GULF SPILL:

BP delayed video feed necessary to determine extent of leak, NOAA chief says

The federal government has not been able to accurately estimate how much oil is leaking from the Gulf of Mexico spill because BP PLC had not provided high-quality video needed for the calculations, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said yesterday.

"Only a few days ago did we receive from BP videos of sufficient quality to make credible estimates of flow," the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency chief told the House Natural Resources Committee.

Asked after the hearing why it took BP so long to provide the video, Lubchenco said, "I can't answer that." But she added that the government "asked repeatedly" for the video. She also declined to answer questions about whether the government was disappointed with BP over the delay.

Lubchenco testified that she expects to have results available "very soon," after the calculations go through a rapid peer-review process. She clarified after the hearing that the estimates would be made public within two weeks.

Government and BP officials have said there are roughly 5,000 barrels leaking per day, but an increasing number of lawmakers and scientists have questioned the veracity of the estimate. Lubchenco said the estimate of 5,000 barrels was "based upon the best available information at the time."

The government has contracted with research institutions to bring their remote-operated vehicles to the Gulf, Lubchenco said, and NOAA had hoped one could be used to help determine the flow rate. But there was "legitimate concern" that it could get in the way of efforts to stop the leak, she said.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar testified yesterday that BP would have a "financial interest" in underestimating how much oil was leaking because of liability issues. Civil penalties allow companies to be fined up to $1,000 per barrel for a leak or up to $3,000 per barrel in cases of gross negligence. But Salazar said the company has been more focused on capping the leak.

BP spokesman David Nicholas noted that the government recently set up a task force to determine the oil flow. "Clearly we are providing information to that but that was set up fairly recently," he said.

"We've been working as part of the unified command involving both NOAA and the Coast Guard on the response to this incident right from day one," Nicholas added. "Throughout this our commitment has been to working as closely as we can with the agencies that are involved with us and to do all we can to assist them in their work."

Today, the Interior Department will submit to the White House its 30-day review of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and resulting spill. President Obama will deliver remarks about the findings and hold a press conference at 12:45 p.m. EDT.

"The president will talk a little bit about the Interior report and lay out some new thoughts on how to proceed on drilling," White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton said yesterday.

Loop current threat over

Oil from the massive spill is unlikely to reach Florida through the Loop Current, a powerful Gulf of Mexico flow that runs past the Florida Keys and up the Atlantic Seaboard, Lubchenco testified.

"We continue to track the small amount of oil that was entrained in the Loop Current late last week," she said. "Most of that surface oil is now caught in a counter-clockwise eddy on the northern side of the Loop Current. And because the top of the Loop Current has now pinched off, any oil that was in the Loop Current will most likely be retained in the Gulf and not routed to the Florida straight or the Gulf current."

Experts had worried that the current could bring oil into the Florida Keys and pose an environmental hazard, especially for coral reefs. But scientists last week said a large rotating cyclone of cold water was pushing into the southern body of the Loop Current and appeared likely to destabilize or even sever the current and the oil it contains from its connection to Florida (Greenwire, May 20).

Lack of government information

Lubchenco also acknowledged several areas where the government does not have enough information related to the oil spill.

Pressed by Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) about a lack of research on underwater oil plumes and chemical dispersants, Lubchenco agreed.

"I share your frustration that we have not as much information about the transport and impact of oil in the gulf as we should," she said.

But she also said NOAA mobilized its assets in the Gulf "pretty much immediately" to do needed sampling and is studying plumes "very aggressively" now.

Lubchenco also expressed concern over the total volume of dispersants that have been used. "We do not have any idea what the full consequences of that is," she said.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said BP should switch to a less-toxic dispersant than the kind they have been using and that the government must force their hand. Lubchenco said it is probably time to take "a good hard look" at the list of dispersants approved by U.S. EPA because it was never envisioned they would be used in such a large volume or below the surface. But she added that dispersants in general are less toxic than oil.

Endangered species

Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) questioned the government officials about media reports that the Minerals Management Service approved drilling without seeking the necessary permits for endangered species.

MMS Director Liz Birnbaum said her agency has consulted with the Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act and has a biological opinion for sperm whales that governs activities in the Gulf. But she said "informal consultation" with the agency indicated biological opinions were not needed for any other species.

Lubchenco said NOAA has provided general comments to MMS on its five-year drilling plans and related environmental assessments.

"I think it's fair to say that in our comments we have expressed concern about possible consequences of oil spill on species at risk," Lubchenco said. But she added that NOAA has not independently evaluated the risk or likelihood of a spill, instead using MMS information about that, and said it would "be appropriate to review" that policy.

A 2008 MMS rule change exempted many offshore projects from providing a detailed blowout scenario in their exploration plans because a massive spill was thought to be unlikely.

Asked whether NOAA recommendations are taken into account by MMS, Lubchenco said her agency submits comments as part of a formal process "when they are invited" but that there is no formal process for MMS to respond. When MMS prepared a five-year drilling plan, for example, NOAA provides comments that may or may not be incorporated into a decision, she added.

"We do not have any authority in this manner," Lubchenco said. "We simply are in a position of providing comments. ... In some cases it's pretty clear the comments have influenced a decision and changed things. In many cases they have not."

IG report

Acting Interior Inspector General Mary Kendall said her office is actively investigating the MMS role leading up to the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig. The IG is trying to determine whether there was any MMS contributing "action, inaction or conduct" that had an effect on the disaster, she added.

Kendall praised the Obama administration's plan to divide MMS into three agencies to separate its enforcement, leasing and royalty collection functions, saying it makes sense and is a "step in the right direction" but may not solve all problems with the agency.

Kendall also testified she is concerned about the environment in which MMS inspectors work and the ease with which they move between industry and government. She also expressed concern about the conduct of industry representatives and said the fact that they think it permissible to fraternize and provide gifts to federal employees despite intense media coverage of the practice "is hard to fathom."

The remarks came after an IG report said federal officials who oversaw drilling in the Gulf of Mexico accepted gifts from oil companies, viewed pornography at work and even considered themselves part of industry (Greenwire, May 25).

Kendall said media reports saying that MMS inspectors allowed industry officials to fill out forms were wrong. While MMS had gotten a tip that was happening, IG investigators did not find any such instances.

Atlantis rig

Birnbaum said MMS will not finish an investigation of another BP platform in the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantis, by the end of May as originally scheduled. The agency had to divert some resources from that investigation when the Deepwater Horizon exploded, she said.

But Birnbaum added that the preliminary investigation has found nothing that indicates a problem with engineering drawings or anything to suggest the rig needs to be shut down.

MMS is currently investigating the Atlantis platform after House Democrats in February called for a probe in light of a whistle-blower who in March 2009 said he believed BP did not have the required engineer-approved drawings for the Atlantis subsea components.

Earlier this month more than 25 House Democrats asked Interior to shut down the rig until the investigation shows whether it is operating safely.