The U.S. government has studied the longest oil spill in history — 14 years after the leak began

The Washington Post
June 24, 2019

By Darryl Fears

The federal government’s first study of the nearly 15-year-long oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico estimates that up to 108 barrels per day — more than 4,500 gallons — is flowing from a site where an oil company’s platform and wells were destroyed during a hurricane.

Monday’s report, by two scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a Florida State University professor, joined several others in disputing the company’s claim that only one drop of oil per minute is being released from a small area covered in mud, amounting to less than three gallons each day.

“The results of this study contradict these conclusions by the Taylor Energy Company,” the authors said. The government’s findings also differ from those of three studies last year that said the flow of oil from the site was substantially higher.

Geoscientist Oscar Garcia-Pineda estimated that between 250 and 700 barrels per day — up to 29,000 gallons — are flowing into the gulf. University of South Florida marine scientist Shaojie Sun determined that between 50 and 1,700 barrels per day — up to 71,400 gallons — poured from the site.

Even one of the federal report’s authors — Ian MacDonald, the Florida State professor — estimated that nearly 150 barrels, about 6,300 gallons, spilled from the site that Taylor Energy once leased in an underwater canyon 12 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The other authors were NOAA scientists Andrew L. Mason and J. Christopher Taylor.

In an interview, Mason and Taylor said they were approached by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, a division of the Interior Department, to conduct an independent government assessment of oil flowing from the site.

The study concludes that the oil and gas releases at the site are coming from multiple wells, contradicting Taylor Energy’s explanation that it’s rising from oil-soaked sediment.

The next step, according to a NOAA statement that announced the study, is to conduct a Natural Resource Damage Assessment that “assesses injuries to natural resources and then determines the best methods to rehabilitate, replace” the benefits those resources provided.

NOAA and its federal partners are in the early stages of the process to assess damages “to determine if public natural resources have been harmed by the oil and gas release.” An assessment of harm related to the BP oil spill in 2010 led to fines.

Hurricane Ivan caused 80-foot waves that led to the walls of the canyon giving way, resulting in a mudslide that chopped down Taylor Energy’s oil platform in 2004. The event buried the broken wells under more than 100 feet of sediment.

According to early federal estimates, the sediment is saturated with 97,000 to 346,000 gallons of oil.

Although the company called the event an “act of God” that was unprecedented, the study said a similar event happened during Hurricane Camille in 1969. Eleven years later, a report commissioned by the Interior Department identified areas in the gulf that were susceptible to mudslides. Mississippi Canyon 20, the site of Taylor Energy’s platform, was one of those areas.

Asked why it took the bureau more than 14 years to commission the study of a spill that started in 2004, Mason and Taylor said they did not know and could not speak on the bureau’s behalf.

Normally this type of assessment takes at least two years, but the bureau wanted it done in less than one, Mason said. So for seven days starting Sept. 1, the three scientists focused solely on studying the oil and not its effects on marine life and the environment.

They used two methodologies and two devices to measure oil bubbling out of a pit created by the disaster, where a tangle of pipes and Taylor Energy’s 28 wells are still releasing crude.

A new device called a bubblometer allowed them to film and count oil and gas coming out of the pit. An acoustic device allowed them to estimate the flux rate of oil and gas plumes rising from the ocean floor.

Based on the acoustic survey, the scientists estimated that nine to 47 barrels of oil per day — up to 1,974 gallons — were rising out of the erosion pit in 450 feet of water. But according to the bubblometer, 19 to 108 barrels per day were pouring from the site.

Mason called the estimates conservative because they could not account for smaller eruptions of oil that took place beyond the scope of their investigation. Mason and Taylor said there were micro pits within the larger pit that emitted oil and gas.

In their report, Mason, Taylor and MacDonald noted that all estimates “were higher than the amounts reported by Taylor Energy Company.” Because of the persistent oil sheen and gas plumes, the scientists wrote, a government analysis was needed to complement previous observations. Taylor Energy has disputed every outside assessment of oil flowing from the site.

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