NEW ORLEANS (CN) – BP falsely promised the Minerals Management Service that its oil spill response plan “could recover 197 percent of the daily discharge from an uncontrolled blowout of 250,000 barrels per day,” though it has utterly failed to handle a spill of only 4 percent of that amount, two environmental groups claim in Federal Court. And though the agency knew from its own research that this claim was “grossly exaggerated,” it approved the plan anyway.
The Gulf Restoration Network and the Sierra Club cited BP’s 2009 Gulf of Mexico Regional Oil Spill Response Plan, which was approved by the Department of the Interior and its co-defendant creature, the Minerals Management Service.
In fact, after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, and has been “discharging oil at an estimated rate of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels per day” – less than 4 percent of the rate BP promised it could handle – the company has been utterly incompetent to deal with it.
(For those not mathematically inclined: 197 percent of 250,000 barrels = 492,500 barrels; divided by 19,000 barrels = 25.92105 = 3.86 percent.)
The complaint states: “At the time of the approval, MMS knew that oil containment and recovery at sea (which was where the exploratory drilling worst case discharge scenario was projected to occur) was at best 10-15 percent of the spilled oil and at worst ‘considerably less.’ Nevertheless, it approved an oil spill response plan in which BP represented that it could recover 197 percent of the daily discharge from an uncontrolled blowout of 250,000 barrels per day.” (Parentheses and italics as in complaint.)
The complaint continues: “At the time of approval, MMS knew that chemical dispersants were only 33 percent effective, yet it approved an oil spill response plan that assumed a 90 percent effectiveness rate.
“Given these facts, MMS’s approval of BP’s 2009 Gulf of Mexico Regional Oil Spill Response Plan was patently arbitrary and capricious.”
The Deepwater Horizon blowout, 45 miles off the coast of Louisiana in 5,000 feet of water, already is the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history. Though the blowout is spilling 12,000 to 19,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf – less than 4 percent of the amount BP claimed it could handle – “it appears likely that this discharge will continue until a relief well is drilled 3 or more months from now,” according to the complaint.
The surface oil slick already is larger than the state of Florida. In addition to being the nation’s worst environmental disaster, it could end up being the worst economic disaster the country has ever suffered that can be traced to a single event.
The Department of the Interior oversees drilling in federal waters on the Outer Continental Shelf in the Gulf of Mexico.
Under to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 – enacted in response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska – offshore lessees must have approved oil-spill response plans before the Mineral Management Service will issue drilling permits. The purpose of the Act was to prevent catastrophic oil spills such as the one taking in the Gulf.
The Secretary of Interior is charged with reviewing oil spill response plans, to require amendments to meet the requirements of the act, and to approve only plans that comply with the act.
The plans must include a description of the “worst-case discharge scenario,” which assumes an uncontrolled blowout lasting 30 days.
A lessee must calculate the volume of the worst-case discharge and describe the response equipment it would use to contain and recover the oil “to the maximum extent practicable,” meaning “within the limitations of available technology, as well as the physical limitations of personnel, when responding to a worst case discharge in adverse weather conditions.”
To get a permit, a lessee must also calculate the “effective daily recovery capacity” of the equipment it expects to use to recover the oil.
Essentially, this projection is meant to calculate the total amount of oil the lessee thinks it can recover from a blowout.
The Minerals Management Service approved BP’s 2009 Gulf of Mexico Regional Oil Spill plan on July 21, 2009.
Based on the anticipated size and productivity of the oil reservoir it was exploring, BP estimated the “highest capacity well uncontrolled blowout volume associated with the [exploration] well” would be 250,000 barrels, or 10.5 million gallons of oil per day.
BP said its response equipment listed would be able to recover 491,721 barrels of oil per day, or 197 percent of oil spilled daily – even in bad weather.
It claimed it could disperse 5,500 to 7,600 barrels of oil per day using chemical dispersants based on an assumption the dispersants would be 90 percent effective, and the Mineral Management Service’s approved it though it knew that dispersants are only about 33 percent effective, according to the complaint.
When the Minerals Management Service approved BP’s plan, it was involved in its own Technology Assessment and Research Project on mechanical containment and recovery of oil spills, according to the complaint. As a result of this research, the Minerals Management Service knew that deepwater drilling – defined as waters deeper than 300 meters – “carried increased risks of a blowout due to difficulties related to kick detection and control procedures under deep water conditions,” the complaint states.
Even though humanity had little experience with blowouts in deep water, the Minerals Management Service knew that containment and recovery in deep water “is at best minimal and at worst negligible,” and said so on its own website:
“Overall, containment and recovery operations at sea require extensive logistical support. In rough sea, a large spill of low viscosity oil such as light or medium crude oil can be scattered over many square kilometers within just a few hours. Oil recovery systems typically have a swath width of only a few meters and move at slow speeds (1 knot) while recovering oil. Thus, even if response personnel can be operational within a few hours, it will not be feasible for them to encounter more than a fraction of a widely dispersed slick. This is the main reason why containment and recovery at sea rarely results in the removal of more than a relatively small proportion of a large spill, at best only 10-15 percent of the spilled oil and often considerably less,” according to the MMS website.
The plaintiffs say that at least five current BP Exploration Plans rely on BP’s 2009 Gulf of Mexico Regional Oil Spill Response Plan, and approvals to drill new wells have been granted.
Given all this, the groups say, the MMS’ approval of BP’s Oil Spill Response Plan “was patently arbitrary and capricious.” They want the government agencies enjoined from using the plan in any more of BP’s drilling permit applications.
The plaintiffs are represented by Alisa Coe with Earthjustice in Tallahassee.
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