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13,0000 gallons spilled by Shell on Sunday. In the Gulf of Mexico, spills remain an all too common occurence.

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Transocean Deepwater Nautilus Drilling Platform

"Equipment failure" at the Transocean Deepwater Nautilus Drilling Platform, operating for Shell Oil in the Gulf of Mexico 20 miles from the site of the Transocean/BP Macondo well blowout, spilled over 13,000 gallons of oil and drilling fluid into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday December 18, 2011

On Sunday December 18, 2011 there has been a reported release of 13,000 gallons of oil and drilling fluids into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, some mere 20 miles from the site of the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Once again the drill rig is a Transocean Deepwater series rig, similar to the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform that was lost following loss of control of the wellhead.

While the driller, Transocean, is the same, the company they work for is different. In this case it isn’t BP, but rather Shell Oil, a company who extolled its safety programs and harshly criticized BP’s plans in the waves of criticism and finger pointing following the disaster at the Macondo well which spilled millions of gallons of oil and resulted in the loss of human lives.

Shell, which has been promoting its ability to operate safely, is the same company who is getting incrementally closer to achieving all the required permits for it to drill in the Arctic under conditions that some are too hazardous for any company to risk, given the sensitivity of the arctic environment and the questionable ability to address accidents including oil spills which could result from the drilling activity.

The fact that spill free drilling operations are not, in any real world conditions, possible continues to prove itself.

12/20/11 UPDATE: Shell reports that the fluid loss was synthetic drilling fluids, which they say are biodegradable. The fact that accidents, even in areas near the BP Macondo well spill which have heightened scrutiny, continue to occur, and the releases of materials are not gallons but tens of thousands of gallons, remains alarming.

The author is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy firm.
A bio for Mr. Nuckols is located at www.WilliamHNuckols.com

You can follow Will Nuckols on Twitter at @enviroxpert



Administration blocks Oil Spill Report lead investigators from testifying before Congress

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House Resources Chairman Doc Hastings request for a “Prompt Hearing on BOEMRE/Coast Guard Spill Report” is foiled by Administration delays. 

In an odd game of who gets to talk to whom, the House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee’s attempts to have, in the words of the Committee’s press release a “Prompt Hearing on BOEMRE/Coast Guard Spill Report” on the oil spill at the Macondo well and the loss of the Transocean drill platform which resulted in the spill of millions of gallons of oil and the loss of 11 lives, has been foiled – or at least delayed a bit.

photo of the drilling platform Deepwater Horizon

The loss of Transocean's Deepwater Horizon drilling platform and the wellhead blowout spilled millions of gallons into the Gulf of Mexico and took the lives of 11 workers on the platform. A joint U.S. Coast Guard and DOI report has been released detailing the government's findings on the causes of the disaster. Now Congress has expressed interest in quickly speaking with the lead investigators in a hearing in the House, but disagreements between the Committee and the Administration over who can speak about the report is resulting in delays in the hearing schedule. Originally scheduled for this morning, the hearing has been moved to October 6, 2011.

On September 14th the Natural Resource Committee released a statement that “On Friday, September 23rd, the Natural Resources Committee will hold a Full Committee oversight hearing on the final report of the BOEMRE/U.S. Coast Guard Joint Investigation Team.”

It then went on to add that:

“After repeated delays, the federal government is finally releasing the findings of its investigation into the tragic Deepwater Horizon incident,” Chairman Hastings said. “This is another significant report on the disaster and I’m hopeful it will give us a clearer picture about what happened so Congress, industry and the Administration can move forward responsibly and appropriately. We have waited far too long for this report, but the Committee is ready to take action and a hearing is now officially scheduled for next week. I’m confident that with a far more complete reporting of the facts, we will be able to take a thoughtful approach to real reforms to ensure continued safe American energy production.”

However, in order to get down to a back and forth dialogue about the facts and findings in the report there needs to be witnesses to testify to the facts and answer questions from members of both parties.  That part isn’t going very well at the moment.

In a press release on September 23rd House Natural Resource Committee Chairman Doc Hastings announced that “tomorrow’s Full Committee oversight hearing on the final report of the BOEMRE/U.S. Coast Guard Joint Investigation Team (JIT) will be postponed until October 6, 2011 due to the Obama Administration’s last-minute refusal to allow investigation team members to testify.”

“It took far too long for the final report to be issued and the Obama Administration is now further delaying proper oversight by suddenly refusing to allow members of the investigation team to testify. Based on numerous conversations between Committee staff and the Administration, it was confirmed that investigators from the BOEM and Coast Guard team would be testifying at Friday’s hearing. We were informed today, one day prior to the hearing, that this had changed. It’s unacceptable for the Committee not to be able to hear from the actual investigators who conducted the investigation and wrote the report.

“It’s always been my intention to first hear from the investigators about their findings, in order to get all the facts, and then hear from the specific companies that are cited in the report. The companies have been notified of this fact. The Administration’s actions are complicating and compromising the Committee’s ability to move forward on this matter.

One presumed rationale for asking the report’s lead investigators and authors to directly testify, rather that having senior Administration officials from DOI and the USCG testify – a common practice in DC where leadership typically responds to Congressional inquiries, not the career rank an file – if because Chairman Hastings is believed to be interested in asking not only substantive questions about the report itself, but to also ask questions about the reasons for the multiple delays in the production of the report. While that question has not yet been posed to any investigators from the joint report, some on the Hill are assuming that the delays are the result of DC agency leadership fighting with the report’s authors about language which would appear in the final report. At this stage there seems to be little evidence of a heavy hand by the agency leaderships or by the White House, but proving or dispelling that theory is being made difficult by the Administration’s refusal to allow the investigation team members to testify.

The current employment status of one of the lead investigators is surely a concern for the Administration – the Department Interior’s lead investigator, David Dykes, a former Minerals Management Service employee who worked for over a decade for MMS, has left government employment and now holds a new job.

On September 14th Time Magazine Senior Reporter Brian Walsh Tweeted “BOEMRE’s lead investigator on BP spill, J. David Dykes, left the agency earlier this month. New job: Chevron”

While this is obviously awkward for the Administration, it is unclear why efforts would be made to block the U.S. Coast Guard’s lead investigator as his failure to appear before the Natural Resources Committee only invites theories about the Administration’s motives, and gives fuel to the fire of those positioning to paint the report as something other than an accurate description of the investigators’ findings.

The Deepwater Horizon Joint Investigation Team Final Report can be found through the following links:

Chapters of the final JIT Investigative Report:

The Natural Resources Committee hearing, now scheduled for October 6, 2011, will occur in room 1324 of the Longworth House Office Building.  For those not in Washington DC and unable to attend in person the Committee will stream the video live on the internet.  Check out http://naturalresources.house.gov/ URL for the link to the live webcast on October 6, 2011.

photo of the The blowout preventer of the Deepwater Horizon on a barge

The blowout preventer of the Deepwater Horizon is transported on the Mississippi River into New Orleans, Sept. 11, 2010. The blowout preventer was DOI BOEM/US Coast Guard investigation determine the circumstances surrounding the explosion, fire, pollution, and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon platform. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Stephen Lehmann.

The author is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy firm.
A bio for Mr. Nuckols is located at www.WilliamHNuckols.com

You can follow Will Nuckols on Twitter at @enviroxpert



Sadly “the secret to pollution is dilution” is still a valid cleanup method for oil spills caused by Shell

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Oil extraction isn’t a flawless technology, and there continue to be too many reminders of this fact. Not always as dramatic as the loss of the Transocean Horizon Oil Platform and subsequent major oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico which BP continues to pay billions to clean up, there are other engineering systems which fail and cause a release of petroleum into the ocean.

Shell Oil's Gannet Alpha Platform in the North Sea, co-owned by Exxon, has been leaking oil for days

Shell Oil's Gannet Platform in the North Sea, co-owned by Exxon, has been leaking oil for days. The solution proposed by Shell to mitigate the spill is to sit back and let "wave action" do the cleanup for them. The leading-edge cleanup technique of letting nature fix it for Shell comes at the same time Shell presses forward to drill in the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic - an area that the U.S. Coast Guard believes would be extremely difficult to access much less clean up in the case of a spill.

On Friday 8/12/2011 Royal Dutch Shell PLC announced that an oil spill has occurred at its Gannet Alpha platform in the North Sea. Shell’s Gannet Alpha platform is about 112 miles east of Aberdeen, Scotland, and has resulted in a sheen of oil on the water’s surface about 20 miles long and 2.5 miles wide. While the volume of the release wasn’t immediately available, Shell now, based on the size of the sheen seen on the surface, that the spill is around 120 barrels of oil.

This is yet another incident in a series of problems with Shell’s offshore facilities in the U.K. The Daily Telegraph Newspaper reported that the leak at the Gannet Alpha platform is but one in a series of spills: “All four platforms serving Shell’s Brent field have been shut for maintenance after a piece of the Bravo platform fell into the sea in January. Shell said yesterday it had re-opened its Brent Alpha and Bravo platforms after a seven-month closure. It is expected Brent Delta will resume in the near future and Brent Charlie, which has experienced gas leaks, to restart next year.” Gannet field is co-owned by Exxon and Shell, with Shell serving as the platform operator.

The frequency of releases into the ocean by oil and gas exploration and production is alarming in and of itself, but possibly more disturbing is the mitigation to address such spills. While Shell reported to have cleanup and dispersant capabilities on scene, “Our current expectation for the North Sea oil leak is that it will be naturally dispersed through wave action.”

While we do have examples where just leaving the oil alone is the best solution available (think of the harm caused by well meaning cleanup crews to steam-cleaned the shoreline in Alaska following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which effectively sterilized the shoreline killing everything, not just the organisms fated to die from the oil alone) it is still disturbing to  think that “wave action” is a preferred cleanup technology given that Shell, which often touts a stellar environmental record and superior engineering capabilities, is in the process of securing permits to drill in the icy waters of Alaska – an area where there is considerable consensus by experts that there is no reliable technology that will allow cleanups in the icy conditions that comprise a large amount of the year.

Since no engineering solution for exploring and producing oil and gas at sea is foolproof, with an ongoing series of leaks from platforms, pipelines and other components of the oil and gas exploration, production and transportation system, one wonders why we allow any company, including Shell which touts its engineering expertise and conservative engineering practices but who still experiences oil spills at sea, to drill in the Arctic.  Are we are simply accepting that we are likely writing off the biology of that area at some point down the road when the prevention measures fail and the cleanup technology fails as well?

When oil spill mitigation still includes “the secret to pollution is dilution” one must wonder what the Obama Administration is thinking as it gets incrementally closer to granting Shell the permits it needs to drill in the Arctic when drilling in non-icy waters already has proven to be difficult and fraught with complications.

The author is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy firm.
A bio for Mr. Nuckols is located at www.WilliamHNuckols.com

A year after the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, can we look for efficiencies as we move forward?

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photo of the drilling platform Deepwater Horizon

Transoceans Deepwater Horizon drilling platform was ablaze one year ago in the Gulf of Mexico. Now having had some time to step back, can we look to include some efficiencies as we guard against the next oil spill?

A question posed for the expert panel at the Smithsonian Institute’s event “One Year After the Gulf Oil Spill” at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC:

“There have been seemingly endless calls for “making sure nothing like this happens again” and accomplishing this ensuring that there are dramatic increases in response capabilities, both at the surface and at the challenging depths where drilling occurs. And there has also been a community of research scientists lamenting the limited availability of manned and unmanned craft which can readily access the depths to study the effects of the spill from the Macondo Prospect, or even doing simple background research before another event occurs in the future.

We need to combine these two concepts and use logic to drive a call for a discussion on the use of technologies which are very limited in their supply.

Do we want to develop large cashes of response equipment on perpetual standby, or should we call for a fleet of dual-use craft that could be used for major leaps forward in scientific study while also serve as emergency response technology in the case of accidents? A realistic view of resources, especially in this economy, says we can’t have a robust deep sea scientific program and also a robust set of emergency response deep sea craft that sits idle. Why not develop a program that maximizes day-to-day benefits for America through exploration and scientific study and also serves as the greatly improved deep sea response team that could be mobilized to address future undersea accidents?

And if you are looking at the government sector as a way to enhance the private sector (or as a guarantee that America’s assets are protected no matter how private sector interests react with their response), why not dramatically increase the oil spill and deep sea recon and salvage capabilities of the Navy’s office of the Supervisor of Salvage? We need those assets in our DoD portfolio as well – why not expand on the capabilities already there through a substantial increase in investment in Navy technologies, and when we do, make sure that the assets serve civilian needs when the military mission allows for their multiple use? We have a track record of success as the basis for civ-mil cooperation – think of the Navy’s NR-1 submarine and the civilian applications it also served. Why isn’t this approach being considered for the gulf?

-William Nuckols, Ocean Policy Expert and Government Efficiency Advocate”

A port bow view of the nuclear-powered research submersible NR-1

The Navy’s research submarine NR-1, recently decommissioned, is an example of how we can combine military defense needs efficiently with civilian needs to access deep offshore waters

The author is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy firm.
A bio for Mr. Nuckols is located at www.WilliamHNuckols.com

Written by Will Nuckols

April 20, 2011 at 9:40 pm

A sadly ironic anniversary present for the United States

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Twenty-two years ago today an ecological disaster which at that time was unprecedented in scale resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil which covered wildlife and impacted the shoreline in a way that locals on the Alaska coast say continues to this day.  We know that accident as the Exxon Valdez oil spill. 

photo of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989

The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in Prince William Sound, Alaska 22 years ago on March 24, 1989. On this anniversary a mysterious oil sheen oozes toward the shores of Louisiana giving us a little nudge to make sure that even in a news cycle which has moved on to tsunamis and nuclear accidents we don't forget the unfinished business of developing a safe system for offshore oil and gas development

Never again. 

That’s what we told ourselves, and for years we went without another major oil spill in the offshore waters of the U.S.  But anyone who has picked up a paper, seen the nightly news, or listened to the radio knows that on one fateful night aboard the Transocean Horizon platform which was closing out their work at the BP Macondo well, a major blowout and loss of containment at the drill site occurred resulting in another major oil spill. 

Again, we said never again.  

Never will we be caught unaware and have uncontrolled oil released into the fragile environment of our coastal waters.

But today, on the anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill, offshore on the waters of the Gulf of Mexico we are seeing oil sheens that extend for miles on the surface, leaving us again wondering what is the source of the oil, how much oil is there, and when will the leaks stop.

The Houston based company Anglo-Suisse Offshore Partners has accepted responsibility for an oil spill from a dormant well, reporting to the Coast Guard that they are responsible for the uncontrolled release of less than five gallons of crude oil. Somehow a five gallon release doesn’t make much sense to those with a healthy amount of common sense as the slick on the water has been reported to be over 30 miles long.

A realistic look at the offshore oil and gas development industry tells us that, without driving costs up inordinately, a spill-free world isn’t realistic.  What we need to search for is a set of voluntary and mandatory guidelines that keeps workers out of harm’s way, minimizes the changes that additional spills will occur and has robust systems in place to address spills when they occur – systems that would include rapidly deployable assets to contain leaks as well as systems to capture leaked oil and rehabilitate damaged ecosystems and communities when leaks occur.  It sound s easy.  So easy one would have guessed that such as system was in place before the explosion and loss of the Deepwater Horizon platform. But real world experiences inform us that we are consistently not prepared to address all three components of a robust response system.  And even when we have what we believe are the right assets in place, the profit margins of companies are put to odds with the precautionary principle and we under-plan our response capabilities.

It is time to be a good bit more conservative when we look to balance environmental safety against short-term profits.  Ideally corporations would strike this balance on their own, as other than the oddities of limits on liabilities which the oil and gas companies enjoy, oil and gas companies want to reduce accidents as accident-free operations helps the bottom line. But corporations, like individuals, sometimes fail to act in their own self-interest, leaving an important role for a government system that compels companies to act responsibly.

Bombings in Libya, the wackiness of an ongoing series of super short duration spending bills on Capitol Hill, tsunamis and disasters at nuclear plants are already drawing the public attention to other things, and for those in places other than the still hard hit Gulf Coast, attention has turned away from oil and gas drilling accidents to other issues.

Perhaps a mysterious oil spill on the anniversary of the Exxon Valdez accident is just what we need to stay on track and finish efforts already underway to determine where and how oil and gas development should occur in the U.S. and the contingency plans we’ll need in place for those areas where we do decide to drill.

The author is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy firm.
A bio for Mr. Nuckols is located at www.WilliamHNuckols.com

Written by Will Nuckols

March 24, 2011 at 9:52 pm

Oil Spill Commission Chairs Bill Reilly and Bob Graham interviewed by Ray Suarez at the Our Changing Oceans Conference

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National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE) kicked off the 11th National Conference on Science, Policy and the Environment: Our Changing Oceans conference in Washington, DC with an interview of Oil Spill Commission Chairs Bill Reilly and Bob Graham being interviewed by PBS News Hour’s Ray Suarez.

An MP3 audio file of the interview can be downloaded at this link from the W.H. Nuckols Consulting website.

The Our Changing Oceans conference continues through January 21, 2011.

Commentary on additional sessions at this conference will appear on this blog as the week continues.

The author is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy firm.  
A bio for Mr. Nuckols is located at www.WilliamHNuckols.com

Written by Will Nuckols

January 20, 2011 at 6:59 am

Does the System of Subcontractors in the Oil and Gas Industry Invite Finger Pointing?

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Back on August 25, 2010 I testified before the President’s Oil Spill Commission on August 25, 2010 in Washington, D.C. about subcontractors in the Oil and Gas industry, and whether this system which seems to invite finger pointing, is good for the United States. 

A clip of the testimony can be seen here.

The author is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy firm.  
A bio for Mr. Nuckols is located at www.WilliamHNuckols.com

Written by Will Nuckols

December 2, 2010 at 10:16 pm