Like Oil, Few Answers Rise to Surface

Replies to some of our readers’ “seeping questions” about the Gulf spill

Editor’s Note: In a recent News Meeting question, CJR asked readers what they wanted to know about the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. A number of them weighed in with excellent questions, some of which we have tried to answer in the following post.

Why have the oil companies never made drilling a relief well next to every new well Standard Operating Procedure?

Over the last week, there has been some discussion of imposing such a requirement. On Monday, Huffington Post political reporter Sam Stein asked Adm. Thad Allen of the Coast Guard, who is overseeing the federal response to the oil spill, about the “benefits and shortcomings, going forward,” of requiring oil companies to drill relief wells simultaneously with new wells.

Stein wrote it up for the Huffington Post underneath a headline, “Thad Allen Advocates Pre-Emptive Relief Well Drilling To Mitigate Future Disasters,” which seems to overstate Allen’s support for the idea. During the press conference, Allen responded to Stein by saying, “I have not had that discussion. I think that would be a legitimate point to be raised and put in front of the commission as they do their work.” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs followed up with an even more equivocal reply: “I would say that would fall under, I think, Sam, the regulatory framework that the [independent presidential] commission [investigating the spill] will evaluate in order to determine the best way to operate this in a failsafe atmosphere, moving forward.”

Others are also curious about the mandatory relief well option. In a long article about the threat of hurricanes disrupting the oil-spill containment effort in the Gulf of Mexico, CNN quoted a representative of the Sierra Club calling for just such a requirement. The problem is the cost. The New York Times reported last week that the two relief wells that BP is now drilling in the Gulf of Mexico in order to shut down the Macondo well cost about $100 million each. And Dave Rensink, the incoming president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, told CNN that the cost of drilling relief wells simultaneously with exploration and production wells would be prohibitive for the industry. “You only resort to a relief well when all other options are exhausted,” he said.

The same industry resistance surfaced only a few months before the Deepwater Horizon exploded, when BP urged Canadian regulators to repeal a decades-old requirement that oil companies with leases in the Beaufort Sea have the capability to drill a relief well in the “same season” (due to winter sea ice, that means the summer) should a blowout occur. This is a far cry from mandating the simultaneous drilling of relief wells with other wells—but, apparently, even having to be prepared to drill a relief well seemed too onerous for BP.

“[F]or both technological and operational reasons, continuance of the [same-season relief well] capability is not required and is problematical for BP and other operators, and may well impede further exploration in the Beaufort Sea,” the company told (pdf) Canada’s National Energy Board.

BP’s resistance didn’t seem to get much attention at the time, but last week the U.S.-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility issued a press release reminding journalists of the incident, which proved effective. CNN, NPR, Reuters, and others have since picked up the story.

Why are volunteers and nonprofit wildlife groups not being allowed to help with wildlife cleanup? Who are the contractors and what do the wildlife biologists and wildlife rescue experts think about this? Where are the environmentalists—is our corporate media filtering them out?

Considering the significant damage the spill will inflict on Gulf ecosystems, surprisingly little media coverage has been given to environmentalists’ opinions, other than a quote here and there. This is probably due to the fact that, with millions of gallons of crude oil pouring into the Gulf, outrage has not been limited to greens. In a largely derided, but unfortunately well publicized, take on the issue, Sarah Palin claimed that environmentalists themselves were at fault for not allowing the oil companies to drill on land, thus forcing them out to places like the Gulf of Mexico.

Environmentalists have also been limited in their roles in the cleanup of areas affected by the spills. Workers hired by BP have so far done the majority of the cleanup. Environmentalists have criticized those efforts, claiming they are doing more damage as they attempt to repair the damage already inflicted. A recent New York Times article on this subject by Leslie Kaufman and James C. McKinley, Jr. includes quotes from multiple pundits, pointing out issues like mishandling of dead wildlife and destruction of previously unharmed plant life. “Some environmentalists assert that BP’s contractors seem more worried about giving the appearance of cleaning up than about cataloging the damage and taking care not to disturb the ecosystem more than necessary,” the Times reported.

Why does the US government appear to be in the pocket of BP?

The New York Times recently reported that:

Before the spill, BP had maintained a low profile in Washington relative to other companies, with its lobbying work and political contributions usually trailing other oil-and-gas giants like Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Conoco Phillips. Unlike many other companies with federal interests, BP kept most of its lobbying work in-house, although it had retained several prominent Washington lobbyists, including Ken Duberstein and Tony Podesta, to make its case on issues including tax incentives for gas production and climate control regulations.

A little clout can go a long way, however, and Timothy Carney, a conservative columnist at the Washington Examiner, recently argued that BP has been “a close friend of big government whenever it serves the company’s bottom line.”

“While BP has resisted some government interventions,” Carney wrote, “it has lobbied for tax hikes, greenhouse gas restraints, the stimulus bill, the Wall Street bailout, and subsidies for oil pipelines, solar panels, natural gas and biofuels.” BP has also helped Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman develop their climate and energy legislation. “Ironically we’ve been working very closely with some of these oil companies in the last months,” Kerry told a conference of labor and environmental groups in early May, just two weeks after the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf.

While many have criticized the Obama administration’s handling of the spill, the coziness between government and the oil industry clearly has much deeper roots. Rebecca Lefton at the liberal Center for American Progress argues that the spill is “without a doubt former Vice President Dick Cheney’s Katrina.” Her post at the center’s Web site includes a timeline of Cheney’s time in office that points out millions of dollars in budget cuts for renewable energy, billions of dollars in tax breaks for “dirty energy,” and policies that allowed the oil companies to regulate themselves.

Yet reforms were “slow to arrive” at the MMS under Obama’s administration, allowing the same practices to continue. Ken Salazar, Obama’s secretary of the interior, joined the government with apparent plans to fix the corruption in the MMS did, but did little to repair old problems. At the same time, under his watch, the department leased a record amount of offshore area for use in drilling, according a feature article by Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson.

Salazar has already begun to reform the MMS, splitting the royalty-collecting and regulatory enforcement duties into two separate departments in order to avoid the conflict of interest created when one office does both. Clearly, though, the current and past administrations have had a dangerously close relationship with the oil industry and BP that goes back decades. It will undoubtedly require a lot of effort to untangle.

Did any executives from the companies involved in this debacle attend any funerals of the deceased workers? What were the payments to the families?

Bloggers have begun to call the workers who died during the Deepwater Horizon explosion the “Forgotten Eleven,” a term that has now migrated into the mainstream media.

Transocean, which owned the drilling rig and employed nine of those lost, organized a memorial that was held in Jackson, Mississippi on May 25, which got fairly widespread coverage. Steve Newman, president and CEO of Transocean, attended and spoke at the event, at times choking back tears while talking about each of the nine Transocean employees who died. Chris Rivers, CEO of M-I SWAC, a drilling company that employed the other two deceased workers, publicly stated, “These men are heroes, all 11 of them.”

Obama has invited the dead workers’ family members—many of whom have been unhappy with government and industry’s handling of the spill— to the White House this week,. At the memorial service in Jackson, one worker’s mother told ABC’s Diane Sawyer, “I think they’re doing it for a show. I don’t think it’s coming from their heart.”

The families of the lost workers have also said that BP was slow to tell them what had happened, issuing no explanation or apology. No official announcement of any payment or reparations to the families has been announced, and several of the families have sued Transocean for their actions in relation to the events. There has been some coverage of efforts to amend the Death of the High Seas Act, which limits families’ abilities to collect damages for intangibles like the loss of care and companionship associated with the death of a loved one.

How much is all this going to cost me, and how soon?

The press has given a lot of publicity to the Obama administration’s claims that taxpayers will be in no way responsible for the cost of the oil spill. At the same time, a number of outlets have published articles that say the exact opposite.

There is a federal $75 million liability cap for incidents like this, which essentially mean that anything spent above the cap must be covered by the government, and, therefore, taxpayers. The government has implied, however, that if BP has been found to have acted irresponsibly in any way, the laws surrounding the cap are essentially null and void.

At the end of May, an Associated Press article said that government had spent $87 million so far on the cleanup; in early June, a number of outlets reported that White House had sent BP a $69 million bill for cleanup efforts.

At this point, however, no one knows how much money this the spill will cost when all is said and done. A rough estimate from Cumberland Advisors in a recent Christian Science Monitor article puts the minimum at $12.5 billion. One interesting wrinkle, pointed out in the same article, is that if the British government decides to back up BP in any way (it could be considered a “too big to fall” organization), some costs may actually fall on British taxpayers.

Realistically, we will not know for years exactly how much money was spent and who is at fault here. Despite claims from various sources indicating otherwise, it is unlikely that BP (or its partners in the Gulf) will shoulder the entire bill.

How large is the underground reservoir of oil beneath the well?

On different days in May, The New York Times and Bloomberg News reported, respectively, that BP chief executive Tony Hayward and spokesman Jon Pack had said the reservoir under the Macondo well could contain upwards of 50 million barrels of oil.

More recently, CNN ran with the less definite “tens of millions of barrels,” according to Dave Rensink, president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, while New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin reported:

[T]he Macondo Prospect, the name for the reservoir of oil slowly draining into the gulf — is considered a small deposit. While its dimensions remain poorly known, BP officials have estimated it contains no more than 100 million barrels of oil. That’s five days and change worth of American demand for this precious fuel.

We really do not know exactly how much oil is down there, or how much is seeping out each day.

All of this for five days of oil.

An official, definitive source for this is lacking, just as it has been for the daily flow rate of oil into the Gulf. It may be well over 25,000 barrels per day. For a truly head-spinning but highly informative roundup of the various estimates, see this this piece by the Associated Press’s Seth Borenstein.

Why is airspace over the spill area restricted to the point where journalists cannot fly over the affected territory? Why are journalists threatened with arrest by law enforcement if they dare to take pictures of dead animals?

By the end of May, some media outlets had reported that BP was being excessively strict restrictions were impeding coverage of the spill. Several articles detailed news crews being threatened with arrest or denied access to public land. Most troubling about these roadblocks for journalists is that they have been enacted by law enforcement officials. A Newsweek piece includes this telling quote: “It’s a running joke among the journalists covering the story that the words ‘Coast Guard’ affixed to any vehicle, vessel, or plane should be prefixed with ‘BP,’ ” says Charlie Varley, a Louisiana-based photographer. “It would be funny if it were not so serious.”

One would think that once the press began to report on their restrictions in coverage, BP and the government would feel the pressure to ease up. However, a New York Times story published on June 9 indicates that conditions have, at the very least, remained just as bad. The article specifically highlights the difficulties in gaining flight clearance to document the effects of the spill through photography or video—which, when coupled with the surprisingly small amount of media released by BP itself, raises serious questions (as if there weren’t already enough) over BP’s integrity.

Observatory editor Curtis Brainard contributed reporting to this article.

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Ethan Scholl is a CJR intern.