Oil spill to be set ablaze

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The Coast Guard plans to set the spill caused by an oil rig explosion on fire after efforts to plug the leak have failed. Don Teague reports.

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Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 29, 2010; 11:00 AM

The U.S. Coast Guard moved ahead Wednesday with a plan to burn off some of the crude oil in a spreading slick in the Gulf of Mexico, as thousands of barrels spewing from the scene of last week's oil rig explosion increasingly threatened wildlife, fishing and tourism along the gulf coast.

Washington Post staff writer Steven Mufson was online Thursday, April 29, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the procedure, its impact on the environment, wildlife and industry and the future of off-shore drilling.

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Steven Mufson: Good morning and thanks for joining us. I'll try to answer your questions as best I can about this evolving situation.

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Clearwater, Fla.: Could it affect Clearwater beach?

Steven Mufson: Florida is further away from the spill area right now than other states in the Gulf. It would take quite a bit of time and a change in winds for that to happen, I believe. The spill is likely to first touch shore tomorrow evening in the Louisiana delta.

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Arlington, Va.: Proponents of offshore drilling near tourist and fishing areas argued that the latest technology would prevent any environmental impact from drilling. Only days after President Obama signaled that he was open to increased offshore drilling, we have a major oil spill from one of the newest drilling rigs available. The spill seems to be getting worse by the day (now it's 5,000 barrels leaking per day). Will this have any impact on permits for drilling close to shore or will proponents be successful in arguing that this is a freak accident and won't ever happen again?

Steven Mufson: There have been very few major spills, but the problem is that when there is one it is very serious. One environmental engineer who helped cope with the Santa Barbara spill way back in 1969 told me that techniques for dealing with spills aren't radically different. So this will have an impact onshore, I expect, and that will have a political impact. The White House is expected to talk about this at its noon briefing. But offshore oil is so central to US oil production that one way or the other leasing will continue, I believe.

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Alexandria, Va.: I am wondering why oil-eating microbes are not being discussed as a solution. Can you shed any light on that?

Steven Mufson: I was wondering about that and will check into that later today.

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Silver Spring, Md.: What lessons are there for states like Virginia, which want to open up drilling offshore?

Steven Mufson: I would think that this would give Virginians pause. But the lure of royalty payments might overcome concerns about an accident like this.

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Detroit, Mich.: Why is there so much emphasis upon the acoustic switch, rather than what really looks like a physical blowout? Should there be caution to attributing "cure-alls" when our apparently "best idea" for dealing with this spill is a WWII-era practice?

Are there concerns within the industry for contingency practices, or is this a sort of quid pro quo environment, where reporters won't get more than what they ask for?

Steven Mufson: The focus right now is on the blowout preventer, which BP ceo Tony Hayward describes as the "failsafe mechanism" that failed. Why it failed, what could have been done to prevent that, whether the failsafe needs a backup are all questions people will be asking.

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Washington, D.C.: The last time the Cuyahoga River burned, it made Americans start to think of the cleanliness of our waterways and environmental protection in a different way. Will burning off this oil spill have a similar effect on the national consciousness? Does off-shore drilling have the same kind of life after this?

Steven Mufson: This is a very good question, and it's a little early to know the answer. I think that the political impact, the impact on Americans' thinking, will grow once the oil touches shore and if we start to see photos of oily marine life or birds. That's why BP and the Coast Guard are trying so hard to delay that or to try to make sure that the oil that touches shore is thinner and less damaging than at Santa Barbara, where the spill was much closer to shore.

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New Orleans, La.: What's the likelihood that the cleanup process will still be underway once hurricane season begins on June 1?

And should I drive down to the Gulf this weekend because it'll be my last opportunity to see the wetlands before they're destroyed?

Steven Mufson: Thanks for this question. It reminds me that I meant to add one more thought to the previous question about political impact. One key factor in the political impact is how long the spill continues. If BP can activate the blowout preventer or somehow shut off the spill in a day or two, then the effect of the spill will be contained and perhaps the political damage will be too. But the longer the oil keeps leaking into the Gulf, the bigger the political impact.

Right now, we don't know how long it will continue. But in a similar blowout and spill off the coast of Australia last year, the oil leak continued for I believe it was 9 weeks.

As for the wetlands, I'm not sure what the impact will be. There's been a lot of oil development and punishment some of those wetlands have already endured. It's just too early to say what impact, if any, will be felt by them this time.

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Washington, D.C.: Wouldn't it be better for the environment to vacuum up the oil (and then separate the oil from the sea water and even refine it and sell it) rather than just burn it?

Steven Mufson: The Coast Guard and BP are doing that. Last night the Coast Guard said it had collected about 250,000 gallons of oily water so far by skimming it from the surface, and I believe that will be treated by some sort of separation facility.

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Burke, Va.: Steven, while checking on the possible use of oil eating microbes, what about chemical dispersants? They work well and don't require burning which is incomplete and produces air pollution.

Steven Mufson: The Coast Guard and BP have used a lot of dispersants already. Some environmental groups worry about the effects of the chemical dispersants, but the theory is that those effects will be less severe than the effects the oil would otherwise have.

As for burning, yes, it produces huge black clouds of harmful smoke. It's expected to be used only in areas where the oil in the water is relatively thick.

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Silver Spring, Md.: When will Obama retract his plan to expand offshore drilling? We do not need to further endanger our fragile environment. Oil is not the future.

Steven Mufson: I'm sure that a lot of people share your sentiments.

But I think it's worth remembering that oil will probably be part of our future even we aggressively pursue a transition to other fuels and make oil a smaller part of our future. The energy infrastructure from cars to factories to petrochemicals is enormous and will take time to change all that.

Also, the Gulf of Mexico provides 30 percent of US oil production.

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Washington, D.C.: Will BP pay the Coast Guard and DoD for their efforts?

Steven Mufson: Yes, I believe so. I'll double check on that later.

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D.C.: I haven't heard "Drill, Baby Drill" in a while. Think that will be a big slogan this election year?

Steven Mufson: I think that President Obama's decision to open up more offshore regions to drilling was, at least on one level, an effort to defuse that slogan. He said that leases would be offered off the coasts of states where there is the most popular support for drilling, and he decided to continue to protect the coasts of states where there is the least support for offshore drilling. So even without this accident, that slogan might not have played a big role this election year.

Maybe you have a new slogan to suggest?

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Burning crude oil fires: Is that a pretty toxic mix too?

Steven Mufson: Yes, and the Coast Guard said that EPA is monitoring that.

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Washington, D.C.: Are there experts concerned that the burn is worse for the environment than instead dealing with the spill on land? It seems like clean-up on the land would be difficult, but not impossible. Burn seems lazy cheap and ultimately worse for the entire world ecosystem.

Steven Mufson: I think the theory is that the smoke will dissipate without killing any marine life. The oil could do some serious damage to birds, turtles, fish such as blue fin tuna, shrimp beds, etc.

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Sequim, Wash.: Why aren't the rigs engineered so there is an automatic shutoff valve on the pipe going into the ocean floor in case the rig is damaged and they lose control over what is going on under water?

Steven Mufson: I believe that there are automatic shutoff valves and that the blowout preventer is supposed to automatically shut off the well in an emergency. We'll be trying to find out more about what went wrong there. There are presumably different designs for blowout preventers.

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Denver, Colo.: Do you think this will have apolitical impact on the administration when the oil hits the shore? I have been watching the oil leak story for days on the news but today is the first day I see the administration actively addressing the issue.

Steven Mufson: Yes, I think it will have an impact. That's why the administration is expected to engage on this at a higher level at today's White House briefing.

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Sykesville, Md.: We keep hearing that offshore drilling is safe and now it seems that something needs to be invented to fix this oil leak. Why aren't there equipment and supplies ready to be shipped to a problem site when something like this happens?

Steven Mufson: There are supplies available in an emergency, but it seems as though the inventories of booms, for example, are suitable for containing a spill that is not being continuously fed by an ongoing leak. It doesn't appear that there are anywhere near enough booms to really protect shorelines at the shorelines.

In some ways, it seems impressive that so many wells have been drilled in the Gulf of Mexico without more disasters like this. But the margin for error is small because the damage could potentially be great. We'll have to wait and see about that.

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Washington, D.C.: With oil still spilling out of the damaged pipe, isn't it a bad idea to start a fire where fuel is being pored into it?

Steven Mufson: I believe that's why the oil is corralled in fireproof booms and dragged away from other high concentrations of oil.

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Holly Springs, Miss.: Won't the burn-off raise the water temperature? How will that affect plant and animal life in the water? And don't the oily smuts that blow into the air from the fire just fall back into the water some distance away?

Steven Mufson: These are all good questions. I believe that a burn test off Newfoundland suggested that the damage to plant and animal life in the water was smaller than expected, making a burn a reasonable tradeoff -- all things being relative. They're both bad choices as one person said in today's article.

Your question about whether the stuff in the air can fall back to earth is also a good one and an oil safety expert emailed me this morning to make that very point. This is something we'll have to keep track of.

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Bowie, Md.: New slogan "Spill baby, spill"

Steven Mufson: Here's a reply to my earlier question about whether there will be a new slogan this election year.

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Washington, D.C.: What kind of criminal and civil penalties could BP face as a result?

Steven Mufson: Good question. I'm sure we'll see some lawsuits, and I believe one class action suit has been filed already. Remember though that the rig was leased by BP and operated by Transocean. That will probably affect the direction of any litigation that might arise from this.

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Staunton, Va.: Much of this spill is the tarry, difficult to refine oil -- far from your sweet crude. In fact, the difficult petroleum -- hard to get at, difficult to refine -- is increasingly all we have left. At the same time, world demand has increased. Do you see this disaster as a possible entree into beginning to talk about Peak Oil and what it will really mean for our future resources, industry, energy sources, and economy?

Steven Mufson: My feeling about peak oil is this: Given that it takes millions of years for nature to turn organic matter to oil and it only takes us a short time to find it and burn it, there must be a peak out there somewhere. The peak differs from country to country, and it can be moved by technologies that prolong the lives of reservoirs. So while the US has peaked, global supplies probably haven't. Iraq, for example, has vast oil reserves still. Sooner or later, though, there will be a peak oil year.

Your question is also a good one because US production has peaked and that is one reason companies are looking for oil further and further offshore and in deeper and deeper water. This rig was operating in 5,000 feet of water. Conditions at the well head are very dark, very cold and under an enormous amount of pressure. Working down there must be difficult.

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D.C.: Have you seen these calculations on SkyTruth?:

We have a visible oil slick covering 2,233 square miles (5,783 km2)

So if 3 percent of today's slick (173.5 km2) is 100 microns thick, and the remainder (5,609.5 km2) is 1 micron thick that's a total of 22,960 cubic meters of oil: 6,065,390 gallons. That's right: more than 6 million gallons spilled into the Gulf of Mexico so far.

Steven Mufson: I haven't seen that and I haven't checked your math yet. But it's safe to say that all estimates of the rate at which oil is leaking into the Gulf of Mexico are very very rough. NOAA gave a higher estimate last night than BP had been giving precisely because it looked at the spill from the air and sea and decided that the size suggested a rate five times greater than what BP had estimated. Your calculation would suggest that the leak is flowing at a rate three times greater than NOAA's new estimate. Maybe.

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Washington, D.C.: Well, the burning only works for the heaviest areas of oil and some expert said this morning that that was only 3 percent of the slick. Otherwise, burning is the way to go. It's very polluting to the air and kills ocean life, but ocean life is going to die anyway. Everyone and every living thing will be worse off with oil in the water and on the shoreline than with a big black cloud. And a floating wall of fire makes for great television, which keeps everyone tuned into the environmental crisis. Drill baby, drill and burn baby, burn.

Steven Mufson: Thanks for your comment.

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Baltimore, Md.: Is there any credence to the rumor that eco-terrorists were involved in the initial explosion but later chose not to publicly claim credit after realizing they had actually caused environmental damage? I overheard this while getting coffee today, and it seems a bit far-fetched. Thanks!

Steven Mufson: Sounds very far-fetched to me. But I look forward to seeing the movie. How does it end?

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Fairfax, Va.: It's clear that the valve designed to prevent this kind of disaster has failed. Are you aware of plans to add redundancies to other existing rigs to prevent a repeat of this spill?

Steven Mufson: No I'm not.

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How bad is this: Someone I work with was saying that having the wind-turbines off the coast of Massachusetts was a shame. I made kind of a joking comment that at least they wouldn't have the problems they are having now in the Gulf of Mexico, and she replied that was a dumb comparison -- that it wasn't that bad and people have been drilling for decades so one little accident is a great track record. Since neither of us lives off the coast of Alabama or Louisiana it is a little bit disingenuous to say it wasn't so bad -- so I'm asking you. Is this the classic reason why we shouldn't risk drilling in Alaska -- humans make mistakes and things break?

Steven Mufson: The energy business is enormous and disruptive almost regardless of the type. That's why many people stress the importance of energy efficiency.

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Baltimore, Md.: Ever since the explosion and spill, I have been searching the news on TV and in print for an analysis of how the events in the Gulf will affect the limited okay the president has given for offshore drilling on the East Coast. I haven't really seen any discussion of this, although I can't imagine we'll see any rigs going up near the Chesapeake Bay soon.

Steven Mufson: This is something we'll have to stay tuned to. In fact, I'm going to have to break away here to listen to the White House press briefing in a moment.

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Steven Mufson: I'm afraid I have to turn to the briefing. Thanks for your interest and thanks for reading the Post.

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