It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Mega-Disaster in the Gulf? Or Not?

How long will it take before somebody raises the question? Could we be lucky? Is the Gulf Oil Spill turning out to be something less than the worst possible case?

Let me start by stipulating that it is certainly a horrible calamity when eleven people die suddenly. The families of the victims, should they chance to hear about this article, should be assured that they have my deepest sympathies. If current evidence that the event was caused by negligence holds up, I will also sympathize in their anger and hope for a measure of justice on their behalf. I have nothing good to say about the operations people who seem to have cut corners left and right on this operation to make a buck, or the system that encouraged them.

Having said that it is a calamity and a travesty, I will also stipulate that it is a disaster, in the sense that a large number of people and a large swath of territory is adversely affected. If anybody is foolish enough to claim that this is good news, or less than a disaster, it isn't me.

But that all said, we seem, so far, to be avoiding anything like Exxon Valdez scale impacts. It's time somebody spoke up and said this. I've gotten tired of waiting and am hereby proceeding to bell this damned cat.

Will everybody I like hate me if I advocated a position supporting the Obama administration's position on the Horizon spill, supporting BP's assertion that the exact flux of oil is unmeasurable and of secondary importance, claiming that (aside from the initial and tragic loss of life on the platform) the present event is far less destructive than the Exxon Valdez, noting that the early evidence from this event is that accidents only result from an egregious violation of technical protocols, and arguing that deep water drilling should proceed?

I find the statements by Waxman & Markey grotesque, the breathless coverage by NPR irresponsible, the spin by Climate Progress and co. grossly excessive, even the NY Times going overboard, and while there's still plenty of prospect for it to come out very badly, the news from the gulf seems, so far, basically reassuring.

The size of the slick has essentially equilibrated. This means that whatever comes to the surface is disintegrating in the hot subtropical sun so quickly that very little hits the coastlines. The stuff that's under the surface is probably tremendously diluted. I see no reason to suspect that what's gushing out of the pipe isn't mostly methane by volume, and so of little direct consequence. We didn't really dodge a bullet, but we did dodge a cannonball I think, and what's even more politically incorrect, this all makes it look to me like deep drilling accidents are both avoidable and surmountable. If the operations were as badly mismanaged as it is alleged, that means the engineering protocols were sound, and the entire operation as designed (rather than as carried out) was safe.

As far as I can tell everyone I respect thinks I shouldn't dream of saying such things. But the way the whole thing is being processed is really starting to bother me a lot.

I mean, look at the pictures of Prince William Sound from the Valdez disaster, or the Santa Barbara spill. Nothing like that is happening here, at least not yet. We don't have miles of beach getting a lube job. We do have little puddles of goop on a few isolated beaches if photographers go out and look for them. Not good news, but not of the same order at all.

I'm peeved.

Furthermore, if nothing much happens to Gulfport, Mobile or Pensacola, which seems to me quite likely, there's a fine example of environmentalist overreaction for all those red-staters to point to. I promise you those towns aren't happy with the loss of tourist business for a whole month and counting while nothing much happens. So I figure I'm nowhere near as peeved as they are.

And this stuff about the loop current? Give me a break. The loop current is on the order of 5 Sv. or something over a billion gallons per second. So I get that the worst case figures people are bandying about amount to the entire flow to date over a month being comparable to a tenth of a second's flow of the loop current, or about a sixtieth of a second's flow of the gulf stream. If every single drop of the worst case flow got into the loop current, it would be diluted by a factor of about 25 million to 1. The stuff getting into the loop current would just shear it out and dilute it. I have never heard of an oil spill being transported to distant beaches by large-scale current systems. I think it's pure fantasy.

What's more, I'm afraid to say anything. I figure the disapproval I'll get will not be worth it. But what's that all about?

"I'm not a warmist. I'm a scientist."

So to hell with correctness. Explain to me why I need to believe that this is the biggest disaster ever. Why all this eagerness to panic?

Update: The response website

Deepwater Horizon Response on Flickr


Steve Bloom said...

Michael, IMHO the problem is that we simply don't know how bad it is yet. We don't know when they're going to get it stopped, we don't know what the total volume of oil is or will be, we know almost nothing about the sub-sea plumes and their consequences, and we don't know about potential toxic effects of large-scale use of the dispersant that the EPA has only now told BP to stop using, we don't know how much oil will ultimately get onto the shores. What we do know is that the physical circumstances are quite unlike the Santa Barbara Channel and Prince William Sound, one consequence of which is that it took a long time for any oil to make it ashore. In sum, it's far too early to gauge the scale of this disaster.

David B. Benson said...

Conditions are different in the Gulf than off the Pacific Northwest beaches. But in the latter location balls of tar were fairly often brought ashore by the big winter waves. These were the remains of bunker oil (and whatnot) brought by an extension of the Kuroshio Current.

As more vessels use diesel these days I suspect the problem has lessened. However, bunker oil is less refined and so more similar to crude.

Hank Roberts said...

They say in Hollywood, start with an earthquake and build to a climax.

Let's hope this movie doesn't start with the blowout and build to an early June hurricane in the Gulf.

Today's radio says the new little suction pipe is pulling as much oil out of the big broken pipe as the estimated total leak, but the videos show much more still coming out, so the total spill number will have to be revised retroactively and going forward.

There are, what, six or seven deeper wells currently working in the same area; I wonder if they've tested the blowout preventers on those for similar hydraulic leaks, and what they could do if they detected problems in those.

Off to Alaska!

keith said...

Dude, you are so off the reservation.

Forget how people will respond to you; can you imagine if I wrote this post?! Marion Delgado's head would explode.

ac said...

The oil spill of the West Australian coast last year might make a good case study for comparison. Here's a statement by the Aus institute of Marnie Science about the spill, which makes the point that natural oil seepage in oilfields means local species are adapted to chronic low levels of petroleum products, and can recover quite quickly as long as peak levels are not too high. The scale of the ecological impact in the case of last year's leak seems not to have matched the initial hype.

Steve - aren't there marine scientists in the states who specialise in making estimates of exactly those things you say are unknown?

Michael Tobis said...

Steve, I am not 100% sure there is no mega-disaster in the future as a result of all this, but the press reads as if there already is one. Why should we be so eager to assume the worst?

Paul said...

Wow! Talk about a premature hipshot.

Are you following Jeff Masters at Wunderground?

This guy is a scientist in the same sense as Denning, whose Heartland presentation, even with the closing free market apologia, you found so appealing.

Masters is no alarmist but he is witholding judgment on the ultimate seriousness of this incident. I think you might do the same.

Oops. Too late for that!

At least you are not prominent enough to show up on the Daily Show alongside our President and a host of oil lackeys telling us how safe deep ocean drilling is.

Paul Middents

thingsbreak said...

I wrote a long post that somehow got eaten between Blogger and Wordpress. Joy.

My points were (outlined less tersely- my frustrated tone is from losing the post, not at you) roughly:

- The people qualified to speak about impacts (not Obama, BP, news anchors) seem to be duly worried
- You also seemed to be somewhat incredulous at the suggestion that BP and the government were grossly and perhaps deliberately under-calling the amount of oil leaking. There might be a lesson there, there might not.
- NOAA shut down a fifth of the Gulf to federal fishing. That branch of NOAA isn't exactly industry-adverse, if you take my meaning. Something worried them a lot to make a call like that.
- Personally, my reaction to this post isn't anger or anything like it. More like disappointment. It sounds premature and not a little arrogant to be attempting such a call based on- what? Eye-balling this vs. a spill in different region with a different ecosystem? If you've done due dilligence here and actually contacted people in a position to weigh in on this credibly, I apologize.
- Contrarianism is rarely the stigmatizing thing its proponents imagine it to be. I wouldn't be surprised if this results in self-imagined centrists who traffic in this sort of thing regularly on climate coming along with some backslapping (e.g Kloor, Pielke Jr.)

I'm sure I've left some things out.

Point being- I don't think what you're doing is heretical by any means. It might or might not be lazy, it's difficult to tell from what you've provided. The difference between catastrophe and "overreaction" is often a function both of chance and preparedness. What seems in hindsight overreaction is difficult to disentangle from amelioration in cases like these. If BP hadn't been hauled in front of the media and Congress, do you have any confidence that they would have acted with the urgency that they did, especially knowing the limits of the liability they actually faced?

This seems like something between premature celebration (something I can understand and empathize with- I hope you're right) and hippie-punching.

thingsbreak said...

Oh, right- one more.

The EPA all of a sudden got worried about the dispersants BP had been introducing in unprecedented quantities into the ocean.

Isn't your entire attitude here more or less analogous* with people cheering between when Katrina hit and the levees actually broke?

*Obviously not saying the outcomes will be analogous.

Michael Tobis said...

Hmm, I didn't say I am sure we are out of the woods. I said I'm not convinced we have a problem that will really leave a mark. I'm not the one expressing the extreme viewpoint here.

TB, there is a little hint of hippie-bashing, which I suppose is a sort of self-loathing in my case. You may have a point there. But my whole schtick is that people should weigh the evidence and not just go with their gut feeling.

The independent judgment I feel I can bring to the problem: 1) the loop current thing is nothing to worry about. The east coast is not involved. Southwest Florida is probably safe too. 2) I've been watching the progress of the blob. It is mostly evaporating before it hits shore. This is not the pattern that a persistent fluid would be making. These are things about which I feel confident on the basis of my own expertise, such as it is.

Otherwise, I've been to a seminar on the subject, and have heard something about the engineering of the operation and the evidence of how the operations people cut several corners.

Also, I've been hanging around oil folks lately and don't hate them with the passion that a person who's never met them can muster. I'm as impressed by the way the project was designed as I am horrified by how it was apparently carried out.

My irritation with the way this is playing in the press is an interesting thing to introspect about. It certainly isn't playing out the way I'd have expected from my recent diatribes. It forces me to reconsider what I think the problem with journalism is.

I don't think I'll be able to listen to All Things Considered until this thing blows over. I am finding their reports incredibly exasperating, which is pretty disappointing and in my case pretty much unprecedented.

S said...

You write a blog -- it's a log of your ideas and reader's responses. You made an interesting point that I hadn't read elsewhere (that the Loop Current has great diluting potential, and maybe whether oil gets into it is a relatively small thing about which to worry). And you asked a question -- is this as big a catastrophe as you have seen it made out in the media? I don't see any reason to get upset at you.

At the same time I think some of the responses make good points. I don't know anything about this spill. I know hardly anything about the Exxon Valdez spill either (except that negative effects still persist). So, yeah, it seems like you're deciding a bit prematurely which way to lean. But at least you have an open mind -- open enough to ask for others' responses.

I'm quite pissed that people who want to learn more about this spill in the Gulf are being prevented from doing so (assuming what I read about that is true.) And I'm very pissed that the gov't is helping BP in that prevention (assuming what I read about that is also true).

Is it possible that comments from somebody who has spent very little time examining this issue could be helpful to you? Maybe not, but your comments (even if from ideas not fully formed) have been interesting and potentially helpful for me. Thanks.

Michael Tobis said...

One thing to note is the enormous number of lawyers that are attracted to such an event. Nobody on the scene is particularly motivated to draw any premature conclusions; that includes NOAA and the President.

Like any commercial entity under the influence of lawyers, BP will release the smallest amount of information it can. That itself is the fault of the legal system, not of BP.

It looks likely that a great deal of fault will turn out to be BP's. So their lawyers will especially prevail on them to be quiet.

Mostly these are forces that will hide information about the events leading to the spill. But lawyers are just cagey by nature.

None of this, apparently, applies to the press. This actually confuses the hell out of me. This is a very different flavor of wrongness than I am used to.

In the end it still comes down to this: I really want scientists and engineers on the scene doing the reporting.

Scruffy Dan said...

Upset? No. You outlined your case well enough, and if post experience is any guide you are not one to hesitate admitting you were wrong.

But, this statement troubled me "I mean, look at the pictures of Prince William Sound from the Valdez disaster, or the Santa Barbara spill. Nothing like that is happening here, at least not yet"

Pictures are a bad way to determine ecological implications of an oil spill. Typically it is the small insignificant organisms that matter most in an ecosystem (though there are more exceptions to this rule in aquatic environments), and few people both to take pictures of them.

Does this make you wrong? As many people have already pointed out, only time will tell. We may get lucky, but it is too early to tell if we can dodge the cannon ball.

Nosmo said...

"How long will it take before somebody raises the question? Could we be lucky? Is the Gulf Oil Spill turning out to be something less than the worst possible case?"
Well actually I heard someone raise this issue well over a week ago. His point was all the hype about how bad this is could actually lead people to think off shore drilling is fairly safe. OH and he was on public radio :)

Most of what is written seems to be only concerned with the impact of the oil close to shore. It may have very sever ocean impacts that largely remain invisible.

I'm also really surprised that you have not been exasperated by All things Considered before. Not sure you have been paying attention. Glad I get As It Happens (The Canadian equivlent) in the Bay area.

Finally why would you expect the media to get this right? It takes a long time for reporters to know a subject well enough to do good reports. This is a big new story so very few reporters will have the background and understanding to do much more then a superficial job.

Here is something from someone who has been thinking about oil a long time:

Marion Delgado said...

I think that's wrong, yeah.

You need to, first, go back and read all the disinfo they passed out when the Exxon Valdez spill first occurred. They downplayed it, and Exxon spent some money on amelioration, but used its lawyers and political connections to avoid paying for the damage it did. Hundreds lost their livelihood altogether, and were not compensated.

I was there, I was even hired to help with cleanup and amelioration by a contractor to Exxon, in fact (I bailed on them to take a job via the Ministry of Education in Japan). They had to tell us about all the dangerous chemicals out there when we were training (Federal Law - corporations would never do that on their own), and they were legion, and nasty. Benzene, polycyclics, you name it.

Second, you could, to get a better take, compare the distances involved. Looking at the big picture, you're vearly to make judgments like that.

In terms of oil, it's already much, much bigger than the Exxon Valdez.

In terms of the area it's going to hit, it's already bigger than the Exxon-Valdez.

I find this entire post baffling, I have to add. What inspired it?

Michael Tobis said...

I see several favorable factors.

1) I think the video shows methane escaping the pipe, with some oil mixed in. You can see that sometimes the plume has two colors and sometimes not, but its bulk behavior doesn;t change. The white part is surely gas bubbles so the black part doesn;t contain that much oil.

2) Much of the oil remains underwater where it disperses over three dimensions. At 2 km depth there isn't much life there to disrupt. It will disperse very widely and come to the surface slowly

3) There is a bigger distance from the accident to the shoreline than we are used to, and it's in a hot sunny climate.

4) The response operation is enormous and appears to be having some success.

So even though the amount of oil lost is huge (5000 barrels per day is apparently an underestimate) the amount hitting the coast appears so far to be small.

The impact on seabirds and aquatic animals may be severe but the risk to the wetlands appears relatively small, especially compared to the number of barrels of oil lost.

I really am not sure of any of this. I don't think anybody else is either. It is certainly time for concern and a concerted response, but surely somebody ought to be saying that we don't know how bad it will be.

Michael Tobis said...

I second Nosmo's recommended reading.

Steve Bloom said...

To give ATC credit, at least it occurred to them to wonder if BP's size estimate was correct. It wasn't, and that in combination with the partly after the fact dispersant decision makes me wonder what else is being missed or obfuscated.

Michael, what's "the worst"? It's a question with no answer. The problem with media coverage of this event is that they lack a suitable scale. Next time will be easier, FWIW.

ac: Some yes, but a lot no. The dispersant and the plumes are obvious examples of where there is no specific expertise.

Arthur said...

I think what MT is getting at here is once again a mismatch between media coverage and reality, though this time in the direction sensationalizing rather than minimizing. Both can be damaging - we all know about 1970's Newsweek and the coming ice age, right? The sensationalizing of Chernobyl, and perhaps Exxon Valdez also, may be examples too: actual worst cases in both instances are 1000's of times worse but now the public thinks those are the worst that can happen and they weren't so bad, really...

But really what's happening is a media-fed swing from complacency to alarm, and surely soon enough back again. First reports of the oil rig explosion didn't mention a leak. Then it was 1000 bpd, then 5000, and now we're hearing 100,000. If you don't have the scale of the problem defined to within two orders of magnitude, alarm about the uncertainty is a reasonable response. But where's the reality? We don't know yet on this, I think.

A version of Michael's graph of positions on AGW adapted to the oil leak, over time, would be an interesting exercise in tracking media behavior. For the first week it would be peaked on 0, then 1000 bpd, then almost a month sharply peaked at 5000 bpd, now suddenly much wider. Why was there so much early certainty, and now so much uncertainty?

Horatio Algeranon said...

It's actually not just the media using words like "catastrophic" and "calamitous".

none other than ocean scientist Jeremy Jackson of Scripps has used the latter word to describe what the result might be in this case.

Scripps says gulf spill may be 'catastrophic'

Some prominent ocean scientists have actually "accused the government of failing to conduct an adequate scientific analysis of the damage and of allowing BP to obscure the spill’s true scope."
Scientists Fault Lack of Studies Over Gulf Oil Spill

It's telling that a full month after the blowout, there are still no scientific instruments (other than BP video feeds) in place at the broken pipe to accurately gauge the flow of oil (though independent scientists and engineers have made estimates from analysis of the video, which are at least an order of magnitude greater than the official coast guard estimate of 5000 barrels per day)

"BP has resisted entreaties from scientists that they be allowed to use sophisticated instruments at the ocean floor that would give a far more accurate picture of how much oil is really gushing from the well.

“The answer is no to that,” a BP spokesman, Tom Mueller, said on Saturday. “We’re not going to take any extra efforts now to calculate flow there at this point. It’s not relevant to the response effort, and it might even detract from the response effort.”
-- NY Times

Without detailed data (or in some cases, any data at all), it's difficult if not impossible to draw conclusions about how bad it is right now or how bad it might be in the long run.

Some things are fairly clear, however: the Coast guard estimate of 5000 barrels a day is almost certainly a significant (gross?) understatement of the flow of oil.

See scientific/engineering testimony (eg, by Steve Weerely of Purdue) in Subcommittee Briefing on "Sizing up the BP Oil Spill: Science and Engineering
Measuring Methods"

It is also clear (a fact) that dispersants like Corexit have been used on a very large scale and in "novel" ways (injection directly into the flow at 5000 feet under the water) in this case.

Ocean scientists don't really know what "novel" (possibly deleterious) impacts such use may have over the long run. Some believe the "oil plumes" referred to in the NY Times article linked to above may be just one such impact and believe these might lead to "dead zones" as a result of depleted oxygen.

But a lot of this remains a big question-mark at this stage.

And Horatio has to agree that "visible" impacts (oily beaches and marshes along the shore) are only one aspect of the overall impact. Sometimes (usually?) it's what you can't see that is most important.

Michael Tobis said...

Jackson is great. Ironically, though, most ecologists are not very good at quantitative whole-systems thinking.

See the soon-to-be-revived battle between physical climatologists and marine biologists over large scale ocean temperature measurements by acoustic tomography (which began with an error of, if I recall correctly, around eighty decibels).

The keyword is ATOC, and the biologists are wrong.

Ric said...

Thanks for this post. There ought to be somewhere where it's legal to ask questions and weigh possibilities without being rid outta town on a rail, and this blog seems to be it.

On the downside, that's probably incompatible with your desire for more eyeballs. (insert appropriately rueful emoticon)

Michael Tobis said...

Ric, thanks. I think it's possible to build a market for evidence based reason applied to big questions.

Honestly I think I'm good enough at it that I ought to get paid for it somehow.

It's just that people have gotten used to a world where there is practically no such thing available.

It's not that nobody thinks about the big picture, but that big picture thinkers are either economists, stuck with thinking about quantities that don't model reality all that well, or are not quantitative at all.

John Mashey said...

Sayeth Lord kelvin:
"When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge of it is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced it to the stage of science."

"The first reports from the front are always wrong."
-Old military aphorism.

SO, words like disaster and calamity are not well-quantified.

I somebody *really* wants to study this, seriously, here's what I'd suggest:

1) Pick some quantifiable metrics, like cumulative spill, cleanup cost, economic damage. For reality, I suggested graphing oil spill weeks ago, comparing this with others.

2) At any point in time, there are *actual* numbers for those, which are of course unknown, so any graphs have substantial uncertainty ranges.

3) At any point of time, various people make various statements either about
a) Their view of the current state.
b) There view of some future state.

4) Hence, calibrating what people say can be shown by a dated sequence of charts, showing some metric, and what people said about the current state, or the expected state at some future point.

This isn't exactly new, we did equivalent things in Bell Labs in the 1970s in tracking and managing complex project schedules. People kept track of predicted schedules as a function of time, to be able assess the ability of people to estimate schedules and to give them feedback so they could get better. At least, the better management chains did this...

keith said...


Hmm, no sensationalizing of Three Mile Island? Nice timing on the Jane Fonda flick, then too.

I find it odd that you would mention Chernobyl and not Three Mile Island.

S said...

Okay, mt, now you've offended:
"most ecologists are not very good at quantitative whole-systems thinking".
That's quite an assertion, and probably not one that should be made without some evidence.

If I recall ATOC, the marine biologists were concerned that the sound would deafen whales and other mammals. Not clear that this is a good example of what you mean by ecologists being bad at whole systems thinking. Ecology actually comprises many different fields (evolutionary ecology, molecular ecology, behavioural ecology, population ecology, community ecology). Some of these are more theoretical, experimental, quantitative, narrow, or whole-system than others. And there's a great diversity of styles within each of the fields. So I don't like the generalization, especially if you're basing that on the reaction of organismal biologists who were concerned with noise pollution.

But I don't want to over-interpret what you wrote. Maybe you meant something else?

Michael Tobis said...

I know a small but non-empty sample of the best and most prominent ecologists around. I admire them tremendously.

In my experience they don't do math much.

As usual I'm sure there are exceptions, but the community is not really up on the sorts of whole-systems thinking that systems engineers use.

What aspects of the spill are disastrous and what aren't depends closely on dilution factors, as does the ATOC question.

Yet, bringing up the dilution question results in mockery.

S said...

I see, so it's not really the system aspect that you're criticizing among ecologists, but more the math. I find fisheries scientists to often be quite mathy in their efforts to analyze large/complex systems. But I don't know what the fisheries scientists are saying about this spill. (I suspect there aren't enough data to help them say anything with any confidence.)

Regarding mockery resulting from the dilution question, again I'm not sure what you're talking about. I don't see any mockery on this thread. Take a look at my comment at 9:13 PM on May 20 -- your comments on dilution are what I appreciated most! Maybe you're saying that dilution was mocked wrt ATOC? Again, I dunno -- wasn't one of the 'speakers' going to be placed very proximally to a humpback breeding ground?

A friend of mine in grad school (an engineer) told me: "The solution to pollution is dilution." Hmm, I just googled that phrase to find that I can't give him credit for it. I'm sure that this approach is correct in some circumstances. Indeed, it certainly is prescribed often enough in practice. But if this notion is mocked in general (is it?) by ecologists, maybe it's because of bioaccumulation up the food chain or something. Or maybe it's being mocked by climate porn watchers because it resonates with the denier argument that CO2 is too small a component of the atmosphere to have an effect.

Michael Tobis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Tobis said...

Depends on the kind of pollution.

Because of my wife's work with the OCD population I hate to promulgate the word "contamination" which really upsets some people a lot. But there's really a difference between persistent pollutants (contaminants) and pollutants which decay relatively rapidly.

In the context of a hot sea, oil is a pollutant, not a cotaminant.

Carbon in general (which largely turns to CO2 sooner or later) and methane in particular are contaminants on the global scale. I haven't worked out if this is a noticeable about of methane on that scale, but the extra carbon load is going to be just a tiny random upward blip on a standard cost of doing business.

Good question, though: what's the scale of this methane release compared to the global methane budget? A great exercise for the reader.

Google is your friend.

Michael Tobis said...

"amount" for "about" above

S said...

I've now read the Lisa Margonelli article nominated by nosmo and seconded by mt. Her thesis: oil spills are a symptom of the disease (oil consumption), and though we can somewhat control where the symptoms show up, that doesn't help us cure the disease. She's saying we need to respond not to the oil production but to oil consumption.

I suspect the environmental community will resist this for two reasons. The first is that we suck at getting people to consume less, especially without economic incentives. Maybe that means anything you can do that makes oil consumption more expensive could be seen as the right thing to do.

The second reason isn't really relevant here, but: Margonelli is complaining of NIMBYism in American environmentalism. But if you don't protect your own back yard, who will? Some forestry industry reps where I live used to tell old growth protectors that it's better to log here than in the Amazon. It would have been a much more persuasive argument if they'd done some economic modeling to show that liquidating British Columbia's forests would reduce pressure to clear-cut the tropics. They were surprised and confused when asked if proceeds from BC timber harvest would be shared with those who would otherwise derive a living from felling Amazonian trees.

Horatio Algeranon said...

words like disaster and calamity are not well-quantified.'

In the usual sense of the word, the Deepwater Horizon blowout would almost certainly qualify as a "disaster", based purely on the fact that 11 people lost their lives in the drilling platform explosion.

After all, the explosion of the Challenger is commonly referred to as the "Challenger Disaster", and that killed fewer people (7).

The current oil disaster may -- or may not -- qualify as a "calamity" or even "catastrophe".

It actually depends on more than just the "final outcome" (total oil spilled, number of beaches soiled, etc)

It also depends on the context -- and who you ask.

For example, ask the Louisiana fishermen/shrimpers/oystermen who have already been out of work for a month now and see no end in sight -- and don't even know whether they will be able to sell their fish, shrimp, oysters, etc after the oil flow is stopped (on account of real or even perceived contamination).

Or ask the biologists who study the wetlands that have already been soiled -- and understand that once oil gets deposited in the muck, it is virtually impossible to remove and may stay in these environments for a very long time.

Ironically, one of the things that makes words like "disaster", "calamity" and "catastrophe" meaningful is that they are not well-quantified (not usually, at least)

They can (and usually do) convey a sort of "order or magnitude" indication of "how bad" something is but they also convey emotions that are simply not quantifiable.

Because of the latter, the use of such words causes people (including politicians) to react -- and act -- in ways that numbers simply can not do.

It is not unreasonable to expect that some of the folks (possibly even ocean scientist Jeremy Jackson) who are currently using phrases like "may be calamitous" in this case might be doing so at least partly in the hope that it will spur politicians into action to

1) devote the necessary resources -- people (including our best scientists and engineers) and equipment -- to gauge the magnitude of the disaster (eg, by putting instrumentation in place to accurately measure the flow), to mitigate the oil that has already spilled, and to stop the flow as quickly as possible and

2) change the broken "regulatory" system that allowed the blowout to happen.

Mal Adapted said...

Whatever the quantifiable costs of the blowout and spill turn out to be, they're unlikely to be internalized in the cost of a gallon of gas. Too bad, because that's the only way to address the consumption issue -- which as S points out, is the real problem.

Environmental impacts like pollution and AGW may not be reflected in the price of energy, but we all pay them one way or another. There are no externalities in Nature's global economy.

Arthur said...

Keith - huh? You think I was trying to itemize all instances of media over-reaction? Three-mile-island hapened when I was 13, before I was paying much attention to media coverage, so I don't have a personal perspective on how over-wraught it was at the time. If the focus was on the potential risk for something very bad to happen, that may even have been appropriate; of course we turned out to be pretty lucky with what actually happened there in the end. On the other hand it was a financial calamity for the nuclear industry so there's that.

Hank Roberts said...


From a longterm oil industry expert, on what is and isn't taught about capturing oil.

BP Fails Booming School 101

Astonishingly clear.


S said...

Thanks Hank, very clear and entertaining. Since a lot of the oil seems to be under the surface, maybe proper f___ing booming wouldn't make a difference (owing to the skirts being too short). But I learned something.

The swearing will probably make it more popular. Good marketing -- no wonder she gets paid so much. I'll forward it, and try to remember to warn recipients.

John Mashey said...

Lest people misunderstand, [since this is clearly a disaster by my standards], maybe people can think about why I would want to get better quantification of this stuff, in the context of longer-term solutions...

Hints: legal system, insurance vs posting upfront bond, incentives inside corporations, etc.

Nosmo said...

In addition to Lisa Margonelli's article, I strongly recommend her book, "oil On The Brain--Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline".
She tells a really good story of all aspects of oil production and delivery. There are excerpts on her web site:
(But you should really buy the book)

She had by far the best book release party I've ever been to or heard of. It was a potluck party with a band at a gas station, and was actually a whole lot of fun!

Jim said...

I see no reason for optimism, for at least five reasons:

Most of the oil is invisible: Large concentrations of spilled oil 1,000 meters below Gulf surface.

This is a slow-motion catastrophe that will play out over decades: Louisiana coast's battle against drifting oil expected to last months, if not years.

Most of the impact is likely to be on benthic communities, as "dispersed" oil settles to the bottom: Deep coral in path of Gulf oil plumes -- Mix of crude, dispersants could smother life below the sea; Challenge of cleaning up Gulf of Mexico oil spill ‘unprecedented’ at such depths.

The base of the Gulf food web will be razed: Oil spill brings ‘death in the ocean from top to bottom’; Tiniest victims of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill may turn out to be most important.

The widespread loss of habitat will push endangered populations to extinction:
Oil spill may wipe out Gulf sperm whales -- Just three dead whales could push the Gulf population over the edge; Bluefin tuna particularly vulnerable to Gulf of Mexico oil leak.

There's no way around it: The BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe will alter the Gulf's biodiversity permanently, and not for the better. Unfortunately, fishermen see the writing on the wall: Louisiana fishermen contemplating suicide, need mental health services.

I comfort myself by remembering that all these Mississippi Delta wetlands were doomed by sea level rise anyway.

Hank Roberts said...

live video feed, or possibly more than one -- I gather there are something like eight cameras down there, some fixed with pan/zoom and some mobile. You can watch the camera zoom in on individual gauges checking something (pressures?). No explanation.

Hank Roberts said...

Hank Roberts said...

The take-home image of how booming should be done -- compared to how it's being done wrong along the Gulf Coast:

The text from around that (number one of a three part series; see original for more):

----excerpt follows-----

(part 1 of a multi-part series, text, illustrations, and link to video)
####### Boom

Generally, boom is long and bright bright orange or yellow. It is not bright bright orange or yellow so you can see it, dear fledgling boomer, but so Governors, Senators, Presidents and The Media can see it. It has a round floaty part that floats, and a flat \"skirt\" that sinks. A RULE: the floaty part never floats high enough and the skirt never rides low enough. Some oil will ALWAYS go over the boom and some will ALWAYS go under it. Our task is to MINIMIZE both! We do that by ####### proper ####### booming. Here. This picture teaches you almost 100% of what you'll learn in DKos Booming School, about ####### proper ####### booming:


if ######## proper ######## booming is done properly, you can remove most, by far most of the oil from a shoreline and you can do it day after day, week after week, month after month. You can prevent most, by far most of the shoreline from ever being touched by more than a few transient molecules of oil. Done ####### properly, a week after the oil stops coming ashore, no one, man nor beast, can ever tell there has been oil anywhere near that shoreline....


3. Governors, Senators, Presidents and most of all the Piece-Of-Shit-C*nt Media don't know what ####### proper ####### booming LOOKS LIKE! So you can just lay a single line of neon-glo-orange boom out parallel to the shore, for miles, with anchor points every quarter-mile to where a good part of it washes up onto the shore like a huge, dead, orange nightcrawler... and they won't know the difference! Where it manages to stay off the bank, a little two-foot chop you would let your kids frolic in will send all the oil either over or under it! ALL THE OIL! ON THE SHORE! IN THE REEDS! ON THE BEACH! IN THE NESTS! OIL! So what! It's not gonna make CNN send a single correspondent to booming school, is it?

Now the Coast Guard? They know booming. They know what ####### proper ####### booming looks like. Coast Guard commandant, Adm. Thad Allen should be fired. Today. Now. This minute. Before he can give another press conference echoing what BP said not five minutes before him. Then he should be ####### court-martialed and fucking sent to prison before BP can give him a goddamned ####### job. He's a shameless piece of shit. And so is President Obama if he can't see that. People who know me and how I've supported our President through thick and thin, know how hard it was for me to write that. I'm literally on the verge of tears, right this second. But I won't erase it. There it is.
----- end excerpt----

Hank Roberts said...

(recent MODIS photo here)

Daniel said...


Given what we know about the latest in flow-rate estimates (1.5 million gallons to 2.5 million gallons per day), perhaps it might be time to re-visit this topic with a fresh post...

Appreciate all that you do, dude: you are a refreshing read!


Daniel the Yooper