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Document Friday: “A Scenario for a Potential Blowout of the Well … is Not Required.”

May 7, 2010

The Deepwater Horizon

As the oil sludge begins to wash up on the Gulf Coast, this week’s documents  begin to examine the oversights and decisions which led up to the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.

We’ll start with the Initial Exploration Plan for Mississippi Canyon Block 252, which British Petroleum submitted in 2009 to the Minerals Management Service, the federal agency responsible for selling oil leases.  (Some may recall that in 2007 the MMS was rocked with several  drug and “sex for oil” scandals.) Block 252 is the precise location in the Gulf of Mexico where the Deepwater Horizon drilling vessel –leased from TransOcean Ltd by BP– exploded, killed eleven oilmen, blew out –and may eventually become the largest oil spill in American history.

The Initial Exploration Plan (IEP) –reported by Propublica– is straightforward, brief, and closely resembles those of other Gulf oil well plans.  Still, it presents several important details about the events leading up to the disaster:

  • First, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig was not originally slated to drill the well.  A different rig named The Marianas –also owned by TransOcean Ltd– was named as the vessel in the IED.  Supposedly, a tight drilling schedule led to the Deepwater Horizon’s last minute assignment.
  • The Plan also shows that British Petroleum had a relaxed and errant view of the dangers posed by a spill.  It ominously stated that “A scenario for a potential blowout of the well from which BP would expect to have the highest volume of liquid hydrocarbons is not required for the operations proposed in this EP [Exploration Plan].” The IEP projected that even though a uncontrolled blowout could cause a “worst case scenario of 162,000 barrels of uncontrolled barrels of oil per day,” a “site-specific Oil Spill Response Plan” was not required.  Currently up to 25,000 barrels of oil per day may be flowing uncontrolled from the site.  BP maintains that it did not need a specific spill plan because its regional oil spill plan was sufficient.
  • Finally, the Plan “certified” that “BP has the capacity to respond, to the maximum extent practicable, to a worst-case discharge.”  Its most jaw-dropping prediction was that in the event of an oil spill, Gulf beaches would be subjected to “no significant adverse impacts.”

"It wasn't our accident."

Why did this Initial Exploration Plan treat the threat of an oil spill so lightly?  Perhaps because BP (and other oil companies) strenuously lobbied the MMS not to increase the  regulation of drilling. In one 14 September 2009 letter to the Department of the Interior, BP argued that “we are not supportive of […] extensive, prescriptive regulations. “  BP instead preferred voluntary programs, which it stated “have been and continue to be very successful.”   BP also successfully fought proposed MMS regulations which mandated the installation of a type of “blowout preventer,” which may have averted the current disaster.

BP’s CEO, Tony Hayward, speaking about the spill, recently claimed that “It wasn’t our accident.” Documents will be the primary tools we use to determine whether his declaration is, in fact, correct.

I’ll close with one final quasi-related piece of bad news concerning documents and the environment.  Earlier this week, Secrecy News reported that the Southwestern region of the EPA failed to document its investigation of a potentially dangerous landfill in an attempt to shield itself from FOIA requests. An EPA Inspector General’s Report stated that EPA Region Six (which includes Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana) had violated the both the Freedom of Information Act and Federal Records Act by not sufficiently recording its actions while monitoring the Sandia National Laboratory’s Mixed Waste Landfill.  Region six, according to an EPA employee, “discontinued record keeping in favor of undocumented phone calls and conversations with NMED [the New Mexico Environment Department] to prevent the production of documents [which could have been requested through the Freedom of Information Act].” The IG report also stated that EPA Region Six incorrectly marked unclassified documents as “confidential” to prevent their disclosure to the public.  Perhaps the silver lining these in transgressions is that the EPA Inspector General took an active role in enforcing proper FOIA policies.

As we hope for the best in the Gulf of Mexico, it is important to remember that public access to information is a key weapon we can use to protect our environment.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. the_matt permalink
    May 10, 2010 9:41 am

    I’m certainly no expert on either matter, and while I’m convinced the ecological ramifications will be huge, the economic impact on communities still struggling to rebuild after Katrina seems to be a bit underreported on this one…

    In any case, interesting piece recently in the NYT on the Republican “drill here, drill now” mantra in light of the spill: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/09/us/politics/09memo.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

  2. phuzz permalink
    May 10, 2010 10:24 am

    I think that BP is now supposed to stand for “Beyond Petroleum” or some other marketing friendly word, just like ICI is now not supposed to stand for “Imperial Chemicals Inc”.
    Glad someone still remembers the old names though.
    “The British Empire, fucking up other people’s shit since 1583”

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