Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

BP has ‘systematic’ safety problems: U.S. official- FT

May 17, 2010

LONDON, May 17 (Reuters) – Energy giant BP <BP.L><BP.N> has a “systematic safety problem” at its refineries, a U.S Labour Department official told the Financial Times in its Monday edition. “BP executives, they talk a good line.
They say they want to improve safety,” Jordan Barab, a senior official at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, known as OSHA, told the paper. “But it doesn’t always translate down to the refineries themselves.
They still have a systematic safety problem,” Barab said. Last year U.S. safety regulators hit oil giant BP with a record $87.4 million fine for failing to fix safety violations at its Texas City, Texas, refinery after a deadly 2005 explosion.
Barab’s comments come as the company struggles to contain a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico caused by a deadly oil rig explosion last month. (Reporting by Caroline Copley; Editing by Jan Paschal)

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17 May 2010 01:15:35 GMT

Source: Reuters

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Giant Plumes of Oil Forming Under the Gulf

May 17, 2010

: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/16/us/16oil.html?hp

Scientists are finding enormous oil plumes in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, including one as large as 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and 300 feet thick in spots. The discovery is fresh evidence that the leak from the broken undersea well could be substantially worse than estimates that the government and BP have given.

Officials Ask BP to Assure It Will Cover Spill Claims (May 16, 2010) Times Topic: Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill (2010)“There’s a shocking amount of oil in the deep water, relative to what you see in the surface water,” said Samantha Joye, a researcher at the University of Georgia who is involved in one of the first scientific missions to gather details about what is happening in the gulf. “There’s a tremendous amount of oil in multiple layers, three or four or five layers deep in the water column.”

The plumes are depleting the oxygen dissolved in the gulf, worrying scientists, who fear that the oxygen level could eventually fall so low as to kill off much of the sea life near the plumes.

Dr. Joye said the oxygen had already dropped 30 percent near some of the plumes in the month that the broken oil well had been flowing. “If you keep those kinds of rates up, you could draw the oxygen down to very low levels that are dangerous to animals in a couple of months,” she said Saturday. “That is alarming.”

The plumes were discovered by scientists from several universities working aboard the research vessel Pelican, which sailed from Cocodrie, La., on May 3 and has gathered extensive samples and information about the disaster in the gulf.

Scientists studying video of the gushing oil well have tentatively calculated that it could be flowing at a rate of 25,000 to 80,000 barrels of oil a day. The latter figure would be 3.4 million gallons a day. But the government, working from satellite images of the ocean surface, has calculated a flow rate of only 5,000 barrels a day.

BP has resisted entreaties from scientists that they be allowed to use sophisticated instruments at the ocean floor that would give a far more accurate picture of how much oil is really gushing from the well.

“The answer is no to that,” a BP spokesman, Tom Mueller, said on Saturday. “We’re not going to take any extra efforts now to calculate flow there at this point. It’s not relevant to the response effort, and it might even detract from the response effort.”

The undersea plumes may go a long way toward explaining the discrepancy between the flow estimates, suggesting that much of the oil emerging from the well could be lingering far below the sea surface.

The scientists on the Pelican mission, which is backed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that monitors the health of the oceans, are not certain why that would be. They say they suspect the heavy use of chemical dispersants, which BP has injected into the stream of oil emerging from the well, may have broken the oil up into droplets too small to rise rapidly.

BP said Saturday at a briefing in Robert, La., that it had resumed undersea application of dispersants, after winning Environmental Protection Agency approval the day before.

“It appears that the application of the subsea dispersant is actually working,” Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer for exploration and production, said Saturday. “The oil in the immediate vicinity of the well and the ships and rigs working in the area is diminished from previous observations.”

Many scientists had hoped the dispersants would cause oil droplets to spread so widely that they would be less of a problem in any one place. If it turns out that is not happening, the strategy could come under greater scrutiny. Dispersants have never been used in an oil leak of this size a mile under the ocean, and their effects at such depth are largely unknown.

Much about the situation below the water is unclear, and the scientists stressed that their results were preliminary. After the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, they altered a previously scheduled research mission to focus on the effects of the leak.

Interviewed on Saturday by satellite phone, one researcher aboard the Pelican, Vernon Asper of the University of Southern Mississippi, said the shallowest oil plume the group had detected was at about 2,300 feet, while the deepest was near the seafloor at about 4,200 feet.

“We’re trying to map them, but it’s a tedious process,” Dr. Asper said. “Right now it looks like the oil is moving southwest, not all that rapidly.”

He said they had taken water samples from areas that oil had not yet reached, and would compare those with later samples to judge the impact on the chemistry and biology of the ocean.

While they have detected the plumes and their effects with several types of instruments, the researchers are still not sure about their density, nor do they have a very good fix on the dimensions.

Given their size, the plumes cannot possibly be made of pure oil, but more likely consist of fine droplets of oil suspended in a far greater quantity of water, Dr. Joye said. She added that in places, at least, the plumes might be the consistency of a thin salad dressing.

Dr. Joye is serving as a coordinator of the mission from her laboratory in Athens, Ga. Researchers from the University of Mississippi and the University of Southern Mississippi are aboard the boat taking samples and running instruments.

Dr. Joye said the findings about declining oxygen levels were especially worrisome, since oxygen is so slow to move from the surface of the ocean to the bottom. She suspects that oil-eating bacteria are consuming the oxygen at a feverish clip as they work to break down the plumes.

While the oxygen depletion so far is not enough to kill off sea life, the possibility looms that oxygen levels could fall so low as to create large dead zones, especially at the seafloor. “That’s the big worry,” said Ray Highsmith, head of the Mississippi center that sponsored the mission, known as the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology.

The Pelican mission is due to end Sunday, but the scientists are seeking federal support to resume it soon.

“This is a new type of event, and it’s critically important that we really understand it, because of the incredible number of oil platforms not only in the Gulf of Mexico but all over the world now,” Dr. Highsmith said. “We need to know what these events are like, and what their outcomes can be, and what can be done to deal with the next one.”

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Less Toxic Dispersants Lose Out in BP Oil Spill Cleanup

May 16, 2010

BP PLC continues to stockpile and deploy oil-dispersing chemicals manufactured by a company with which it shares close ties, even though other U.S. EPA-approved alternatives have been shown to be far less toxic and, in some cases, nearly twice as effective.

After the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and a deepwater well began gushing crude in the Gulf of Mexico three weeks ago, BP quickly marshaled a third of the world’s available supply of dispersants, chemicals that break surface oil slicks into microscopic droplets that can sink into the sea.

But the benefits of keeping some oil out of beaches and wetlands carry uncertain costs. Scientists warn that the dispersed oil, as well as the dispersants themselves, might cause long-term harm to marine life.

So far, BP has told federal agencies that it has applied more than 400,000 gallons of a dispersant sold under the trade name Corexit and manufactured by Nalco Co., a company that was once part of Exxon Mobil Corp. and whose current leadership includes executives at both BP and Exxon. And another 805,000 gallons of Corexit are on order, the company said, with the possibility that hundreds of thousands of more gallons may be needed if the well continues spewing oil for weeks or months.

But according to EPA data, Corexit ranks far above dispersants made by competitors in toxicity and far below them in effectiveness in handling southern Louisiana crude.

Of 18 dispersants whose use EPA has approved, 12 were found to be more effective on southern Louisiana crude than Corexit, EPA data show. Two of the 12 were found to be 100 percent effective on Gulf of Mexico crude, while the two Corexit products rated 56 percent and 63 percent effective, respectively. The toxicity of the 12 was shown to be either comparable to the Corexit line or, in some cases, 10 or 20 times less, according to EPA.

EPA has not taken a stance on whether one dispersant should be used over another, leaving that up to BP. All the company is required to do is to choose an EPA-approved chemical, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told reporters yesterday during a conference call aimed at addressing questions about dispersants being used in efforts to contain the Gulf spill.

“Our regular responsibilities say, if it’s on the list and they want to use it, then they are preauthorized to do so,” Jackson said.

One explanation for BP’s reliance on Nalco’s Corexit, which its competitors say dominates the niche market for dispersants because of its industry ties, was its availability in large quantities at the time of the Gulf spill.

“Obviously, logistics and stockpiles and the ability for the responsible party to pull the materials together,” Jackson said. “I’m sure that has a lot to do with the ones that they choose.”

Nonetheless, experts question BP’s sustained commitment to Corexit, given apparently superior alternatives.

“Why wouldn’t you go for the lesser toxic formulation?” said Carys Mitchelmore, an assistant professor of environmental chemistry and toxicology at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science. Mitchelmore testified on Capitol Hill this week about dispersants and co-authored a 2005 National Academy of Sciences report on the chemicals.

BP spokesman Jon Pack defended the use of Corexit, which he said was decided in consultation with EPA. He called Corexit “pretty effective” and said the product had been “rigorously tested.”

“I’m not sure about the others,” Pack said. “This has been used by a number of major companies as an effective, low-toxicity dispersant.”

BP is not considering or testing other dispersants because the company’s attention is focused on plugging the leak and otherwise containing the spill, Pack said.

“That has to be our primary focus right now,” he said.

Nalco spokesman Charlie Pajor said the decision on what to use was out of his company’s hands. He also declined to comment on EPA comparison tests, saying only that lab conditions cannot necessarily replicate those in the field. “The decision about what’s used is made by others — not by us,” he said.

Nalco’s connections

Critics say Nalco, a joint partnership with Exxon Chemical that was spun off in the 1990s, boasts oil-industry insiders on its board of directors and among its executives, including an 11-year board member at BP and a top Exxon executive who spent 43 years with the oil giant.

“It’s a chemical that the oil industry makes to sell to itself, basically,” said Richard Charter, a senior policy adviser for Defenders of Wildlife.

The older of the two Corexit products that BP has used in the Gulf spill, Corexit 9527, was also sprayed in 1989 on the 11-million-gallon slick created by the Exxon Valdez grounding in Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

Cleanup workers suffered health problems afterward, including blood in their urine and assorted kidney and liver disorders. Some health problems were blamed on the chemical 2-butoxyethanol, an ingredient discontinued in the latest version of Corexit, Corexit 9500, whose production Nalco officials say has been ramped up in response to the Gulf of Mexico disaster.

Among Corexit’s competitors, a product called Dispersit far outpaced Corexit 9500, EPA test results show, rating nearly twice as effective and between half and a third as toxic, based on two tests performed on fish and shrimp.

Bruce Gebhardt, president of the company that manufactures Dispersit, U.S. Polychemical Corp., said BP asked for samples of his company’s product two weeks ago. Later, he said, BP officials told him that EPA had wanted to ensure they had “crossed all their T’s and dotted all their I’s” before moving forward.

Gebhardt says he could make 60,000 gallons a day of Dispersit to meet the needs of spill-containment efforts. Dispersit was formulated to outperform Corexit and got EPA approval 10 years ago, he said, but the dispersant has failed to grab market share from its larger rival.

“When we came out with a safer product, we thought people would jump on board,” he said. “That’s not the case. We were never able to move anyone of any size off the Corexit product.”

He added, “We’re just up against a giant.”

Copyright 2010 E&E Publishing. All Rights Reserved.

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