Thursday, July 15, 2010

BP oil disaster and the politics (and business) of science

The Huffington Post last week highlighted articles about the need for concentrated and quick scientific research on the BP oil catastrophe. This is an area where both BP and the Obama administration are clearly falling short.

The news yesterday about the federal government temporarily stopping testing on the new oil cap BP has nearly in place and also stopping drilling on the main relief well emphasizes how important it is to get the science right. And how difficult that is. As the AP's Tom Breen and Harry Weber explain in BP: Cap should start choking oil 'soon' after fix Biloxi Sun-Herald 07/15/2010, testing how now resumed, with the feds saying they will review the results every six hours.

Jim White in Well Integrity Key to Rapidly Changing Story on New Cap FireDogLake 07/14/2010 tries to read between the lines of the public story, noting that the public story shifted rapidly from the concept of BP catching all the oil in the new cap and pumping it to ships on the surface to plugging the leak. Plugging the leak represents the greater immediate risk because it could create pressures inside the well shaft that could cause new leaks to erupt.

Dan Froomkin reported on the knowledge gap in Gulf Oil Spill: Scientists Beg For A Chance To Take Basic Measurements Huffington Post 07/06/2010:

An all-star team of top oceanographers, chemists, engineers and other scientists could be ready to head out to the well site on two fully-equipped research vessels on about a week's notice. But they need to get the go-ahead -- and about $8.4 million -- from BP or the federal government or both. And that does not appear imminent.

The test is designed to provide responders to future deep-sea oil catastrophes with valuable information. But, to be blunt, it would also fill an enormous gap in the response to this one.

Federal estimates of the flow have over time gone from laughably low to laughably imprecise to just plain unpersuasive. And it took more than a month for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to take the marine science community's concerns seriously enough to embark on substantive missions to explore the potentially vast amounts of oil that are lurking beneath the surface with possibly long-term and devastating effects. [my emphasis]
Renne Schoof reports similar complaints in Researchers say Obama's slow on oil spill science, too McClatchy Newspapers 07/02/2010:

Despite a spill that may already total more than 150 million gallons of oil, however, neither federal officials nor BP has mounted a speedy, focused inquiry to understand its impact.

The result:

  • There's no comprehensive strategy for scientific inquiry in the Gulf. Therefore, there's no central system for organizing the research, sharing information or avoiding duplication.
  • Two and a half months after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank, little is known about the present location of the plumes of oil and dispersants, where they're heading or how toxic the brew will be to creatures in its path.
  • Since BP is providing the bulk of the funds to study the oil spill, some scientists question whether firm's potential liability for future environmental damage could compromise the independence and scope of the scientific research in the Gulf. [my emphasis]
The problem of BP hiring scientists in order have a legal club to keep them quiet is also addressed in Ben Sandmel, Ivor van Heerden, the Compromised Cassandra of the Gulf Politics Daily 07/04/2010:

"This is a very standard response process in a spill," van Heerden said. One aspect of his role may be quite surprising, though. The official website of the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command -- the government/business compendium that runs the recovery -- lists Polaris as a "BP Contractor." Van Heerden states matter-of-factly: "I have to make a living, since I no longer work for LSU. This job utilizes my expertise, and I feel quite sure that it does not compromise my integrity in the least."

Many harsh critics of BP -- including Leonard Bahr, a former Louisiana State University marine sciences faculty member and coastal policy adviser -- vouch for van Heerden without reservation, praising him as "well-respected." But other observers disagree, especially those with more of a fringe perspective. [It's not clear in the context what Sandmel means by "fringe."] Last month the blogspot New Orleans Ladder commented "now that it appears that Ivor van Heerden is into the Jury-Tainting Business with BP, I sincerely hope that our readership may [serve on his jury] in his own case against LSU [over what he contends was an inappropriate dismissal]."

Van Heerden's personal take on the spill may further exacerbate such opinions. "The general public is understandably very depressed about the spill," he said, "but it could be that by Christmas this will all be a bad dream. In my opinion it is not a doomsday scenario. There has not been all that much oil intrusion and the oil breaks down rapidly. So do the dispersants. I'm not a toxicologist, and I don't know what the effects of ... another storm, if we have one. But we see no evidence of oiled fish or fish kills or anything like that.
This certainly sounds like a whitewash scenario to me. It's also not clear in Sandmel's column whether Len Bahr was vouching specifically for the kind of opinion Van Heerden is expressing there about the BP oil disaster or for his integrity in general based on the controversies in which Van Heerden was involved over the Hurricane Katrine disaster response.


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