HOUSTON (Reuters) - Nearly a year after BP Plc’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill spurred a shutdown of new U.S. deepwater oil and gas drilling, offshore regulators have begun to approve a trickle of new permits.
But the 10 new wells that have received permits from the newly created U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management so far this year pale in comparison to the rate of permitting in prior years, according to a Reuters analysis of permits.
The pace of government-issued permits so far in 2011 is about a third the rate for the same period in each of the previous five years, 40 versus an average of 119 in 2006 through 2010.
Oil company executives are more hopeful they can get back to work after months of regulatory and legal delays after the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history prompted President Barack Obama to ban deepwater drilling from May 27 to October 12 last year. The Gulf of Mexico provides 30 percent of U.S. oil production and 11 percent of natural gas output.
With crude oil prices soaring to over $100 a barrel — and gasoline flirting with $4 a gallon — lawmakers have been pressuring the administration to remove impediments to domestic U.S. energy production.
The permitting halt blocked enough new drilling that in 2011 and 2012, Gulf oil production will fall by 190,000 barrels per day, or about 12.7 percent of its current level, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the statistical arm of the Energy Department.
“You need new wells, new production coming online to offset the natural decline,” said Doug Morris, an EIA analyst.
Most new production comes from deepwater projects like BP’s Macondo, which blew out on April 20, 2010, killing 11 workers, sinking the Deepwater Horizon rig and spewing more than 4 million barrels of oil into the ocean.
Industry officials complained that lack of clarity over new rules spurred a “de-facto” moratorium on Gulf drilling that stretched months longer. With new regulations in hand, Gulf of Mexico drillers are getting back to work.
“We could comply with whatever they wanted. We just needed them to say what they wanted,” said John Hollowell, executive vice president of the deepwater Gulf for Shell Oil Company. “I think the fog has lifted in that regard.”
Stringent new requirements called for the industry to prove it had rapid-response systems that could control a Macondo-like spill. Exxon Mobil Corp and Helix Energy Solutions Group organized consortiums to provide such systems.
With that, permit approvals have begun and “continue at a steady pace,” said Melissa Schwartz, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
NOT A SPIGOT
The pace of deepwater permitting probably will be slow in coming months as the government recruits more scientists and engineers to apply more stringent rules, said analyst Kevin Book of Washington-based ClearView Energy Partners.
“It’s not a spigot. It’s going to be a drip valve. They’re going to trickle them out,” Book said.
Published: Thursday, December 30, 2010, 7:30 PM Updated: Thursday, December 30, 2010, 8:10 PM
Louisiana’s coastline continues to be smeared with significant amounts of oil and oiled material from the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, with cleanup teams struggling to remove as much as possible of the toxic material by the time migratory birds arrive at the end of February, said the program manager of the Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Teams, which are working for BP and the federal government.
There are 113 miles of Louisiana coastline under active cleanup, with another 55 miles awaiting approval to start the cleanup process, according to SCAT statistics. Teams have finished cleaning almost 72 miles to levels where oil is no longer observable or where no further treatment is necessary.
But that’s not the whole story for the state’s coastline. According to SCAT statistics, there’s another 2,846 miles of beach and wetland areas where oil was once found but is no longer observable or is not treatable.
Gary Hayward, the Newfields Environmental Planning and Compliance contractor who oversees the SCAT program, said that large area will be placed into a new “monitor and maintenance” category, once Louisiana state and local officials agree to the procedures to be used for that category.
“With rare exceptions, most of the marshes still have a bathtub ring that we have all collectively decided we aren’t going to clean any more than we already have because we’d be doing more harm to the marshes than the oil is going to be doing to them,” Hayward said.
The cleanup protocols for each state have been approved by state and local governments, federal agencies and BP, he said.
Patrick Semansky, The Associated Press
Louisiana’s senior coastal official says the state is monitoring the cleanup, and remains concerned with end-of-year conclusions that the cleanup is almost complete.
“The reality is we still have hundreds of miles of oiled shoreline today,” said Garret Graves, chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. “We still have oilings on a regular basis in areas of Jefferson and Plaquemines Parish, and there’s still a lot of oil buried back in the marshes where it was carried during high water events.
“The threat is absolutely still there and the oil is absolutely still there,” he said.
‘We know we’re not done’
Hayward does not disagree.
“We know we’re not done. We’re still working,” he said. “We have some challenges ahead of us, including winter weather that will slow us down a bit. But we’ve made a lot of progress.”
At the height of the oil recovery and cleanup effort over the summer, the response program included 48,200 workers and 9,700 vessels. As of Dec. 23, there were still 6,170 workers and 260 vessels, although not all of those are participating in the cleanup.
Patrick Semansky, The Associated Press
Hayward said that the aim is for the cleanup to evolve into a long-term monitoring program for both beaches and marshes by the end of April all along the coast, but that could depend on shoreline re-evaluations scheduled for April and May.
“We’ll be assisted by very low tides in April and May, where we can really see how things have worked out in the winter,” he said.
The biggest remaining problem in Louisiana, Hayward said, is a large area of marsh along the shores of Bay Jimmy in northernmost Barataria Bay, west of Port Sulphur, that was fouled when storm surge from Hurricane Alex in late June pushed oil into the bay system, even though Alex went ashore near the Mexico-Texas border.
“There was enough high water in the tide surge and enough oil on top of the water that it came down on the marsh surface and flattened the grass along a 40- or 50-foot swath along the marsh front,” he said. “And when it did that, it pushed the grass over and left an oily mat on the surface. That has since dried and has become a very crusty surface, underneath which there is still gooey oil.”
Cleanup contractors have tried several methods over the past few months to remove that oil.
“We tried burning and that didn’t work,” Hayward said. “We tried various methods of cutting the marsh and raking the black tarry mat up, and met with some success. We’ve tried four different ways to cut the marsh and let the young sprouts come through.
“But oddly, what we saw was that even though that marsh was quite heavily impacted, before the growing season stopped, the marsh sprouts were coming up through that stuff,” he said. “So we feel pretty confident that even though it looks like hell, that area will recover in the spring when things start to green up again.”
February target date
The target date of February is aimed at removing the threat of oil from areas along Louisiana’s shoreline by the time migratory birds return to roost or rest on their way from Central and South America in the spring, Hayward said. The hope is also to assure clean beaches in advance of the tourist season on Grand Isle, Elmer’s Island and Fourchon Beach.
Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, left, who hasn’t had much sleep in the past week, listens to BP 1st Global Properties Director Dave Kinnaird while he addresses the shrimpers and residents of Plaquemine Parish who gather to volunteer and learn how to use booms during a training session at old Boothville/Venice School in Boothville, LA., Friday April 30, 2010. According to the U. S. Coast Guard, oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil platform that exploded and sank over a week ago has reached Louisiana land in the Mississippi Delta Friday.
The 3,086 miles of targeted coastline in Louisiana, which makes up the SCAT western district, dwarfs the 1,598 miles of mostly beaches targeted for clean-up in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, which comprise the eastern district. Hayward said cleanup efforts also are aimed at February completion in those states.
“There’s a lot of pressure to get it done because of the loss of the last tourist season, and they want to get open for the winter months and they want to get open for spring breakers,” he said.
Unlike Louisiana’s rough texture beaches, a mix of sand, Mississippi River sediment and organic material, beaches to the east, especially along the Florida Panhandle, are a sugary, powdery white sand that’s more difficult to separate from the weathered remains from the BP spill.
“It’s really not oil. It’s not sticky, it’s not tacky, it’s basically a very crumbly, weathered oil residue,” Hayward said. “You can pick it up in your fingers and crumble it and it will just disintegrate.”
Mats of weathered oil
However, the cleanup plan is still struggling with tar balls and other material washing ashore from mats of weathered oil that are located in the surf zone just off several key beach areas, including Pensacola, Fla.; Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge at Gulf Shores, Ala.; and the barrier islands off Mississippi’s coast. Officials are concerned submerged tar mats may also be the source of tar balls that continue to be spotted along Grand Isle, Elmer’s Island and Fourchon Beach.
“People are concerned about the chunk of oil that they can’t find counted” in the federal description of how much oil remains in the Gulf of Mexico, Hayward said, and the tar mats explain a small part of the missing oil.
“These tar mats can be three or four or five yards wide and a couple hundred meters long, and they’re discontinuous,” he said. “They’re being found in 2 or 3 feet of water, just below the low-tide line.”
“These are areas where tar balls keep washing ashore,” Hayward said. “The shallow water (where the tar mats are believed to be located) precludes a lot of vessel activity. It’s a very turbulent area.”
Mark Schleifstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3327.Kari Huus
updated 5/24/2010 5:49:57 PM ET
The timing could not be worse for the bluefin tuna. The majestic, deepwater giant — threatened by overfishing — had just lost a bid for protection as an endangered species when oil started gushing into its spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, a part of the emergency response to the oil — the large-scale use of dispersants — could further imperil the species by sinking the oil beneath the Gulf’s surface and into the zone where its eggs and larvae are floating, marine biologists say.
The chemical dispersants — a standard tool in the oil cleanup business — are being used by the Deepwater Horizon response team to break up the oil offshore in hopes of preventing thick crude from wrecking delicate marshlands, mangroves and pristine beaches.
The federal government — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies — has signed off on BP’s use dispersants as a necessary part of the company’s damage-control strategy in the wake of the April 20 accident aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.
But the chemicals, which are being used in unprecedented volumes and in previously untested ways, may come with a big tradeoff, scientists say. That’s because no one can accurately predict how large the impact will be on the mammals, fish and turtles that inhabit the open ocean.
“It’s a whole new ball game,” said Ted Van Vleet, a professor of chemical oceanography in the college of Marine Science at the University of South Florida. “People are totally unsure as to how it is going to affect the ecosystems.”
Dispersants themselves are toxic. But a bigger concern in the scientific community is what happens in dispersing the oil, which is far more hazardous to living creatures.
Typically, dispersant is sprayed on the surface of the water, where the oil naturally comes to rest, and works a bit like a dishwashing detergent on grease. It breaks down the slick into millions of tiny oil droplets that then become suspended below the surface, normally in the top 30 to 50 feet of the ocean. There, over the course of weeks and months, oil-eating bacteria, sunlight and wave action help break the oil downinto its chemical components, which are then diluted throughout the water.
But in the interim, the oil droplets drift in the upper layer of water, where many sea creatures live and reproduce.
“The fact that (dispersants) remove oil from the surface doesn’t mean it’s not toxic,” said Van Vleet. “It moves oil down into the water column, where other marine animals are exposed to it. … It trades one ecosystem for another.”
In the Deepwater Horizon accident, the response team has used more than 670,000 gallons of chemical dispersants as of Friday — far surpassing any previous use in the United States. Most of it has been sprayed from airplanes, but the Deepwater Horizon response team also has applied at least 55,000 gallons in a completely untested way — injecting it at the well’s leaking riser, some 5,000 feet below the surface.
While the dispersant may result in fewer oily egrets in the marsh, the bluefin is one of the creatures that may suffer greatly instead. The oil spill area overlaps with only known spawning area for one of two remaining bluefin populations. This bluefin population spends about 10 months of the year in the cold waters of the north Atlantic and then swims thousands of miles to reach an area near the Deepwater Horizon well to disseminate sperm and eggs in the warm Gulf waters between April and June. The larvae float about 10 to 15 feet below the surface in early stages of growth. No one is certain whether the oil will destroy the eggs or kill the larvae, but scientists fear that could happen.
“It is a critical habitat … and this is the most delicate life stage,” said Barbara Block, a professor at Stanford University studies bluefin tagged with sophisticated tracking devices. “The biodiversity of bluefin is at stake right now. … If we lose the year (of new bluefin) it will have a very large impact on a population of bluefin that is on the edge of extinction.”
This is the spawning ground for many other species, including marlin, swordfish and yellowfin tuna, which arrive in the summer.
Some of the chemical components distributed throughout the water will remain toxic for decades, and it’s not clear what the impact could be on future generations of bluefin or other creatures — sperm whales, Bryde’s whales, offshore dolphin populations and seabirds — that fish far from shore.
Monitoring the impact of oil and dispersant chemicals on open-sea fish and other creatures is difficult, experts say, because unlike shorebirds and oysters, they are hard to count.
“It’s hard to see them,” said Lee Crockett, director of U.S. Fisheries policy at the non-profit Pew Charitable Funds environmental group. “If they die, they are on the bottom of the ocean a mile down … For bluefin and marlins, it could be several years before you see what the impact was.”
Deep sea mystery and dead zones
One of the biggest unknowns is how the dispersants might affect the environment near the well head, a mile beneath the surface. BP and the EPA have said that initial monitoring of dispersants suggests the chemicals are helping to break up the crude.
But scientists say the monitoring plan has not been made available for outside review — raising a general complaint about a lack of transparency from the oil company and the government.
And some note that little is known about the deepwater ecosystem — or how the oil and dispersants will react under extremely high water pressure, very low temperatures, limited oxygen and virtually no light. Just getting good samples at this depth is a major challenge.
“There are a bunch of things in the deep sea that we don’t know very much about,” said Ed Overton, professor in the Marine Sciences Department at Louisiana State University. “What happens if those resources are damaged? How does that affect the ecology of the Gulf? It’s a crapshoot … an educated crapshoot.”
The conditions at the bottom of the Gulf also could affect the bacteria that help break down the oil near the surface, as they are less active in cold temperatures than in the warm surface waters, and they may be less abundant in the deep.
“We know that the surface material has been degrading,” says Ralph J. Portier, professor of environmental studies at LSU. “But what about the microbial population at depth?”
Lee Celano / Reuters file
If the oil on the ocean floor is not degraded by bacteria, the danger is that it will remain toxic for much longer than it would near the surface — potentially lingering for years instead of weeks or months — during which time it could be carried to deep coral reefs that provide shelter and nurseries to many species of fish.
There is a debate about the extent to which the Deepwater Horizon oil has entered the Loop Current, a warm flow that moves water — and any contaminants in it — southeast out of the Gulf, through the Florida Straits and into the Atlantic Ocean — potentially threatening the Florida Keys and other sensitive coral reef areas.
The massive use of dispersants in addition to oil may also be further depleting the water of oxygen contributing to “dead zones.”
“All chemicals do this,” said Portier. “If we poured in 400,000 or 500,000 gallons of buttermilk, we’d have a problem with oxygen,” he said.
The other unknown
The dispersant itself, while not the main concern, also is under scrutiny.
BP has used hundreds of thousands of gallons of Corexit, which is produced by Nalco, a Naperville, Ill.-based company.
About a third of the product, which is EPA approved, is a soap-like surfactant that breaks up the oil, according to Van Vleet, the chemical oceanographer. The surfactant is not considered toxic, though some studies suggest it may corrode fish eggs, made up largely of lipids, much as it dissolves oil.
Another third is a petroleum-based “carrier” that facilitates spraying. This component is somewhat toxic to plants and animals — though far less so than crude oil.
The final third of the ingredients are not publicly disclosed because the information is considered proprietary.
Shifting with the tides
On May 15, after some initial testing, the EPA and the Coast Guard approved BP’s use of dispersants at the well head, saying they had collected preliminary data showing it was helping keep some of the oil from reaching the surface.
The same day, however, The New York Times reported that a group of scientists aboard the research vessel Pelican had identified massive plumes of subsea oil — some as big as 10 miles long and 3 miles wide. The article said that scientists on the ship speculated that heavy use of dispersants had contributed to creation of the plumes.
NOAA challenged the report the next day, saying the release of the Pelican team’s data was premature, that the interpretation was misleading and that there was no information connecting subsurface layers of oil with the subsea dispersants.
“NOAA continues to work closely with EPA and the federal response team to monitor the presence of oil and the use of surface and sub-surface dispersants,” said NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenko. “As we have emphasized, dispersants are not a silver bullet. They are used to move us towards the lesser of two environmental outcomes.”
On Thursday, the EPA issued a statement saying it had ordered BP to begin using a “less toxic” alternative to Corexit within 24 hours, even though the latter product is on a list of EPA-approved dispersants. The directive came a month after the Deepwater accident and after some 600,000 gallons of Corexit dispersants had been applied.
BP continued to spray Corexit on Monday.
“If we can find an alternative that is less toxic and available, we will switch to that product,” said Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer. “To date, we’ve struggled to find an alternative either that had less risk to the environment or that was readily available.”
In an afternoon conference call on Monday, the U.S. government said it had ordered BP to “significantly scale back” its use of chemical dispersants in the oil spill response.
“The federal government, led by the Coast Guard, is today instructing BP to take immediate steps to significantly scale back the overall use of dispersants,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told reporters on a conference call.
“Because of its use in unprecedented volumes and because much is unknown about the underwater use of dispersants, EPA wants to ensure BP is using the least toxic product authorized for use,” the agency said. “We reserve the right to discontinue the use of this dispersant method if any negative impacts on the environment outweigh the benefits.”
This is just one area in which the Deepwater Horizon oil mess has taken responders into uncharted territory.
“The science hasn’t caught up with the situation,” said Overton, the marine scientist from LSU and a member of the scientific support team for NOAA.
© 2010 msnbc.com source: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/37282611/ns/gulf_oil_spill/
The Great Unknowns in Gulf Oil Spillby Ian Yarett May 24, 2010
The deep water of the ocean is the largest habitat on earth but it’s also the least understood, making the effects of this deep-sea spill without precedent.
The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico falls into a distinct category from any other oil catastrophe; it’s the first blowout in history to release oil in such deep waters, nearly a mile below the surface.
As a result, scientists say, the impacts of this spill are likely to go far beyond the oiled birds and dead sea turtles, spoiled beaches and wetlands that we think of when we think “oil spill.” A substantial piece of the total impact is likely occurring under the sea, invisible (for now at least) but no less ominous than the more traditional shoreline effects. Far below the sea, the spill threatens organisms of all kinds and, indirectly, the ecosystem at large, though the extent of the danger is still obscured.
Oil on the surface of the ocean is a known quantity, says Ed Overton, an oil-spill expert at the Louisiana State University who is analyzing water, sediment, and other samples for NOAA’s scientific-support team. “It’s going to cause very substantial and noticeable damage—but it won’t take very long to find the marsh loss and coastal erosion and impact on fisheries,” he says. The effects of oil in the water column and at the sea floor, on the other hand, remains a mystery.
The first scientific mission to assess deepwater impacts of the Deepwater Horizon blowout, conducted from the research ship Pelican and funded by NOAA, discovered massive plumes of dispersed oilup to 30 miles long by seven miles wide and hundreds of feet thick. Though the data collected by the Pelican was criticized by NOAA as being too preliminary to draw conclusions from, scientists say the finding is not surprising and is in line with the results of previous studies.
One such study, a 2003 report by the National Research Council, considered what the effects of a deepwater well blowout might be and predicted that such an event, particularly of a reservoir rich in gas (as the Deepwater Horizon reservoir appears to be) would generate diffuse underwater plumes of microaerosolized oil much like what the Pelican scientists found.
A few years earlier, the U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) organized a study in 2000 in which scientists released oil into deep seas off the coast of Norway, but could only account for a small amount of it on the surface—suggesting that much of it remained in the water column. (While the conditions of this study aren’t identical to the conditions of the current spill, Overton says the general findings could be expected to apply).
Conventional wisdom suggests that oil is lighter than water and therefore floats, but that’s not entirely the case when a complex mixture of crude oil and natural gas is gushing from a well a mile below the surface, at high temperature and pressure, as is happening right now in the gulf. In this case, the gas can effervesce out of the oil, aerosolizing it into tiny droplets, much the way a fine mist emerges from the top of an aerosol can. Some of these droplets may be neutrally buoyant, meaning they move to a point in the water column where they neither rise nor sink, possibly resulting in underwater “plumes” like the ones reported. Adding subsea dispersants, which similarly break up the oil and are intended to prevent it from reaching the surface, may exacerbate this and could have toxic effects themselves.
A major impact of subsea oil plumes is that they lead to a bloom in oil-chomping microbes. These bugs eat the oil, but use oxygen in the process—meaning that oxygen levels in the water can drop rapidly and threaten the organisms living there. Samantha Joye, one of the principal investigators for the Pelican mission, says her team found that water within the plumes was 30 percent less oxygenated than normal. That’s not enough of a drop to suffocate organisms—but she worries that it could get there relatively soon.
There is plentiful life in the deep sea that’s in danger: fish, deep-sea corals, gelatinous zooplankton like jellyfish, and benthic-dwelling sharks, not to mention the diverse communites of shrimp, crabs, worms, and other critters that live near natural methane seeps. “It’s like a lush jungle down there,” Joye says. Even if oil exposure doesn’t kill these organisms, it could have chronic, long-term effects, like impaired growth or reproduction.
Over time, any impact on the deep-sea communities is likely to have more broad effects, since the whole ocean is connected by various biological processes. “All the different zones of life are interactive in one way or another,” says Lisa Levin, a marine ecologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
And any oil in the deep-sea environment could persist for a long time. The majority of oil on the surface evaporates, washes up on shore, or is degraded by natural weathering and oil-eating microbes. In the deep sea, on the other hand, it’s dark and still, meaning no weathering and no evaporation. Microbial degradation is pretty much the only mitigating process—but it’s slow. As a result, there’s some possibility that deep-sea oil could get churned up by storms and have a limited shoreline impact sometime in the future, Joye says.
It could take years to find out the extent of the oil’s subsea impact, but the scientists interviewed for this article stressed the importance of beginning the search immediately, even before the gushing well is capped. “If you don’t look you won’t find,” says Rick Steiner, a marine biologist who worked on the Exxon Valdez spill back in 1989. “Hats off to the Pelican for doing what they could out there, but they might have sampled 1 percent or less of the total volume of the impact.” Many other questions about the plumes remain, Joye says, including what’s happening inside them, how are they moving, whether they’re growing or shrinking, and if there are more of them.
It’s also essential to get an accurate measure of the amount of oil being released, as this would allow scientists to deduce how much oil could be hiding below the surface based on the size of the oil slick and estimates of other factors like evaporation.
On these points, the scientific community has been increasingly critical of the official response to the spill, alleging that both the government and BP have resisted entreaties to either investigate the spill’s magnitude and subsea impacts themselves or to allow independent scientists to do so.
“These deepwater effects are not going to mess the beaches up, and they’re not going to have an immediate impact on the shrimp fishery, but they could have long-standing impacts,” Joye says. These hidden impacts—and the way they are handled—could one day be considered the Deepwater Horizon’s legacy.