Friday, August 6, 2010

BP: The case of the vanishing Worst Ever

For anyone watching the recovery process for the Gulf of Mexico over the last hundred-odd days, two recent back-to-back disclosures left you holding your head and scratching it too. One revealed the heartbreaking scale of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the other reflected a disappearance worthy of the best magician:

On Tuesday the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its best estimate of the total amount of oil that's leached into the gulf: NOAA estimates that about 206 million gallons of crude — more than 4.9 million barrels of 42 gallons each — made their way into the gulf waters starting the night of April 20 and continuing for almost 100 straight days. Revised assessments from the agency officially put the BP Deepwater Horizon incident at the top of the poisonous pops: the worst oil spill in history.

That bad news, which probably came as no surprise (somehow we always knew this would be The Worst Ever) came in almost the same media breath as Wednesday’s uplifting report that, as near as observers could tell ... most of that crude oil is nowhere to be found.

Who knew Criss Angel was doing a show in the Gulf of Mexico?

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NOAA released a graphic of the “Deepwater Horizon Oil Budget,” a pie chart that showed the oil’s whereabouts, in the agency’s best estimates. It’s not so much a snapshot of an oil company’s best efforts at fixing a mistake as it is a visual testament to the restorative powers of nature.

NOAA estimates that 17 percent of the oil was directly recovered from the wellhead, 5 percent was burned, 3 percent was skimmed (despite the heroic nonstop efforts of hundreds of skimmer boats for days on end), and 8 percent was dispersed with BP’s chemical agents.

About 16 percent of the oil was naturally dispersed, and 25 percent of the oil “evaporated or dissolved,” also presumably through natural environmental means (like from bacteria in the gulf waters, or the surface agitation you’d expect from a tropical storm or two). Another 26 percent remains at large as the “residual” oil whose ultimate fate is to wash up as tar balls, lay buried in sand or sediment, or eventually be collected along the shore.

They’re debating the numbers, of course; some have called the pie chart breakdown optimistic and generous in all of its percentages. “When they say that there’s 25 percent of the oil remaining, that is almost five times the Exxon Valdez,” Florida State University oceanography professor Ian R. MacDonald told The New York Times.

But NOAA’s estimate appears to be an even-handed, nonpartisan try at finding the proportional aftermath of a disproportionately big event. If the NOAA color wheel is right, we got lucky. When Mother Nature cuts you a break by fixing 41 percent of your Worst Ever mistake, you’re shooting better than par.

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How much better remains to be seen. As BP completes the process of pumping concrete into the well (it may be done this weekend or sooner), we’re left to reckon with the future's known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Will the so-called static kill, reinforced by the relief well being prepared a very short distance away, really be the permanent solution? Or is this somehow a matter of watchful-waiting, like a penny in the fuse box, a jury-rig quick fix for the levee? And what happens to the gulf in the meantime?

The future can learn a lot from the past. On Wednesday, Dennis Takahashi-Kelso, formerly Alaska’s commissioner of environmental conservation during the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, told NBC News’ Anne Thompson that much of the greater post-spill environmental damage in such events can be a long time being discovered. Takahashi-Kelso said the Exxon Valdez spill’s impact on herring fisheries near Prince William Sound wasn’t fully discerned for two years.

So we’ll see. The surface oil that once resembled chocolate pudding floating on the water is largely gone. What’s under the surface, what’s lurking deep in the ecosystems, won’t be fully known for a while. Bet on the people along the Gulf coast region to survive these two calamities: the disaster of the oil spill, and the agony of dealing with the labyrinthine BP claims process resulting from the spill: the disaster after the disaster. If only the paperwork could vanish as fast as the oil.
Image credits: HuffPost front page: The Huffington Post. Oil budget pie chart: NOAA via whitehouse.gov. BP logo: BP plc.

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