Mark Seibel: BP Gulf disaster exposes oil companies do not have the technology to deal with big spills

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And now joining us from the McClatchy DC bureau is the managing editor of McClatchy DC, Mark Seibel. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So you’ve been covering the BP spill in the Gulf for—more or less from the beginning. First of all, give us a quick update on what efforts are being made to actually stop this thing. And does anything look like it might be effective?

SEIBEL: Well, we’re actually at a very dramatic moment right now, because the Obama administration has given BP the go-ahead to take off the current containment cap—this is the one that’s been on since June 3 and is collecting about 15,000, 16,000 barrels of oil a day.

JAY: Which is what percentage of what they think is coming out of there?

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SEIBEL: Well, it’s between 20 and 40 percent. And it’s been there since June 3. Well, they’ve given the permission to take it off and replace it with a new containment cap, which BP hopes, and the Obama administration as well hopes, will completely seal the well.

JAY: Okay. Now, the risk is it doesn’t work. They have may have 100 percent coming out into the water.

SEIBEL: Well, what they will have for several days is an unimpeded flow of oil through where the containment cap used to be. Now, how much oil that is we really don’t know, but we know that they won’t be collecting the 16,000 they had been collecting, the 16,000 barrels per day. They will still be collecting oil through the blowout preventer, maybe 8,000, 10,000 barrels per day. But, you know, the estimate of how much is flowing is between 35,000 and 60,000, and some people think that’s low, too. So there is going to be unencumbered flow where the containment cap used to be.

JAY: And what’s taken so long to do this?

SEIBEL: Well, what they have to do, they lift the containment cap off, then they have to remove the pipe and some other odds and ends that are sitting there, and that requires their working with robot vehicles. It’ll probably take three or four days just to unbolt everything and get it out of the way.

JAY: So what’s the debate about this? Is it considered highly that it might not work [sic]? Otherwise, it seems a no-brainer that you would just do it.

SEIBEL: Well, the concern is a couple of items. The first item is is, you know, the idea of intentionally allowing more oil than you have to allow to escape into the Gulf. And the second thing is, once they’ve put the cap in place, there will be a contained system where the pressure will actually rise inside the well. And their concern, of course, is the integrity of the well bore, which they’ve always been concerned about. If the pressure is not high enough within the cap, then they believe what they will have seen is that the well, the oil is leaking out into the sea rock through some avenue they don’t know. If that happens, they will immediately begin what they call “production” of the well, meaning they will begin hooking up the ships again to capture oil coming out, so they can allow as much oil to flow out of the pipe as possible and, hopefully, catch as much as of it as they can. If, however, they are able to cap it and don’t have any pressure difficulties and believe that the well bore is whole and performing the way it’s supposed to be, then they will just continue with the relief wells, and perhaps in a couple of weeks be again pouring heavy drilling mud into the well to stop it up permanently.

JAY: So let’s for the sake of argument—and hope this works, the cap works. What about what we’ve already got? How much oil is already in the water, and what can they do about it?

SEIBEL: Well, that’s a very good question, how much oil is already in the water. Well, it’s millions and millions of gallons of oil. And, of course, we don’t really know what we can do about that.

JAY: And what about the ships? [inaudible] been a lot of talk about this big ship from Taiwan that’s come that’s supposed to be able to clean the water, and there’s other ships working. Is any of this going to seem to be effective?

SEIBEL: Well, they’re doing some skimming, but it’s—you know, the skimming has really done very little in terms of collecting oil. It has obviously not been able to stop oil from coming ashore in the Louisiana marshes around the beaches of Mississippi and Alabama and Florida. Plus there is an unknown volume of oil that is probably dissolved into the water itself, and they don’t really have a good method for cleaning that up. That’s oil that has become part of the environment, and the impact it has, you know, will unfold over the next many years. But it will never be removed from the water.

JAY: Now, some of the more draconian or apocalyptic predictions are that whole sections of the coastline become almost uninhabitable. Does that seem to be true? Or people just don’t know?

SEIBEL: Well, we don’t know. I mean, one of the things—you know, it’s been—the last time there was a spill of this magnitude in the Gulf of Mexico was 30 years ago, and that spill actually was at a much lower volume and in a much shallower part of the Gulf, and the oil disappeared after a few years, and, you know, you didn’t have a generation-long impact from that particular spell. This spill is different in that it’s deeper. The oil has been able to dissolve more in the water column, in the Gulf waters, than previously. And it’s gone into some places, like the Louisiana marshes, that the other one did not. And so they don’t know what the long-term impact is, because they’ve never really had an event like this previously.

JAY: Now, behind you we have a map of all the various oil rigs in the Gulf. It’s—if I’m looking at it here, it’s, like, over 3,300 active drill sites. Based on what—your experience covering this now, is there such a thing as safe offshore drilling? Meaning, can you actually create a regulatory authority that stops this from happening? First of all, is that possible, to have that set of regulations? And in today’s political environment, can you actually get a regulatory authority that’s effective? In other words, should it all just be shut down, or is there a way to manage this?

SEIBEL: Well, you know, you’re really dealing with two, I think, distinct situations here. When you have shallow-water drilling—and most of the oil wells portrayed on the map behind me are drill sites that are within—they’re in water of less than 500 feet depth, and we actually know how to operate in those waters pretty well. Obviously, there are accidents. Obviously, it’s unpleasant if you’re—want to be a tourist in the area. There are still tarballs, and there are spills, and there are all kinds of things that happen. And it’s one of the reasons Florida, which is a tourist destination, has never allowed offshore drilling, not even in shallow water. And then you have the second category, which is what we’re dealing with now with the Deepwater Horizon, which is deep-water drilling in depths in excess of 5,000 feet. Actually, depths more than 1,000 feet are considered deep-water. We thought the oil companies had the technology to do that, and what we’ve learned is that they don’t, really. They have the technology to go in and punch the hole, but if something goes wrong, they don’t really have the technology to stop it, cap it, collect it, or intervene if it’s a large spill at the surface level. I mean, you know, they’ve done all these plans and we’ve read all these plans that promise that we can skim, you know, 400,000 barrels a day and that sort of thing. Well, in this entire disaster, you know, only a fraction of the amount of oil they promised could be skimmed in a day has been skimmed in two months. So we just don’t have the capabilities. We know in the BP case that the engineers, everything they tried, basically, to kill the well didn’t work. You know, they came in first with a big cofferdam containment dome that floated away because of hydrates. They came in with a top kill and the “junk shot” that didn’t work because the pressures were such in the well [that] they were fearful, frankly, of putting more stuff into it. Reasonable success in the current containment cap, but, you know, oil’s still leaking out. But they did capture some, and now they’re going to try this new cap.

JAY: So where are we at? There was going to be a moratorium. The courts, if I understood it, overturned some of the moratorium. Where are we at on this now?

SEIBEL: There’s very little exploratory drilling. And I think, you know, it’s important for viewers to understand that there’s exploratory drilling, which is what the Deepwater Horizon was—it was an exploration, it was prospecting, and there are only 33 prospectors in the Gulf of Mexico. And that was what was supposed to be stopped by the moratorium. There are another 4,000 offshore production platforms that are producing oil right now, but they’re unaffected by the moratorium. That’s oil [inaudible]

JAY: And how many of them are in deep water?

SEIBEL: You know, I don’t know the answer to that, but most of them are shallow-water.

JAY: But it sounds like, from what you’re saying, that if we don’t have the technology to protect deep-water accidents, to guard against it or clean it up, then is the question not to close down deep-water drilling?

SEIBEL: Well, I think until there are regulations, or until there is a belief that oil companies really do have a way to deal with a deep-water blowout, that there’s going to have to be much tighter regulation, and maybe regulation to the point where you say, you know, you don’t really have the technological capacity to undertake this well, and so it doesn’t get approved.

JAY: But right now that’s not really happening.

SEIBEL: Well, it isn’t happening, and, you know, I think it won’t happen until Congress is of a mind to do it. And I don’t know that Congress will ever want to get that draconian with it. I mean, right now, you know, regulators are under a regime where they must act within 30 days on an application for an exploratory well. Well, 30 days is a very short period of time, especially if you actually have to read the applications that they put in. And, of course, we know now—.

JAY: Well, it’s very hard to do any real due diligence.

SEIBEL: Right. Well, we know now, because we’ve started looking at the Deepwater Horizon documents and some of the other documents, that, clearly, regulators weren’t reading them. They talked about protecting walruses in the Gulf of Mexico. Well, there are no walruses in the Gulf of Mexico. It was obviously something that someone had cut and pasted from another application for the Arctic region. But it didn’t matter, because nobody was going to read it anyway. They didn’t have time to read it and they weren’t of a mind to read it. And so, until you can have a regulatory scheme where people are actually going to read these documents, think about whether they’re accurate, and then think about whether the companies can perform the way they say they’re going to perform, you won’t really have meaningful regulations.

JAY: So, as in finance reform, we get back to money in politics again.

SEIBEL: I think that’s right.

JAY: Thanks for joining us.

SEIBEL: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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