New Gulf Oil Spill Raises New Questions

Guest Blog | September 21, 2011 | Energy Policy, Offshore Drilling

UPDATE 1: It has been confirmed that the tar balls that washed ashore during Tropical Storm Lee are, in fact, oil from the BP oil spill.

UPDATE 2: The Coast Guard Deepwater Horizon Joint Investigation Team has released its final report on the causes of the Gulf oil spill. Some of BP, Transocean and Halliburton’s actions prior to the spill violated federal law. You can read more about this report at the Joint Investigation Team’s website

Reports have been spilling all over the Gulf region for the past several weeks about a mysterious oil sheen that has been spotted near the site of the blown-out Macondo well made infamous last summer as the source of BP’s oil spill disaster. It’s been difficult to ascertain the details – Does the oil sheen even exist? Where is the oil coming from? Is it from BP’s well?

Stuart Smith, an attorney in New Orleans, broke the news of a newly-sighted oil spill in mid-August in the general vicinity where BP’s oil spill began. Shortly thereafter, a Times-Picayune story quoted a spokesperson from BP saying that the sheen was likely from a different and abandoned well – certainly not BP’s well at Mississippi Canyon block 252 (MC 252) – Deepwater Horizon’s Macondo well.

On August 24th, the Mobile Press-Register reported seeing oil near where the Deepwater Horizon met its demise and photographs on the Gulf Restoration Network’s blog followed.  Without a doubt, oil had been found near the failed Macondo well, and an oil production vessel was found onsite, as well. Oil samples were collected from the site and sent to Louisiana State University (LSU) for testing.

Likely in response to so much media attention, on August 25th, BP issued an official response: “BP and the US Coast Guard have conducted multiple surveys of the area in recent days and found no evidence of oil sheens in the Macondo vicinity.”

But shortly thereafter, the results came back from LSU and it would appear the sheen was a “dead ringer” for the oil from MC 252. It could be a natural seep – but some scientists have suggested that is unlikely. The best guess, according to some scientists, is that oil stuck in the broken pipes and fixtures of the destroyed Deepwater Horizon platform is slowly making its way to the surface. BP’s response was “There is still no evidence that the oil came from the Macondo well.” The company even let government officials peer at the capped well through an ROV to verify no leak and the Coast Guard flew over the site, and as of September 1st, they did not officially see or report anything.

When Tropical Storm Lee formed over Labor Day Weekend, it effectively prevented additional inspection for several days. Storm surges as a result of Lee revealed tar mats and tar balls on Fourchon Beach in Louisiana. Those remnants are now being tested to determine if they are also from MC 252.

Most recently there was a report from Al Jazeera on September 11th confirming oil was still near MC 252 through new aerial photographs.  This time, when two BP research vessels were spotted, BP responded that the vessels were in the area doing a routine search on a nearby, natural seep.

There’s definitely something fishy going on in the hole in the bottom of the sea. Amidst theories of natural seeps, residual oil in pipes from the Deepwater Horizon platform, or a failure of the Macondo well cap, two things remain clear: there is a mysterious oil spill occurring in the Gulf of Mexico and there is a history of diversion and misstating the facts when it comes to offshore oil drilling.

Take for example the statements of the oil and gas industry during the short-lived deepwater drilling moratorium last year. One analysis put job losses at over 12,000 and reduced economic output at $2.7 billion just from the 6-month moratorium on deepwater drilling. In the Lafayette metro area, job losses were expected to be around 3,800. But new analysis shows that the same area is expected to grow by 2,500 jobs instead. In fact, the parts of Louisiana that should be reeling from the now-defunct moratorium are experiencing lower unemployment (5.1% in December) than the national average (9.4%, also in December). An article in the Wall Street Journal even announced that drilling in the Gulf has “staged a comeback” and drilling has returned to “near-normal levels.” Could it be that this misdirection was meant to embolden offshore oil drilling proponents, even in the midst of the greatest oil spill in American history?

Certainly the BP oil disaster has changed the way the world looks at offshore oil drilling. In one aspect, the oil disaster has desensitized the public to the effects of “smaller” oil spills. Remember that offshore oil spill this past summer in China that released nearly 134,400 gallons of oil? The Penglai 19-3 offshore oil rig, operated by ConocoPhillips (a US-based company), began leaking in Bohai Bay in June and as of September 16, was still leaking. Or do you remember the more than 54,600 gallons of oil spilled by Shell oil company off the coast of the United Kingdom in August? The company kept a tight lid on information from the spill – only for the public to find out there were actually two leaks from the offshore platform. What about the more than 2,000 gallons of oil spilled right here at home, in Bayou Dupont and Barataria Bay in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana this September? That oil spill came from an abandoned oil well and it is estimated there are some 27,000 abandoned oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico. With all these oil spills occurring around the world, you would think the mysterious sheen noticed in the Gulf of Mexico would prompt outrage or that countries would be more cautious with new offshore drilling.

On the contrary, offshore oil drilling is expanding – even in our own backyard. A new oil rig is expected to show up off the coast of Florida in December. But instead of drilling in U.S. waters, the rig (the Scarabeo 9) will be drilling in Cuban waters off the Straits of Florida. The Cuban Trade Embargo has been a main-stay of American foreign policy against communism since the 1960s with only minimal alterations in nearly 50 years. For the sake of disaster preparedness (read: another major rig blow-out and oil spill), oil companies are requesting some of the Cuban Trade Embargo be relaxed so Americans can work in Cuban waters on an Italian oil rig.

While the oil industry clearly aims to expand, current events are still murky in the Gulf near MC 252. It’s unclear just how much oil is slipping into the Gulf, and if this is a short-lived problem or a sign of something worse to come. While it’s easy to forget ongoing problems with offshore oil drilling, we should remember that the wind and sun never spill.

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