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Tar Balls Raise Concerns for Florida Coastline, Atlantic Ocean

May 18, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Marine Scientists said sections of the giant Gulf oil spill are nearing the loop current, which could carry the contamination around the tip of Florida and deeper into the Atlantic Ocean. Ray Suarez talks to a Wall Street Journal reporter about the environmental and economic implications.

RAY SUAREZ: The disaster in the Gulf has prompted many questions about whether BP and other oil companies are adequately prepared to deal with other potential accidents on oil rigs in deep water.

Ben Casselman reported on that in today’s Wall Street Journal, and joins me from Dallas.

Ben, have the oil companies put as much investment, research, as much energy into preventing and curtailing the damage from accidents as they have into finding and extracting oil in deeper and harder-to-reach places?

BEN CASSELMAN, The Wall Street Journal: Well, it is pretty clear that they haven’t. As — as the companies have moved into deeper water, they have invested a huge amount in technology, but that technology has been aimed at getting oil out of the ground.

And Tony Hayward, BP’s CEO, admitted last week that companies could have done more to prepare for this kind of disaster.

RAY SUAREZ: There are many other rigs, many other companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico. Generally, are they prepared to seal a runaway well?

BEN CASSELMAN: Well, it is much harder to control a runaway well in deep water than on land or in shallow water.

Part of the challenge is that the well itself is under a mile or more of water. And you can’t use some of the techniques you could use on land. We’re learning more about whether BP was — was particularly well-prepared for this or unprepared, but it is clear that the industry as a whole doesn’t have the kinds of systems in place that BP is now trying to develop for this situation.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, we have been drilling for oil very commonly in the Gulf of Mexico for decades now. Are these companies more able to deal with accidents than they were, let’s say, in the 1960s?

BEN CASSELMAN: Well, companies have developed a great deal of technology, and they — that technology is much better than it was in the 1960s.

But, at the same time, they have tackled increasingly challenging reservoirs. What that means is that what was routine a few years ago is now — or, rather, what was difficult a few years ago is — is now routine, and what was unheard of a few years ago is now being done on an experimental basis. And…

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you mentioned that everybody is going into deeper and deeper water. By necessity, this is all being done at remote control, right? Human beings can’t work at that depth, can they?

BEN CASSELMAN: No, that’s right. And we have seen them this week operate with remotely-operated vehicles.

It’s being controlled either remotely or using robots on the seafloor. That works fine when things go right. But it makes it much harder to solve a problem when things go wrong.

RAY SUAREZ: Are mishaps rare enough at this depth that, almost always, you’re flying by the seat of your pants because there is nothing like a standard operating procedure?

BEN CASSELMAN: Mishaps like this are extremely rare. But it is clear that incidents happen on a relatively regular basis.

Last year, just since July, there was a fire aboard a brand-new rig. There was a power outage where a rig started to drift and — and could have split free from the well. There was a gas leak on a — on a gas production platform. Those kinds of things happen.

What is rare is for so much to go wrong at once in a catastrophic situation like this.

RAY SUAREZ: Looking at the particular case of BP, how does their record stack up against that of other oil companies in worker safety, spill limitation, control of damage, that sort of thing?

BEN CASSELMAN: Well, BP, of course, has run into a number of problems with its refineries that have been very well-documented. Its record in deep water is less clear.

But they have had incidents before. One incident we looked at in particular was in 2003 that in some ways is very similar to this one. In this case, a rig was rocked by an explosion. This was actually a pipe that connected it to the well snapped in two and released.

And that well, had it flown out of control, could have released as much oil in a week as Exxon Valdez did in 1989. In this case, the blowout preventer, the valve at the ocean floor that is meant to shut down a well in an emergency, in this case, it worked, unlike in the — in the disaster in the Gulf that’s going on now.

But it was a near-miss. And BP commissioned a study to try to find out what had happened and to try to find out what went wrong. And the conclusions they drew were that the company was well-prepared for the immediate aftermath of a disaster like that, but less well-prepared for the long-term recovery effort. And, of course, that is very similar to the criticism being levied against BP right now.

RAY SUAREZ: President Obama has slammed the cozy relationship between the Minerals Management Service and other federal regulators and the companies working in this area.

What did your reporting find about the relationship between the Coast Guard, which is on the surface of the water, the MMS, which is down below, and the companies drilling oil?

BEN CASSELMAN: Well, the MMS, and the Coast Guard as well, have ceded a lot of their authority to the industry itself. Rather than prescribing specific regulations, they have set standards and then left it up to companies to find a way to meet those.

But one of the challenges is this technological advancement that we were just talking about. As the companies have pushed the limits of technology, the regulators have been left behind. And the Coast Guard admitted that in hearings last week. They said that they really had not been able to keep up with the new technologies that were being rolled out on a regular basis.

RAY SUAREZ: So, that emphasis on extraction over emergency preparedness is now being conceded by the entities that are supposed to look over the shoulder of the oil industry in the Gulf?

BEN CASSELMAN: Well, they certainly admitted that — that they were not requiring the kinds of safeguards that we now wish had been in place on the Deepwater Horizon.

RAY SUAREZ: Ben Casselman joining us from Dallas, thanks for joining us.

BEN CASSELMAN: Thank you so much.