You Can’t Handle the Truth!

May 30, 2010

Apparently all “official” authorities (BP and now FRTG) believe we can’t handle the truth.

There is still a factor of five-ten range in the estimates of discharge, with the FRTG range of estimates at the low end.  (Some news accounts claim the FRTG estimate is meant to be a lower bound, but I simply can’t find that in the Department of Interior press release which begins by calling the work of the group an “independent, preliminary estimate of the amount of oil flowing from BP’s leaking oil well.”)

The news tonight is that, with the failure of “Top Kill”, instead of a few more days discharge from the well will continue perhaps a couple more months, putting estimates of duration at three times than earlier in the week.

The time is past to get serious about discharge and duration.  This is the reason we have the National Academies, instead of the continuing ad hoc approaches intertwining high quality science with wishful thinking and management of public opinion.

Has this event become 20-fold worse than it was a week ago? No, only our perception.  We can handle the truth.

The Oil Spill: Will The Government Do Better?

May 30, 2010

Don’t let the title of the post mislead.  This is not a comprehensive analysis.  Rather my thread here returns (mostly) to one theme of my post last week.  I wrote about the work of my friend Tim Crone and his colleagues on determining the quantity of oil discharging from Deepwater Horizon.  A point they had made is that knowing how much oil is discharging is critical to scaling a response and to assessing the efficacy of  BP’s attempts to stop the flow.  So there is good reason to care and clearly BP did not.

As I drive to work, I often listen to Dave Ross on KIRO 97.3.  Dave is “the crusader for common sense”; he used to promote “drive-by wisdom for the masses, one listener at the time” but maybe that had gang connotations?  Much of this week’s crusade has been analysis and opinion concerning  the outcry from across the political spectrum that government is not doing its job and needs to seize control of the situation from BP.   The irony of small government, tea party folk calling for (magically) right-sized government is no more than a call for a government that can do everything by not being there:  less is more after all.   (On a lighter note, I really enjoyed a replay of a tirade from a nationally syndicated, liberal commentator worrying about the effect of the oil on coastal communities like Atlanta, which by my measure is a good 235 miles from the nearest coast.)   A critical point Ross covered was the reality that US law assigns responsibility for handling spills to those that create them, a risk most often pooled and managed through hiring response contractors.  I know quite a bit about this…our department operates a 3000-ton research vessel and we retain the services of a response contractor, just as does BP.   UW at most can only spill 3000 tons (and that is if we were carrying nothing else!) so the responders we contract with have the capacity to do something meaningful, anywhere on the globe.  The failing is that BP was not required to have a response capability that scaled to their ability to spill prodigious quantities of oil.

So here we are:  BP probably must remain at the center of stemming the flow unless the government wants to seize the well and hand it over to say Exxon/Mobil (maybe there is a role here for application of maritime salvage law?)  But as to the environmental consequences, BP isn’t trusted because it has downplayed the magnitude of the spill.  They (including their response contractor) don’t have adequate infrastructure to respond in a meaningful way.  And so it becomes the government’s operational problem, even if BP eventually reimburses all costs.  Will the government do better?

There is not a FEMA for oil spills.  If there were, instead of Obama taking heat, it would be deflected to the people filling the Chertoff/Brown roles during Katrina.  Certainly evident is that MMS is the ocean floor equivalent of the USFS and BLM, enough said.  That leaves USGS and NOAA.

USGS is primarily an agency of scientists.  Marcia McNutt, Director of USGS (and a graduate school classmate of mine), is leading a governmental “Flow Rate Technical Group” but it seems focussed on providing “a number” rather than both “a number” and deployable technologies to measure how that number is changing through time and where the oil is in space.  And maybe they don’t even care about the number:

“Dr. McNutt, who is the chair of the FRTG, … emphasized that since day one, the Administration’s deployments of resources and tactics in response to the BP oil spill have been based on a worst-case, catastrophic scenario, and have not been contained by flow rate estimates.”

(An aside: I’ll leave to politically-attuned folk an analysis of the government membership on FRTG and its relevance to solving versus obfuscating…)

If there is a FEMA for oil spills, it is the NOAA Emergency Response Division of the Office of Response and Restoration (located nearby to me in the NOAA complex at Sand Point in Seattle).  A story in Crosscut describes their role in the Deepwater Horizon response.  What caught my eye was the portion of the story concerning how much oil.  And specifically this excerpt from the several paragraphs on this topic:

“At some point, the actual volume doesn’t matter,” [Helton] says. “We don’t know the number, and if we did there is nothing we would do any differently.”

So is the government any different than BP?   The essence: “we’ve got a big problem and we are doing everything we can to solve it, but we won’t be bothered with actually figuring out how big the problem is”.  I am having a great deal of difficulty wrapping myself around this kind of thinking.

For my taste, way too much is being made of this being Obama’s Katrina, for a vast majority of the dialog is highly partisan gamesmanship and nothing to do with how the lessons of the Katrina response bear on the present situation or what I hope is a real difference between God and BP.  An outcome of Katrina, not surprisingly, was a thorough review of lessons learned for FEMA.  A 218-page report was issued by the Inspector General of Homeland Security.  In it the IG wrote: [The government] “received widespread criticism for a slow and ineffective response” …”much of the criticism is warranted.”   One of the criticisms is that it took three days for FEMA to grasp the magnitude of the [disaster], hobbling adequate response.  Oh my, the lesson has not been learned.

Hot Springs and Oil Spills

May 23, 2010

It has been a bit over three months since I’ve added a post, a gap that I’ll explain eventually.  But I was inspired yesterday when I searched out what I knew was coming…this opinion piece in the New York Times:

“The Measure of a Disaster…On Thursday, BP was finally forced to acknowledge that far more oil is escaping from its damaged well into the Gulf of Mexico than the oft-repeated estimate of 5,000 barrels per day…”

I knew it was coming for Tim Crone is the third author.  Tim completed his Ph.D. working with my colleague William Wilcock.  The three of us collaborated on one chapter of Tim’s dissertation developing the methods that Tim used in his analysis of the continuing discharge from the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout.  More recently we wrote a paper applying these methods to understand the connection of earthquakes and flow of hot water from seafloor hot springs.

Despite BP’s public stance that knowing the rate of discharge wouldn’t change the response being taken:

“Without knowing the flow’s true magnitude, how can anyone judge the success of any approach? Without determining how much oil is beneath the ocean’s surface and how much is floating toward land, how can we best direct response efforts?”

And so I am glad (and proud) that Tim was able to use our past efforts as a way for helping address this pressing environmental problem.  Indeed, what the four co-authors of the op-ed hold in common are knowledge of disparate tools and approaches that are widely adaptable.   Their experience speaks to the importance of basic research.  Often curiosity-driven, basic research may not always lead somewhere or ever be applied to societal needs.  But when it unexpectedly becomes a foundation of responding to crisis, it validates the investment in expanding knowledge for its own sake.  Equally it speaks to what our “Research I” (Carnegie RU/VH) universities must be doing for the environment, the best science possible.