By The Book

May 25, 2010 by

The Huffington Post recently linked to BP’s Regional Oil Spill Response Plan – Gulf of Mexico. This 583 page, 17 megabyte PDF is BP’s go-to guide in the event of an oil spill in the Gulf and it makes for fascinating reading. You’d think with that many pages they’d have a handle on what to do in the Gulf right now, but you’d be wrong. In the entire document there is absolutely no mention of a deepwater blowout! The entire manual is geared specifically toward finite amounts of oil on the waters surface.

UPDATE! I spoke too soon. Or simply didn’t read far enough. Appendix H, Worst Case Discharge does indeed have a deepwater blowout scenario. Page 509 details a scenario originating from an exploratory well in Mississippi Canyon block 462. (The current Macondo hemorrhage is an exploratory well in MC252, some 20 miles further east.) BP’s worst case estimate? 250,000 barrels per day! This makes their 5000 bpd claim simply ludicrous. The statement “The results indicate 5% of the product would be evaporated or naturally dispersed within 12 hours, leaving approximately 237,500 barrels on the water.” leads me to believe BP planned on a simple one day spill. Their one mention of anything resembling a runaway gusher is the following:

If the spill went unabated, shoreline impact would depend upon existing environmental conditions. Nearshore response may i nclude t he depl oyment of shoreline boom on beach areas, or protection and sorbent boom on vegetated areas. Strategies would be based upon surveillance and real time trajectories provided by The Response Group that depict areas of potential impact given actual sea and weather conditions. Strategies from t he Area Contingency Plan, The Response Group and Unified Command would be consulted to ensure that environmental and special economic resources would be correctly identified and pr ioritized to ensure optimal protection. The Response Group shoreline response guides depict the protection r esponse modes applicable f or oi l spill cl ean-up oper ations. Each response mode i s schematically represented t o show opt imum depl oyment and operation of the equipment i n ar eas of environmental concern. Supervisory personnel have the option to modify the deployment and operation of equipment allowing a more effective response to site-specific circumstances. (For more information on resource i dentification, see Section 11; f or more information on resource protection methods, see Section 13.)

*note: Odd spaces in words are typos inclusive to the BP document.


For example, In Section 18, Dispersant Use Plan, there are clear procedures on how, when and where to use dispersants.

A. Overview
Dispersants are chemicals used to remove floating oil from the water surface and disperse it into the water column in order to reduce impact to sensitive shoreline habitats and animals that are present on the water surface. Specially formulated products containing surface-active agents are sprayed onto the slicks by aircraft or boat and are applied undiluted or mixed with water. The dispersants reduce the oil/water surface tension and decrease the energy needed for the slick to break into small particles and mix into the water column. Some turbulence is needed to mix the dispersant into the oil and the treated oil into the water. The Dispersant Use Decision Tree (Figure 18-1) may be used to determine if dispersant operations are the optimum countermeasure during cleanup operations.

So, dispersants are specifically intended to interact with an oil slick on the waters surface. Nowhere is it recommended, stated or even theorized that dispersants should be pumped by the gallon below the surface. In fact, part F makes this somewhat clear:

F. Application Methods
There are two primary methods of applying dispersants to an oil spill. These methods involve the use of airplanes and helicopters for aerial application and the use of boats for on-water application.

Since the dispersant creates a chemical reaction we’re left to wonder how much surface heat and motion have to do with the actual dispersal process. It is known that heat from the sun helps to evaporate oil slicks and I assume it also helps the dispersant do its job. What happens 5000 feet below the surface where there is no heat? And remember that the job of a dispersant is to “disperse.” It doesn’t delete or destroy anything; the oil loses its cohesive bond to itself and the surface water and slips below the surface eventually settling on the Gulf floor. In fact, the last sentence of Section D outlines this:

D. Dispersant Effectiveness
Open water with sufficient depth and volume for mixing and dilution are the preferred conditions for dispersant application. Weathering of oil decreases the effectiveness of dispersants, therefore, initial application should be completed as soon as possible. Dispersants should be considered when the impact of floating oil on sensitive shoreline habitats is greater than the risk of mixing oil into the water column.

In the case of increased contact with an expanding slick after treatment, it should be noted that treated slicks may increase in size initially (10-17 hours) as the interfacial tension at the oil surface is reduced. However, by 18 hours post-treatment, the treated slick is broken up and becomes smaller in area. The net effect of dispersant application is a reduction in the amount of oil on the water surface.

…reduction in the amount of oil on the water surface.” Dispersants don’t reduce the amount of oil, they reduce the visibility of the oil! The statement that “the treated slick is broken up and becomes smaller in area” can be misleading because they are talking solely about surface area. The slick “becomes smaller” because oil sinks below the surface. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s like placing a sugar cube on your counter-top and then whacking it with a hammer: you still have a cubes worth of sugar, it’s simply spread out over a larger area. From reading Chapter 18, it is abundantly clear that BP is not only working without a net, but they’re actually tying the tightrope ends to the poles in the middle of the performance!

Since BP is not following their own delineated procedures, it’s entirely possible that the dispersants will have no effect on the underwater torrent of oil escaping from the Gulf floor. However, it’s also possible that they are working too well. The last paragraph of Section D, above, states that “treated slicks may increase in size initially” which means that had BP not used the dispersants, the cubic area of underwater oil could possibly have been much smaller and more dense. If so, it may not have reached the Louisiana coast or the Loop Current as quickly as it did and it might have been more easily corralled and removed from the water.

Then there’s the question of BP’s chosen products and their effectiveness. The effectiveness figures are given for Corexit 9500 (54.7% effective) and 9527 (63.4% effective) when used against South Louisiana Crude. Of course, those are Nalco’s numbers, the producer of Corexit. The EPA R&D numbers are also given and are much lower with 9500 at 45.4% and 9527 at 31% effective. It has been reported that there are a dozen more effective, less toxic products available. Offers have been made to supply BP with as much of these dispersants as they need, but BP continues to claim there are none available in sufficient quantities.

Figure 18-2 of the document lists a stockpile inventory of dispersants “available” to BP. The list has only six providers holding a total of 174,486 gallons of dispersant. Of the available product, there are 92,876 gallons of Corexit 9500, 80,345 gal of Corexit 9527, 1,045 gal of BioDisperse and 220 gal of SPC. Although there are small quantities of two other dispersants listed, BP clearly relies on Corexit. So much so that Nalco’s tech data for both Corexit products is included in BP’s document. Curiously, the United Kingdom has banned Corexit for harmful ecological effects.

Corexit 9527 was used on the Valdez oil spill and contains 2-butoxyethanol which is suspected of causing many health problems for people who took part in the cleaning of Prince William Sound. Corexit 9500 does not contain the compound and is more effective than 9527 (according to the EPA) which begs the question: “Why is Corexit 9527 still in use?” Both technical data sheets make claims that the toxicity for humans is moderate, but this pronouncement is made three bullet points after the statement “No toxicity studies have been conducted on this product.

Of course, there is no mention or data on other products such as Dispersit, an oil dispersant which has had EPA approval for ten years and is twice as effective and half as toxic as either Corexit product. But then Dispersit doesn’t have the benefit of being produced by a company which was merged into the Exxon family for the express purpose “to provide products and services to all facets of the petroleum and natural gas industries.” Former Exxon/Mobil president Daniel S Sanders sits on the Nalco board with 11-year former BP board member Rodney F Chase.

Figure 18-7 is a three page, 10 point questionnaire designed to assess whether any dispersant should be used at all. All 10 questions need an answer of “Yes” in order for dispersant to be applied. BP’s plan fails in two of the first three questions:

1. Is the spill/oil dispersible?
3. Is the chosen dispersant likely to be effective?

While the question of thousands of barrels of oil per day oil being dispersible can be argued either way, (Yes, it can be dispersed, the real question is will dispersal make matters worse?) the effectiveness of the dispersant remains to be seen. For question 3, can dispersant be effective against a continuous torrent of oil? Clearly, no, which means that BP has already deviated from their own guidelines!

Folks, we are in the midst of a huge corporate science experiment. And we’re the test subjects.

-M Styborski


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