Deepwater Horizon Recovery Up Close

Through my work at Harvard’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, I’ve had an extraordinary opportunity to meet some of the leaders of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill recovery efforts this past weekend. Limited connectivity, however, kept me from posting live and photographs were prohibited for security reasons in many locations. The days started with a 7 a.m. breakfast briefing and went until at least 9 p.m. and some days later. Long, yes, but far shorter than the shifts that many of the responders were putting in.

First, I have to say that the professionalism and deep expertise of those involved in the recovery is truly impressive. For those of you who are cynical about the government, put it on the shelf with regard to these folks. The Coast Guard, NOAA, and many other federal, state, and local agencies are putting in 20+ hour days, their scientific knowledge and concern for the environment are genuine, and attention is being paid at the highest levels.

These folks know what they are doing when it comes to responding to an oil spill and are concerned about the environmental impact from the spill. Pick on the regulators — they deserve it — but be glad that these responders are on hand.

The slick has been portrayed on television as a big, black mass. It is big — about the size of Puerto Rico — but much of the oil has begun to break down (NOAA maps). From the air, it can be tough to see the oil until you get fairly close to where the wellhead is. There are orange-ish stripes, some areas of sheen (which I learned is about 1 atom thick), and some amoeba-like blobs. There are a few spots of black but they are few and far between. Natural wave action and the sun start breaking the oil apart as soon as it hits the surface and the dispersants being used also help. The strategy of “skim, burn, and disperse” may not be a long-term one but for how it lets responders hold their own. They were actually getting ahead of the release on the days that I was there.

The winds have kept most of the oil offshore. Reports of oil in wetlands were few and far-between so far (whew). The number of dead birds was in the single digits. One dead whale had been found and an autopsy was being performed to discover if the spill was the cause of death. The favorable winds were allowing the responders to position boom to protect sensitive areas. There will be damage but the distance from shore of the rupture and the benign weather are helping to mitigate it by allowing responders to mount a defense.

Now, about that cofferdam — or concrete condom — they are trying to put on the well. The engineering is extraordinarily difficult and we should be rooting for these engineers the way we did for NASA when Apollo 13 was “stuck” in space. I fully believe that in the future companies should not be allowed to drill anywhere that they can’t demonstrate a proficiency in rapid recovery from an accident, but for now let’s pull for BP to work some magic. The pressure, temperatures, and low visibility make the degree of difficulty of this job off the charts; the time, media, and political pressures just make it harder.

By all accounts that I heard, BP is being stand-up about this. They are paying for everything and aren’t trying to deflect blame. There will be investigations and lawsuits that will last decades, I’m sure, but the recovery is not being hampered by corporate evasion or obfuscation as far as I could see.

The good that may come out of this is a robust conversation about energy policy, risk, and the need to decrease our consumption of fossil fuels. Time Magazine has an excellent piece in the current issue. We need to seriously ramp up our efforts to increase the percentage of our energy that comes from sustainable sources — and yes, we’re going to need to keep drilling for awhile. It’s time we act like grown-ups and make some hard choices because the birds, fish, plants, and animals we’re all fearing for won’t get that chance.

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  • Amanda Crater

    Great post Eric, thanks for sharing your insights.

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