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The coverage of the Senate Energy and Work Place Committee hearing yesterday has been rather predictable; the three witnesses from the three companies that are involved in the Deep Horizon drilling rig explosion were always going to point at each other when the question of who is at fault for the explosion and massive ongoing spill of crude oil into the source of 20% of the nations commercial fishing, the Gulf of Mexico.

However there were a few things that came out which are going to be of more than passing interest going forward that have not received the attention that they deserve. It thought I’d use this post to point them out.

"Originally posted at Squarestate.net"

The hearings first witnesses, if you can call them that when they don’t answer questions, were several Senators from coastal states. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) seemed more interested in protecting the interests of the oil companies than her constituents. Her statement started off pointing out the numbers of workers in the oil industry. Looking like a blond deer in the glare of the headlights of an eighteen-wheeler, she noted that there were 300,000 oil industry jobs in Louisiana and 1.8 million nationally. She also noted that the amount of oil spilled over our history is 1/1000th of the total production.

It is really quite sad how deeply in the pocket of the petroleum industry Sen. Landrieu is. Both here statements are true, but they are also completely spun. The number of people who work in the oil industry is dwarfed by the number of people that work in the fishing and tourism industries, both nationally and in the Gulf. There are over 2.8 million people that owe their livelihood to fishing in the Gulf, which is more than the total number of petroleum workers in the whole nation.

As for the amount of oil spilled, it is true that it is a small amount compared to what we have extracted. This, however, ignores the level of damage that even a small amount can do to an ecosystem. It also ignores the length of time that crude oil persists in the environment. For example you only have to dig down a few inches in the sand surrounding Prince William Sound (where the Exxon Valdez ran aground) to find thick, wet, and tarry crude oil. The spill still pervades the environment twenty years after a massive clean up effort. It is likely to be impacting the fish and wildlife there for many more decades.  

Still this is going to be the argument that we are likely to hear from the pro-oil folks, that we must have this resource and must have these jobs that go with it. They will try to talk about it in isolation, as if the actions of this industry do not have the potential to strongly impact the jobs of many other citizens.

Sen. Barbra Boxer (D-CA) was relentless in hammering the President of BP America on the discrepancy between what they said in their application and what has happened. BP had asked for an expedited permit to drill this particular well. Part of the accelerated process was to allow them to skip doing their own Environmental Impact Statement. The rules set by the Minerals Management Service (MMS) allowed them to use the EIS from for the whole Gulf instead of performing their own, if the MMS okayed it.

One of the things that BP said is that even if there was a spill they had the technology to handle it so there was very little chance of oil getting to the shore or impacting fishing. Sen. Boxer pointed out that having said that then, they are now telling anyone who will listen that because the well is in such deep water they don’t know how to cap it. Every technique they are using has never been used at these depths.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) made a good point is noting that trying to turn off the well in 5000 feet of water is like having a doctor perform heart surgery by telepresence . His point was that if it was reasonable to require a doctor to be closer to their patient to assure a good outcome, shouldn’t we be regulating how far away a well head is, for similar reasons. The BP President looked like he had bitten a lemon during this exchange. Clearly they want to be able to drill these extremely deep water wells.

There was a lot of back and forth about the nature of the Blow Out Preventer. For those who don’t know yet, this is type of device that is designed to cut off the flow of oil in a well that is out of control. There are several styles of BOP but basically they are all hydraulic pumps that either push blocks together that crush the well pipe or a ring that circles the pipe and crushes it closed. The acoustic actuator that is required by the Norwegian and Brazilian governments is just a final way to activate it.

While much as been made of the fact that there was not such a device on the Deep Horizon well there seems to be some doubt that it would have mattered in this case. There seems to be agreement that the explosion on the surface was not the only damage done to the well, there were attempts to activate the BOP from the surface. The fact that it did not activate may indicate that the BOP itself was damaged and could not function.

Perhaps the most important exchange of the day was when Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) asked each of the executives if they could guarantee that a disaster like this would not happen again. All of them said that they could not guarantee that a major spill like this would not happen again. This is really the point that should be brought up again and again and again.

This was an accident. It was not done on purpose (all conspiracy theories about North Korean subs and torpedo’s aside), but it did happen. There is no way to with 100% surety prevent it from happening again. The magnitude of this spill is still unknown. In BP’s application they said the absolute worst case scenario would see 162,000 barrels spilled. At the current rate if it take the expected 90 days to drill a relief well there will be nearly three times that much oil spilled.

The fact is that technology for drilling and extracting has far outstripped the pace of safety equipment. While there has been progress on dispersants other clean up items like skimmers and booms are basically the same as they were 20 years ago. If there is to be this kind of off-shore exploration and exploitation, there must be a requirement for the companies to develop the needed tools to address any problems in a more systematic and predictable way.

This was just one of the hearings that went on yesterday and it is the start of this process not the end. It is to be hoped that future hearings and reporting will focus less on the attempt to pass blame and more on whether there is anything that can be done to make benefits of domestic off-shore oil production safe enough to balance the clearly evident and enormous risks. As of now it does not look very likely.

The floor is yours.

Originally posted to Something the Dog Said on Wed May 12, 2010 at 06:20 AM PDT.

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