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Oil spill commission questions BP's response plan

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 27, 2010; 7:13 PM

The two chairmen of the president's Oil Spill Commission, which is conducting an inquiry into the April 20 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, expressed skepticism Monday about claims from BP and government officials that initial underestimation of the flow rate of the Macondo well had no impact on the response to the spill.

"It's a little bit like Custer. He underestimated the number of Indians that were on the other side of the hill and he paid the ultimate price for that," said former senator Bob Graham, speaking at a news conference with his co-chairman, William Reilly.

The flow rate of the blown-out well sparked great controversy at the height of the crisis. The Coast Guard initially pegged the leak at 1,000 barrels a day, then upped that to 5,000 barrels, using both government and BP estimates. But the actual rate initially was 62,000 barrels a day, according to scientists in the government-backed Flow Rate Technical Group.

A persistent question is whether BP and the Coast Guard calibrated their initial response plans, at the surface and at the sea floor, to handle the smaller amount of gushing oil. Representatives of both, appearing Monday at a commission hearing at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, denied that they made such a mistake, saying they went all-out with every available resource.

"We literally threw everything at it," said Doug Suttles, BP chief operating officer for exploration and production. Coast Guard Capt. Edwin Stanton echoed those remarks.

But Graham said at the news conference that the commission has information suggesting that some of the deep-sea technology used to fight the leak, such as the "top hat" containment cap, was premised on a smaller flow.

There was also new information on how the erroneous flow estimate came to be early in the crisis. Ian MacDonald, a Florida State University physical oceanographer, testified Monday that BP's Regional Oil Spill Response Plan, a 567-page document dated 2008 that covers the Gulf of Mexico and is famous for its provision for saving walruses that do not live in the gulf, contains an incorrect statistical formula for estimating the size of a spill.

The formula in the BP plan underestimates the thickness of black oil on the surface of the sea by a hundredfold, MacDonald said. As a result, BP's "best guess" for the leak as of April 27 was 5,768 barrels, close to the 5,000-barrel estimate initially produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

MacDonald made headlines early in the crisis when he said that his own scrutiny of satellite images of the slick produced a leak estimate of 26,000 barrels a day minimum. He told reporters Monday that he did not take evaporation into account, and thus the real flow had to be higher yet.

MacDonald said that most of the oil remains in the gulf. This oil "is a highly durable material that resists further dissipation," MacDonald concluded. Referring to the spill as a kind of uncontrolled experiment, he wrote in his prepared testimony that there could be long-term damage to productivity and biodiversity in the gulf: "[W]e must remember that this experiment was performed on an ecosystem that was already badly damaged" by overfishing, coastal runoff and low oxygen levels.

Doug Inkley, senior scientist with the National Wildlife Federation, said in a written statement citing MacDonald's findings, "From Day One, BP and the government have lowballed the volume of the oil in the water and minimized the current and future impacts of this disaster."

Earlier, Graham pressed Suttles about why the company overestimated its ability to handle a massive spill when it applied for a permit in 2009 to drill the ill-fated Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico. Suttles said he was not involved in the creation of the company's Oil Spill Response Plan.

"So you're the chief operating officer for exploration and production but you're not involved in the response plan that was submitted as part of your permit application?" Graham asked.

"My duties actually are global," Suttles said, adding that the plan came out of the company's Gulf of Mexico business.

Graham pressed on: Why was there a gap between what BP said it would do and what it could actually deliver in a spill?

Suttles: "It's hard for me to go back in time and understand what people were thinking at the time." He said no one anticipated a well that would flow for weeks on end at "significant rates." Now, however, the company has systems that have been developed since the April 20 blowout that could be applied to other deep-water wells.

Graham: "Do you think that now your company can live up to the permit representations that it made as to its ability to respond?"

Suttles: "I think what's been clear is that we have demonstrated that we can contain uncontrolled flow in this particular well. . . . What we need to do is see about how adaptable is that current capability to all the situations across the Gulf of Mexico."

One theme that emerged at the hearing was that all disasters are local. Billy Nungesser, who as president of Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana was at the front line of the war against the oil, blasted the federal government for failing to provide enough boom and ignoring local proposals for fighting the spill.

"We started taking Shop-Vacs out of people's garage[s] and going out and sucking up oil," said Nungesser, who during the height of the crisis was omnipresent on cable TV as a critic of the response.

Suttles at one point conceded that little investment had been made by the industry in developing technology for fighting spills.

"Some of the tools and techniques available to use were the same ones available 20 years ago," Suttles said.

The response to the spill followed an established framework called the National Contingency Plan, a key feature of which is the formation of a "Unified Command," with federal agencies working together with private industry and the designated "responsible party." But as National Incident Commander Thad W. Allen discovered, the Unified Command confused the public, creating uncertainty about who was in charge.

"Sitting here today, I still can't tell you who's in charge," Nungesser testified. "This was a disaster from the way it was handled from Day One."

Suttles disputed that: "It was always clear to me that the Coast Guard was in charge."

A top administration official said Monday that even when a moratorium on deep-water drilling is lifted, drilling is unlikely to resume immediately because of new safety requirements devised by regulators since the April 20 blowout.

"Even when the moratorium is lifted, you're not going to see drilling going on the next day or even the next week," said Michael Bromwich, head of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

Such remarks signal, potentially, an early lifting of the moratorium, which is set to expire Nov. 30. Neither Bromwich nor his boss, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, would say when the moratorium will be lifted, but Bromwich plans to deliver to Salazar a report with recommendations on deep-water drilling regulations later this week, and that could set the stage for the administration to reopen the deep gulf to the kind of exploratory drilling that went awry on the Deepwater Horizon.

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