Big oil plans for cleanup after frequent spills

11/14/13 Janelle Irwin
WMNF Drive-Time News Thursday | Listen to this entire show:
Tags: BP, oil spill, Deepwater Horizon, environment, drilling, Oil, fossil fuels, Gulf of Mexico

Oil industry professionals are learning about new technologies for spill prevention and response. A conference hosting big oil and companies that respond to spills is going on at the Tampa Convention Center this week.

The hundreds of people attending the three-day conference are also taking it as an opportunity to network with other companies. Gwen Keenan is the director of emergency response for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

“There’s a very robust and mature process for oil spill response that actually grew from the Exxon-Valdese incident. So, it kind of brings us together to review all those plans and processes, probably more importantly, it builds the relationships between the people that respond in crisis and if you spend any time in the emergency management community, people always say that the time to exchange business cards is not in the middle of a disaster.”

An outsider walking into one of the many sessions would need a sizable manual to navigate the alphabet soup that is the oil industry. There’s NRDA – the letters N, R, D, A which stand for National Resource Damage Assessment. Oil Spill Response is OSR. Then there’s BSSE, or Bessie – that’s the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. That group, along with many others, partners with state and local groups to develop plans for oil spill mitigation. Keenan said having local stakeholders contribute to response plans helps make sure that the unique needs of different areas are met.

“…so that if there was ever a spill in any geographic area throughout Florida, there is a pre-made plan for the priority. The boom would be set and the protective actions that would be taken to try to prevent damage to the environment.”

Florida doesn’t have drilling in state waters, but that doesn’t keep the state safe from impacts of spills from other rigs. States that do have offshore drilling, like Texas and Louisiana are required to have action plans just in case and Keenan said Florida still gets to have a seat at the table when those contingencies are put together.

“So, we get the opportunity to look at those to ensure that we think that their plan is adequate, to make sure that they address environmental concerns we have whether it’s sensitive off shore fishing areas, reefs, protected species.”

As all five Gulf Coast states gear up to collect their portion of money allocated as a result of the 2010 BP oil spill, that disaster remains the most prominent example of what can go wrong. Thursday the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation announced the five states are getting $113 million as the first chunk of $2.5 billion that BP and Transocean were fined as a result of criminal pleas. Florida is getting nearly $15.7 million toward projects like Apalachicola Bay oyster restoration, eliminating light pollution on sea turtle nesting beaches and recovery of Gulf fisheries. But it’s not just large spills that attract media attention that have to be addressed. During an early morning session updating industry leaders on what’s going on in the oil world, representatives from each Gulf state had at least one example of an ongoing cleanup effort. Jonathan Henderson is with the Gulf Restoration Network. His job is to look for and report new spills. During a phone interview this week, he said every time he’s been out looking, he’s found something.

“There’s a platform that sank during Hurricane Ivan in 2004 owned by Taylor Energy Co. that had several wells connected to it and the storm completely destroyed the platform, sank it to the sea floor and the wells are still leaking to this day. You could go over there right now just off the coast of Louisiana and you’ll see an oil sheen that’s been going on since 2004 and it’s not tiny.”

The Florida DEP’s Keenan said smaller spills, mostly on land, are what her agency spends the most time on – their bread and butter she called it. But hers isn’t the only group that tends to spills. The Coast Guard does. So too does the EPA. And, of course the company responsible for the spill is required to foot the bill and make sure to clean up their messes. But she said some oil mystery spills are harder to take care of.

“We do track those and if there’s one that, you know, we’ll see a small sheen, but you can’t track it down to a source, but it’s repetitive in an area, that would lead us to indicate potentially a submerged tank or something. We’ll pursue that to the best of our ability to see if we can find whether it’s an abandoned drum and then we’ll go through the appropriate processes to try to remove it.”

Workers with oil spill response teams are also getting updates on the use of dispersants. Thursday a group of about 60 industry leaders looked at using the chemicals under water at the source of an oil leak. The chemicals break up oil to avoid large slicks on the surface of the water. But critics worry about the impacts of the chemicals on marine ecosystems. Gulf Restoration Network’s Henderson said his group along with several others filed a lawsuit in 2011 that is still pending asking for new rules testing dispersants for their safety in various different geographical locations.

“All of the different types of dispersants that are on the list that could be potentially used in the Gulf or in any other federal water bodies need to be tested to see what effects they will have on the environment and marine animals and that hasn’t been done so that’s why this lawsuit is very, very important.”

Keenan, with the DEP, said her agency has not done any testing like Henderson described, but other groups have. The American Petroleum Institute is getting ready to launch their own research on the effects of dispersants. So far what they’ve found is that by using the chemical under water, it allows the solvent portion of the mixture to be reduced. Industry researchers claim that makes the dispersant less toxic. Even still, Keenan said there is a vetting process that takes place before a company can use dispersants.

“I know that as an agency that we are very sensitive about when we would use them and it’s always a consideration that they would only be used when the potential damage of incoming pollutant is higher than the potential threat for the applied dispersant.”

The conference is also hosting some international stakeholders from Caribbean nations and even Cuba to look at how to partner with other countries that also share the Gulf. Cuba has been sinking exploratory wells looking for oil in its waters. Keenan said that push and others like it have rallied international collaboration.

“I think it’s a very robust process. There’s always opportunities to improve, but I think the continuous expansion into deeper water exploration and drilling has really brought the overall oil spill response community into much closer working relationships both nationally and internationally.”

Other sessions during the conference addressed responding to wildlife in a spill scenario, well containment and regulatory challenges in the community. The Clean Gulf Conference is held annually. It will be in San Antonio, Texas next December.

information from the Associated Press was used in this report

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