NOAA & BP Worst Case Scenario

SUBHEAD: When Brice-O'Hara praised "the professionalism of our partner, BP," Napolitano quickly barked, "They are not our partner! Image above: Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano listens as USGS Thad Allen speaks at podium.

[Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from a long and excellent article on the BP disaster in the Gulf titled "The Spill, The Scandel and the President". This section of the piece deals with the original NOAA worst case estimate of the spill versus the BP public relations number. Again, USCG SuperFerry Unified Command Sally Brice-O'Hare plays bit part in propping up the Empire]

By Tim Dickenson on 8 June 2010 in Rolling Stone - (http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/17390/111965?RS_show_page=0)

Within hours, the government assembled a response team at the "war room" of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle. The scene, captured by a NOAA cameraman and briefly posted on the agency's website, provides remarkable insight into the government's engagement during the earliest hours of the catastrophe, and, more troubling, the role of top administration figures in downplaying its horrific scope.

At a conference table, nearly a dozen scientists gather around a map of the Gulf. Joshua Slater, a commissioned NOAA officer dressed in his uniform, runs the show. "So far we've created a trajectory [of the slick] that was passed up the chain of command to the Coast Guard and eventually to the president showing where the oil might go," he tells the assembled team. BP's remote operated sub, he adds, "was unsuccessful in activating the blowout preventers, so we're gearing up right now."

An NOAA expert on oil disasters jumps in: "I think we need to be prepared for it to be the spill of the decade."

Written on a whiteboard at the front of the room is the government's initial, worst-case estimate of the size of the spill. While the figure is dramatically higher than any official estimate issued by BP or the government, it is in line with the high-end calculations by scientists who have monitored the spill.

"Estm: 64k - 110k bbls/Day."

The equivalent of up to three Exxon Valdez spills gushing into the Gulf of Mexico every week. Damningly, the whiteboard also documents the disconnect between what the government suspected to be the magnitude of the disaster and the far lower estimates it was feeding to the public. Written below the federal estimate are the words, "300,000 gal/day reported on CNN." Appearing on the network that same day on a video feed from the Gulf, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry insisted that the government had no figure. "We do not have an estimate of the amount of crude emanating from the wellhead," she said.

Later in the video, a voice on speakerphone with a heavy Southern accent reveals that government scientists were concerned from the very beginning about underwater plumes of oil – a reality that NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco and BP executives are still seeking to downplay. "They weren't sure how that oil was going to react once it was spilled," the voice says. "Whether it was going to rise, or form layers and start twisting around." The government, in short, knew from the start that surface measurements of the oil slick – on which it would premise its absurdly low estimate of 5,000 barrels a day – were likely to be unreliable.

By that evening, the White House was gearing up for an urgent response. The president convened an emergency meeting in the Oval Office with Adm. Thad Allen, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and top White House deputies Rahm Emanuel, Carol Browner and Larry Summers. Obama forcefully instructed his team that the response to the oil spill should be treated as a "number-one priority."

But then the fog of war set in. The following day, the Coast Guard – relying on assurances from BP – declared that the spill appeared to be limited to oil that was stored aboard the sunken rig. With a worst-case crisis seemingly averted, Obama checked out, heading off for a long weekend in Asheville, North Carolina, where he and the first lady would stop for ribs at a barbecue joint called 12 Bones Smokehouse before checking into the Grove Park Inn, a golf resort and spa. Asked whether the spill would hamper the president's offshore drilling agenda, spokesman Gibbs made light of the disaster. "I don't honestly think it opens up a whole new series of questions," he said. "I doubt this is the first accident that has happened, and I doubt it will be the last."

The next day, April 24th, Landry told reporters that leaks had been discovered in the riser pipe and estimated the flow at 1,000 barrels a day. "This is a very serious spill," she said. Over the next five days, the administration took significant steps to deal with the spill, but the effort fell far short of what was needed to tackle a crisis that BP was already privately estimating could be as catastrophic as 14,000 barrels a day. A Joint Information Center – a strange partnership involving BP, the Coast Guard and MMS – was set up in Louisiana. Senior officials met with BP CEO Tony Hayward to "receive briefings on the company efforts to stop the flow." The Navy opened a base in Florida as a staging area for BP's cleanup work. Salazar ordered inspections for rigs throughout the Gulf and visited BP's command center in Houston. Napolitano began an investigation into the disaster.

The president himself was occupied elsewhere. After returning from his vacation, Obama spent Monday, April 26th palling around with Derek Jeter and the New York Yankees, congratulating them on their World Series victory. He later took time to chat with the president of Honduras. When he put in a call to Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, it was to talk about tornadoes that had caused damage in that state, with only a brief mention of the oil spill. On Tuesday the 27th, Obama visited a wind-turbine plant in Iowa. Wednesday the 28th, he toured a biofuels refinery in Missouri and talked up financial reform in Quincy, Illinois. He didn't mention the oil spill or the Gulf.

That evening, administration officials received news that – to judge from their subsequent response – scared the shit out of them. "The following is not public," a confidential NOAA advisory stressed. "Two additional release points were found today in the tangled riser. If the riser pipe deteriorates further, the flow could become unchecked, resulting in a release volume an order of magnitude higher than previously thought. There is no official change in the volume released but the [Coast Guard] is no longer stating that the release rate is 1,000 barrels a day. Instead they are saying that they are preparing for a worst-case release and bringing all assets to bear."

Standing before the cameras, a visibly shaken Landry bumbled through the reading of a press release. Although BP continued to believe its estimate of 1,000 barrels a day, she said, "NOAA experts believe the output could be as much as 5,000 barrels." The remarks established, for the first time, a figure that both BP and the government would stick to long past its sell-by date.

After he was briefed that evening, Obama told his deputies to contact the Pentagon. The following day, Napolitano declared the BP disaster, which was now approaching the size of Puerto Rico, an "Oil Spill of National Significance" – the designation required to draw on regional resources and to appoint an incident commander to coordinate a federal response. It had taken a full week after Deepwater Horizon exploded for the government to become fully engaged – a critical lapse that allowed the crisis to spiral out of control.

The White House press office organized a show of overwhelming force, with Gibbs convening Browner, Napolitano, Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes, EPA chief Lisa Jackson and Coast Guard Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O'Hara for a single press conference on April 29th. Though clearly meant to signal engagement, the all-star crew didn't have their message straight. When Brice-O'Hara praised "the professionalism of our partner, BP," Napolitano quickly barked, "They are not our partner! They are not our partner!" For her part, Napolitano revealed that she didn't know whether the Defense Department possessed any assets that could help contain the spill, and referred vaguely to "whatever methodologies" BP was using to seal the well.

Instead of seizing the reins, the Obama administration cast itself in a supporting role, insisting that BP was responsible for cleaning up the mess. "When you say the company is responsible and the government has oversight," a reporter asked Gibbs on May 3rd, "does that mean that the government is ultimately in charge of the cleanup?" Gibbs was blunt: "No," he insisted, "the responsible party is BP." In fact, the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan – the federal regulations that lay out the command-and-control responsibilities for cleaning up an oil spill – makes clear that an oil company like BP cannot be left in charge of such a serious disaster. The plan plainly states that the government must "direct all federal, state or private actions" to clean up a spill "where a discharge or threat of discharge poses a substantial threat to the public health or welfare of the United States."

"The government is in a situation where it's required to be in charge," says William Funk, a professor of environmental and administrative law at Lewis and Clark College who previously worked as a staff attorney in the Justice Department.

What's more, the administration failed to ensure that BP was prepared to respond to the mess on the surface, where a lack of ships and equipment has left more than 100 miles of the coast – including vast stretches of fragile marshlands – covered in crude. According to MMS regulations, the agency is supposed to "inspect the stockpiles of industry's equipment for the containment and cleanup of oil spills." In BP's case, the agency should have made sure the company was prepared to clean up a spill of 250,000 barrels a day. But when Rolling Stone asked MMS whether BP had the required containment equipment on hand, the agency's head of public affairs in the Gulf replied, "I am not clear if MMS has the info that you are requesting."

The effect of leaving BP in charge of capping the well, says a scientist involved in the government side of the effort, has been "like a drunk driver getting into a car wreck and then helping the police with the accident investigation." Indeed, the administration has seemed oddly untroubled about leaving the Gulf's fate in the hands of a repeat criminal offender, and uncurious about the crimes that may have been committed leading up to the initial sinking of the rig. The Obama Justice Department took more than 40 days after the initial blast killed 11 workers to announce it was opening a criminal probe.

From the start, the administration has seemed intent on allowing BP to operate in near-total secrecy. Much of what the public knows about the crisis it owes to Rep. Ed Markey, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment. Under pressure from Markey, BP was forced to release footage of the gusher, admit that its early estimates put the leak as high as 14,000 barrels a day and post a live feed of its undersea operations on the Internet – video that administration officials had possessed from the earliest days of the disaster. "We cannot trust BP," Markey said. "It's clear they have been hiding the actual consequences of this spill."

See also: Ea O Ka Aina: NOAA Insider Vents on Oil Spill 6/4/10 Ea O Ka Aina: EPA Going after BP? 5/22/10 Ea O Ka Aina: Gulf Spill 70,000 Barrels a Day 5/13/10

.

1 comment :

Brad Parsons said...

"Democracy Now!" interviewed the author of this article today:

http://www.democracynow.org/2010/6/11/rolling_stones_tim_dickinson_on_the

Post a Comment