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Scientists warn of unseen deepwater oil disaster

Posted by Admin on June 1, 2010

By MATTHEW BROWN | Posted: Monday, May 31, 2010 4:11 pm

Independent scientists and government officials say there’s a disaster we can’t see in the Gulf of Mexico’s mysterious depths, the ruin of a world inhabited by enormous sperm whales and tiny, invisible plankton.

Researchers have said they have found at least two massive underwater plumes of what appears to be oil, each hundreds of feet deep and stretching for miles. Yet the chief executive of BP PLC _ which has for weeks downplayed everything from the amount of oil spewing into the Gulf to the environmental impact _ said there is “no evidence” that huge amounts of oil are suspended undersea.

BP CEO Tony Hayward said the oil naturally gravitates to the surface _ and any oil below was just making its way up. However, researchers say the disaster in waters where light doesn’t shine through could ripple across the food chain.

“Every fish and invertebrate contacting the oil is probably dying. I have no doubt about that,” said Prosanta Chakrabarty, a Louisiana State University fish biologist.

On the surface, a 24-hour camera fixed on the spewing, blown-out well and the images of dead, oil-soaked birds have been evidence of the calamity. At least 20 million gallons of oil and possibly 43 million gallons have spilled since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and sank in April.

That has far eclipsed the 11 million gallons released during the Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska’s coast in 1989. But there is no camera to capture what happens in the rest of the vast Gulf, which sprawls across 600,000 square miles and reaches more than 14,000 feet at its deepest point.

Every night, the denizens of the deep make forays to shallower depths to eat _ and be eaten by _ other fish, according to marine scientists who describe it as the largest migration on earth.

In turn, several species closest to the surface _ including red snapper, shrimp and menhaden _ help drive the Gulf Coast fishing industry. Others such as marlin, cobia and yellowfin tuna sit atop the food chain and are chased by the Gulf’s charter fishing fleet.

Many of those species are now in their annual spawning seasons. Eggs exposed to oil would quickly perish. Those that survived to hatch could starve if the plankton at the base of the food chain suffer. Larger fish are more resilient, but not immune to the toxic effects of oil.

The Gulf’s largest spill was in 1979, when the Ixtoc I platform off Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula blew up and released 140 million gallons of oil. But that was in relatively shallow waters _ about 160 feet deep _ and much of the oil stayed on the surface where it broke down and became less toxic by the time it reached the Texas coast.

But last week, a team from the University of South Florida reported a plume was headed toward the continental shelf off the Alabama coastline, waters thick with fish and other marine life.

The researchers said oil in the plumes had dissolved into the water, possibly a result of chemical dispersants used to break up the spill. That makes it more dangerous to fish larvae and creatures that are filter feeders.

Responding to Hayward’s assertion, one researcher noted that scientists from several different universities have come to similar conclusions about the plumes after doing separate testing.

No major fish kills have been reported, but federal officials said the impacts could take years to unfold.

“This is just a giant experiment going on and we’re trying to understand scientifically what this means,” said Roger Helm, a senior official with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 2009, LSU’s Chakrabarty discovered two new species of bottom-dwelling pancake batfish about 30 miles off the Louisiana coastline _ right in line with the pathway of the spill caused when the Deepwater Horizon burned and sank April 24.

By the time an article in the Journal of Fish Biology detailing the discovery appears in the August edition, Chakrabarty said, the two species _ which pull themselves along the seafloor with feet-like fins _ could be gone or in serious decline.

“There are species out there that haven’t been described, and they’re going to disappear,” he said.

Recent discoveries of endangered sea turtles soaked in oil and 22 dolphins found dead in the spill zone only hint at the scope of a potential calamity that could last years and unravel the Gulf’s food web.

Concerns about damage to the fishery already is turning away potential customers for charter boat captains such as Troy Wetzel of Venice. To get to waters unaffected by the spill, Wetzel said he would have to take his boat 100 miles or more into the Gulf _ jacking up his fuel costs to where only the wealthiest clients could afford to go fishing.

Significant amounts of crude oil seep naturally from thousands of small rifts in the Gulf’s floor _ as much as two Exxon Valdez spills every year, according to a 2000 report from government and academic researchers. Microbes that live in the water break down the oil.

The number of microbes that grow in response to the more concentrated BP spill could tip that system out of balance, LSU oceanographer Mark Benfield said.

Too many microbes in the sea could suck oxygen from the water, creating an uninhabitable hypoxic area, or “dead zone.”

Preliminary evidence of increased hypoxia in the Gulf was seen during an early May cruise aboard the R/V Pelican, carrying researchers from the University of Georgia, the University of Mississippi and the University of Southern Mississippi.

An estimated 910,000 gallons of dispersants _ enough to fill more than 100 tanker trucks _ are contributing a new toxin to the mix. Containing petroleum distillates and propylene glycol, the dispersants’ effects on marine life are still unknown.

What is known is that by breaking down oil into smaller droplets, dispersants reduce the oil’s buoyancy, slowing or stalling the crude’s rise to the surface and making it harder to track the spill.

Dispersing the oil lower into the water column protects beaches, but also keeps it in cooler waters where oil does not break down as fast. That could prolong the oil’s potential to poison fish, said Larry McKinney, director of the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.

“There’s a school of thought that says we’ve made it worse because of the dispersants,” he said.

___

Associated Press writer Jason Dearen contributed to this report from San Francisco.

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5 weeks of gushing oil: ‘Top kill’ plug readied

Posted by Admin on May 26, 2010

5 weeks of gushing oil: \'Top kill\' plug readied

By MATTHEW DALY | Posted: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 11:09 pm

Marking five disastrous weeks, BP readied yet another attempt to slow the oil gushing into the Gulf on Tuesday as a federal report alleged drilling regulators have been so close to oil and gas companies they’ve been accepting gifts and even negotiating to go work for them.

President Barack Obama prepared to head to the Gulf on Friday to review efforts to halt the millions of gallons of contaminating crude, while scientists said underwater video of the leak showed the plume growing significantly darker, suggesting heavier, more-polluting oil is spewing out.

Ahead of his trip to the Gulf, Obama planned to address an Interior Department review of offshore drilling that’s expected to recommend tougher safety protocols and inspections for the industry, according to an administration official. The official spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the public release Thursday of the findings of the 30-day review Obama ordered after the spill.

BP’s next effort to stop the damaged oil well, perhaps Wednesday, will be to force-feed heavy drilling mud and cement into the well to plug it up. The tactic, called a “top kill,” has never been tried a mile beneath the sea, and company executives estimate its chances of success at 60 to 70 percent.

Also on Tuesday, in Jackson, Miss., 11 men who died in the April 20 rig explosion were honored at a somber memorial service with tributes from country music stars and drilling company executives.

“This is the one of the most difficult days for many of us here. But for the families of our 11 lost colleagues, this is just another of many difficult days,” said Steven Newman, CEO of Transocean Ltd., the Swiss-based owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig.

In Washington, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he has been laboring to root out problems at the agency that regulates offshore drilling. And the Justice Department said it will take all appropriate steps to ensure that those responsible for the disastrous blowout and oil spill are held accountable.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers continued feuding over a law that caps oil spill liability at $75 million for economic damages beyond direct cleanup costs. Democrats have tried to pass a bill raising the limit to $10 billion but have been blocked by Republicans.

A new report from the Interior Department’s acting inspector general found that an inspector for the Minerals Management Service, which oversees drilling, admitted using crystal methamphetamine and said he might have been under the influence of the drug at work.

The report cited a variety of violations of federal regulations and ethics rules at the agency’s Louisiana office. Previous inspector general investigations have focused on inappropriate behavior by the royalty-collection staff in the agency’s Denver office.

The report adds to the climate of frustration and criticism facing the Obama administration, although it covers actions before the spill. Millions of gallons of oil are gushing into the Gulf, endangering wildlife and the livelihoods of fishermen, as scrutiny intensifies on a lax regulatory climate.

In a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich said he could not confirm or deny a criminal investigation was under way, but he said a team of investigators has been in the Gulf for three weeks. Justice lawyers have been meeting state officials and federal prosecutors to assure a coordinated effort, Weich said.

The Interior Department’s acting inspector general, Mary Kendall, said her report began as a routine investigation.

“Unfortunately, given the events of April 20 of this year, this report had become anything but routine, and I feel compelled to release it now,” she said.

Her biggest concern is the ease with which minerals agency employees move between industry and government, Kendall said. While no specifics were included in the report, “we discovered that the individuals involved in the fraternizing and gift exchange _ both government and industry _ have often known one another since childhood,” Kendall said.

Relationships took precedence over their jobs, Kendall said.

The report follows a 2008 report by then-Inspector General Earl Devaney that decried a “culture of ethical failure” and conflicts of interest at the minerals agency, which is part of the Interior Department.

Salazar called the latest report “deeply disturbing” and said it highlights the need for changes he has proposed, including a plan to abolish the minerals agency and replace it with three new entities.

The report “is further evidence of the cozy relationship between some elements of MMS and the oil and gas industry,” Salazar said. Several employees cited in the report have resigned, were fired or were referred for prosecution, he said, and actions may be taken against others as warranted.

The report covers activities between 2000 and 2008. Salazar said he has asked Kendall to expand her investigation to look into agency actions since he took office in January 2009.

Members of Congress and President Obama have criticized what they call the cozy relationship between regulators and oil companies and have vowed to reform MMS, which both regulates the industry and collects billions in royalties from it.

The report said that employees from the Lake Charles, La., MMS office had repeatedly accepted gifts, including hunting and fishing trips from the Island Operating Company, an oil and gas company working on oil platforms regulated by the Interior Department.

Taking such gifts “appears to have been a generally accepted practice,” the report said.

Two employees at the Lake Charles office admitted using illegal drugs, and many inspectors had e-mails that contained inappropriate humor and pornography on their government computers, the report said.

Kendall recommended a series of steps to improve ethical standards, including a two-year waiting period for agency employees to join the oil or gas industry.

One MMS inspector conducted four inspections of Island Operating platforms while negotiating and later accepting employment with the company, the report said.

A spokeswoman for Island Operating Company could not be reached for comment. The Louisiana-based company says on it website that it has “an impeccable safety record” and cites Safety Awards for Excellence from the MMS in 1999 and 2002. The company was a finalist in other years.

“Island knows how to get the job done safely and compliantly,” the website says.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called the report “yet another black eye for the Minerals Management Service. Once again, MMS employees have been found culpable of performing shoddy oversight of offshore drilling. The report reveals an overly cozy culture between MMS regulators and the oil industry.”

Feinstein, who chairs a Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Interior Department, said she will hold a hearing next month on Salazar’s plan to restructure the agency.

The oil industry and its allies say a higher liability limit would make it difficult for them to get insured and would especially hinder smaller independent drillers. But Democrats said such companies should be capable of paying for whatever damages they cause or taxpayers will get stuck with the tab.

“An independent is not a mom and pop. We are talking about major size corporations,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. “If they cause the damage, why should they not be responsible?”

___

Associated Press writers Ben Evans, Ben Feller and Erica Werner in Washington, Holbrook Mohr in Jackson, Miss., and Greg Bluestein in Covington, La., contributed to this story.

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