Friday, June 18, 2010

Oil Spill: Updated Headlines and Misc. Information

Coast Guard Shuts Down Oil Sucking Barges Over Fire Extinguishers &Life Vest Checks
Eight days ago, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal ordered barges to begin vacuuming crude oil out of his state's oil-soaked waters. Today, against the governor's wishes, those barges sat idle, even as more oil flowed toward the Louisiana shore.
So why stop now?

"The Coast Guard came and shut them down," Jindal said. "You got men on the barges in the oil, and they have been told by the Coast Guard, 'Cease and desist. Stop sucking up that oil.'"

A Coast Guard representative told ABC News today that it shares the same goal as the governor.
"We are all in this together. The enemy is the oil," said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Dan Lauer.
But the Coast Guard ordered the stoppage because of reasons that Jindal found frustrating. The Coast Guard needed to confirm that there were fire extinguishers and life vests on board, and then it had trouble contacting the people who built the barges.
The governor said he didn't have the authority to overrule the Coast Guard's decision, though he said he tried to reach the White House to raise his concerns.

"They promised us they were going to get it done as quickly as possible," he said. But "every time you talk to someone different at the Coast Guard, you get a different answer."

After Jindal strenuously made his case, the barges finally got the go-ahead today to return to the Gulf and get back to work, after more than 24 hours of sitting idle.
Against Gov. Jindal's Wishes, Crude-Sucking Barges Stopped by Coast Guard

Sharks Showing Up Closer To Florida Beaches
The appearance of a huge man-eating shark near a Florida beach on the cusp of the summer swimming season would not usually evoke a sympathetic response from either beachgoers or local tourism boosters.

But the discovery of a weakened, disoriented tiger shark -- measuring more than 11 feet and weighing some 800 pounds -- in the surf of Nokomis Beach last month has become something of a poignant symbol for what scientists fear most from the gulf oil spill: the unknown effects of the massive underwater oil plume and dispersants on marine life beneath the waves.

"When we see deeper-water sharks this close to shore, it leads me to believe that something is going on," said Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota. "The tiger shark was still alive, but disoriented and lethargic. That matches what toxicologists tell me are the effects of oil on other invertebrates."

Oil Spill May Be Pushing Sharks Toward Fla. Beaches

Before BP oil spill, Big Oil-led study urged feds to cut safety testing

Blowout preventers – crucial safety devices in offshore drilling that are supposed to preclude undersea oil gushers like the one in the Gulf of Mexico – have failed 62 times during testing in Gulf waters over three years.

A 2009 reliability study of blow-out preventers deployed in the Gulf of Mexico also found that four of those breakdowns were "safety critical failures," meaning the equipment malfunction was serious enough to have allowed "an uncontrolled release" of crude oil from the well bore.

The study, which has not before been reported in the press, is an example of the coziness between government regulators and the oil industry that has been much criticized since the Gulf oil spill, some say. Funded mainly by oil companies but with participation by the US Minerals Management Service (MMS), the study examines whether it is possible to scale back the frequency of safety testing required on blowout preventers. Such testing "is costly," the study notes. "Thus, a study to evaluate the relationship between testing and its impact on safety and environmental performance was warranted."
Its conclusions? Less testing. The study recommended that pressure testing of most blowout preventer systems occur a minimum of every 35 days rather than every 14 days. That would save the industry about $193 million a year, according to the study's prospectus. However, for the least-reliable component of blowout preventers – the hydraulic and electrical control systems – the study recommended keeping "function tests" at their current weekly rate.

The reduction in testing was never adopted, but the study highlights federal reliance on industry recommendations and intensifies suspicions that industry interests have been trumping US safety regulations.

"You're letting the people being regulated get too close to the regulators," says a blowout preventer expert who is familiar with the study and asked not to be named. "Is this study an example? I wouldn't argue with that. Is it too cozy? Right on."

The report's data analysis seems to him to be accurate, and he says redundancies built into the devices make them very safe, but he nonetheless questions whether the report's conclusions are justified. Its authors seem "less than enthusiastic" about their recommendations, he says, and the apparent industry-MMS agenda to justify less testing makes the report seem "precooked."

Big Oil-led study urged feds to cut safety testing

Cracks Show BP Battled Well Two Months Before Blast

BP Plc was struggling to seal cracks in its Macondo well as far back as February, more than two months before an explosion killed 11 and spewed oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

It took 10 days to plug the first cracks, according to reports BP filed with the Minerals Management Service that were later delivered to congressional investigators. Cracks in the surrounding rock continued to complicate the drilling operation during the ensuing weeks. Left unsealed, they can allow explosive natural gas to rush up the shaft.

“Once they realized they had oil down there, all the decisions they made were designed to get that oil at the lowest cost,” said Peter Galvin of the Center for Biological Diversity, which has been working with congressional investigators probing the disaster. “It’s been a doomed voyage from the beginning.”
On Feb. 13, BP told the minerals service it was trying to seal cracks in the well about 40 miles (64 kilometers) off the Louisiana coast, drilling documents obtained by Bloomberg show. Investigators are still trying to determine whether the fissures played a role in the disaster.

‘Cement Squeeze’

The company attempted a “cement squeeze,” which involves pumping cement to seal the fissures, according to a well activity report. Over the following week the company made repeated attempts to plug cracks that were draining expensive drilling fluid, known as “mud,” into the surrounding rocks.

BP used three different substances to plug the holes before succeeding, the documents show.

“Most of the time you do a squeeze and then let it dry and you’re done,” said John Wang, an assistant professor of petroleum and natural gas engineering at Penn State in University Park, Pennsylvania. “It dries within a few hours.”

Repeated squeeze attempts are unusual and may indicate rig workers are using the wrong kind of cement, Wang said.

In early March, BP told the minerals agency the company was having trouble maintaining control of surging natural gas, according to e-mails released May 30 by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is investigating the spill.

Cracks Show BP Battled Well Two Months Before Blast

BP oil spill: MMS shortcomings include 'dearth of regulations'

The federal agency charged with overseeing the offshore oil and gas industry was ill-prepared to do its job because of a severe shortage of inspectors, a "dearth of regulations," and a "completely backwards" approach to investigating spills and accidents.

That's the summation of Mary Kendall, acting inspector general for the US Department of Interior, who testified Thursday on Capitol Hill about the regulatory capabilities of the Minerals Management Service (MMS) in the wake of the BP oil spill. Those capabilities were thin, at best, she said. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has announced a reorganization of the MMS.

With just "five brief paragraphs" of regulations to guide it on how to conduct a post-incident investigations, the MMS has long relied on public forums held by the US Coast Guard rather than gathering its own evidence, she told a subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee. MMS reliance on those public hearings "rather than developing evidence to culminate in a public forum" is an approach that Ms. Kendall characterized as "completely backwards."
Assigned to identify gaps, weaknesses, and opportunities to improve the MMS, she said her office has not completed its work. However, she did identify several problems, including the following:

The MMS has about 60 inspectors to cover nearly 4,000 offshore facilities in the Gulf of Mexico.
MMS inspectors are underpaid, compared with similar jobs in the industry, and receive mostly on-the-job training using guidance and instructions developed between 1984 and 1991.
Inspectors operate "relatively independently, with little direction as to what must be inspected or how." Inspectors are guided in their work simply by a handbook of "potential incidents of noncompliance," she said.
Another major focus for the inspector general's office has been MMS regulations, which Kendall said are "heavily reliant on industry to document and accurately report on operations, production, and royalties."

Looking into MMS enforcement programs, she said the agency's enforcement office "takes action to encourage compliance rather than take a stronger deterrent approach." She noted, though, that enforcement had become tougher in the past year.
MMS shortcomings include 'dearth of regulations'

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