The massive gush of oil spilling from the site of the rig that exploded last week exceeds the worst-case scenario predicted by oil giant BP when it filed its exploration plan with the government. The scale of the disaster is also having political repercussions, putting lawmakers who support offshore drilling on the defensive.
Yesterday, the estimated size of the spill quintupled to over 210,000 gallons a day. In BP’s exploration plan, which allowed it to avoid filing a more detailed site-specific plan, the company outlined a worst-case scenario of 162,000 gallons a day.
In addition, the federal agency with oversight of offshore drilling, the Interior Department’s Minerals and Management Service did not require BP to file a “scenario for potential blowout,” referring to the sudden release of oil from a well.
According to the exploration plan obtained by Huffington Post, an MMS official certified that BP “has the capacity to respond, to the maximum extent practicable, to a worst-case discharge, or a substantial threat of such a discharge.”
But after the explosion, the scale of the accident required BP to get assistance from the Coast Guard, other federal agencies and other oil companies such as Shell, which is sending half a dozen vessels to help with the clean-up effort.
Spokespersons for BP and MMS did not return calls for comment.
Since the explosion, during which 11 workers were thrown overboard and are presumed dead, federal officials and members of Congress have launched several investigations into the incident and the role of BP and drilling contractor TransOcean.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, a longtime supporter of offshore oil drilling, has called for a full investigation into the incident.
But in recent days, she has preached caution. Landrieu says that the incident should “not be used inappropriately” to halt President Obama’s recent push for expansion of offshore drilling.
“Both advocates and critics of offshore drilling have recognized the significance of this tragedy… we cannot stop energy production in our country because of this incident,” Ms. Landrieu said.
In two previous congressional hearings, Landrieu minimized the chance of such a massive accident occurring on an offshore oil rig and also minimized the impact of any oil spill, saying it would hardly fill one-third of the reflecting pool outside of the Capitol.
At a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last November to discuss the environmental impact of offshore oil drilling, Landrieu dismissed concerns about the chances of a blowout — which occurred off the coast of Australia last August — happening in the Gulf of Mexico:
You said it was the largest spill in Australia’s history. It’s true. It leaked 823,000 gallons of oil. As Mr. Cruickshank testified, it wouldn’t even be allowed in this country because it doesn’t stand up to our strict environmental rules.
But let’s say we had messed up and allowed it to produce oil off of our shores, it would be one-third of the amount necessary to fill the Reflecting Pool outside of this Capitol. It’s the largest spill in the history of Australia. It’s a pretty long history. The rig that blew didn’t meet our standards but if we had it slip through and we had allowed it to drill, the oil that spilled would fill up a third of the Reflecting Pool.
At a hearing last month held by the same committee to discuss drilling, Landrieu repeated her line about the reflecting pool, adding:
I mean, just the gallons are so minuscule compared to the benefits of U.S. strength and security, the benefits of job creation and energy security. So while there are risks associated with everything, I think you understand that they are quite, quite minimal.
HuffPost asked Landrieu whether she still stands by her comments and whether she supports new safety regulations proposed by the federal agency that oversees offshore drilling, which are opposed by the oil industry, as first reported by HuffPost on Monday.
In response, the senator’s office said she does support MMS’s proposed safety rules and issued this statement:
Senator Landrieu has been very supportive of Secretary Salazar and believes that the MMS and the Coast Guard have generally been good stewards of human safety with respect to the oil and gas industry. The Senator has said repeatedly that what happened in the Gulf last week is a tragedy and should be fully investigated to find out what went wrong and how it can be prevented in the future.
But she also firmly believes that this accident should not be used as an excuse to abandon plans to make America more energy secure.
Consider the alternative: to stop all domestic offshore drilling. That would only export America’s oil and gas production activities — and the attendant jobs that go with it — overseas to countries that have neither the will, nor the resources, to address the environmental impacts.
Even with the development of alternative energy sources, the United States will still need oil into the foreseeable future. With no offshore domestic production, that oil would be tankered from overseas into the United States. The one thing we do know is that such a policy would do nothing to protect our shores. In fact, the National Academies of Science has found that while drilling and extraction account for less than 1 percent of all the oil that enters the marine environment, tankering accounts for four times that much.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a longtime supporter of drilling offshore and in her state, will hold a hearing next week on federal Outer Continental Shelf development plans:
“As we look to expand exploration off our nation’s coasts, it’s critical that we take every possible precaution to guard against similar accidents,” Murkowski said. “It’s imperative that we find out everything we can about what went wrong on the Horizon.”