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Tropical Storm Bonnie Threatens to Disrupt Efforts to Halt, Clean Up Oil

July 22, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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The threat of a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico is presenting another challenge to BP's efforts to kill the leaking oil well and clean up the oil that has already leaked. Jeffrey Brown speaks with Gulf state senators, Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Bill Nelson of Florida, over the offshore drilling moratorium debate.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn to the latest in the Gulf, with a new storm brewing and a continuing debate over drilling.

A steady gray rain fell over the Caribbean today, signs of a budding tropical storm that could cause havoc with oil spill operations in the Gulf of Mexico. Forecasters said the system was on track to reach the Gulf by Saturday. There, it could grow into the second hurricane of the Atlantic season.

The first, Hurricane Alex, stayed 500 miles away from the oil spill site, but still curtailed cleanup efforts for nearly a week. The focus today was on the cap that’s contained the gushing oil for a week.

In Louisiana, BP’s chief operating officer, Doug Suttles, said the cap had made a huge difference.

DOUG SUTTLES, COO, Global Exploration, BP: Just to give you some sense of that, the week before we got the capping stack on, we were seeing skimming volumes everyday of approaching 25,000 barrels. Every day since we have had it on, they have dropped, and, yesterday, we only skimmed 56 barrels.

JEFFREY BROWN: The advancing storm could force ships and crews to flee, though, leaving the cap unattended.

BP and government scientists consulted on whether they would have to open the cap, relieving the pressure and letting oil flow into the sea again. But, this afternoon, retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen announced the cap will stay closed.

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN (RET.), national incident commander: We will conduct surveillance to the extent that we can, but, if we cannot, we are prepared to leave the well unattended during this particular event. That doesn’t mean we won’t reassess it if we have a new event.

JEFFREY BROWN: With an eye on the weather, BP has already halted work on a relief well that’s designed to stop the flow of oil permanently, just days before it was set to be completed.

And, on the surface, skimming boats halted operations and headed for shore. In Dauphin Island, Alabama, BP temporarily cut back the number of boaters who have helped in the efforts.

STEVEN MILLER, U.S. coast guard: Basically, it’s a safety issue. We just want to make sure there are no boats out that are going to get caught in the storm, anybody get hurt. Safety is our top priority.

JEFFREY BROWN: Crews along the Gulf Coast also worked to remove thousands of feet of booms ahead of the storm. Captain Rick Adams near Pensacola, Florida, said choppy waters will destroy the gear.

RICK ADAMS, boat captain: Break the anchors, and it will pull it out And, more than anything, it will tear it up. And, once it gets torn up, it’s useless.

JEFFREY BROWN: There were also new disclosures today about safety concerns on the Deepwater Horizon rig prior to the April 20 explosion that triggered the spill. The New York Times reported the platform’s owner, Transocean, conducted a confidential survey of workers there in the weeks before the blowout.

Employees said they often saw unsafe behaviors on the rig, but feared reprisals if they reported mistakes or problems. Separately, The Times reported many key components, including parts of the blowout preventer, had not been fully inspected since 2000.

But Transocean defended its operation of the rig and said the parts in question were minor. At a hearing in Kenner, Louisiana, on the causes of the disaster, BP’s well team leader, John Guide, acknowledged the company knew of Transocean’s record.

QUESTION: Do you know if Transocean was behind on the scheduled maintenance on the Deepwater Horizon?

JOHN GUIDE, BP’s well team leader: There were some — there were some issues that were behind schedule.

JEFFREY BROWN: Since the disaster, the Obama administration has pursued a moratorium on deepwater drilling. A federal judge struck down one attempt as too broad, but Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently announced a revised six-month moratorium.

At a House hearing today, Salazar was criticized by Republicans for that decision.

REP. DAN BURTON,R-Ind.: It makes no sense to me to cut off the drilling in Gulf when you have not had any real problems, except for this one — one catastrophe. And I just don’t understand why the administration is taking this carte blanche approach.

JEFFREY BROWN: But Democrats defended the moratorium.

REP. STEVE DRIEHAUS,D-OH: The fact is, this has been an environmental disaster, and that fact is that we should look at the regulation appropriately of oil wells in the Gulf. And I think it’s very appropriate that the administration take the steps that it has to make sure that all of the wells are safe.

JEFFREY BROWN: The revised moratorium is itself being challenged in court. For now, deepwater drilling has been halted while the legal case plays out.

Two Gulf state senators join us to discuss the moratorium and more, Democrat Bill Nelson of Florida and Republican Roger Wicker of Mississippi.

Senator Wicker, the revised moratorium would allow some drilling to resume, with various provisos, but the opposition to it has not gone away. Why not?

Senator Wicker, I’m afraid we’re not hearing — Senator Wicker, my apologies. We’re not hearing you. We will try to adjust the microphone.

Can you hear me, Senator Nelson?

SEN. BILL NELSON,D-Fla.: I can.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. Let me go to you first, while we — while we — while we adjust this.

Explain. You have supported the moratorium from the beginning. Explain the benefits that you think would come from it.

SEN. BILL NELSON: Well, the question is, do we want another disaster? And I don’t think we do.

And, as testimony thereof, look at what has happened. Today, four major companies other than BP announced that they were putting together a task force, so that they would have safety equipment in place that could immediately come in.

For example, one of the things that they’re going to develop is, it would be like a big bell that would go down over the blowout preventer and anchor in the sand of the seabed, and that would immediately stop the oil from spewing out.

That is another indication that people realize that we really have a safety problem in this deepwater drilling. And until we have some comfort through this investigation for this very deep water, not the shallow water, the deep water, I think we ought to hold off and make sure we are safe.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Senator Wicker, have we got your microphone fixed and earpiece? Can you hear me?

SEN. ROGER WICKER,R-Miss.: Can you hear me OK?

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, I hear you very well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Apologies — apologies for that.

So, explain — explain your — the opposition to the moratorium.

SEN. ROGER WICKER: Well, we have had 42,000 wells over 60 years. This one major incident shouldn’t shut down the petroleum that we need and also the jobs that Gulf Coast families need. There are new safety standards in place since this blowout. And — and I think there — they should give us a comfort level.

The new endeavor that Senator Nelson spoke about should make him feel even better about resuming this. But the — the practical matter is, our economy needs this oil. Our — our Gulf Coast families need the jobs.

And a Moody’s study just the other day said, actually, the economic devastation from the moratorium could be more than actually from the oil spill itself.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Senator Wicker, just to stay with you, if not a moratorium, what do you want to see from the federal government at this point, how heavy a hand? There’s a lot of talk now about what kind of regulation. What would you like to see?

SEN. ROGER WICKER: Well, I support the new safety regulations, new regulations about different kind of cement, new regulations about the casing.

And I think, as a matter of fact, most of the oil companies, not BP, but most of them, had been adhering to these without incident over time. So, I feel good about that new step. And I think it will — it probably will provide for less of a chance of this one-in-42,000 incident happening again.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Senator Nelson, what about going that regulatory route, and also what about, of course, the jobs argument, which is — much of the opposition to the moratorium is based on?

SEN. BILL NELSON: Well, the jobs argument is a legitimate question. And we are always in a question of trade-offs. What is more important? And, by the way, this is a modified moratorium. And it’s not going to go on forever.

And it’s certainly in everybody’s interests to get the moratorium over quickly. And, yes, that task force, Roger, is developing this new device, but it’s not ready. So, the question is, what is the — in the trade-off, where is the greatest danger? And I think we need to just buy a little more time, even though it is going to sacrifice some jobs.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Senator Wicker, I mean, as we listen to this, is this largely about the dictates of your individual states? We’re talking about balancing trade-offs here, tourism, perhaps, on one hand, oil industry and jobs on the other.

SEN. ROGER WICKER: Well, we’re all interested in tourism in Mississippi, too. We have balanced oil production and tourism in the Gulf Coast, with the exception of Florida, for decades now.

But I think you just had someone on right before us who is not from the Gulf Coast at all. This is a very important part of the United States economy. And there’s no sense in a six-month moratorium causing more loss than the oil spill itself, when we now have new safety regulations and new precautions that should prevent this in the future.

We don’t quit flying planes when there is an aircraft crash. And we shouldn’t cut off this very vital part of our economy because of this very serious and tragic incident.

JEFFREY BROWN: Senator Nelson, let me turn to one other subject that has been continuing throughout this. That is the coordination between the federal government and state and local governments, times of coordination and getting along and other times of real tension. Where do you assess the situation right now?

SEN. BILL NELSON: Well, to begin with, the command-and-control wasn’t there. And local officials were not getting the information and, in the case of Florida officials, they were not getting reimbursed.

Over the course of time, that has improved. And so the whole situation is functioning better. Now we’re in a situation, assuming that the oil stays capped, and then that the relief well is successful, what we are in is scoop it all off the surface, and then let’s get to the big unknown.

And the big unknown is, how much oil is underneath, what do we do about it, and what is going to be the ultimate effect on the health of the Gulf?

JEFFREY BROWN: Senator Wicker, what is your assessment of the federal vs. state and local governments?

SEN. ROGER WICKER: Well, I don’t disagree with much what Bill just said. Big bureaucracies don’t work very well. And the Department of the Interior, the Department of Homeland Security and the Coast Guard haven’t worked very well in this instance.

It turns out BP is a big bureaucracy, too. And the communication has just been terrible. And, certainly, there’s an opportunity for lessons learned from this, too. There wasn’t the communication between the spotters. We were so slow in getting those skimmers out there and the boom. A lot of this oil that is now in the shores of Florida and Mississippi and other states could have been prevented with earlier action.

And I don’t understand why, but — except that, whenever I see a big bureaucracy, I don’t have really great expectations.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, we were just talking about tourism. And, late this afternoon, the White House announced that there’s going to be some high-level tourists to the Gulf, to your state, Senator Nelson. The president’s family will be down there. I assume that’s welcome news.

SEN. BILL NELSON: Indeed, it is.

I didn’t know it. You are telling me the news. And I hope that they thoroughly enjoy some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. I want to point out that, when you compare Roger and my state, he has an infinitesimal amount of coastline compared to the coastline of Florida.

Same thing when you compare the amount of beaches. And so, when you start evaluating whether or not you want to have drilling out there in the Gulf that is potentially not safe, we don’t think the trade-off is worth it until you know and you have done your safety checks.

JEFFREY BROWN: And a brief last word from you, Senator. The — Senator Wicker — the president, of course, took some flak when he went — the family went up to Maine, after asking Americans to visit the Gulf. Here he is — I think it’s in the middle of August, they are going to be going to the Gulf region.

SEN. ROGER WICKER: Well, we welcome them to the Gulf. And, you know, we — we don’t have as much coastline as Bill has in Florida, but it’s mighty nice. And I will be down there this weekend enjoying it myself with my family.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Senator Roger Wicker, Senator Bill Nelson, thank you both very much.

SEN. BILL NELSON: Thanks.

SEN. ROGER WICKER: Thank you.