Saturday, August 14, 2010

A balanced look at the Gulf oil spill

John Mauldin takes a look at the lessons learned from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in his latest weekly investment newsletter. Some excerpts:

From Unmitigated Disaster to Merely Disaster

First, let’s begin with the “good” news. The ecological destruction that was first feared is not going to be as bad as once thought, for a variety of reasons. It is not good, but it is not the unmitigated disaster it could have been.

. . .

The Obama administration dithered while Rome burned.

As The Christian Science Monitor reported in “The Top Five Bottlenecks”: “Three days after the accident, the Dutch government offered advanced skimming equipment capable of sucking up oiled water, separating out most of the oil, and returning the cleaner water to the Gulf. But citing discharge regulations that demand that 99.9985 percent of the returned water be oil-free, the EPA initially turned down the offer. A month into the crisis, the EPA backed off those regulations, and the Dutch equipment was airlifted to the Gulf.”

Really? For 0.0015 percent clean water from badly contaminated, toxic water? It takes a month to get that decision? I can guarantee you that there were people arguing for such a decision early on, and some rookie environmentalist at the EPA who never had responsibility in the real world made things a lot worse. Moving on:

“A giant Taiwanese oil skimming ship, The A Whale, is only now working on the spill. It can process 500,000 barrels of oily seawater per day, but it also needed the same waiver from the EPA which, expressed in another way, limits discharged water to trace amounts of less than 15 parts-per-million of oil residue. It also needed a waiver from the Jones Act, which prevents the use of specialized foreign ships from the North Sea oil fields because they use non-American crews. Previously, the skimmers had to return to port to offload almost pure seawater each time they filled up with water.”

Ok, Let’s get this straight. The oil industry screwed up by not having enough disaster equipment and ships available. That’s bad beyond words. But for the government to compound that by not allowing needed ships to do the work, just because they did not have US union workers is just as bad. You expect better from government in a disaster, or we should.

(Overton said we never really did learn whether The A Whale would have been as useful as advertised, as it did not get into the Gulf soon enough.)

What should have been a no-brainer decision to use the Dutch ships was delayed for whatever reason. What should have been a no-brainer decision to waive the water purity rules was delayed beyond reason. My personal opinion. Whoever participated in that decision should be allowed to return to the private sector. They only made the problem of the spill worse. They should not be allowed near the decision-making process again.

Please note, this is no defense of British Petroleum. As noted below, they were extremely negligent, and deserve the costs and more. We just don’t need to compound stupid, incompetent, irresponsible (choose several more adjectives, some with color) corporate acts with dumb government ones.

The Corexit Decision

There is a chemical called Corexit that is a product line of solvents primarily used as dispersants for breaking up oil slicks. It is produced by Nalco Holding Company. Corexit was the most-used dispersant in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, with COREXIT 9527 having been replaced by COREXIT 9500 after the former was deemed too toxic. Oil that would normally rise to the surface of the water is broken up by the dispersant into small globules that can then remain suspended in the water.

In hindsight, Overton thinks the use of Corexit was the correct thing to do. It probably saved the wetlands. But it is not without its own bad effects.
When you put Corexit on an oil slick, the surface oil disperses but also drops into the ocean about 15 feet. While Corexit (basically a type of soap) itself is not toxic (an admittedly controversial claim), the resulting dispersed oil is quite toxic. Fish swimming through it can be and are harmed. Marine mammals like porpoises are seriously harmed when they rise to breathe through an oil slick.

But here is the good news. It turns out that there are about the equivalent of two Exxon Valdezes a year from natural oil seepage from the floor of the oceans. The Gulf has an ecosystem of bacteria that eat that oil, which are then eaten again by plankton. To those bacteria, dispersed oil is filet mignon. They thrive and grow rapidly, turning that toxic waste into nutrients, which are absorbed by the plankton. The bacteria keep on growing until they lose their source of nutrition (the toxic oil) and then die out over time. Note: once absorbed by the bacteria, the oil is no longer toxic. There are no toxic minerals like mercury introduced into the ecosystem.

Scientists are somewhat baffled. There are tens of millions of gallons of oil that seem to be missing. It seems that the Gulf is providing its own (albeit chemically assisted) defense mechanism. Overton thinks that within less than five years, and maybe only a few years, the ecosystem will largely be back. And fishing may even be better, since the fish and shrimp are not currently being harvested (he called it human predation). At least for a while.

. . .

Some More Takeaways

It was clear talking from experienced oil professionals that the blowout was human error, and probably compounded human error, ignoring multiple warning signs and safety procedures. We went to Shell’s Robert Training Center, where they train people to work on oil rigs. It is a very rigorous facility and the people running it are very professional. They take safety seriously. They train most of the oil rig workers in the Gulf, including British Petroleum’s. They showed us the simulated control rooms. There are lots of safety features and redundancy; and it is *my* take that complacency had set in at BP, as things had gone just fine for so many years, and then some corners were cut. Over time, this will all come out.

There's more at the link. (Link is to an Adobe Acrobat file in .PDF format.) It makes interesting reading.


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