Oil Spill: Answers to Your Questions

Thursday, May 27, 2010 - 05:10 PM

We asked our listeners for questions about the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and then had two of our favorite energy experts answer them.  Lisa Margonelli is director of the New America Foundation Energy Policy Initiative and writes about global energy issues; David Biello is an associate editor on Energy & the Environment at Scientific American.

Lisa Margonelli responds to listener questions:

As horrible as this spill is, I feel like it could have happened to any big oil company. I don't know that boycotting the brand will help them clean it up any faster, and that should be the goal. Why boycott BP now?

I don't advocate boycotting any oil company because it's more a gesture than a real protest. You might be buying Chevron gas at a BP station and BP gas at an Exxon – gasoline is exchangeable and it all comes from the great soup pot. (Some brands DO add special chemical detergents that distinguish them, but when you buy gas you're buying molecules, not a terroir.)

If you want to help the people of the Gulf, go there for a vacation. If you want to help yourself, your kids, the world, figure out a way to use less gas. Period. If you want BP to understand how mad you are, organize to reduce your oil dependency. Or buy some stock and crash their next shareholder meeting.

I would like to know the real cost of this mess. The long-term impact has to be considered, the effect on the local economies, the effect on the habitats.

Here are the numbers: BP says it's spent $760 million so far, and Lloyd's of London estimates it will have to pay out between $300 and $600 million more. One estimate puts the cost near $14 billion.

Basically, my feeling is that you can't put a price on some of the things that will be lost – the shrimp and the sharks and the nearly extinct turtles, for example. Of course, someone has tried to put a price on the extinctions – and that can be found at the betting site Paddypower, where people are betting on which species will go extinct first.

The whole thing becomes quite grisly. But no amount of money will bring back some of the things that have been lost – be it shark or a fishing family that has to sell their boat after 5 generations of work on the water.

Here's another way to think about it. Oil spill analyst Dagmar Schmidt Etkin did a study in 1999 that looked at all the potential cost factors in oil spills, including location, impact on wildlife, and type of oil and got an average cleanup cost for a spilled ton of crude oil as $16,491.97. A ton of crude is approximately 7.3 barrels. So, when you figure out how much oil BP has spilled, you can figure out the total potential cost in 1999 dollars. (And, if you look more deeply in her paper you'll find that putting dispersant on the spill reduces the cost dramatically. And that is precisely why BP was so gung-ho on slathering the spill with dispersant.)

Is [the planned 32 cents per barrel tax] all? Is that the highest tax that [would be] paid by the companies, and who's it paid to?

Currently we have an 8 cent per barrel spill tax on oil, which has gone towards an Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund that contains approximately $1.5 billion. Congress has a bill that proposes raising that tax to 32 cents a barrel, which works out to less than a penny a gallon for gas, however some accounts suggest that this money may not go to the spill clean up fund, but towards carving down the deficit. It appears to be somehow involved in the American Jobs and Closing Tax Loopholes Bill that was up for discussion today.

Why can't we bring in experts on underwater and experts on clean-up, rather than one company, BP, doing both?

I'm not sure exactly what this question means, but here's what I think you're asking: Why does it seem like all the companies doing the plugging and the cleanup have ties to BP? Can't we get away from these people?

Actually, almost everyone in the oil industry is connected. On the one hand, personnel go between companies, and many come from Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. On the other, many companies have consolidated over the past two decades, meaning that there are fewer companies, and more interconnections between their workers. Finally, some companies like Halliburton, Schlumberger, and even Transocean, are basically the only people in their particular specialty.

David Biello responds to listener questions:

How is [the oil spill] affecting the algae build-up and the already growing dead zone in the Gulf?

That remains unclear. On the one hand, oil is toxic to some algae so it may prevent some of the seasonal bloom as a result of runoff fertilizer from fields in the Midwest that causes the annual dead zone. On the other, it is encouraging a bloom of bacteria and fungi that consume oxygen to eat the oil. That's depleting the oxygen in the seawater beneath the surface. It remains to be seen whether those levels will drop low enough to be considered a dead zone. But if it does, that's bad news for coral, crabs, worms and other deep sea critters that can't move fast enough out of the way. And it could be longer-lasting; deep waters don't mix with the atmosphere as often as waters nearer the surface meaning that once the oxygen's gone, it will be gone for a long time.

Why can't they blow up the bottom to make the oil well close itself up?

I'm not sure I understand the question. Do you mean use explosives? If so, this would simply make the problem worse, not solve it. You'd ultimately open up a bigger hole or series of cracks and holes in the seafloor for the oil and gas to rush out of. Remember, the source of the oil is a full 13,000 feet further down.

I want to know the absolute worst case scenario of how far this slick could realistically travel.

That depends on the scale of oil you're worried about. If you're concerned about thick slicks like the ones hitting Louisiana, you should be okay anywhere but the Gulf Coast. If you're concerned about tar balls, well, they could get into the currents and join the global population of millions bobbing in the seven seas or landing on beaches near you. And if you're concerned about hydrocarbon molecules, well then, they're going to get all the way to the Arctic, eventually, and everywhere else.

Please give us your take on this week's report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, predicting a possible 8 to 14 hurricanes this season. [Takeaway staff question]

That's bad news for people hoping to keep the oil out of Gulf Coast wetlands. An active hurricane season doesn't just mean a lot of hurricanes, which can have the force of 10,000 nuclear bombs: It also means a lot of tropical depressions. And remember, four foot swells are all that's required to get up and over the booms and even up and over the barrier islands, real or constructed, and into vital marshes. It's far easier to clean up the oil at sea or even on a beach than when it's penetrated into the muck of a Louisiana swamp. Once it's in there, it can last for decades.

Why can't we bring in experts on underwater and experts on clean-up, rather than one company, BP, doing both?

We already are. BP is coordinating the cleanup, under the command of the Coast Guard and the rest of the federal government, because, ultimately, they'll be paying for it. As for underwater, BP and the other deep-water oil companies, like Shell and Petrobras, are the only ones with the technology to handle a deep water gusher like this one. Remember, we can't just send divers down there. This has more in common with working in space than it does with capping an oil well on land.

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Comments [5]

Kevin from Clarksville, TN

David - regarding the explosion question... It would seem to me that were one to create a large enough explosion (i.e. a fusion bomb), something of which our Navy is very adept at doing, one could hypothesize that the Earth's crust would melt/meld or otherwise readjust to contain itself.
This country should stop fooling itself, this is about money. Everything is about money and who can keep it. BP has net profits on average of $93M a day. $93 MILLION!!! It is absolutely unfathomable that a company that rakes in that kind of money DAILY cannot develop a solution for this problem. Unbelievable.

Jun. 03 2010 11:26 PM
John Finnell from Seattle

I second the comment about the Ixtoc 1 Spill in 1979. I have only once heard this spill mentioned in the news. The Ixtoc 1 also suffered a blowout protector failure, 30 years ago, and created the second largest oil spill in world history. Where is the reporting comparing the causes of these two spills. I would love to hear the experts and engineers talk on this subject.

Jun. 01 2010 09:31 AM
Michael Vitale from Clinton Township MI

to the take away,
there are always conspiricy theories that arise and this oil incident is no exception. My question is: Why has there been no reporting on the victims? 11 people died with no information on them at all. Is there anyone in ICU? nothing in between, just dead or minor injuries? what were their positions, age, gender. All the news says is "they came from all over the country." Did these 11 people all end up in the ocean? no one thought to grab even one of them thinking they may be alive and get them on a boat? Where are these faceless casulties?

May. 28 2010 09:28 AM
Jonathan Jeffries from New York City

The Exxon Valdez spilled 10.9 million gallons. The Deepwater has now exceeded that is being reported as the biggest spill in US history. NOT BY A LONG SHOT.

The Ixtoc 1 spilled 140 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 1979,

200 miles of Texas beach were affected including Padre Island.

May. 28 2010 09:14 AM
Rick Evans from Taxachusetts

Have deep sea blowout preventers ever worked to stop a blowout? For example during hurricane Katrina drilling platforms were trashed around offering ample opportunity for real live testing.

May. 28 2010 09:13 AM

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