Nungesser testifies with oil spill panel in Washington D.C.Oct 5th, 2010 | By Frank McCormack | Category: news
Top leaders involved with the BP oil spill traveled to Washington D.C. last week to testify before the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. Members of the commission, which is chaired by South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, heard testimony last week from BP executive Doug Suttles, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, Coast Guard Captain Ed Stanton and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, among others.
Front-and-center at the hearing was BP and the federal government’s initial, persistent underestimation of the well’s actual flow rate. Ian MacDonald, professor of oceanography at Florida State University, spoke to the panel and included with his testimony a chart tracking the well’s estimated flow rate as it increased from April through early August.
On April 23, three days after the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig, Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry reported no estimated flow of oil. By April 25, Landry reported an estimated 1,000 barrels of oil released per day. Three days later, Landry upped the estimated flow rate to 5,000 barrels per day. By May 1, Allen told the public that no accurate estimate could be made.
Then, between May 27 and Aug. 2, flow rate estimates increased from 16,000 barrels a day to 58,000 barrels a day.
“During the first five weeks or more of the emergency, the official rate of release grossly underestimated the true rates that would eventually be determined,” MacDonald said in his testimony. “Of particular note was the interval from April 28 and May 27 [when the flow rate hovered around 5,000 barrels per day]. Where did this rate come from and why was it allowed to stand for so long?”
MacDonald also claimed that BP’s method for calculating the amount and thickness of oil released from the Macondo well fell far short of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s standards.
“So the ‘Best Guess’ was obtained using guidelines that were biased toward results much lower than would have been obtained by using accepted standards,” he said. “A pressing question would be why the Unified Command authorities apparently relied on BP’s internal, and evidently erroneous, standards instead of using NOAA’s guideline that was formulated on the basis of international agreed upon standards.”
When asked if more accurate flow rate estimates early on would have changed the federal government’s response, Allen said it wouldn’t have. Former Florida senator and governor Bob Graham, co-chair of the commission, said he disagreed.
“It’s a lot like Custer,” Graham said in reference to George Custer whose troops were resoundingly defeated in 1876 at the hands of Native Americans in Montana. “He underestimated the number of Indians on the other side of the hill and paid the ultimate price.”
Another point of interest at the hearings was the organizational structure of the oil spill response. Nungesser was blunt, comparing the vague leadership structure during the spill to the Wizard of Oz.
“It became a joke. The Houma command was the Wizard of Oz, some guy behind the curtain,” he said.
Nungesser said that, organizationally, there needs to be a change.
“Whether it’s a local party and BP is tasked with paying for it, there needs to be a clear channel of communication of who’s in charge,” Nungesser said after the hearing. “To this day, standing here today, I still can’t tell you who’s making decisions.”
Oil spill response laws, passed after the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, require the oil company responsible for the spill to both play a major role in the response and pay for it. The Coast Guard directs the response. Both Nungesser and Allen said that’s probably not the best way to orchestrate a spill response.
“The Coast Guard does a great job of rescuing people and putting out the fire. They don’t gut the house and rebuild the house. That’s what we’ve tasked them to do here,” Nungesser said.
Allen pointed out the potential conflict of interest for the oil company overseeing the spill because that company is also responsible to its shareholders.
Both Nungesser and Allen encouraged Congressional leaders to consider amending oil spill response laws to put an independent industry expert in charge of cleanups, instead of the Coast Guard or the “responsible party.”
Suttles focuses on positives
“There is no question that the Deepwater Horizon response was a monumental team effort. BP could not have responded as effectively alone,” Suttles said. “All of us at BP are extremely grateful for the assistance offered by the thousands of devoted participants who came together to address this challenge, and who were guided by the skillful leadership of Admiral Allen, to launch what has become the largest spill response in the history of the world.”
“A pressing question would be why the Unified Command authorities apparently relied on BP’s internal, and evidently erroneous, standards instead of using NOAA’s guideline that was formulated on the basis of international agreed upon standards.”
Professor of oceanography, Florida State Univeristy