With the newly installed cap keeping oil from BP’s fractured well out of the Gulf during a trial run, this weekend offered a chance for the oil company and government to gloat over their shared success — the first real victory in fighting the spill. Instead, the two sides have spent the past two days disagreeing over what to do with the undersea machinery holding back the gusher.
The apparent disagreement began to sprout Saturday when Allen said the cap would eventually be hooked up to a mile-long pipe to pump the crude to ships on the surface. But early the next day, BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said the cap should stay clamped shut to keep in the oil until a permanent fix.
The company very much wants to avoid a repeat of millions of gallons of oil spewing from the blown well for weeks, watched live across the country on underwater video.
If the valves are kept closed, as BP wants, it’s possible that no more oil will leak into the Gulf of Mexico. Work on a permanent plug is moving steadily, with crews drilling into the side of the ruptured well from deep underground. By next week, they could start blasting in mud and cement to block off the well for good.
But the government is worried that the cap on the well is causing oil and gas to leak out elsewhere, which could make the sea floor unstable and cause the well to collapse. That’s why federal officials want to pump the crude to ships on the surface. That would require opening the well for a few days to relieve pressure before the pipes could be hooked up, letting millions more gallons of oil spill out in the interim.
That strikes me as a truly disturbing story.
It would be disturbing enough if what the AP says is all there was to it.
If the cap stays clamped shut, that obviously creates more pressure all along the well bore, increasing the probability that leaks could open up somewhere else and make the whole damn mess several degrees worse than it already is (and it’s pretty damn messed up already).
Hooking up the cap to the ships that lie waiting on the surface, and allowing them to capture the oil, will obviously reduce the pressure all along the well system. It will significantly reduce the probability of a pressure leak at some other point. So it seems to be a complete no-brainer that the cap should be hooked up to the waiting ships, and the oil allowed to flow to the ships.
But BP is strenuously resisting this plan? And only because the well would first have to be opened again for a few days, and BP wants to avoid at all costs the live video spectacle of oil spewing from the blown well?
They deliberately want to avoid the first-best solution and plump for a much riskier second-best, driven entirely by PR considerations?
And pretty damn foolish PR considerations too. Everyone who was going to be upset due to watching the live video feed is already as upset as they can possibly be. The live video spectacle resulting from opening the well again for a few days (in order to make the whole system safer) really can’t make them any more upset. To refuse to relieve pressure in the well only to avoid having any more live video of oil spewing from the blown well is truly insane.
But what makes the story even more disturbing is that BP has a clear ulterior motive here, over and above the PR considerations that AP ascribes to the company. (And what exactly did AP base those alleged PR considerations on, anyway? If you go back and read their story, that element of the story is pure, unsourced speculation. It’s not ascribed to anyone, or supported in any way. Just as if AP made up that part all on its own.)
It seems that the AP has somehow managed to miss all the discussion over the last couple of weeks as to why exactly BP might desperately want the plugged well to not be connected to the collecting ships.
It was in the Huffington Post on July 8, in a post by Robert L. Cavnar. A post helpfully titled “BP’s Incentive: To Not Capture All the Oil“.
While they have every incentive to get the well killed, BP also has every incentive to not capture 100% of the well flow until they do. As soon as they do capture all the flow, then a real, measurable number will be in front of the public, and that’s the last thing BP wants, since that number will then be used to extrapolate environmental damage, hence per barrel fines that will likely run to the tens of billions anyway. What bewilders me is why the government is letting them get away with it. Where is the Coast Guard, Steve Chu, the EPA, and the new Bureau of Ocean Energy Management? Where is the White House? Where is the main stream media? Are industry bloggers the only ones who are asking these questions?
The mainstream media did eventually arrive on the scene. The same day that the AP offers up its PR considerations concoction, the NYT calls a spade a spade:
If the well is not reopened, it could mean that the precise volume of oil that leaked — the well has been estimated to be flowing at a rate of 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day — may never be known. That raises the question of whether the company might escape some liability for the spill.
A precise measurement of the volume of oil that leaked is exactly what BP has dedicated months of concerted effort to obfuscate. Because if a precise measurement doesn’t come along now and ruin everything for them, BP confidently expects the spill rate (and the consequent fines and damages) to be underestimated.
Imagine AP being so preoccupied with all kinds of other stuff that they totally missed this angle of the story!