Six lessons from the BP oil spill

What the tragedy of the BP oil spill has taught us about regulations, technology, and how our energy diet must change.

By , Staff writer

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    Pelicans flutter over coastal grasslands as oil from the BP spill washes ashore on an island off Louisiana. The island, in Barataria Bay, is a nesting place for brown pelicans as well as terns, gulls, and roseate spoonbills.
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    A bird rescue worker cleans a brown pelican covered in oil at the Fort Jackson wildlife rehabilitation center in Buras, La. It takes
    about 45 minutes to clean a single pelican. After the oil is removed, the birds are released in an area free of contaminants.
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    Ships and drill rigs surround the Discoverer Enterprise as it tries to recover oil from the Deepwater Horizon site in the Gulf of Mexico.
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    Allen Sreiy, a shrimper, stands next to oil booms on his boat as he helps in cleanup operations for the Deepwater Horizon spill near Venice, La. Many fishermen have taken temporary cleanup jobs with BP while shrimp beds are closed.
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    Pat Fink, an Alaskan delegate to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., in September 2008, wore a construction hat promoting oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge of Alaska. The Gulf oil spill has revived a debate over where energy companies should be allowed to drill.
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For years to come, the United States and the oil industry will be absorbing the lessons of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Regulators will toughen inspections. Oil companies will adopt more rigorous safeguards. New cleanup technologies will emerge from university and corporate laboratories. And spill drills could become a regular part of coastal communities' emergency planning.

What the BP oil spill does not signal, however, is a change in direction. Even as brown goo gushes from the Gulf floor 5,000 feet below the surface, and cleanup crews struggle to halt the slick from befouling beaches and shorebirds, companies are already developing the technologies to drill twice as deep off South America, Africa, and in the Gulf itself.

Oil plays too big a role in the world economy to turn off the spigot – or to stop exploring for new sources of crude to replace declining oil fields already in production.

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The larger lesson of the BP oil spill – the environmental and economic risks of over-reliance on fossil fuel – is lost on no one. The Obama administration and Congress may push through some measure that begins to tax the burning of oil and other fossil fuels.

But economic and technological hurdles – as well as political ones – stand in the way of a significant change in the US's energy diet. Electric cars, biofuels, or some other technology will one day consign the internal-combustion engine to history's dustbin. For the moment, though, it looks far easier to create a more foolproof blowout preventer or safer drilling technique than to find a cheap, simple, and ubiquitous alternative to oil.

So what are the lessons of the Great Spill of 2010?

1 Improve the offshore police

Wanted: People who understand the physics of recovering oil from the bottom of the ocean floor. Need to be intimately familiar with the mechanics of deep drilling – in other words, know that a RAM BOP has nothing to do with text messaging. Must be tough-minded and dispassionate. Must be willing to refuse any "gifts" from the oil industry, like free hunting and fishing trips. No golf outings with industry executives, either.

This may soon be a job description coming to a classified ad near you. One outcome of the spill is the need for a retooled system to regulate energy exploration and production. Among the most pressing needs: more offshore sheriffs – people trained to inspect drilling rigs. Mary Kendall, the acting inspector general in the Department of Interior, told Congress recently that the Minerals Management Service (MMS) had about 60 inspec-tors to oversee the 4,000 or so offshore oil production and exploration facilities in the Gulf of Mexico. More and better-trained staff is likely to be a top priority.

No one knows, of course, if tougher federal regulations and enforcement would have pre-vented the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Until the massive 450-ton blowout preventer that failed is hauled off the ocean bottom, it will be impossible to know what mechanical and human errors occurred. Yet there are already a few clues about what to do better.

Take, for instance, testimony by Michael Saucier, the head of field operations for the New Orleans branch of the MMS, who told investigators about his team's oversight of federal safety standards for blowout preventers, or BOPs, often called the "last line of defense" against a spill.

After listening to Mr. Saucier detail MMS oversight of BOP testing, Coast Guard Capt. Hung Nguyen, co-chair of the federal investigative panel, sought clarification. "So my understanding is that [the BOP] is designed to industry standard, manufactured by industry, installed by industry with no government witnessing oversight of the construction or the installation; is that correct?"

"That would be correct," Saucier said.

At another point, Saucier told the panel that the MMS had "highly encouraged" companies to have backup systems to trigger blowout preventers in an emergency.

"Highly encourage?" Nguyen asked. "How does that translate to enforcement?"

"There is no enforcement," Saucier answered.

Given such testimony, experts say the key issue is simply getting rid of the cozy relationship between the oil industry and regulators. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is taking steps to cut the MMS into three parts, separating safety enforcement from royalty collections and offshore leasing.

But the Government Accountability Office, the Inspector General's Office, and engineering experts who oversaw a 30-day safety report on offshore drilling all want more. Norway, the United Kingdom, and Australia have some of the world's best safety practices and regulations, they say.

After the 1988 Piper Alpha rig disaster in the North Sea, where 167 people died, Britain separated safety oversight from other regulatory functions. Instead of a rules-based approach, not unlike that of the US today, it adopted a "case based" system that describes objectives – then challenges companies to show they can meet them.

Needed, too, is better testing of critical BOP equipment, like blind-shear rams. "What we really need are specific guidelines for how these things must be tested – and then have the results go into a computer accessible by everyone," says Benton Baugh, a BOP expert.

Yet all the testing and offshore police in the world can't overcome human error. Robert Bea, a safety engineering expert at the University of California, Berkeley, says the need is to focus on how people react and interact with complex safety systems when the siren goes off.

"We've neglected the human things," he says, "the designers, the people that operate [BOPs], the people that maintain them, the people who have to handle rapidly developing crises."

2 design a better drill rig

As oil discoveries in deeper waters beckon, giant new rigs will plunge drill bits two miles below the sea surface and five more miles into the earth – the equivalent of 29 Empire State Buildings. But such ultradeep drilling means ultrahigh pressures. At any time a bit could hit a pocket of pressurized gas that bursts to the surface and explodes. Capping a blowout 10,000 feet down would make the Deepwater Horizon problem look like a do-it-yourself caulk job.

The industry is currently working on new "sixth-generation" deep-sea rigs that experts say will be the safest ever developed – but still not foolproof in handling one of the most challenging engineering feats faced by man. The cost of the new rigs: about $500 million.

For that price, says Mike Smith, president of Bassoe Offshore (USA), a brokerage firm, you get a state-of-the-art rig that displaces perhaps 100,000 tons of seawater and sprawls over an area larger than a football field. Yet with all their sophistication and size, even such behemoths may be only just barely big enough to support the miles of pipe, thousands of tons of drilling "mud," and massive pumps needed to control a deep well's explosive power, experts say. Today's rigs already cost up to a million dollars a day to operate – an enormous financial risk if there's a dry hole or a blowout.

Huge costs. High risks. Potentially catastrophic environmental damage if things go wrong. Today's conundrum: How do you go deep without breaking the bank or the environment?

Technologies are being developed that experts say could make deep-water drilling safer and perhaps less expensive. One, Reelwell, a Norwegian technology, uses a drill pipe only a few inches across and sends the rock it chews topside for disposal through the inside of the pipe, rather than through a traditional outside "riser" pipe. Eliminating that miles-long riser avoids thousands of tons of weight, so Reelwell could be operated by a far smaller rig even when drilling in deep water.

Another approach comes from Badger Explorer, also a Norwegian company, which uses a high-tech burrowing machine. The device requires only a small exploration ship to guide it. No need for a drill rig at all.

The Explorer, a long, sleek metal cylinder with an electric auger on the front, drills through solid rock, depositing the debris behind the device rather than funneling it to the surface. The auger is tethered to a cable that powers the machine and sends back data. If the Explorer hits a pocket of gas, it moves right on. There's nowhere for the gas to go – no dangerous conduit to the surface.

ExxonMobil, Shell, and Norway's Statoil have all invested in the technology, which could be available within three years. "That situation in the Gulf was very rare," says Kjell Erik Drevdal, the president of Badger Explorer. "Still, there is always the risk that these things could happen with present technology. By doing it our way, we won't have to worry about such danger."

Sensors represent another focus of research to make deep-drilling rigs safer and more effective. They could be placed far down in the drill hole to detect gas flow, pressure, and other conditions long before they reach the surface to threaten humans or the environment. Electromagnetic technology could also be used to spot tiny danger zones and sound warnings before drill bits even reach them.

"In 10 years or less, you will see all these sorts of technologies addressing the most difficult and dangerous drilling situations – and cutting the huge costs of these giant rigs," says Stein Bjørnstad, an oil exploration expert at BI Norwegian School of Management in Oslo.

To enhance offshore oversight, some experts say data from the sensors could be transmitted to a command center onshore or to government agencies. This would let regulators monitor rig operations and provide information about what happened during a spill or blowout. "What I'm talking about is an extra set of eyes" off the platform, says Elgie Holstein, a strategic planner at the Environmental Defense Fund.

3 manage the cleanup like Churchill

In the 1990s, experts from Columbia University and Boeing Corporation tried to prod the oil industry into planning for disasters as a critical part of the so-called lean management movement. No luck.

"The industry thought it was added cost, and because incentives were heavily biased towards cost cutting, they turned it down," says Roger Anderson, a senior scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, N.Y.

One result: BP has in essence been trying to invent ways to stop the blowout in the Gulf on the fly. This may be the most basic lesson from the disaster about how to manage oil spills in the future. As simple as it sounds, oil companies need to acknowledge that catastrophic events are going to happen, even if infrequently, and build responses into their corporate DNA, no matter what the cost.

In BP's case, "it's not so much that they weren't prepared, it's that they had not even considered the possibility" of such an event, says Dr. Anderson.

Concerns about the lack of response planning carry eerie echoes of hurricane Katrina. Yet there are differences with oil spills. One is the overlapping web of responsibilities. Oil companies control the rigs where the accidents happen. Once the crude gushes up from the seafloor, other entities get involved. But government and other responders still have to rely on the companies to stop the blowout.

"The majors who go out and drill in deep water have all the expertise – the government does not," says David Pettit, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "When it comes to what happens when the oil hits the water, the oil companies don't have a monopoly on what to do. Even using the word expertise is laughable when you see what's going on out there. They're clearly making it up as they go along."

For all the complaints from state and local officials about red tape and poor coordination in the federal response, it's come a long way since the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989. "The command structure in the early days of the Exxon Valdez spill underwent a complete meltdown," says Rick Kurtz, a political scientist at Central Michigan University, who, as an analyst in the National Park Service's Anchorage office at the time, wrote a lessons-learned report on the response.

Out of that came the unified command structure in place today – delineating the duties of the Coast Guard, state and local officials, and the oil company responsible for the spill. While not everything has gone roller-bearing smooth, at least the federal government quickly designated an "incident commander and everybody knows who's in charge," notes Mr. Pettit.

Still, the US clearly has more to learn about managing cleanups. One area needing attention is what to do with locals. In Norway, the World Wildlife Fund conducts training courses for volunteers in cooperation with a spill-response company.

Ultimately, no amount of coordination may be enough to handle a spill of this magnitude. The overarching lesson may be to beware of technological hubris. "We are learning that there are limits to our technology and limits to our capacity to respond to disasters," says Steven Cohen, who heads Columbia University's Earth Institute.

4 Find something better than a boom

The ideas for new tools to clean up oil spills range from the mundane (better chemical dispersants to break up the crude so it will degrade naturally) to the exotic (ravenous microbes to eat the oil off beaches).

Then there are the two Florida contractors who have been pitching a home-grown technique, using locally cut hay and straw to soak up the oil like a chamois. They can be seen demonstrating their simple solution on YouTube, pouring oil into large bowls of water, floating hay on top, stirring it around to simulate wave action, and – voilà! – a solution almost as clean as tap water.

As the Gulf crisis sears its place in history as one of America's worst environmental disasters, the one bit of good news is that it has become a petri dish for testing new ways to clean up spills. Clever inventors, eager entrepreneurs, and ordinary citizens are flooding oil-giant BP and US government offices with ideas for sanitizing the ocean.

The bad news: No one technology exists that can do the job – and likely won't in the future. Instead, experts say, the task is so complex that it will take improvements in many different kinds of tools to contain and clean up spills.

One reason is the sheer magnitude of the task. As much as 140 million gallons of oil has seeped from the Gulf, sending deposits ashore from Texas to Florida. The oil both floats on the surface and sinks. Some of it disperses. It also takes on different properties as it spreads – from a glossy slick to thick tar balls. Cleaning beaches or harbors requires different techniques from separating oil from water at sea. This is to say nothing of what hurricanes or rough seas can do to a cleanup effort.

The main technologies used in offshore cleanup haven't advanced much since the Exxon Valdez accident 20 years ago, largely because of the lack of research and the difficulty of testing in "live" conditions. The main weapons, then and now, include oil-skimming boats, miles of oil-absorbing booms, and controlled burns. Along the shore, worried Gulf Coast residents are designing and deploying booms of their own to protect harbors, or putting vacuum trucks meant for cleaning up land-based oil spills onto seagoing barges.

In another experiment, a Taiwanese company has retrofitted a supertanker with skimming equipment that it says is capable of vacuuming up to 21 million gallons of oily water a day. By comparison, the entire emergency response from the time of the accident, April 20, to July 1 had collected only around 28 million gallons. Though the ship, now in the Gulf, is untested, BP officials are giving it a try. Experts say similar supertankers were used to suck up much of the contaminated water after a massive spill off Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s.

Government and BP officials are also testing 32 centrifuges that can separate oil from seawater, devices being championed by actor Kevin Costner. Some experts, such as Norman Guinasso, director of the geochemical and environmental research group at Texas A&M University in College Station, believe such machines hold promise. He can envision a fleet of 100 or so boats equipped with the devices that could be quickly dispatched to the site of a major spill. "That's what I would like to see," says Mr. Guinasso.

Onshore, authorities are experimenting with a microbial sand scrubber that emulsifies tar balls and injects oil-eating bugs into the sand to consume the hydrocarbons. The device, which uses microbes from the Gulf of Mexico, was designed to pull oil from the tar sands of Canada.

Still, more than technologies will be needed to prevent future disasters. More important may be a change in corporate attitudes. If the leadership of a company isn't dedicated to safety, says Martha Bidez, an engineering professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, all the gee-whiz devices in the world won't matter.

She cites the mining company Rio Tinto Alcan and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (after the Columbia and Challenger disasters) as two large organizations that have "very impressive" programs to prevent accidents.

5 Tap the power of the people

The moment Gulfport, Miss., resident Megan Jordan feared has arrived. The viscous onslaught of crude is no longer an abstract horror belonging to Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida. The first globules of oil have slipped through the Mississippi Sound and washed ashore in nearby Ocean Springs. For Ms. Jordan and her neighbors, this isn't just any beach – it's the keeper of memories, the provenance of dreams. The destruction is hard to bear.

Their passion, properly channeled, could become a crucial element in future oil spill defense. Experts say that by tapping into local knowledge – and love – communities could formulate emergency plans to bolster what residents have criticized as a slow, inadequate government and corporate response.

It's a lesson California learned in 2007, when a container ship crashed into the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, releasing 58,000 gallons of fuel into the bay. Volunteers, desperate to help, rushed to the water's edge, creating chaos. "They had people running down to the beach, picking up oil with their hands and in T-shirts and towels," says Kurt Hansen, project manager for oil spill research at the US Coast Guard Research and Development Center in New London, Conn.

But in a potentially toxic environment, federal laws prohibit – and often thwart – even the best of intentions. In order to participate in cleanup efforts, federal rules require at least a 40-hour hazardous waste course. Mr. Hansen says response times could be significantly lowered if communities could draw upon a ready pool of trained volunteers.

In Alaska, a network of local fishermen and others was formed after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. They participate in frequent preparedness drills, and officials say they feel far better equipped to handle an incident if one should occur again.

Along the Gulf Coast, volunteers have rushed to beaches, buckets and booms in hand, with mixed results. Some have simply added to the chaos of the cleanup effort. Others are doing some good. One local environmental group, Mobile Baykeeper, has received nearly 10,000 phone calls from people across the country wanting to volunteer.

In tiny Magnolia Springs, Ala., fire chief Jamie Hinton says he began brainstorming ideas to protect his area's marshlands within days after the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Colleagues from neighboring cities told him to let the government handle it. "I said, 'Are they going to handle it like they handled Katrina, Ivan, the Valdez?' " Mr. Hinton recalls. "Thanks, but no thanks. The only people I trust are my people."

He has more than 400 hours of hazardous materials training, including booming instruction, but he has something else, too – a deep understanding of what he calls "my river." The waves sometimes reach more than a two-foot chop, so he scoffed when he saw BP workers affix a boom to barnacle-laden pylons with ropes. The wave action severed the stays and the boom floated away.

He found a kindred spirit in Mayor Charles Houser. Together, they decided to block their bay with barges, flanking them with layers of boom. There was only one problem: They'd gotten permission, but when they got ready for deployment, they were told they had to reapply or risk being fined or jailed. They complied, but agreed that if the oil came near, they would act. "Sooner or later, someone's got to do something," says Mayor Houser.

John Wathen, a member of Waterkeeper Alliance, says there's no shortage of people along the coast who feel the same way, but they're being turned away by BP. He says if BP would tap into the Waterkeeper network, which spans six continents, they would find a free fount of knowledge. Instead, even these seasoned environmentalists are having trouble sorting through the bureaucratic quagmire of the Deepwater command.

"It's been an absolute fistfight," says Mr. Wathen. "We know our waters better than anyone. We're not here to sue or condemn anybody. We're out here to protect our watershed and our communities."

He echoes Hansen's advocacy for a trained network of volunteers. Residents could decide which area they'd like to focus on and take additional training in operating skimmers, laying boom, or rescuing and caring for injured wildlife.

"A lot of people are just yelling," says Jen McClurg Roth, founder of Clean the Gulf Now, a grass-roots group. "But it's about coming together and identifying the issues we can change."

6 Recalibrate our energy policy

It has become one of the iconic images of 2010: oil gushing from the floor of the Gulf, almost one mile below the surface, where it mushrooms up from BP's failed drilling rig like clouds of café au lait. The undersea feed from robotic cameras has popped up on national news telecasts and cable shows, during televised congressional hearings and presidential speeches – a potent reminder that for all the talk and technology, man's search for oil is risky and beginning to push the limits of human engineering.

It would be tempting to conclude that the answer is to switch energy sources, to the green alternatives favored by some or the natural-gas and nuclear options favored by others. Tempting and probably not doable. Like it or not, America and the world are stuck with oil for years to come when it comes to transportation. Oil powers 1 billion cars worldwide, 10,000 commercial aircraft, and thousands more ships and trains that deliver our goods, facilitate trade, and keep economies humming.

Nothing can compete with it in terms of price, ubiquity, and ease of use on such massive a scale. "If oil didn't exist, we'd have to invent it," says Robert Bryce, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of "Power Hungry: The Myths of 'Green' Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future."

So the BP oil spill may not dramatically change US energy policy, but instead delivers a warning – as did the two OPEC oil embargoes, the Exxon-Valdez spill, and the record gas prices two years ago. The message: Our continued reliance on oil carries economic and environmental risks that the US will continue to bump up against until it undertakes a coherent and consistent policy to gradually wean us off fossil fuel.

"The lesson that we should learn here is that if we took sensible steps, baby steps, instead of these grandiose [pronouncements], I think we would be better off," says Frank Felder, director of the Center for Energy, Economic and Environmental Policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

One step would be a bigger push on energy efficiency. The US could cut growth in electric consumption by 30 percent, says James Sweeney, director of the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford University in California. To get the equivalent power would require quadrupling America's nuclear capacity or scaling up wind and solar energy to 40 to 50 times its present size. "If we think all the solutions are just technological, we're not going to focus on a group of nontech solutions that will allow us to have more effect," he says.

What's striking, though, is how eager policymakers are to enact some of those steps and fearful to undertake others. On the production side, the Obama administration has moved aggressively to revamp the MMS (now renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement), appointing a former prosecutor to head up the agency and promising to hire more oil rig inspectors.

Another item in Democrats' cross hairs: a $75 million cap on oil companies' liability, beyond cleanup costs, passed in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez disaster. Democratic lawmakers and the White House want to raise the cap substantially or eliminate it altogether so that oil companies no longer have an incentive to take risky actions in the belief that their liabilities would be limited.

It's too early to tell if the BP spill will spark a reevaluation of the risks of deep-water drilling versus drilling in shallow water or on land. Much depends on whether the investigations under way determine that deep-water safeguards are adequate and that BP was negligent or that drilling that far down pushes technology too far.

While policymakers are taking action that affects production, they've been more timid about consumption. One reason is that the risks of offshore drilling and other forms of energy production are so much more visible than the risks of continued high consumption – reliance on foreign sources, greenhouse-gas emissions, and so on.

"A picture is worth a thousand words and the images [from the Gulf] bring home in a very accessible way how the oil spill has affected people's lives," says Michael Greenstone, professor of environmental economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "The difference with climate change is that the changes occur very slowly and in a subtle way that will not appear on your TV set next month."

Another reason for the timidity on reducing consumption is that the easiest fix, a tax on oil, is the riskiest politically. "A price signal on oil – that could be your climate change policy, that could be your energy policy," says Matthew Kotchen, professor of environmental economics and policy at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. "But it's difficult because it's not politically expedient."

A tax would encourage conservation and efficiency, reduce emissions, and spur the search for alternatives. The extra revenue from the tax could be used to fund that research, reduce the deficit, or be rebated back to consumers in the form of, say, a lower income tax. But passing a new tax, never easy, is especially difficult when the economy is so fragile. "Democrats clearly view that as suicide," says Matthew Kahn, economics professor at the University of California at Los Angeles.

That is why the Obama administration is pushing a cap-and-trade system to deal with global warming, under which industry would pay for car-bon emissions and, presumably, pass on the costs to consumers. Ironically, the oil spill complicates passage of a cap-and-trade bill because, as a way to gain Republican support for it, President Obama backed an expansion of offshore drilling. Now, the spill has forced Mr. Obama to issue a moratorium on new deep-sea drilling (a moratorium challenged by a federal judge). "The Obama administration is in a difficult position," says Professor Kotchen.

Thus, America's energy future may be driven more by technology and economics than political compromise. A breakthrough in car batteries or ethanol production from sources other than food crops could push the energy mix toward renewables. A sustained rise in oil prices, as exploration becomes more expensive, could accelerate a shift to natural gas and nuclear power.

With ample supplies of natural gas and coal, a growing nuclear industry, and research on everything from biomass to fuel cells, the US has a mix of ways to fuel its energy future. "For all that people say we're in an energy crisis, I look at it and say: The US is pretty well hedged," says Mr. Bryce. "For all the hand-wringing, we've got a very strong hand."

Contributing to this report were staff writers Mark Clayton, Pete Spotts, and Gregory M. Lamb, and contributor Carmen K. Sisson.

Related:

IN PICTURES: Sticky mess: The Gulf oil spill's impact on nature

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