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Natural Gas Rig Fire in the Gulf, Another Wakeup Call

National Wildlife Federation

By Lacey McCormick

Late last night, a natural gas drilling rig known as Hercules 265 exploded. The rig has now partially collapsed and is burning out of control, too dangerous for firefighters to approach.

This incident begs the question: if the safety recommendations of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill had been implemented swiftly, would this accident have occurred at all?

It is particularly notable that the blowout preventer appears not to have worked in this instance, just as is it didn’t on the Deepwater Horizon. Whatever the facts of this case turn out to be, accidents like this one are part of a long industry pattern that places profit ahead of communities, local economies and the environment.

There are still many unknowns. For example, we don’t know how much gas is being released or if the well is releasing gas below the surface as well as above.

On Wings of Truth flew over the runaway well yesterday, before the fire, and made this video available:

While natural gas is less toxic than crude oil, when released from a well it can contain smaller quantities of volatile petroleum condensates, like kerosene and gasoline. And natural gas alone can have significant impacts on marine species, particularly when the water is warm. Dr. Irene Novaczek writes:

The gas can rapidly penetrate the bodies of fish, doing direct damage to gills, skin, chemoreceptors and eyes, and filling up the gas bladder, making the fish unable to control its buoyancy. … Shellfish are also killed by exposure to gas. Zooplankton and phytoplankton can tolerate higher concentrations of gas than fish or shellfish can (i.e. they die at two–five mg/l).

If all the hydrocarbons are being released above the surface of the Gulf, then the immediate impacts to marine wildlife would be lessened, as the Associated Press reports:

"Gas being discharged now would not necessarily affect the water system of the Gulf proper,” said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science and a member of the federal panel that investigated the BP oil spill. That’s because it’s likely most of the gas is venting directly into the atmosphere given the fire and shallow depth of the well, he said.

Houston-based Walter Oil & Gas Corp is now looking to drill a relief well to stop the flow of gas, an operation that could take days or even weeks. Thankfully, all 44 workers on board the rig were evacuated safely and there does not appear to be any real potential for a disaster on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon.

Whatever ultimately happens with the Hercules 256, it’s clear that it is long past time for Congress and the Obama Administration to reform oil and gas leasing practices and permitting requirements to better safeguard wildlife and the environment.

This not the first wake-up call we have had in the Gulf. Let’s hope our nation’s leaders don’t hit the snooze button this time—as they have so many times in the past.

Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY and GULF OIL SPILL pages for more related news on this topic.

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BP Trial 'Close to Settlement'

Oil Change International

By Andy Rowell

So the trial of the century may not happen after all.

On the morning of Feb. 27, lawyers representing more than 116,000 plaintiffs had been due in court in New Orleans to begin the trial against BP and other defendants resulting from the Deepwater Horizon.

The trial could have lasted two years. Documents in the case run to more than 72 million pages—that makes a pile of paper four-and-a-half miles high.

But the Financial Times is reporting that the two sides could be “close to a possible settlement."

Bloomberg is also reporting that the settlement could be in the region of $14 billion, which is in line with analysts’ expectations.

Late Feb. 26, the judge agreed to postpone the trial for a week to see if a pre-trial deal could be done. In a joint statement, BP and the 90 or so plaintiff lawyers said they “working to reach agreement to fairly compensate people and businesses affected by the Deepwater Horizon accident and oil spill."

The trial is now due to begin on March 5th  if no deal is reached.

So is it better for the plaintiffs to try and settle or go to trial? On the one hand, the lesson of history is not great.

Remember the Exxon Valdez? In the decades it took for the case to grind through the court, through numerous appeals it took so long that a third of the original plaintiffs died. At the end they had to settle for about $15,000. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, Exxon had offered them $50,000.

So the real winner was Exxon (and its fat-cat lawyers), who dragged litigation out for 20 years or so.

However, many industry analysts and experts say a quick settlement is in BP’s best interest, especially if it was a “super settlement” that settled all claims including those from the U.S. government and Gulf states. This would free up BP to expand drilling in the U.S. again.

So could a global deal be close that would end the claims together? “Before today, I had almost given up on the possibility of a global settlement before a trial began,” Edward Sherman, a professor at Tulane University Law School and specialist in complex litigation told Reuters. “Now, with an extra week, it seems to improve the chances.”

What we do know is that the lawyers have already got rich and will get a whole lot richer. For the defendants’ lawyers, the case is already a “well-fed cash cow”, with BP’s legal costs some $1.73bn. The plaintiffs’ lawyers who have already racked up a bill that could be higher, looks set to earn billions if there is a settlement, as they receive 30-40 per cent of the damages.

But settling may not be in the interests of the ordinary plaintiffs, who could be denied proper justice and to hear the truth of what really happened on that fateful day.

There is really good reason to go to trial, to determine why the rig exploded, who was at fault, how much oil was really spilled and the real extent of the environmental damage.

One person who intends to be in court if the trial goes head is Sheryl Revette, whose husband husband, Dewey, was one of the 11 rig workers killed in the disaster.

I think she deserves her day in court to see BP in the dock and to find out why her husband died.

For more information, click here.

As BP Trial Begins, Offshore Drilling Remains the Same

The Wilderness Society

When the massive trial over liability in the 2010 BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill begins in New Orleans on Feb. 27, teams of lawyers will debate what led to the deaths of 11 workers and an oil spill that spewed into the ocean for 86 days. But there’s an ugly truth they won’t be discussing—Very little has changed regarding governmental oversight of offshore drilling.

Twenty-two months after the start of America’s worst environmental catastrophe, which spilled more than 4 million barrels of oil, offshore drilling in the U.S. is essentially as dangerous as it was before BP’s Deepwater Horizon exploded. The federal government has since issued only a small number of new safety requirements. The vast majority of recommendations from the various investigative commissions organized following the spill have not been enacted according to a new report by engineer and Arctic Program Director Lois Epstein, P.E., of The Wilderness Society.

Despite this lack of progress, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management plans to oversee extensive new drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic Ocean during the next five years, even though drilling safety has not significantly improved.

“It could take up to a decade to put in place the laws, regulatory structures, transparency, staffing and effective enforcement necessary for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and its sister agency, the federal Bureau of Safety and Environment Enforcement, to prevent major oil spills,” said Epstein, who advised the federal Office of Pipeline Safety for 12 years. “Since Congress has not passed a single law remedying any of the problems that resulted in the BP spill, a decade for significant safety improvements may be optimistic.”

Epstein’s report compiles the key recommendations of the Department of the Interior’s 30-day safety report for which she served as an expert advisor, the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling report, the National Academy of Engineering/National Research Council report, and the Joint Investigation Team report by the U.S. Coast Guard and the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

Epstein cites the need for new blowout preventer design requirements for new and existing wells, identified by the National Academy of Engineering, as an example of key changes needed. “Congress and the Obama administration need to get moving on the many excellent recommendations from the various post-spill investigative commissions. Until that is done, more significant and devastating spill events are inevitable.”

For more information, click here.

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Without Passage of RESTORE Act, BP Could Get Sweet Settlement Deal

National Wildlife Federation

By Jaclyn McDougal

BP could soon squirm its way to a sweet settlement deal this week for the Gulf oil disaster—a move that would allow the company’s pockets to continue to expand on the heels of their record profits, while leaving more uncertainty for restoring the Gulf of Mexico to an environmentally and economically healthy state.

News reports indicate that BP may be close to reaching a settlement for its part in the Gulf oil disaster. The proposed settlement allegedly requires BP to pay a mere 3 percent of the full amount of Clean Water Act (CWA) penalties it could be fined under the law. Reports suggest the agreement would require BP to pay only $142 per barrel of oil spilled into the Gulf, although CWA allows up to $4,300 per barrel to be assessed against a liable party. BP has reportedly set aside $3.5 billion in preparation for paying CWA fines, but this settlement deal would be significantly less.

The settlements do not stop there. MOEX Offshore recently settled to pay only $90 million for its part in the Deepwater Horizon blowout. The settlement would send $45 million to the federal government for penalties and restoration. In addition to paying $25 million in CWA penalty funds to the states, MOEX will acquire $20 million worth of properties containing habitat and natural resources worthy of conservation in perpetuity, and/or which will protect water quality in the Gulf of Mexico region.

According to the Department of Justice, there are no federal requirements for how the states use the penalty money.

“The states should use the $25 million in penalty funds to help the damaged Gulf ecosystems and the people in the Gulf that depend on those ecosystems for their livelihoods and quality of life,” said John Kostyack, National Wildlife Federation’s vice president for wildlife conservation, reacting to the initial MOEX settlement. “As far as the $20 million goes, we need a lot more transparency on where that money is going and what projects it will fund. It is hard to support this without knowing which properties will be acquired or restored and how they intend to restore water quality.”

Now is a critical time to get the RESTORE Act passed—it’s been nearly two years since the Gulf oil disaster. Last week Sens. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Richard Shelby (R-AL) introduced an amendment to the Senate Transportation bill (S.1813) that would ensure BP fines from the oil spill go to the Gulf where they belong. Unless Congress takes action now, before a settlement is reached, a significant portion of the funds BP pays could be used for unrelated federal spending, instead of helping the Gulf.

For more information, click here.

ACTION: Tweet Your #LOVE for the Gulf

RESTORE the Mississippi River Delta

Want to help show your love for the Gulf this Valentine’s Day? It’s easy. Just click on one of the messages below to tell Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) that you want money from the BP oil spill to go back to the Gulf.

Background on the RESTORE Act:

The BP oil disaster dumped nearly five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, damaging the wildlife, ecosystems and economy of the Gulf Coast.

The RESTORE Act seeks to ensure that at least 80 percent of the penalties paid by BP are returned to the Gulf to be used for restoring the region’s communities, economies and environments.

However unless Congress acts quickly, these penalties could go toward unrelated federal spending. We must act now if we want to ensure that this money goes back to where the damage was done.

Click on one of the messages below to tweet your love for the Gulf.

Be sure to check out our Facebook page as well and share our Valentine's Day image with your friends.

For more information, click here.

With BP Settlement Likely, Sierra Club Calls on Obama to Restore the Gulf Coast

Sierra Club

Michael Brune, Sierra Club executive director, called on President Obama Feb. 6 to take strong action in any settlement of claims under the Clean Water Act and Oil Pollution Act from BP’s 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill to ensure comprehensive restoration and recovery of the Gulf of Mexico’s ecosystem and communities, and to protect the region from future oil spill disasters. With the public largely shut out of the legal process, Brune weighed in directly in a letter to the president, requesting that specific measures be included in any settlement agreement over the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Sierra Club summarized six main points from their Feb. 6, 2012, letter to President Obama.

  • Establish a Natural Resource Damages Fund in an amount assessed by the Natural Resource Trustees for comprehensive, long-term ecosystem restoration and monitoring that satisfies Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) regulations and prioritizes the public interest
  • Create a fund of no less than $10 billion to execute the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force Early Restoration Strategy with $500 million dedicated to long-term monitoring
  • Establish a fund of no less than $20 billion or an amount equivalent to the Clean Water Act penalties assessment for “gross negligence” dedicated to Supplemental Environmental Projects that enhance NRDA restoration, including long-term monitoring and independent scientific studies
  • Include a broad re-opener provision that allows the government to re-open the settlement for at least 30 years and requires the responsible parties to reimburse the U.S. for latent, unforeseen damages
  • Establish and fund the operation of a Gulf of Mexico Regional Citizen’s Advisory Council to ensure formal public oversight and industry accountability of offshore drilling activities in the region
  • Ensure that all activities executed under a settlement comply with Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice.

The full letter is available here.

For more information, click here.

BP Profits $3 Million Each Hour in 2011—Attempts to Evade Responsibility to Gulf

National Wildlife Federation

By Jaclyn McDougal

Reports on Feb. 7 indicate that BP made a major profit for 2011. BP announced that it made a profit of $25.7 billion during the 2011 calendar year. BP’s fourth-quarter profits alone reached $7.69 billion, up 38 percent from 2010. The company made $3 million every hour during 2011.

“BP made nearly $26 billion and the Gulf still waits to be restored,” said Jeremy Symons, senior vice president of conservation and education with National Wildlife Federation. “Now it’s up to Congress to hold BP accountable and repair the Gulf’s waters, wildlife and America’s seafood supply by passing the RESTORE Act—before BP hastily reaches a settlement that could let them off the hook for the full amount of fines they should pay.”

“Nearly two years after the Gulf oil disaster BP has still not fulfilled its commitment to the Gulf of Mexico, but instead is preparing for their upcoming trial with a full war chest,” Symons stated. “BP’s announcement on their annual profits today shows that they have available funds for widespread restoration but choose to use their money for commercials showcasing their broken promises to the Gulf of Mexico.”

Restoration is critical to the well-being of the Gulf ecosystems and livelihoods. A healthy ecosystem is the lifeblood of a healthy Gulf economy, both regionally and nationally. Congress must pass the RESTORE Act before a settlement sends the fine money to Washington, D.C. where it can be used for unrelated federal spending, instead of restoring the ecosystems and economies of the five Gulf States.

For more information, click here.

Putting a Freeze on Arctic Ocean Drilling

Center for American Progress

Two years ago this month, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig began drilling on the Macondo Prospect, an operation that would result in one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. Now, as we contemplate exploratory drilling in the Arctic, the Center for American Progress released Putting a Freeze on Arctic Ocean Drilling: America’s Inability to Respond to an Oil Spill in the Arctic, detailing the lack of resources and existing infrastructure to respond to an environmental disaster off Alaska’s North Slope.

Even the well-developed infrastructure and abundance of trained personnel in the Gulf of Mexico didn’t prevent the Deepwater Horizon tragedy. Our Arctic response capabilities pale by comparison. Some in the U.S. are eager to keep pace with other Arctic nations by tapping into the “great opportunity” for economic gain they believe lies beneath the pristine Arctic waters, despite the dangerous dearth of response resources illustrated in the map below.

Drilling for oil in this fragile region, however, should not be pursued without adequate safeguards in place. If we’ve learned anything from the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, it’s that the importance of preparedness cannot be overstated. That is why we strongly recommend specific actions be taken by the federal government, by Congress, and by Shell and other companies before beginning exploratory drilling in the Arctic. Recommendations include:

  • Ensure adequate response capabilities are in place before drilling operations commence
  • Require and oversee oil spill response drills in the Arctic that prove the assertions made in company drilling plans prior to plan approval
  • Engage other Arctic nations in developing an international oil spill response agreement that includes an Arctic Ocean drilling management plan
  • Appropriate adequate funds for the Coast Guard to carry out its mission in the Arctic, including increasing our icebreaking capability
  • Significantly increase the liability cap (currently $75 million) for oil companies in violation of drilling safety rules

Certainly, meeting our nation’s energy needs in the near term means maintaining access to domestic offshore oil and gas resources, but it is imperative that we do so in the most prudent, responsible, and environmentally safe manner. And while we applaud the critical reforms implemented by the Obama administration in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, more must be done. Until the oil and gas industry and its federal partners meet the recommendations we lay out in this report and demonstrate the ability to identify and immediately respond to a blowout or oil spill, the Arctic region of the U.S. should remain off-limits to exploration and drilling.

For more information, click here.

Waterkeeper Files Suit against Taylor Energy for Ongoing, Seven-Year Oil Spill

Waterkeeper Alliance

Waterkeeper Alliance and several Gulf Coast Waterkeeper organizations filed suit in Federal Court Feb. 2 against Taylor Energy Company LLC under the citizen suit provisions of the Clean Water Act and Resource Conservation Recovery Act, for ongoing violations stemming from an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that has continued to flow for more than seven years.

Aided by satellite imagery and research conducted by SkyTruth and aerial observation by SouthWings, the Waterkeeper Alliance and its local Waterkeeper organizations learned that the spill, located approximately 11 miles off the coast of Louisiana, started after an undersea landslide in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan in 2004. An offshore platform and 28 wells were damaged, and since then, Taylor has yet to stop the daily flow of oil from the site. Waterkeeper estimates that hundreds of gallons of oil have leaked from the site each day for the last 7 years.

“The plaintiffs filed suit to stop the spill and lift the veil of secrecy surrounding Taylor Oil’s seven-year long response and recovery operation,” explained Marc Yaggi, executive director of Waterkeeper Alliance. “Neither the government nor Taylor will answer basic questions related to the spill response, citing privacy concerns.” The public deserves to know how this spill happened and why it continues. Coastal communities should understand the risks involved in developing off-shore oil resources and what protections are in place to prevent damage from future spills.

“The Taylor Oil spill is emblematic of a broken system, where oil production is prioritized over concerns for human health and the environment,” said Justin Bloom, eastern regional director of Waterkeeper Alliance. “Nearly two years after the BP Deepwater Horizon Spill, none of the comprehensive reforms recommended by the National Oil Spill Commission have been enacted and Congress has yet to pass a single law to better protect workers, the environment or coastal communities.”

Meanwhile, President Obama, in his State of the Union, has called for a massive push to open up 38 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to oil exploration and extraction. He also seeks to open up pristine Arctic waters to drilling. The Taylor spill is in relatively shallow and accessible waters compared to the deepwater, challenging environment where Big Oil has set its sights. Oil exploration and extraction technology has dramatically outpaced the development of safety and recovery technology and it appears that the current regulatory regime is incapable of protecting us from a runaway industry.

A report released this week by the Gulf Monitoring Consortium, a partnership between Waterkeeper Alliance, SkyTruth and SouthWings, investigates several spills in the Gulf (including the Taylor Spill) and highlights numerous deficiencies in the reporting and response process.

A copy of the report can be found by clicking here.

“Imagine an incident like the Taylor Spill in a deepwater, high-pressure environment, that could not be contained in 7 years,” said Paul Orr, the Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper. “Do we really want to race to the bottom without a lifeline when it looks like Big Oil is still at the helm?”

A copy of the complaint can be found by clicking here.

Joining Waterkeeper Alliance in the lawsuit are—Atchfalaya Basinkeeper, Baton Rouge, La.; Galveston Baykeeper, Galveston, Texas; Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper, Baton Rouge, La.; Louisiana Bayoukeeper, Barataria, La.; and Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Baton Rouge, La. Plaintiffs are represented by the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic.

For more information, click here.

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Waterkeeper Alliance is a global environmental movement uniting more than 190 Waterkeeper organizations around the world and focusing citizen advocacy on the issues that affect our waterways, from pollution to climate change. Waterkeepers patrol more than 1.5 million square miles of rivers, streams and coastlines in the Americas, Europe, Australia, Asia and Africa.  

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