Again, Bush at the Core of a Disaster
Bush administration reversed Clinton requirement to model deepwater spills
by Jed Lewison
Thu Jun 24, 2010 at 07:00:48 AM PDT
If you were developing a plan for responding to an oil spill caused by deepwater offshore drilling, it seems like you should be required to include a model in which you assume that the spill takes place below the surface in deepwater conditions, right?
Well, according to the Wall Street Journal, despite the seemingly obvious nature of that proposition, Federal regulators in the Bush administration eliminated that requirement. Instead of modeling deepwater spills in deepwater conditions, the Minerals Management Service -- the agency charged with regulating offshore drilling -- limited its models to surface spills, allowing the oil industry to develop response plans based on faulty data.
BP PLC and other big oil companies based their plans for responding to a big oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on U.S. government projections that gave very low odds of oil hitting shore, even in the case of a spill much larger than the current one.
The government models, which oil companies are required to use but have not been updated since 2004, assumed that most of the oil would rapidly evaporate or get broken up by waves or weather. In the weeks since the Deepwater Horizon caught fire and sank, real life has proven these models, prepared by the Interior Department's Mineral Management Service, wrong.
During the Clinton administration, the federal government had announced plans to require spill models for deepwater drilling to be based on deepwater conditions, but under Bush, that decision was reversed, and models for deepwater drilling were developed using the same assumptions as surface spills.
Researchers have spent the past decade trying to improve modeling of oil spills. The biggest challenge: to update the models to reflect the new reality of deep-water oil drilling. Spills thousands of feet below the surface behave very differently than spills on the surface. Underwater currents, for example, can grab plumes of oil and transport them far from the scene of the initial spill, scientists say. Deep-water releases tend to break into smaller oil slicks, further complicating efforts to forecast where they'll go.
MMS said in early 2000, in a notice to lessees, that it planned to require oil companies operating in deep-water to use new oil-spill predictions specifically designed for deep water.
That regulation never came into effect. Oil companies today still base their contingency plans on the government's models, designed only for surface spills.
In 2001, the then-head of the MMS environmental division wrote a paper that warned "the oil spill trajectory models currently used by the oil industry for the preparation of oil spill response plans may not be adequate for deep water."
When that 2001 paper was written supporting the Clinton decision, the head of MMS was a Clinton-era holdover, Dr. Thomas Kitsos. By early 2002, the Bush administration had tapped a new head of MMS, a former GOP state legislator from Dick Cheney's home state of Wyoming named Rejane "Johnnie" Burton. Burton, you'll be shocked to learn, was in the energy industry and in her announcement touted the fact that she "began her career in the oil and gas industry." It was under her leadership that MMS began to rapidly deteriorate, failing to address even the most basic safety issues for new offshore drilling.
If the Bush administration hadn't reversed the Clinton decision requiring accurate models, companies involved in deepwater drilling would have been forced to develop a mitigation plan for undersea deepwater spills. Instead, thanks to the Bush administration, federal regulators allowed deepwater operators to base their plans on surface spills, which are far less complex than deepwater undersea spills and don't take into account things like undersea plumes, undersea application of dispersant, and (last but not least) what to do about a months-long blowout gushing tens of thousands of barrels per day.
So while it's fair to be tough on President Obama, let's not forget this key difference between his administration and the last: when President Obama falls short, at least he's trying to do the right thing. The previous administration wasn't. They represented the oil industry, not the public. And we're still paying the price.