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Calm Seas, Winds Permit Some Progress in Gulf Oil Leak Cleanup

May 4, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Crews made some headway in dispersing millions of gallons of leaked oil as seas and winds calmed in the Gulf of Mexico. Tom Bearden reports from Louisiana on the challenges still ahead for containing and cleaning up the spill, then Judy Woodruff gets two views on why the spill is so tough to contain and mitigate.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Weather in the Gulf of Mexico improved today, helping cleanup crews who are trying to cope with the effects of the oil spill. Coast Guard officials said that significant amounts of oil may not reach the shoreline for three more days. But communities were still bracing for the spill’s impact.

NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden is in Louisiana, and has our report.

TOM BEARDEN: The winds and seas died down today, and workers resumed efforts to disperse millions of gallons of crude oil that remained offshore.

REAR ADMIRAL MARY LANDRY, U.S. Coast Guard: We have found that, where we thought we were going to have impact last Friday night and Saturday, the winds, the currents shifted it, and the next thing you know, we have been given what I call a gift of time.

TOM BEARDEN: The wider efforts to contain the spill continue. And BP, the company responsible for the operation, said, until today, the weather was a major problem.

Marti Powers is a spokesperson for BP.

MARTI POWERS, spokeswoman, BP: Weather has absolutely not been our friend. We have had, the last few days, some really high winds. We have had some swells closer to shore. They have been nine and 10 feet. We had reports yesterday that they were up to 17 feet. And so it makes all of that very challenging to really predict.

TOM BEARDEN: Roughly 200,000 gallons a day have spewed from the well site off the Louisiana coast since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank two weeks ago. But the spill’s potential impact zone is huge, covering thousands of miles of coastline across four states.

Powers says the company has begun giving direct aid to the states to help defray costs.

MARTI POWERS: BP was giving the four states with potential impact $25 million each that can be used in the respective parishes and counties for response and/or recovery efforts. But it is designated for those parishes and counties that are on the coastline.

TOM BEARDEN: In addition, the company said the first of three containment domes intended to cover the leak and help siphon the oil to the surface will be in place on Thursday and go operational early next week.

In the meantime, outside Venice, Louisiana, some of the spill’s victims were apparent today. An oil-slicked brown pelican was being washed by a bird rescue group.

JAY HOLCOMB, International Bird Rescue Research Center: Once the bird looks really 100 percent rinsed off, then it goes into a drying pen, which is a room over there. You guys won’t go in it. He’s just going to go into a pen like this with a blow-dryer. And once he’s perfectly dry, he gets to go swim.

TOM BEARDEN: Elsewhere across the Gulf region, anxious residents did what they could to prepare for the slick’s possible landing. To the west, on Dauphin Island, Alabama, trucks dumped trucks of sand on pristine beaches in an effort to fortify the coast. Alabama’s National Guard was also called out.

CAPTAIN MARCUS YOUNG, Alabama National Guard: There is nothing else we can do to stop this enemy besides do what we’re doing. We can’t drop a bomb on it. We can’t go out and capture it. We have to simply wait for it to attack us.

TOM BEARDEN: That waiting has a ripple effect. The entire economy of this region depends on the sea. Trade, tourism and fishing are all impacted in the short term.

How much impact the oil has on the entire coastline will have major repercussions for both the regional and the national economy. In Washington today, the president focused on the potential economic fallout.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I would like to see the people most affected by the disaster employed in helping in the cleanup, and we will continue to explore every possible option to create jobs and support local economies in the Gulf, while continuing to monitor any potential effects on the national economy.

TOM BEARDEN: The effects on the local economies are already being felt. In Bayou La Batre, Alabama, seafood processors are at a near standstill, victims of a 10-day ban on fishing in federal waters offshore.

At Drawdy crab processing, a kind of fatalism has already set in.

TERRY DRAWDY, Drawdy’s Crab Company, Bayou La Batre, Alabama: Hello. We’re screwed seafood. Can I help you?

TOM BEARDEN: Husband and wife owners Terry and Jessica Drawdy said they processed one-tenth of their normal 10,000-pound haul of crabs today.

JESSICA DRAWDY, Drawdy’s Crab Company, Bayou La Batre, Alabama: Everything is shut down.

TERRY DRAWDY, Drawdy’s Crab Company, Bayou La Batre, Alabama: I’m trying to find other resources, like the East Coast and all. But their production is down this year.

The west coast of Louisiana, I’m trying to find stuff to do. Some of the shops around here were smart enough to do crawfish. So, that’s — the crawfish industry hasn’t been hurt by it, so those guys are still working, and working their pickers and all, got them doing something different. And all we know is crabs.

TOM BEARDEN: No one can tell the Drawdys how long this will last. And that has them worried about business.

TERRY DRAWDY: This here, you don’t know what you can do. I mean, right now, I have tried — I have been on the phone for a solid week trying to find different avenues to crabs, people, but, you know, for my workers to work, to keep my — I mean, they need to work too, man. They’re loyal. They work hard. They’re good folks. They really work hard.

TOM BEARDEN: Up the road, Mindy Wright-Hill says her family oyster business is already functionally shut down.

MINDY WRIGHT-HILL, Wright Brand Oysters, Bayou La Batre, Alabama: The toughest part, the part that hurts the most is the unknown. We don’t know how long this will last. We — we don’t know how long it’s going to take. I mean, it’s — we don’t know how long our employees will be out of jobs.

TOM BEARDEN: Wright Brand Oysters is one of the largest processors in the area, but now their 40 workers are idle. The oyster beds are almost all closed, and the one that is open lies untouched. The oystermen are now laying out containment boom. For now, they’re waiting on the weather and on BP’s efforts to stem the geyser on the seafloor.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We get the views of two people who have been watching the latest developments closely. Kenneth Arnold is an offshore industry consultant and a member of the National Academy of Engineering. He worked for Shell for many years and now works with several oil companies. But he has not been consulting on this spill. And Michael Gravitz is the oceans advocate for Environment America, an environmental advocacy group.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gentleman, thank you both for talking with us.

Michael Gravitz, I’m going to start with you.

MICHAEL GRAVITZ, oceans advocate, Environment America: Sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is the latest information you have about the oil coming ashore? We hear from the Coast Guard today that we have been given, she said, a gift in that the — the weather and the current has kept the oil offshore longer.

MICHAEL GRAVITZ: That’s true, although our understanding is that the oil has touched down on a couple of islands in the Gulf of Mexico, Chandeleur Islands, Breton National Wildlife Refuge.

And, you know, oil is pushed around by winds and waves. And there’s about 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 square miles of it out there in the Gulf of Mexico. And we’re just hoping that the winds keep it off the shorelines and off the beaches and the coasts of the Gulf states.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, inevitably, you know it’s coming in.

MICHAEL GRAVITZ: That’s true. Usually, at this time of year, the winds are from the south, pushing the oil north toward the coasts.

And while we apparently have a temporary reprieve, because the winds are coming from the north now, keeping the oil off the coast, that’s expected to change in the next few days. And, you know, what’s really so hard to believe here is that, with all this technology, with all this money that’s being spent, with all this, you know, wonderful technology in boats and people and everything that people are trying to do, we’re really just still at the mercy of the weather. And that’s really a terrible place to be in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kenneth Arnold, how much is the industry and everybody trying to stop this at the mercy of the weather?

KENNETH ARNOLD, oil industry consultant: Well, I will tell you, there isn’t anybody who is — who is trying harder than BP right now to try and handle this problem.

It is a difficult problem. The best thing that we can do is keep oil out of the water. And, of course, BP is trying its hardest to do that right now by trying to activate those blowout preventers, which, for some reason, have failed, and by trying to put these containment — containment domes over the leaks to corral the oil before it gets into the water column.

Some of the latest stuff that they’re doing to put dispersants into the oil column is also an attempt to help the natural weathering systems and the natural microorganisms that are in the ocean in the Gulf of Mexico feast on this oil, if you will. They eat the oil. They turn it into carbon dioxide and water.

And anything we can do to speed that process up would keep the oil from coming ashore. Unfortunately, it’s just a fact that some of this oil has already come ashore. I understand some of it has come ashore on Chandeleur Islands, which I’m very familiar with. And some of it has come ashore in other places. And, unfortunately, more will eventually come ashore, unless they can really stop the leak and corral the oil quickly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kenneth Arnold, let me stay with you on the point you were making about dispersants and how — tell us briefly how those are working, these chemical dispersants, and what the point of them is.

KENNETH ARNOLD: OK. The — to understand how dispersants work, you have to understand that, in the Gulf of Mexico, there are natural oil seeps that have nothing to do with the offshore oil and gas development. These have been there for thousands and thousands of years.

And what — but we don’t notice them. I think the — the — the estimates have been somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 barrels a day actually seep naturally into the Gulf of Mexico. We don’t notice the oil, because the Gulf of Mexico has microorganisms in the water column which feed on the crude oil.

And, so, what — when we introduce a high concentration of oil in one location, which is what we’re doing now…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

KENNETH ARNOLD: … we’re actually giving these microorganisms a feast of food. They will feed more rapidly. They will multiply more rapidly. They will try and degrade the oil. The problem we have is, it’s a slower process than we would like it to be. One way to make the process…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which is why — just to — excuse me — just to move this along…

KENNETH ARNOLD: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, they’re using chemical dispersants to speed this process along.

KENNETH ARNOLD: Yes. What the chemical — what the chemical dispersants do is, they make the oil have less surface tension, so that it forms very, very tiny oil droplets, which have a large surface area for the mass.

And, therefore, there is more surface area for the microorganisms to work on, and it speeds the degeneration of the oil.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Michael Gravitz, so, that’s one of the things they are doing.

All of this put together, how effective is it?

MICHAEL GRAVITZ: Well, the answer is, we’re using a bunch of 1960s and ’70s technologies to try to clean up this oil spill, and none of the techniques individually is very effective. And, put them all together, they’re not terribly effective.

The skimmers that everybody thinks will save the day typically collect between 15 and 20 percent of the oil, in a calm day, inside a harbor, the best of circumstances. The dispersants, you know, some of them are pretty toxic to marine organisms. They’re — they’re — they’re actually spraying — some of them are petroleum products that — that break up the oil, and it’s not good for the life that floats on the ocean…

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re saying it’s adding another…

MICHAEL GRAVITZ: Yes, it’s another pollutant in a lot of ways. And, you know, it makes the problem look like it’s going away, and breaks the oil up into tiny little droplets that go under the surface, so we can’t see it. We have just transferred the problem to another part of the ocean.

You know, the — the water typically sloshes over the booms that will protect these marshes. So, taken together, these are just not particularly effective technologies. And I just think this — what this spill really reminds us of is that this business, oil drilling is a dirty and dangerous proposition.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And…

MICHAEL GRAVITZ: And we need to get off of oil. We need to — we need to find alternatives to oil.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kenneth Arnold, we just heard Mr. Gravitz say a lot of this technology dates back decades. Is that the case, that there is just not much new available to deal with something like this?

KENNETH ARNOLD: He’s actually partially right and partially incorrect.

When he’s talking about dispersants, he’s talking about the 1960s dispersants, which used a hydrocarbon base as a solvent to disperse the surface active agents. We no longer do that. That’s newer technology. He’s talking about technology that’s 40, 50 years old.

These are not hydrocarbon solvents that are used in these dispersants. The EPA didn’t allow us to use those dispersants back in the ’60s, but they do allow us to use the specific dispersants that we have now within the conditions that they are being used, because they have been tested to be nontoxic.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so you’re saying they are not a — they’re not toxic, they don’t present additional pollution in the water; is that what you are saying?

KENNETH ARNOLD: The — yes — the — the — they can be marginally toxic in less than 10 meters of water in certain locations.

But, even then, if they don’t disperse the oil, if they’re involved — if they get mixed up in this chocolate mousse streaks that you see on TV of oil, they will have the effect of making it easier to clean the beach and clean whatever animals, fish, birds that get coated with oil, because they are surface active agents. But they are not the toxic agents that Michael is talking about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you both, just as we wrap up, with less than a minute.

Michael Gravitz, what are the prospects at this point for minimizing this oil that is continuing to — to spew out of these leaks at a massive rate every day?

MICHAEL GRAVITZ: Right.

Well, you know, we all hope in the environmental community and around the country that we can fix this problem as quickly as possible. The oil company is telling us that, if they have to drill a well, it will take 60 to 90 days. And, at that point, the oil spill will equal two times the Exxon Valdez.

I mean, stepping back from this just a little bit, the thing that we need to do is clean the spill up as fast as possible, remediate the damage. We need to stop this idea that we can drill safely everywhere that we want to go. So, we — we shouldn’t be drilling in new areas around the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But in this particular instance…

MICHAEL GRAVITZ: And, in this particular instance, this spill may go on for a while, unless — unless it gets stopped down on the bottom. And they’re — they’re using some new technologies that have never been tried at this kind of depth before to try to collect the oil. And we wish — I wish them luck.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kenneth Arnold, in just a few words, how do you see the prospects?

KENNETH ARNOLD: Well, I have to agree with Michael, except it’s been 41 years since the last major blowout in the United States where oil created a pollution problem onshore. That was 1969 in Santa Barbara.

We have drilled tens of thousands of wells since then offshore. We have a pretty good safety record. This is a disaster. It is — it is terrible. I get in airplanes all the time. No one can convince me that the air — no one can assure me that the airplane will not crash. But the benefits of air travel far outweigh the small risk that every now and then an airplane will crash.

We learn from airplane crashes. We learn from blowouts. We will learn from this blowout, and the industry will be safer as a result of it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We’re going to leave it there.

Kenneth Arnold, Michael Gravitz, thank you both.

MICHAEL GRAVITZ: Thank you very much.

KENNETH ARNOLD: Thank you very much.