This absolutely blows! It is the saddest and most despondent news of the day… and the sad fact is it could be higher. Much higher.

    Energy Secretary Steven Chu was personally involved in asking BP to put in new pressure gauges. The team then used those pressure readings to help make the latest estimate. The pressure readings plus the high-resolution video reluctantly released by BP led the team to sharply increase the flow rate.

    Considering BP is able to collect 15,800 barrels a day with the containment cap, there is so much light Louisiana crude gushing into the gulf.

    The government needs to demand full public access to real time high definition video feeds from BP to get even more accurate flow information.

  24. Oil company bullshit flow continues unabated
    Boy, did The Onion ever get this one right. From the New York Times, June 16:

    Oil executives say Gulf spill is an aberration
    WASHINGTON The chairmen of four of the world’s largest oil companies broke their nearly two-month silence on the major spill in the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday and publicly blamed BP for mishandling the well that caused the disaster.

    Seeking to insulate their companies from the continuing crisis in the gulf and the political backlash in Washington, the leaders of Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Shell and ConocoPhillips insisted at a congressional hearing that they would not have made the mistakes that led to the well explosion and the deaths of 11 rig workers April 20.

    “We would not have drilled the well the way they did,” said Rex Tillerson, chief executive of Exxon Mobil.

    “It certainly appears that not all the standards that we would recommend or that we would employ were in place,” said John Watson, chairman of Chevron.

    “It’s not a well that we would have drilled in that mechanical setup,” said Marvin Odum, president of Shell.

    The hearing was an opportunity for three dozen members of Congress to vent their frustration at top executives of the world’s largest privately owned oil companies. The occasion was reminiscent of the 1994 hearing before a panel of the same committee – the House Energy and Commerce Committee – at which the chief executives of the major tobacco companies were grilled on the dangers of their products. Top banking executives recently got the same treatment.

    The oil company leaders presented a similar tableau Tuesday – a group of middle-aged, dark-suited executives raising their right hands in preparation for nearly five hours of hostile interrogation.

    Democrats generally were seeking confessions of error and expressions of regret. Republicans focused more on the economic impact of the spill and the moratorium on most offshore drilling that President Barack Obama imposed in the aftermath of the disaster. They sought assurances that deepwater drilling could resume safely.

    And it sounds like they got it. What a surprise.

  25. 100,000 barrels a day?
    From BBC News, June 21:

    A BP document has revealed the company estimated that 100,000 barrels of oil a day could, in theory, flow from the ruptured Gulf of Mexico well.

    That amount, included in an undated internal document released by US Congressman Ed Markey, is nearly twice the current US estimate of the leak.

    BP says the 100,000 figure is not relevant as it is not based on reality.

    US lawmakers have repeatedly accused BP of not being straightforward about the true size of the spill.

    Mr Markey—a senior Democrat and chairman of one of the committees investigating the Gulf spill—said the document raised troubling questions about what BP knew about the size of the spill and when they knew it.

    “First they said it was only 1,000 barrels, then they said it was 5,000 barrels, now we’re up to 100,000 barrels,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press programme.

    Mr Markey, who has been one of BP’s fiercest critics over its handling of the crisis, said the figures indicated the firm was “either lying or grossly incompetent”.

    A BP spokesman said the claims were “misrepresenting” what the oil giant had said about the leak…

    BP says the worst-case scenario figure of 100,000 barrels a day was irrelevant because it was based on what might happen if the well’s blowout preventer was removed, which the company had no plans to do…

    BP has agreed to put aside $20bn (ÂŁ13.5bn) to compensate victims of the oil spill. It has also fitted a containment cap and another device to the well head, which are capturing an estimated 25,000 barrels of oil a day

  26. BP “burning turtles alive”
    From Raw Story, June 20:

    A rare and endangered species of sea turtle is being burned alive in BP’s controlled burns of the oil swirling around the Gulf of Mexico, and a boat captain tasked with saving them says the company has blocked rescue efforts.

    Mike Ellis, a boat captain involved in a three-week effort to rescue as many sea turtles from unfolding disaster as possible, says BP effectively shut down the operation by preventing boats from coming out to rescue the turtles.

    “They ran us out of there and then they shut us down, they would not let us get back in there,” Ellis said in an interview with conservation biologist Catherine Craig.

    Part of BP’s efforts to contain the oil spill are controlled burns. Fire-resistant booms are used to corral an area of oil, then the area within the boom is lit on fire, burning off the oil and whatever marine life may have been inside.

    “Once the turtles get in there they can’t get out,” Ellis said.

    Dr. Brian Stacey of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told NPR last week that, although there are five different species of sea turtle in the Gulf of Mexico, the majority of the ones found affected by the oil spill are Kemp’s Ridleys, “the rarest of them all.”

    Ellis confirmed that he’s mostly been seeing Kemp’s Ridleys.

    …Kemp’s Ridleys are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Harming or killing one “carries stiff fines and civil penalties ($500-$25,000) assessed for each violation. Criminal penalties include possible prison time and fines from $25,000-$50,000.”
    Michael suggests that, given the size of the fines BP could face as a result of the turtle deaths, the company may be happy to let turtles burn, as it would make it impossible to calculate exactly how many turtles died. He notes that the bodies of dead animals are being kept as evidence to determine how much in fines BP will be liable for.

    “Is BP destroying evidence to keep their liability down?” he asks. “Is anyone going to stop them?”

  27. BP stops oil gusher —for now
    From Environment News Service, July 16:

    For the first time since BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil well blew out on April 20, oil has stopped spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. But the crisis is not over yet.

    Following installation of a complex set of valves and pipes called a capping stack and in line with the procedure approved by National Incident Commander U.S. Coast Guard Admiral (ret.) Thad Allen and Unified Area Command, the well integrity test on the well began Thursday.
    BP installed this capping stack on the Deepwater Horizon well where it is now being tested.

    The well integrity test will last at least six hours and could last up to 48 hours.

    The test is needed to ensure that under high pressure, oil is not forced out through natural weak points in the geological formation of the sea floor, making the leaking uncontrollable.

    Gee, that sounds reassuring.

  28. Final kill of BP oil well within reach?
    From Environment News Service, Aug. 4:

    WASHINGTON, DC – The “static kill” procedure begun yesterday to prepare for sealing BP’s blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico has been successful, according to the company and National Incident Commander retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen.

    For the static kill, engineers pumped drilling mud from vessels on the surface down the well’s riser pipe and through the capping stack, a complex set of valves atop the wellhead that has kept oil from spilling into the gulf since it was put in place July 15.

    Briefing reporters today in Washington, Admiral Allen said, “We now have equalized the pressure – the hydrostatic pressure of the seawater with the pressure inside the capping stack, and basically have reached a static condition in the well that allows us to have high confidence that there will be no oil leaking into the environment. And we have significantly improved our chances to finally kill the well with the relief wells when that does occur.”

    President Barack Obama, whose approval ratings have taken a beating over his administration’s handling of the spill, called it “very welcome news.”

    Um, yeah…

    The next step will be to finish off the relief well that will finally kill the troublesome leaking well.

    Allen said, “We are about 100 feet away from where we would intersect the well and about four and a half feet horizontally away from it. “We would proceed forward in anywhere between 10- and 20-foot increments, drilling and then backing out and putting what we call a ranging tool in that will allow us to understand to exact detail through a measurement of the magnetic field of the casing how close we were coming. We will continue to do that.”

    “This job will not be complete until we finish the relief well and have pumped the mud in and cemented it from the bottom, or the bottom kill, if you will,” the admiral said.

    Most of the oil from the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico has either evaporated or been burned, skimmed, recovered from the wellhead or dispersed, according to a scientific report released today by the federal government.

    The big majority “dispersed,” we assume.

    An Oil Budget Calculator developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, and the Department of the Interior enabled 25 government and independent scientists to provide measurements and best estimates of what happened to the spilled oil.

    The report was produced by scientific experts from several federal agencies, with peer review of the calculations by both other federal and non-federal scientists.

    NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco told reporters today, “We can account for all but about 26 percent. And of that, much of that is in the process of being degraded and cleaned up on the shore.”

    “This analysis uses the recently released calculation of 4.9 million barrels, plus or minus 10 percent, and includes both direct measurements as well as the best estimates where direct measurements were not possible,” Lubchenco said.

    The figure of 4.9 million barrels is the government’s Flow Rate Technical Group estimate from Monday. Of that, 800,000 barrels were collected by BP in ships for trasport to refineries on shore, leaving an estimated 4.1 barrels of oil that entered gulf waters.

    Recall that the Exxon Valdez disaster dumped nearly 11 million gallons, or 250,000 barrels, into Prince William Sound.