Politics & Policy

An Engineer Talks Oil Spills

NRO sat down with an industry expert to talk drilling, dispersal, moratoria, and more.

“My analogy is that BP gave part of the Gulf of Mexico a case of the flu. It wasn’t pleasant, and there was pain involved . . . but the patient will recover quickly now that the flu is over. This isn’t cancer . . . and it never was.”

Earlier this week came the remarkable news that the vast majority of oil leaked from the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico had been dissipated or collected. Today I chatted about the lessons we should draw from the spill response with a veteran of the oil industry who — due to his direct and indirect work on the Gulf spill — has asked to remain anonymous. We’ll refer to him as Derrick.

Derrick is a professional engineer whose career included a stint in the Exxon Valdez response team’s headquarters staff, and who went on to work in regulatory affairs and spill-response planning at a major integrated energy company before forming his own consultancy. In an interview with NRO news editor Daniel Foster, he discusses the politicization of the spill response, the wrongheadedness of the drilling moratorium, and the power of Mother Nature, among other topics.

DANIEL FOSTER: What happened to all the oil? Were you surprised to see it reported that the spill, while undoubtedly bad, hasn’t proven to be the ecological calamity many had feared?

DERRICK: No, I wasn’t. One thing to remember about oil and the environment is that it does biodegrade. For a lot of bacteria, oil is just food. In this case, it was too much food. It’s kind of like eating salty potato chips — you can only eat so many salty potato chips at a time. Same thing with this.

#ad#The whole purpose of dispersing the oil wasn’t to make the oil go away or hide it from the public or something like that. You disperse the oil because you make one big slab of oil that the bacteria can’t get to into billions and billions of tiny little drops of oil that the bacteria can easily get to, so you’re just increasing the surface area of the oil by creating millions of dots. And you’re breaking it up, literally, into bite-size chunks, billions and billions and billions of little bite-size chunks of oil so that then the bacteria can do their thing.

The other thing to remember is that bacterial activity doubles with every ten-degree change in temperature, so whatever level of bacterial activity you have at 50 degrees, you get twice as much at 60 degrees, and twice as much as that at 70 degrees, and twice as much as that at 80 degrees. So that’s why your refrigerator keeps your food from spoiling, keeps it down in the low 30s so it’ll last a lot longer than it will sitting in your house in the mid-70s.

The Gulf of Mexico is hot. That’s why it spurs hurricanes — the surface water temperature in the Gulf of Mexico is 80. The amount of bacterial activity you get there is enormous, so if you did what they did, which is disperse a whole lot of the oil in a warm-weather environment like that, it’s going to just magically disappear, in a short period of time, once you cut off the source. Now, the slabs of oil — there were still slabs of oil that didn’t get dispersed, wash up on the beaches, or wash up in the mangroves — even that biodegrades; it just biodegrades much slower, because there’s a lot less surface area for bacteria to get to.

#page#FOSTER: So there was confidence inside the industry and scientific communities that the dispersants would do a lot of the work?

DERRICK: There’s a lot of research that’s been done by — there’s this organization that’s actually part of the state of Louisiana, called the Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator’s Office. Roland Guidry’s been the oil-spill coordinator for years and years and years, and he funds oil-spill-response research at various, mostly Louisiana universities. They’ve spilled oil in marshes and they’ve monitored recoveries. They try it this way and try it that way — try cleaning it up with booms or sucking it up, try leaving it alone or try dispersing it, try burning it — in all these different environments, in all these different weather conditions.

So, only people that weren’t associated with oil industry were surprised here. People knew this would work — this was not brain surgery.

#ad#The alarmists in the environmental community are eager to make this the biggest disaster that’s ever happened, because they have an agenda they want to work. Talk to the scientists — NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], they got an incredibly bad rap out of this. I don’t know why, because they really are the honest brokers in the whole spill-response business. They’re the government scientists. I’ve known guys there — as a matter of fact, I know a guy they’ve been quoting lately, and he’s a scientist, not a shill for the industry, and when he says this is okay, he’s saying it because that’s what he thinks.

FOSTER: A National Incident Command study suggests that of an estimated 4.9 million barrels leaked, just 8 percent was chemically dispersed: 16 percent was naturally dispersed; 25 percent dissolved or was evaporated; 17 percent was recovered from the wellhead; 8 percent was burned or skimmed; and 26 percent remains at large. Given those numbers, do you think that the size and coordination of the spill response was justified, or could we have done without it?

DERRICK: There was certainly a lot of response that probably didn’t do any good, but when you get in a major spill like this, a lot of your response is politically motivated, or politically driven. We want to protect our communities. Trust me, one of the things NOAA does is spill-trajectory modeling. They’re running their models, they’re running them all the time, and they say, “The oil’s gonna go here, the oil’s gonna go there” — it’s like predicting the path for hurricanes. They’re looking at all the natural environmental factors and they’re going, “Okay, this is where we can expect to see oil in the next 24 hours, next 36 hours, next 48 hours.”

This is what the scientist should use to predict where he wants to deploy his booms, where he wants to deploy his skimmers. Unfortunately, in a spill like this, there are so many people who are so emotional about it. The governor of Alabama wants to boom all these precious areas in the state — or Mississippi or Florida — whether or not the trajectory analysis would support that. He could care less. He wants to protect his particular beaches, his particular economic areas, and you can understand that. But there’s a whole lot of response that doesn’t have anything to do with the actual oil.

Even if BP had done nothing, the oil would eventually go away. By capturing what they could, burning some, and dispersing the rest — there just isn’t going to be much left after a couple of weeks. Not on the surface. Not in the subsurface. Not anywhere. It literally evaporated, or was eaten by bacteria. The ongoing reminder will be tar balls, which tend to stick around a while.

My analogy is that BP gave part of the Gulf of Mexico a case of the flu. It wasn’t pleasant, and there was pain involved . . . but the patient will recover quickly now that the flu is over. This isn’t cancer . . . and it never was.

#page#FOSTER: What do you think the policy lessons are, now that we know how Mother Nature handled this spill? What I have in mind, especially, is the deepwater-drilling ban. How do you justify that in light of this good news?

DERRICK: The thing that I want to make sure that people don’t do is rush to judgment against dispersants. Certain scientists that are being very vocal about all the environmental impacts that you could have from dispersed oil . . . it’s like, okay, nobody said that dispersing oil is a great idea — it’s the least worst idea. You want to not have the oil to begin with. But when you have the oil, what’s your least bad alternative? And when you have a whole lot of oil, the least bad alternative is frequently: We just need to disperse this and let nature take its course, realizing there are going to be other impacts because we dispersed it.

#ad#Maybe oyster beds get harmed more than other things would have been harmed because you dispersed it and it sank below the surface of the water. There should be scientific studies of all that, but I’m afraid that there will be just a political decision saying, “Oh dispersing is bad. We shouldn’t do that. We’re just giving the oil industry an easy way out by letting them disperse it. We should make them clean it up.”

The whole point is you can’t clean it all up. You’re spilling too much. The best answer is to disperse it. So the policy lesson number one is: Don’t condemn dispersants out of hand. You very well may show that this was a great example of how dispersants can do a fantastic job.

Clearly they need to do more work on emergency response in mile-deep water. The surface response wasn’t a problem, in my mind. I think the surface response was everything you could ever hope for, but clearly we’re better at drilling in mile-deep water than we are at responding in mile-deep water, and the oil industries recognize that. Chevron and Exxon Mobil and Conoco Phillips came up with their billion-dollar deep-water response plans. That was needed, and they’re doing it. So that’s good.

FOSTER: What about the deepwater-drilling ban?

DERRICK: The whole moratoria on drilling in deep water — entirely politically motivated. And people that understand anything about drilling would be glad to explain that to anybody who’s willing to listen, because the thing you have to understand is, when they’re drilling this well to 18,000 feet below the sea floor, most of that is rock. Most deepwater wells that were affected are development wells, so you’ve already drilled at least one test well there; you know where the rocks are and where the reservoir is or may be, so the great majority of time and effort and money is spent just drilling through rock.

Well, it takes me a hell of a long time to drill through three miles of rock before I eventually get to something that might have oil or gas in it. I’m betting a lot of money that there is, but there’s no environmental risk posed by drilling through three miles of rock. That’s not the kind of thing that blows out on you. So the whole moratoria on drilling, period — you couldn’t drill through three miles of concrete if you wanted to. They could have easily said, “Well, we’re not gonna let you complete wells. We’re not gonna let you get into known pressure reservoirs.”

If they had made just that simple decision, then all those rigs would still be out there drilling right now. You can drill the first 90 percent of ten wells and then when you finally finish your studies and decide what needs to be done in the future, well, then you drill the last 10 percent, which is where you might actually have an environmental problem. But the government wouldn’t do that. They wouldn’t allow that.

FOSTER: Do you think that there’s anything to the idea that this well, the Macondo well, because of its depth and the pressures involved, was too big, too beyond our technological capabilities, and that this was inevitable? Do you put any stock in that?

DERRICK: Not true. Absolutely not true.

FOSTER: So even though it was a record-breaking depth, this was not an inevitable occurrence?

DERRICK: No. All the other majors would be glad to tell you that. Of course, they’re throwing BP under the bus, because the inference from saying that it wasn’t inevitable is that BP screwed up, and there’s a lot of people in the industry that think that’s the case.

Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.

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