Tag Archives: Oil spills

Sponsor of state oil-spill-prevention bill recalls Exxon Valdez disaster

State Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, grew up in the small town of Yakutat, Alaska, where her entire family and most of her friends hunted and fished, following Native American traditions passed down from their ancestors.

Rep. Lekanoff carries with her that indelible perspective, as she goes about the business of law-making. Like all of us, her personal history has shaped the forces that drive her today. Now, as sponsor of House Bill 1578, she is pushing hard for a law to help protect Puget Sound from a catastrophic oil spill.

KTVA, the CBS affiliate in Anchorage, presented a program Sunday on the 30th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. // Video: KTVA-TV

In 1989, Debra, a member of the Tlinget Tribe, was about to graduate from high school when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, some 220 miles northwest of her hometown. The spill of 11 million gallons of crude oil ultimately killed an estimated 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles and up to 22 killer whales, along with untold numbers of fish and crabs, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (PDF 11.5 mb). That was 30 years ago this past Sunday.

After graduation, many of Debra’s classmates went to the disaster area and took jobs picking up dead and dying animals covered in oil. While Debra did not visit the devastation, she listened to the terrible stories and read letters written by her friends.

“These were boys who grew up hunting and fishing,” she said. “They knew the importance of natural resources. I can only imagine how they felt picking up the dead animals. We lost a whole pod of orcas from that spill, and today you can still turn over the rocks and find oil underneath.”

The Exxon Valdez oil spill “woke up the state of Alaska” to the devastating threats posed by oil transport, she said, and it triggered an ongoing investment in oil-spill prevention.

Lekanoff moved to Washington state, where she graduated from Central Washington University and eventually went to work for the Swinomish Tribe in North Puget Sound, where she works as government affairs director.

Last year, she was selected by Gov. Jay Inslee to serve on the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force, trying to find ways to save the critically endangered orcas from extinction. One measure promoted by the task force — and supported by outside studies — was to take additional steps to reduce the risks of an accident involving a tanker or barge.

Debra tells me she has one word that guides her views on the subject of oil transportation: “prevention-prevention-prevention,” which reinforces the idea of redundancy. Tug escorts and “rescue tugs” for oil tankers and barges are part of the redundancy called for in HB 1578. Other recommendations from the Department of Ecology include extra personnel aboard the vessels to watch out for developing conditions.

Computer models can be used to calculate the risks of a catastrophic oil spill in Puget Sound, something I recently wrote about for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. But the real world does not run on computer models. So it becomes difficult to decide how much risk is acceptable when considering the potential loss of incalculable values, such as fish, wildlife and the Northwest lifestyle.

Rep. Lekanoff, 48, who was first elected to the Legislature last year, said Washington state needs to move away from a pollution-based economy, which has already decimated a vast abundance of salmon while pushing our cherished orcas to the brink of extinction.

The Skagit River in North Puget Sound is the only river left in the Lower 48 states able to sustain all five species of salmon, she said, and now even that river is threatened by proposed mining operations and changing streamflows caused by climate change.

Lekanoff said she sees her role as a person who can build strong relationships between the state, federal and tribal governments to protect and restore natural resources in our region.

“We need to build a better future for the generations to come,” she told me, and that requires looking past short-term gains to consider the long-term results of legislative actions.

As sponsor of HB 1578, a bill drafted and heavily promoted by the Governor’s Office, Lekanoff said the challenge has been to engage with various interest groups, share scientific information and seek out common interests.

“This bill,” she said, “is a clear example of what we can do together. We needed everyone at the table.”

For tanker traffic traveling through Rosario Strait near the San Juan Islands, Lekanoff’s bill would require tug escorts for vessels over 5,000 deadweight tons along with studies to determine what other measures are needed. Currently, tug escorts come into play only for tanker ships over 40,000 deadweight tons, and there are no escort requirements for barges of any size.

The next step will be to get everyone at the table again to discuss the risks of tanker traffic traveling through Haro Straight, a prime feeding ground for orcas in the San Juan Islands, Lekanoff said. Prevention-prevention-prevention — including the potential of tug escorts — will again be a primary topic of discussion.

Lekanoff’s bill passed the House March 7 on a 70-28 vote and moved out of the Senate Committee on Environment, Energy and Technology on Tuesday. The bill will make a stop at the Senate Ways and Means Committee before going to the floor for a vote by all senators.

Arctic drilling: strange politics and inspiration

UPDATE, Aug. 17

Arctic drilling may be delayed until next year, because Shell’s oil-containment vessel is still not ready, according to Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar.

“I will hold their feet to the fire in terms of making sure that we are doing everything we can to abide by the standards and regulations we have set, and to make sure that the environment and the Arctic seas are protected,” Salazar said during a press conference in Anchorage.

A shell spokesman expressed hope that the drilling would still begin this fall.

For details, see the stories by Lisa Demer of the Anchorage Daily News and Olga Belogolova of the National Journal.
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UPDATE, July 31

The Greenpeace ship Esperanza is not sitting around waiting for Shell to begin its drilling in the Alaskan Arctic. Greenpeace biologists have reported the presence of a soft coral at the drill site. I’m not sure how significant this is, but Julie Eilperin of the Washington Post has the story. Greenpeace has the photo.
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UPDATE, June 29

Shell's drilling vessel Kulluk leaves Seattle Wednesday. / Photo by Associated Press

The U.S. Department of Interior released a five-year plan for oil and gas leases yesterday, as two Shell exploratory rigs headed out of Puget Sound on their way to the Alaskan Arctic.

The Shell drilling vessels Kulluk and Noble Discoverer were headed for Alaska’s Dutch Harbor, where they will wait until the ice clears in Beaufort and Chukchi seas. See Vigor’s news release about alterations made to the two rigs.

In a news release with links to the plans, David J. Hayes, deputy secretary of the Interior, said :

“We are committed to moving forward with leasing offshore Alaska, and scheduling those sales later in the program allows for further development of scientific information on the oil and gas resource potential in these areas and further study of potential impacts to the environment. We must reconcile energy resource development with the sensitive habitats, unique conditions and important other uses, including subsistence hunting and fishing, that are present in Alaska waters.”

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UPDATE, June 27
This week, the Obama administration will announce a five-year program for offshore oil-leasing. It will include targeted areas for exploration and drilling in Alaska’s Arctic, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar said yesterday.

Salazar said permits to allow Shell to conduct exploratory drilling in the Arctic, as we have discussed in this blog, are likely to be issued soon.

Associated Press writer Dan Joling does a nice job explaining Salazar’s comments. See Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
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UPDATE, June 22
The Greenpeace ship Esperanza has arrived in Alaskan waters. Photo posted on Twitter.
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UPDATE, June 12, 3 p.m.
The Greenpeace ship Esperanza has left Seattle on its way to the Arctic, according to ongoing reports on Twitter. As of 3 p.m., the ship is just crossing the Edmonds-Kingston ferry lanes.
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UPDATE, June 12, 2:30 p.m.
I’ve added maps of the two drilling areas at the bottom of this post.
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After anchoring for nearly a week in South Kitsap’s Yukon Harbor, the Greenpeace ship Esperanza on Friday moved over to Seattle, where it now waits for Shell’s oil-drilling rigs to shove off for Alaska.

The Greenpeace ship Esperanza was anchored in Yukon Harbor for nearly a week.
Photo by Tom Warren

Shell obtained an injunction (PDF 32 kb) against Greenpeace in hopes of preventing environmental activists from boarding its oil rig and unfurling banners or causing more serious damage.

Shell is clearly concerned, as outlined in legal documents (PDF 60 kb) in support of the injunction:

“After obtaining multiple approvals from various federal agencies, and after completing preparations that have been years and billions of dollars in the making, Shell intends to lawfully, safely, and responsibly carry out an exploration drilling program on its leases in the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea in the summer of 2012.

“Greenpeace intends to prevent Shell from doing so, and has initiated tortious and illegal actions to accomplish this publically-stated intent. Greenpeace’s past and present actions establish that Greenpeace can and will engage in dangerous and illegal activities that place human life, property, and the environment at risk, all in an effort to impose its will and to capitalize on publicity generated by its antics.”

Greenpeace says its goal is to shadow the oil rigs and document the activities from miniature submarines to help the public understand the dangers that drilling poses to the fragile Arctic ecosystem. See Kitsap Sun, June 4.

For environmentalists, the biggest question is: How did this drilling ever get approval? Why did a Democratic president allow Shell to get all the permits necessary to explore for oil in the Arctic, after strong opposition through the years succeeded in keeping drilling rigs out of the Arctic.

Shell was strategic in its approach, as described in a well-researched story by John M. Broder and Clifford Krauss for the New York Times:

“Beyond the usual full-court lobbying effort, Shell abandoned its oil industry brethren and joined advocates pushing for a strong response to climate change.

“Ultimately, Shell won the backing of a president it had viewed warily during the 2008 campaign. While he signaled conditional support for the proposal years ago, Mr. Obama came under pressure from rising gasoline prices and the assiduous lobbying of a freshman Democratic senator from Alaska eager to show he could make things happen in Washington.

“The move also provides the president a measure of political cover. ‘Alaska tends to be a litmus test for the energy debate,’ said Amy Myers Jaffe, director of energy policy research at Rice University. ‘When Romney says the president is anti-drilling and causes high gas prices, Obama can turn around and say, “I approved drilling in Alaska.”’”

By executive order, Obama set up a special interagency commission to oversee “the safe and responsible development of onshore and offshore energy resources and associated infrastructure in Alaska.”

Obama’s steady pressure in favor of drilling in the Arctic (“It’s not deep water, right?”) eventually overcame concerns within his own administration, despite warnings from the commission investigating the BP oil-spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. According to the NY Times article:

“The commission’s final report said that for Arctic drilling to be done safely, ‘both industry and government will have to demonstrate standards and a level of performance higher than they have ever achieved before.’ …

“The government strengthened its Arctic research programs to better understand the impact of increased industrial activity in the northern ocean. Those and other concessions seemed to placate officials at the permitting agencies, who were navigating between their regulatory duties and the president’s obvious desire to drill.

“Shell’s permits came in a rush. Interior approved exploration in both seas by last December. Response plans were endorsed in February and March of this year. The EPA’s appeals board cleared the final air permits at the end of March — just as the whaling season got under way. NOAA came through with a marine mammal permit in early May.”

As far as I can tell, Shell is waiting only for its final drilling permits from the Department of Interior and for the ice to clear in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

Shell's oil-drilling rig Kulluk prepares to head for Alaska. This photo was taken last year on its way into Seattle.
AP file photo, 2011

As Shell’s oil rigs prepare to pull out of Seattle, Alaska’s governor and the state’s two U.S. senators recently visited Seattle to take a look at Shell’s oil rigs on the eve of the historic drilling activity, as reported by Jennifer A. Dlouhy of the Houston Chronicle.

Dlouhy quoted Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, as expressing confidence in Shell’s ability to drill safely: “I think they know as well as anybody that there is no margin for cutting corners.”

The article also included environmental concerns about an oil spill in the fragile Arctic ecosystem, which could be worse than the Exxon Valdez in Prince Williams Sound, where oil is still showing up 23 years after a multibillion-dollar cleanup.

“If there is a spill in the Arctic, the oil and damage will almost certainly degrade slower and last longer,” Richard Steiner, former marine conservation professor at the University of Alaska was quoted as saying.

A new story out this morning in Macleans magazine includes an interview with Peter Voser, chief executive officer of Royal Dutch Shell, who touches briefly on this summer’s drilling in the Arctic:

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New bill would strengthen state’s oil-spill response

During last year’s oil blow-out in the Gulf of Mexico, I kept thinking about our home waters of Puget Sound.

I kept hearing reports about the conflicts and confusion among the state, federal and local governments operating in the region. I am fairly convinced that intergovernmental cooperation would be better in Washington state, because I have seen representatives of numerous agencies working together on blue-ribbon panels, high-level committees, contingency-planning efforts and oil-spill drills.

One big question that remains controversial is whether this state has enough of the right kinds of oil-spill response equipment in the right places.

On Tuesday, state Rep. Christine Rolfes, a Democrat from Bainbridge Island, announced legislation to address this issue. She offered her legislative proposal as the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill released its final recommendations about what went wrong in the Gulf and what should be done to improve deep-water drilling and oil-spill responses.
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Coast Guard bill covers safety and budget issues

UPDATE, OCTOBER 15
President Obama signed the Coast Guard Authorization Bill today. For details, check out the news release from U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell.
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President Obama is expected to sign a sweeping authorization bill that reorganizes U.S Coast Guard operations, increases maritime safety rules and calls for improved oil-spill prevention and response in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

It seems this bill has something for everyone, at least among those of us living in coastal states. By skimming through the Coast Guard bill or reading a summary, you get an idea of just how sweeping these changes will be for the Coast Guard.

The legislation, largely written by Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, was blocked by Republican leaders in the Senate for the past four years. To get approval, several provisions were stripped from the bill in the Senate. Then in the House, many of these ideas were put back in and ultimately approved when it came back to the Senate.

What are the most important parts of the bill? Well, that depends on whether you are involved in the Coast Guard, the shipping industry, the fishing fleet or just want to protect against oil spills or terrorists.
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No end in sight for Gulf oil-spill problems

As the worst ecological disaster in U.S. history unfolds in the Gulf of Mexico, emotions are boiling over along the Gulf Coast.

An oil-covered pelican flaps its wings on an island in Barataria Bay off the coast of Louisiana on Sunday. The island, home to hundreds of brown pelican and other birds, is being hit by oil washing ashore.
AP photo by Patrick Semansky

Sitting here in the Pacific Northwest, I am still dazed by the realization that an oil well, nearly a mile under water, has gone out of control, spewing millions of gallons of crude and creating an underwater mess bigger than what we see on the surface.

I cannot fathom that we are experiencing a disaster likely to be many times worse than Alaska’s Exxon Valdez. Until somebody figures out how to turn off the flow of oil, we can’t begin to estimate the size of this catastrophe or imagine that things will get better.

BP is hoping that a process, never used underwater, will stop the flow of oil. The technique, called a “top kill” and performed on above-ground wells in the Middle East, involves shooting heavy mud and cement into the well. The first shot could come tomorrow. Chances of success are estimated at 60-70 percent by BP, but the company’s track record for estimates has not been good so far.

Oily dead birds and other sea life, predicted weeks ago, are washing up on shore. Sensitive marsh lands, impossible to clean without destroying them, have been touched. Longtime fishermen and fishing communities are shut down.

“Once it gets in the marsh, it’s impossible to get out,” Charles Collins, 68, a veteran crew boat captain told reporters for the Los Angeles Times. “All your shrimp are born in the marsh. All your plankton. The marsh is like the beginning of life in the sea. And it’s in the marshes. Bad.”

Yesterday, I joined a telephone press conference with Lisa Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. She was doing her best to calmly cope with the enormity of the disaster. She had just come off a boat after witnessing oil piling up on shore. Joining her was Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, who is in charge of the National Response Team.

Jackson said the federal government has ordered BP to cut back on the use of dispersants, which break up the oil but may have some toxic effects. No formal studies have ever been conducted on the effects of applying huge quantities of dispersants underwater, but limited studies in recent days suggest that this approach may be the least harmful method to keep the oil from coming ashore.

Without such treatment, the oil itself is highly toxic and a much greater concern, she said. BP has been ordered to look for less toxic alternatives than the dispersant currently being used, but safer alternatives may not be available in the quantities needed. Meanwhile, Jackson said her staff believes the treatment can be equally effective by using half or less the amount of chemical applied until now.

Keeping as much oil off the shorelines as possible seems to be the top priority. That starts by keeping some of the oil immersed as tiny droplets underwater. Oil that reaches the surface is attacked by skimmers and burned if necessary. Fighting the oil with absorbent booms and pads along the shore is the last step.

I hope this strategy is not one of “out of sight, out of mind,” because the oil immersed in the water becomes a problem of its own. It’s been compared to a bottle of oil-and-vinegar salad dressing that you shake up, breaking the oil into tiny globules that float around. Smaller globules are believed to degrade faster in the environment.

Still, with this oil starting 5,000 feet below the surface, it could take months or years to coalesce, rise to the surface and come ashore, where cleanup crews could be facing oil damage for an undetermined amount of time.

“I’m afraid we’re just seeing the beginning of what is going to be a long, ugly summer,” Ed Overton, who has consulted on oil spills for three decades, told Bob Marshall, a reporter with the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “I hope and pray I’m wrong, but I think what we’re in for is seeing a little bit come in each day at different places for a long, long time — months and months. That’s not what I said in the beginning of this. But events have made me amend my thoughts.”

Some constituents of the oil will never come ashore but will drop to the bottom of the Gulf in various locations. As specialized bacteria move in to break down the oily compounds, they will consume oxygen, potentially adding to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

If this were an earthquake, I would be reporting on damage assessments and offering hope for a renewed community. If this were an oil spill from a ship, I would be talking about worse-case scenarios and long-term effects. But, frankly, it is hard to know what to say when the spill goes on and on with no certainty at all.

To view a live video feed of the oil spill, go to BP’s web cam mounted on a remotely operated vehicle.

Official sources of information:

Deepwater Horizon Unified Command

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration

NOAA Fishery Closure Information

EPA Response to BP Oil Spill

Other valuable links can be found on a website for Gulf of Mexico Sea Grant Programs

Last, but not least, I am learning a good deal from bloggers who are part of the UC Davis Oiled Wildlife Care Network. They are working in the Gulf and providing an insider’s view about their work with affected wildlife.

Pelicans fly past a nest of eggs on an island off the the coast of Louisiana on Saturday. The island, home to hundreds of brown pelican nests, is being impacted by oil coming ashore.
AP Photo by Gerald Herbert

Ecology tests oil-spill readiness in Puget Sound

Washington state officials were wondering if spill responders would be ready for an oil spill in Puget Sound this week, given that 26 of the most knowledgeable contract employees had been sent to assist in the Gulf of Mexico.

So officials with the Washington Department of Ecology announced a surprise drill today, calling on Marine Spill Response Corporation and its subcontractors to respond to six pretend spills all at the same time.

“This was the first time we have ever been involved in a simultaneous unannounced drill in multiple locations,” said Curt Hart, media relations manager for Ecology’s spill program.

“It went very well,” Curt told me. “What we can say is that we have not lost any readiness in Washington. But nothing is perfect. There will be lessons to learn from every (spill exercise.)”

MSRC serves as the response contractor for 20 regulated oil-handling and shipping companies in Washington state. With 26 top-level people gone from MSRC in this region, much the responsibility fell to Global Diving and Salvage, a company that normally get assignments for specific tasks. In this case, Global officials played a key role in calling the shots.

Ecology had been stressing to MSRC that the company should send people to help in the Gulf but not if it had to reduce its response in Puget Sound. Today’s exercise tested that agreement, including the capabilities of Global as it “backfilled” for MSRC.

Hart seemed pleased with the outcome. First-level responders and their equipment were generally ready at the terminals where the simulated spills took place, and additional equipment was called into play.

The locations of the simulated spills were in Anacortes, Bellingham, Port Angeles, Seattle and Tacoma, with Neah Bay added at the last minute. The drill ultimately called out 16 vessels and 41 personnel. The drill tested communications and equipment.

“We held their feet to the fire,” Hart told me.

While today’s simultaneous exercise was a first, another 50 drills are scheduled through the rest of the year to test all aspects of the industry’s oil-spill contingency plans, according to Hart.

In addition to the drills, Ecology inspectors have conducted 23 inspections this year to make sure equipment is available and ready, he said.

With 22 billion gallons of oil transferred across Puget Sound each year, the risks of a spill are very real, Curt said, despite an extensive prevention program, which includes placing boom around ships during oil transfers whenever practical.

Ecology is maintaining a list of equipment and personnel requested or deployed in the Gulf oil spill.

State will provide cleanup resources to the Gulf

When Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano declared the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a matter of national significance, she essentially put on alert all emergency management systems across the country.

Washington Department of Ecology, which is responsible for responding to oil spills in this state, has identified resources the agency could send while maintaining an adequate local response capability, said Ecology’s Curt Hart in a memo he issued Monday to news reporters and editors.

Spill response companies in Washington and across the country are identifying people and resources that could be sent to the Gulf, he said.

Hart is communications manager for Ecology’s Spill Prevention, Preparedness, and Response Program. Here’s a portion of his memo:

Ecology expects to continue to receive requests for people and equipment from the spill response community to assist in the response. Our department is working to make sure we have a sound plan in place to process these requests. It is important that we are well coordinated in this effort and that no required response resources are moved out of Washington state without explicit approval.

Some, like the Marine Spill Response Corp., have already sent 26 experienced responders, 15,000 gallons of chemical dispersants used to minimize oil shoreline impacts, 1,400 feet of special fireproof boom to burn oil in place on the water.

On Friday, April 30, the Department of Homeland Security asked state agencies in Washington, including Ecology, what resources they could send to aid our Gulf coast communities if and when it becomes necessary.

This type of issue is not new to Ecology. We have had mutual aid plans in place with the other west coast states and the Province of British Columbia since 1993. It is our general policy to provide the appropriate resources necessary to support our partners in the United States and Canada in order to protect our national environmental and economic interest. We may also need their help in return someday.

Ecology and other state agencies are participating in the state Department of Military Emergency Management Division’s “Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC)” activation. EMAC is a national interstate mutual aid agreement that enables states to share resources during times of disaster. We have identified the types and number of resources that we could send while still maintaining our local response capability.

Ecology has set up a website for those who want to follow Washington state’s response to the Gulf oil spill.

In addition to private responders, Ecology has indicated that it could send 11 specialists in oil spills and natural resources and 27 shoreline cleanup technicians, according to an Associated Press story by George Tibbits.

It is likely that the cleanup will go on for months. In previous oil-spill cleanups, workers who come later to relieve the first responders are invaluable — and that may be when the most workers from the West Coast are called in.