Update on BP’s Macondo Well

…..relating to NY Times article of April 17, 2011
            The NY Times article deals with new regulations for drilling as being “a work in progress.”  That thesis is one that is easily acceptable by this reader, and presumably most readers. What caught my attention were negative comments by Randall Luthi, who once headed MMS, the name of the regulating agency before its name was changed by the Obama administration. According to the NY Times, he “…suggested that the new director was making decisions based on inadequate knowledge and experience.”   
            That which follows was written to a few friends, back in July. Thus far, I had abstained from posting anything of a political nature on this site. However, this update is prompted by the fact that some people who were involved in the old management are still laying blame on those attempting to correct old inadequate procedures.
            Mr. Luthi’s name shows up several times below.
The Wyoming Connection: VP, MMS and BP
          Russell B. Guerin, New Orleans
           July 24, 2010
Former VP Cheney, usually vociferous, has been very quiet lately. It has been reported that he has not been feeling well. You and I would not be feeling too chipper either, if we could not wash all that oil off our hands. His thoughts must be so profound that he is driven to remember words of the noble bard: “All the perfumes of Arabia cannot sweeten this one little hand.” At least he does not have to worry about whether his home state Wyoming will have its beaches despoiled.
As for MMS, all the scandal that has been uncovered there must have more than a few people singing the tune, “Why oh why did I ever leave Wyoming?”
BP has people terribly angry, so angry that they are shifting the blame to Obama and his administration. Never will frustration translate into rational direction, but the Republicans refuse to oil the rusty gate. They love the sound of squeak.
I realize that blame, like frustration, is not a cure for our immense problem. But there is a lot of blame going around, and it is misplaced.
It is troublesome to hear so much blame being given to Obama. Even the Washington Post says it was his administration that exempted BP from an environmental impact study. Strange, as I have had no trouble finding a number of such studies online that predate his presidency. Anyone with a computer can find them: just Google Lease Sale 206. That is exactly the BP field that lies at the bottom of the Gulf. It is not any other. It is the one pumping an immeasurable amount of oil into our waters.
And it did not begin in the Obama administration.
If there is any one man who has had a presence through the whole of this sorry mess, it is Dick Cheney. Not so strange is that he is unusually silent right now: true also for his very talkative daughter. Also funny is how much Wyoming figures into the geography of the Gulf of Mexico.
How did we get here? If we can determine that, maybe we can find out where we are going. But first, let us see what we can find, simply and with the left-clicking of a mouse. Some documents jump out of the net, plain as clear water and much more accurate than the stories being spread around out of sheer frustration and from the frenetic attempts to do what we may not be capable of doing.
So, on to 206.
This brings us to look at some details of the document about which MMS Director Luthi said in 2007 found “no significant impact.” By the bye, he is a former legislator, from Wyoming, and a friend of Cheney.
That MMS study is called Proposed Gulf of Mexico OCS Oil and Gas Lease Sale 206.
It is an 85-page Environmental Assessment. That is not really big, as its purpose was to update and review an earlier impact study, that one measuring well over 300 pages.
Some quotes from Luthi’s impact study follow. It must be remembered that all of these prognostications were made before Obama’s tenure; they were made by appointments of George Bush, on the recommendations of Cheney.
“No significant impacts to the physical shape and structure of the barrier beaches are expected as a result of accidental events associated with proposed Lease Sale 206.
“Generally, the coastal, deltaic parishes of Louisiana have the highest risk of being contacted by an offshore spill resulting from proposed Lease Sale 206; Plaquemines Parish has the highest probability at 10-15 percent. Should a slick from such a spill make landfall, the volume of oil remaining in the slick is expected to be small. Coastal spills in offshore coastal waters or in the vicinity of Gulf tidal inlets present a greater potential risk to barrier beaches because of their close proximity.
“The already eroded Louisiana barrier island chain was damaged significantly by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, thus further lowering the protection afforded the mainland marshes and beaches from oil spills….[Because Jindal and others are so concerned about the immediacy of the building of berms, perhaps they had not taken cognition of these facts as MMS did several years ago.]
“A search was conducted for new information publishes since completion of the Multisale EIS. (This is the 300-plus page environmental study that came before.) An electronic search of available literature and agency Internet sites, and personal interviews with various Federal and State agency researchers and managers responsible for these coastal resources were conducted. [This begs a question: which Louisiana and Mississippi “agency researchers and managers”
said no to this proposed sale?]
“No additional information is available at this time for Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.”
The results of an in-depth study of wetland loss rates in coastal Louisiana are then given in great detail, acknowledging the fact that any new impact would affect an already fragile area.
“The cumulative effects of human and natural activities in the coastal area have severely degraded the deltaic processes and shifted the coastal area from a condition of net land building to one of net landloss.
“The primary concern for potential impact from accidental activities associated with proposed Lease Sale 206 is related to oil spills…The are not expected to damage significantly any wetlands along the Gulf Coast….Although the impact may occur generally over coastal regions, the impact has the highest probability of occurring in and around Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parishes, Louisiana. Impacts…would be expected to be low and temporary.”
 [Maybe local officials only noted the words “low and temporary.”]
And then is inserted an admonition to the clean-up crews:
“While a resulting slick may cause minor impacts to wetland habitat and surrounding seagrass communities, the equipment and personnel used to clean up a slick over the impacted area may generate the greatest impacts to the area. [Italics my own.] Associated foot traffic may work oil further into the sediment than would otherwise occur.”
Then there is a readiness to blame sea level rise:
         “There is increasing new evidence of the importance of the effect of sea-level rise….”
The above quotes are all from the document that said no change was needed to the previous master study, called the Multisale EIS. There is much to read and regret in that work. I will summarize with its last paragraph of the section called (1) Large Oil Spills:
 “The size of an oil spill can vary greatly depending on the amount of oil released over a period of time as a result of a single accidental event….The sizes of the assumed spills are approximately equal to the mean of the historical spills for each type (platform, pipeline, tanker, or barge). The assumed spill sizes are: platforms – 1,500 bbl; pipeline – 4,600 bbl; tankers – 5,300 bbl for the Gulf of Mexico….”
The assumption of a 4,600 bbl as a total of a “large” spill is enough to make one put his head down and cry when conscious of the magnitude we are actually experiencing, with no end in sight.
Perhaps in future studies the “mean” will be adjusted.
Actually, we might trace one cause – one of many, both proximate and ultimate – to the creation of Minerals Management Services in 1982, under Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt. If anyone doesn’t know what a misfit he was, I will say only that it is too long and sad a story. Look him up on the net instead of taking my time out of organizing my notes.
Part of MMS was RIK, standing for “royalty in kind.” The oil industry liked that arrangement and in 2001, the American Petroleum Institute advised Dick Cheney’s energy task force that RIK should become a permanent tool for MMS. Again I am reminded of something: will we ever see Cheney’s 10-year old secret list of invitees to his energy advisory group. Just tell us: Was BP there?
Even before his becoming VP, Cheney had selected David Gribben III to be his liaison with Congress. He had been Halliburton’s chief lobbyist and had been a college friend of Cheney’s in Wyoming.
Mention of Watt, the 43rd secretary of Interior, brings me to the 48th, Gale Norton. Her connection with Cheney was directly the result of his appointment of Thomas Sansonetti, a Republican activist from Wyoming whose job it was to choose high ranking personnel for the Interior. He chose Norton: again the Wyoming connection.
It is said that Norton “drew fire from environmentalists and praise from industry groups.” A long term resident of Colorado, she joined Shell Oil when she left Interior, after saying she was leaving in 2006 without any job prospects. Shell said she would be helping to develop technology to recover oil from shale deposits on large lands it owns in Colorado, Utah and – guess where: Wyoming. Coincidence? Cheney, who became head of Halliburton when he left office, might have had some familiarity with shale, and certainly with Wyoming and Gale Norton. Norton left Interior after revelations of complications with Abramoff and Louisiana Indians. About the same time, G. Steven Griles, a deputy secretary and formerly industry lobbyist, was indicted for lying about his dealings with Abramoff; he has since been convicted of obstructing justice.
It was Norton who brought Johnnie Burton to Interior in 2002. If ever a person had what might be described as a mixed background to eventually become director of MMS, it was Burton. She was native to French Algeria, trained as a language teacher, and moved to the US in 1963. It was surely a stroke of good fortune that she chose to live in Wyoming.
She did have some experience with oil and gas as the originator of a regional energy reporting service for Rocky Mountain states. In 1978 she was elected to a school board, and in 1982 to the state House of Representatives. She then spent some time teaching in Arkansas. Her highest level of service came in 1995-96 as a cabinet member to the Wyoming Republican governor, working in the Liquor Commission and Department of Revenue. Such was her pedigree to be chosen to run a high office in the Department of the Interior of the United States.
Certain errors benefitting oil companies and their royalty payments had been made in 1998-99, and could have been corrected, saving the US treasury billions of dollars. Burton claimed that she was unaware until years later. Rep. Darrel Issa, a Republican, said that her contacts with oil companies in 2004 showed that she knew or should have known, but “became part of the cover-up.” She has been accused of telling oil companies in 2004 that she would honor the mistaken contracts instead of trying to correct them. New York Times said this let “oil companies escape as much as $10 billion in royalties over the next five years.” The Times also reported that she was the target of two Justice Department criminal investigations.
Thomas Strook of Wyoming, a Republican oilman and legislator, said, “She always tried to be perfect at everything she did.” And she was from Wyoming and knew Cheney very well.
She resigned under pressure in May 2007. At an investigation by a Senate committee, she would not appear. Taking her place was an assistant secretary of MMS, Stephen Allred, who has been accused of being at the center of the bad behavior of MMS employees with those of oil companies. (The pot parties, sex orgies and buying of cocaine are well documented elsewhere, but I must offer that they were discovered only after the Democrats took back control of Congress a couple of years before Obama.)
In his acceptance speech, Allred told of how in his earlier career he had joined a company called Morrison Knudson, which did shale projects in Colorado and coal projects in Texas, Montana, and – you may be ahead of me – in Wyoming.
Gale Norton also brought another Wyoming lawyer to MMS, this being Rebecca W. Watson.
Meanwhile, the blame game runs to the absurd. One Republican running for office is currently inferring that Obama purposely caused the spill at 206.
Before that Republican or any other has a chance to blame Obama from the beginning, it must be considered that Obama was not inaugurated until January 20, 2009. This means he did not direct the construction of the rig that is at the heart of the crisis. It was operated by Transocean, which leased it to BP for three years in 2001 and then renewed the lease for one year in 2004 and then for five years in 2005. The purpose was for BP to operate in the Gulf, specifically for lease sale #206, which shows in an MMS report of August 8, 1908. That too was before Obama’s time.
It must be recalled that Lease number 206 is the infamous parcel auctioned to BP at the Louisiana Superdome on March 19, 2008. That too predates Obama.
Even before that, on October 22, 2007, Randall B. Luthi, Director of MMS, signed a “finding of no significant impact” with regard to 206, stating that “No new information was found that would necessitate a reanalysis of the impacts … upon environmental or socioeconomic resources.” He conducted the largest Gulf of Mexico oil and gas lease in history. He had just become director in July, and it appears that the oil industry had some friends. He had the right background, having been a member of the Wyoming House of Representatives, serving as speaker in 2005 and 2006.
Luthi has since resigned from MMS and has become president of the National Ocean Industries Association. On March 1, 2010, he announced his excitement of the challenge “of working to impact policies favorable to the offshore energy industry.
At least he is aboveboard, unlike those sinking into the muck that is now our beaches, trying to clean oil off our flora and fauna.
Any comments out of Wyoming? How about you, Mr. Cheney?