BP’s Deepwater Oil Spill: Five Million Barrels, But Who’s Counting?

Posted on November 30th, 2012 by Alison

Although it won’t do much to reduce the national debt and the threat of the “fiscal cliff”, the Interior Department announced today that it received almost $134 million in bonus bids from oil companies vying to drill new wells in the Gulf of Mexico.

Yesterday’s Lease Sale 229, the third sale in the last 12 months, brought total OCS revenues to the U.S. Treasury to somewhere in the vicinity of two billion dollars. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management offered almost 20 million acres of the continental shelf in the western Gulf and received bids on 116 tracts covering approximately 653,000 acres. Although it was among the winning bidders at last June’s lease sale, BP was not among yesterday’s bidders. In 2010, BP operated the deepwater well in the central Gulf that blew out when the drillship exploded, killing eleven workers and causing the world’s largest oil spill disaster. Coincidentally, just hours before the lease sale in New Orleans, where BP is defending itself in civil litigation, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced that BP was temporarily banned from entering any new contracts with the federal government due to the company’s “lack of business integrity.”

Two weeks ago, the Justice Department accepted BP’s guilty plea and its offer to settle over four billion dollars in criminal charges and securities violations. Despite the fanfare about being the largest environmental criminal settlement in history, this seems like another drop in the bucket compared to the incalculable damage to the marine environment.

EPA is reportedly negotiating an agreement with BP that would allow it back into the fraternity of respectable government contractors. But one wonders how any promises EPA extracts from BP will restore its corporate integrity. The BP-EPA agreement is unlikely to address BP’s lack of integrity in its dealings with the marine research community both during and after the spill. When two researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution offered to help BP measure the quantity of oil escaping from the Macondo wellhead, using methods they’d perfected at deepsea hydrothermal vents, BP initialed encouraged them and then summarily dismissed them.

After the US Coast Guard hired them to complete the job, Christopher Reddy and Richard Camilli estimated that the total loss was about 5 million barrels. Because BP’s liability is based in part on the quantity of its release, BP is very sensitive about this number. BP thought it could disqualify Reddy and Camilli’s estimate by sifting through email communication with their team and with the editor and reviewers of the article they published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It seems BP was prepared to “swiftboat” the WHOI scientists using tactics deployed by the climate-change denial industry in the infamous Climategate incident. But Reddy and Camilli fought back. The court ultimately ordered them to comply with the subpoena and turn over thousands of pages of analysis and internal e-mails to BP, but shortly afterwards, in an article in Science magazine, they told their story.

They have effectively alerted the marine scientific community to guard its work from similar fishing expeditions. And they have outlined necessary changes in law that would give scientists who find themselves under similar attack the standing in court to defend their research and to protect the scientific deliberative process.

This dispatch from the science/policy interface hopes their efforts will bear fruit and will keep you posted.

Johns Hopkins University Press Blog Post

Posted on November 25th, 2012 by Alison

Wild Thing: The pleasures of green turtles and the kindness of sisters

One of the unexpected pleasures of writing a book in the digital era is receiving reviews directly from readers some of whom seem to post their opinion of your work as soon as they finish reading it. I confess that when my book, The Case of the Green Turtle, was first offered for sale online, I checked daily for new reviews, feeling vaguely like a Broadway producer getting the newspaper reviews before opening night is over. Although the novelty has worn off a bit, I still enjoy seeing that a new review has come in. Back in the headier days of August while the bloom was still on the rose, I wrote a guest blog about the experience for my publisher, The Johns Hopkins University Press. Click here to read my blog post