Spill technologies unproven but informative, officials testify

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, May 19 -- Officials from President Barack Obama’s administration conceded on May 18 that the combined government-industry response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill sometimes has to apply unproven technologies. It also is a robust effort that is producing significant new information, they told separate hearings by two US Senate committees.

“The ability to get this oil out of the ground has far surpassed our ability to respond to the worst-case scenario,” US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson told the Environment and Public Works Committee. “Our focus has been on dispersants, and I’ve noticed for the past 3 weeks how little science is involved.”

EPA scientists are closely watching for environmental impacts because dispersant volumes are so high and some of the treatment is occurring at subsea levels for the first time, Jackson said. “There’s certainly some science on dispersants. I don’t want to dismiss the good work that’s been done,” she said, adding, “But the volumes in this spill have been very high, and there’s not enough known about a potential impact. We have no data to show that this stuff bioaccumulates. If we did, I’d quit using it.”

US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Nancy H. Sutley also testified at the committee’s second hearing on the spill and the Apr. 20 explosion and fire that killed 11 people and destroyed the Deepwater Horizon semisubmersible rig. Salazar and other US Department of the Interior officials appeared a few hours earlier before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in its second hearing on the matter.

“In terms of this incident, when you think about what’s happening today in the Gulf Coast, an enormous effort is taking place. I can’t think of anything more that can be done,” Salazar said during the first hearing. “When you think of the armada of boats which has been assembled and what’s happening onshore, it’s the largest response that’s ever been assembled.”

‘Safety enhancements’
When Lisa Murkowski (R-Alas.), the Energy Committee’s ranking minority member, asked Salazar if he expected new spill control technologies to be developed for deep water, he responded that he anticipated such a recommendation to be part of a report he is preparing for delivery to the president in late May. “I would envision a number of recommendations dealing with safety enhancements,” he said. One of the things I’ve already learned spending times at places like Cameron, which manufactured this blowout mechanism, and Varco are that there are a number of enhancements which could be made. In addition, I expect the investigations to determine the root causes of this incident will provide some recommendations.”

But some members of both committees charged that the response plan BP PLC, the well’s operator, prepared when it obtained its drilling permit from the US Minerals Management Service for the Macondo well exaggerated its capacity to respond to a spill. Environment Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) noted that she, Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), and six other Democrats on the committee asked US Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on May 17 to investigate whether BP made false and misleading statements in its initial exploration plan for Mississippi Canyon Block 252.

“The difficulty of operating in deep waters is a problem,” Salazar said. “I have watched what is going on in the subsea as [remote operated vehicles] work in a very difficult environment. I expect the president and commission will look at the capacity to deal with issues at that depth.”

BP was required, under the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, to show that it was capable of handing a 250,000 b/d spill over 30 days, Deputy US Interior Secretary David J. Hayes noted. “Frankly, it was because that spill response plan was so robust that we were able to mobilize the response we did,” he told the Energy Committee.

At the Environment Committee’s hearing, Boxer presented a video she and US Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) received from BP, following numerous requests, which she said clearly showed that the tube which the producer inserted into the riser to divert some of the leaking crude from below to a surface vessel nearby was not working. “I’m going to push hard on the DOJ investigation because I know what was said, which was ‘we can handle this.’ Then BP said it couldn’t,” she said. “This is about what people are saying on their permit applications, and what they really have in their backpacks to deal with this. I feel the Justice Department should look and see if false statements were made.”

Too soon to say
When she asked Jackson, Salazar, and Sutley their opinions, each responded that investigations establishing legal liability are still under way. “When the facts are known, the truth will be known as well. Whatever action needs to be taken, either civil or criminal, will be taken,” said Salazar. “At this point in time, many facts still have to be known. Transparency is important, as is accountability.”

Salazar also suggested that the video Boxer showed at the hearing may have been taken just after the tube was inserted and before it was fully operating a day later. “What’s happening as we speak is that pressures are being adjusted,” Salazar said. “When it will get to maximum containment under this spill containment regime, I don’t know. I expect there will be a lot more information over the next few days. There is still product escaping.”

When Energy Committee member Maria E. Cantwell (D-Wash.) asked at that hearing if blowout preventers and other oil and gas equipment should be independently certified, Wilma A. Lewis, assistant US Interior secretary for land and minerals management, said, “We will be looking at current regulations for oversight and regulation to the extent that a third party reviewer, which sounds like a good and credible suggestion, should be involved. I hope we learn from this tragedy and impose new regulations and standards.”

“The president has been clear and direct that we need to develop safety regulations on the systems,” Salazar added. “We have brought in the National Academy of Engineering on this, which is part of the National Academies of Science, so you’re on the right track.”

He also disputed allegations by Cantwell and other members of both committees that MMS suppressed National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists’ recommendations as it developed a 2009 offshore drilling plan. “If I ever hear that one of the employees of the MMS is essentially throwing science under the bus, heads will roll,” he declared. “That would not be appropriate for anyone working at the Department of the Interior.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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