* More data needed on pre-spill ecosystems, U.S. government
* Deepwater Horizon case highlights need for preparedness,
By Environment Correspondent Deborah Zabarenko
WASHINGTON, Dec 3 One lesson learned from the
deadly 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill is the need to gauge how
much oil is leaking from a blown-out well, prompting U.S.
government scientists to recommend all future drilling permits
require mechanisms to assess the flow rate.
Figuring out the flow rate was a key problem during and
after the 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico, according to Jane
Lubchenco, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration and played a key role in the U.S. response to the
Lubchenco is the lead author of one of 15 scholarly articles
published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences journal as a special feature on how science figured in
the response to the Deepwater Horizon spill.
"Because the oil was flowing almost a mile down, it was
very, very difficult to get accurate information about the flow
rate," Lubchenco told Reuters in a telephone interview.
U.S. officials managing a massive containment operation in
2010 were in the delicate position of relying on well-flow
estimates from BP executives who had a vested interest in
downplaying the severity of the leak. A New Orleans grand jury
has indicted David Rainey, former head of BP's Gulf of Mexico
exploration, on charges of falsifying flow data provided to U.S.
BP originally estimated that 5,000 barrels of crude were
leaking from the well. Government estimates indicated the flow
was greater than 10 times that rate - 53,000 barrels a day when
the well was capped in July 2010.
"After the first couple of announcements were made about the
flow rate, the government quickly realized we did not have a
good handle on the number and needed solid evidence to back it
up," Lubchenco said.
Government scientists took the time to get an accurate
estimate, despite widespread frustration at how long it took,
"It is reasonable to suggest that future permits be
conditional on having mechanisms to rapidly assess flow rate to
ameliorate the problem in the future," the scientists wrote in
one of the journal reports.
The reports were released five days after the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency suspended BP from obtaining new
U.S. contracts due to its "lack of business integrity" after the
Deepwater Horizon accident, which killed 11 men and caused the
biggest-ever U.S. offshore oil spill.
Determining the flow rate proved difficult, but scientists
eventually figured out how to assess it in a variety of ways,
including by measuring chemicals in the air hundreds of feet
above the water's surface.
Another method of estimating the flow rate was based on
proprietary data from BP about pressure in the undersea
reservoir of oil and conditions in the pipes in the well, said
Marcia McNutt, director of the U.S. Geological Survey, another
central player in the government's response effort.
BP's information "could have given us a ballpark number of
how much the flow rate would have been, even before the well
blew out," McNutt said in a telephone interview. "One of the
strong recommendations we had was that before a well is even put
into production, that analysis should be done and on hand."
McNutt, lead author of another article in the journal, said
one discovery was that dispersant chemicals used to break up the
oil in the deep water made a positive difference.
Dispersants spread by underwater robots meant less oil and
volatile organic compounds reached the surface, cutting down on
chemicals that could affect human health, McNutt said.
The scientists recommended getting baseline information
about the ecosystems in all regions at risk of a spill,
information they lacked in the Deepwater Horizon case.
"In any spill, you want to understand what's the
(environmental) impact, and you aren't going to know that unless
you understand what's the condition of the ecosystem before the
oil gets there," McNutt said.
They also recommended developing new technologies to spur a
fast and robust response; getting more information on how oil, a
changing climate and other factors affect wildlife in coastal
and aquatic ecosystems; and researching how dispersant chemicals
affect a wide range of species at various stages of their lives.
The response to the BP spill showed the benefits of advance
preparation and coordination among government, academic and
corporate experts, the reports found.