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April 20 became another day of infamy in the history of the United States. The Oil Spill Commission report outlines the timeline of events as follows. The Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, leased by BP, began to experience pressure control problems shortly after 9 PM. A blowout was reported 40 minutes later, with the first of several explosions taking place at 9:49. The rig was reported engulfed in flames by 9:56. Survivors reported that the blowout came after several weeks of mishaps and malfunctions on the rig.

There were 126 crew members on the rig at the time of the explosion and fire. After the rig was evacuated, 11 crew members were reported missing and their bodies were never recovered. Another 19 crew members were injured, some seriously. There were reports that Transocean, the owner of the rig, pressured survivors of the accident to sign waivers before they were reunited with family members.

The Deepwater Horizon sank on April 22 at 10:21 AM. Attempts to shut off the flow from the damaged well on the ocean floor failed.

The US Coast Guard reported that no oil was leaking from well on April 23, but admitted the next day that oil was leaking. The official estimate of the leak was 1000 barrels a day based on estimates provided by BP.

The aftermath

The catastrophe on the Deepwater Horizon was bad. What followed in its wake was worse. Here are the things that stand out.

Supposedly, there was a National Contingency Plan that outlined procedures and responsibilities to address an oil spill of this magnitude. According to the Oil Spill Commission, there was "social and political nullification" (page 138) of the contingency plan. What that means is that if there was a plan, no one followed it. There was no stockpile of equipment. There was no defined set of procedures. There was grandstanding by state officials. There seemed to be more emphasis on spinning the spill than effectively responding to it.

During this spill, however, the Governors and other state political officials participated in the response in unprecedented ways, taking decisions out of the hands of career oil-spill responders. These high-level state officials were much less familiar with spill-response planning. In addition to the National Contingency Plan, each Coast Guard sector is an “Area” with an Area Contingency Plan created by relevant state and federal agencies. When confronted with a contingency plan setting out how the federal and state governments were supposed to run an oil-spill response, one high-level state official told a Coast Guard responder that he never signed it. According to the Coast Guard officer, the state official was not questioning whether his signature appeared on the document, but asserting that he had not substantively reviewed the plan.61 State and local officials largely rejected the pre-spill plans and began to create their own response structures.

The Coast Guard, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Minerals Management Service (MMS) were "in charge" of the federal response. However, they lacked any expertise in handling the cleanup or controlling the spill. At best, their biggest role was to provide status reports using information supplied to them by BP and its contractors. The Coast Guard also controlled access to the waters and shores around the spill. NOAA also controlled areas open and closed to fishing. It looked like bureaucracy at its worst.

BP lied about the spill volume. Unfortunately, the lies came out of the mouth of Coast Guard commander Thad Allen. Here is look at spill volume estimates (in gallons per day) over time.

Until the release of this video on May 10, spill estimates remained at 5000 barrels (200,000 gallons) per day.

The estimates continued to climb as more footage from remote operating vehicles became available. Each revision damaged the credibility of Thad Allen more than BP. People seemed to expect BP to lie, but expected the Coast Guard to verify.

There were other unforgettable, embarrassing moments by federal officials. One of my favorites was the "oil budget" that pronounced most of oil miraculously gone by the time the well was finally plugged on August 3. NOAA's attempt to discount reports by marine scientists of undersea plumes of oil is another.

Louisiana state officials never missed an opportunity to criticize the federal government in handling the spill but also elevated spill-related corruption to an art form.

More than 850,000 claims have been filed by individuals or businesses in the Gulf. Of those claims, the Gulf Spill administration has approved 300,000 claims, but BP has only paid 180,000.

As for the ecosystem, the short-term impacts were considerable and the long-term effects are unknown.

The complex, legally entangled federal Natural Resource Damage Assessment -- coordinated by an arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- is ongoing, so the official jury remains out. But, says Curry, "damage is widespread and will persist for decades".But oil and dispersants are toxic to both shallow and deep ecosystems, according to Larry McKinney, executive director of Texas A&M University's Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, who predicts the spill's effects will last for decades. The government counted significant numbers of dead animals: 6,104 birds, 609 sea turtles, and 100 marine mammals. But that only includes animals collected, Curry stresses. Actual mortality is likely to be much higher: scientists estimate that the carcasses gathered so far represent a fifth of the actual mortality figure for turtles, and at most 6% of cetaceans. The majority of animals that die either sink or are eaten, scientists explain, with only a tiny percentage washing ashore or being spotted at sea by observers.

Long-term effects will be harder to detect, but more insidious. If oil persists in ocean and marsh sediments, plants and animals will be exposed to its effects, and it will inevitably enter the food chain. "Some bird populations haven't recovered more than 20 years after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska due to food chain disruption," says Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society in Washington DC.

Studies have shown that dispersed oil is more toxic than oil or dispersant alone, and dispersant chemicals had never before been used at depth, so the effects are not yet known. Scientists are also still sorting out the effects of oil on the deep-sea environment.


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The investigation

The Oil Spill Commission pointed fingers at everybody.

The missteps were rooted in systemic failures by industry management (extending beyond BP to contractors that serve many in the industry), and also by failures of government to provide effective regulatory oversight of offshore drilling.

On the industry side, BP, Transocean, and Halliburton were identified as having made critical mistakes. However, when it comes down to specific decisions contributing to the disaster, BP had ultimate authority for each one. There is a table on page 125 that lists 9 critical mistakes and BP is listed as the final decision-maker for each one.

On the government side, the MMS was identified as not having the resources or political support to regulate offshore drilling. Aside from a slight reorganization, nothing has changed. In fact, Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) is demanding an expedited review process for offshore drilling in the Arctic Sea. Begich wants to expedite the next disaster that the industry and government will be unprepared to handle. The Arctic Sea ups the difficulty and consequences of a blowout.

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) introduced legislation last week to designate a new federal coordinator to streamline the review of oil and gas drilling projects off the coast of Alaska across several agencies and state and local governments.

The official would be able to “promote oil and gas development in Alaska’s Outer Continental Shelf and remove roadblocks halting development in the region,” Begich’s office said Monday.

The Oil Spill Commission was a complete waste of time and money. There were no lessons learned beyond how to avoid accountability. As of last week, ten new deep water permits had been issued for the Gulf of Mexico.

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The company

BP has the worst operating and worker safety record in the business. They have no peers in their recklessness. Major accidents prior to the Deepwater Horizon debacle include the Texas City refinery explosion that killed 15 workers and a leak in the TransAlaska Pipeline that occurred a year after reports of serious corrosion. They had more Occupational Safety and Health Administration violations from 2005 to 2009 than the rest of the industry combined. Despite this horrific record, BP had no difficulty obtaining drilling permits or federal contracts. And when the first new drilling permit was issued after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, guess who co-owns the new well.

And here is how BP chose to celebrate the one year anniversary of its disaster.

BP has broken a moratorium on political giving by making contributions to Speaker John Boehner and other GOP leaders nearly a year after its massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

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The Deepwater Horizon disaster epitomizes everything that is wrong with America - reckless corporations, lax government oversight, lack of transparency, no consequences for corporate misconduct, unwillingness to transition to low carbon fuels, and corporate subversion of democracy. I am having trouble finding any silver lining to these clouds of burning oil.

Originally posted to DWG on Wed Apr 20, 2011 at 07:44 AM PDT.

Also republished by oo, J Town, DK GreenRoots, Gulf Watchers Group, and Louisiana Kossacks.

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