Truth and lies in oil-skimming statistics

By Felix Salmon
July 6, 2010
Kimberly Kindy has an excellent and very sobering report on the monstrous discrepancies between the various numbers being bandied around when it comes to the amount of oil that BP is able to skim off the Gulf of Mexico every day.

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Kimberly Kindy has an excellent and very sobering report on the monstrous discrepancies between the various numbers being bandied around when it comes to the amount of oil that BP is able to skim off the Gulf of Mexico every day.

As commenter hsvkitty points out, BP only got the permits to start drilling at the Deepwater Horizon site in the first place because the Minerals Management Service believed their statement that they “could recover 197 percent of the daily discharge from an uncontrolled blowout of 250,000 barrels per day”: a March report from BP said that it had the capacity to skim and remove 491,721 barrels of oil per day.

Even after the explosion, BP was still insisting that it had “skimming capacity of more than 171,000 barrels per day, with more available if needed.”

So far, it has managed to skim less than 900 barrels per day. Add burn-offs, and you get to just over 300,000 barrels in total, over 77 days — that’s less than 4,000 barrels per day.

BP’s reaction to being massively wrong, by a factor of over 100, is to grab onto the biggest numbers it can find — to try, in other words, to deal with the optics, rather than the reality. Take the much-vaunted super-skimmer, for instance. Some reports say that it “can collect up to half a million barrels of oil a day”, but it’s much more accurate to say that it can theoretically collect that many barrels of contaminated water, which is only about 10% oil. And, as Kindy drily notes, “thus far, it has been unable to produce those results in the gulf.”

BP knew full well that a blow-out at the Deepwater Horizon site would involve oil bubbling up to the surface from miles below sea level, rather than being spilled directly onto the surface from a tanker. But it never seemed to stop to think that much of the oil would never surface. BP also said that much of its skimming capacity would come from outsourcing skimming operations to Marine Spill Response — but BP never asked MSR whether they could hit its marks, and neither did MMS, when BP submitted its insanely overoptimistic numbers.

All of which is a sign of the knee-jerk credulity that most of us exhibit when faced with a large and seemingly highly accurate number. 491,721, you say? Well, that must be true — or at least in the ballpark.

It would be interesting to compare that number with other oil companies’ projections of their oil-skimming capacity in the Gulf. Their rigs haven’t exploded, of course, but what did they say they could skim off in the event that the unthinkable were to happen? In hindsight, it seems that any number over a few thousand barrels per day would clearly have been a massive overestimate. But of course the bigger the number submitted, the easier it was to get the necessary approvals. You can see why BP exaggerated so much, and why there would have been enormous incentives for its rivals to do likewise.


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and then there are the restrictive labor and environmental rules that exacerbated the situation.

You’d think that if your coastline was facing imminent doom, you would accept help from whoever was willing to provide it.

Posted by bryanX | Report as abusive

so when we learn that the numbers submitted were BS, what’s our ability to sue or criminally prosecute based on such lies?

Posted by milesk | Report as abusive

PS: my captcha was “British slyness” haha

Posted by milesk | Report as abusive

@milesk, I was wondering the same thing myself. After all, I am criminally liable if I file a false tax return. And “everyone else is doing it” hasn’t worked for me since the first grade.

I would think that it would be criminal charges against the corporation, rather than one or more individuals. However, when a corporate entity is involved, there is usually a bit of wiggle room, such as a deferred prosecution agreement. Ultimately, my guess is that even if it were possible, there is no appetite for bringing BP down.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

Seems like this would be another great piece of evidence for the criminal case (with unlimited liabilities on a per barrel basis) that the DoJ is building.

Posted by GregHao | Report as abusive

Also, “A Whale” was initially turned down by BP and the Coast Guard (hell, it was only hastily retrofitted in the Netherlands to perform this skimming duty.)

Posted by GregHao | Report as abusive

Come on Americans, this is your backyard!
This is an upward flow against gravity that pulls down. It can be stopped by some easy tricks on fluid dynamics using concepts of surface transport of particles. Bubbling flow upward can be clogged by high density objects coming down by gravity pull.

Instead of doing a junk shot with gulf balls and shredded tires they were supposed to put high density and sinking geometry to clog the well. We do it a lot in Soil Science and the Dust Bowl provides insights on surface transport of particles by erosion regarding detachment, transport, and deposition.

Hydrology is being curbed in the patenting affairs and technological development deeply missing now to solve simple problems like clogging a spilling well.

The use of golf balls in the junk shot is a clear evidence that the experts have no handle on deep Hydrology. I am not surprised since a sort of ‘scientific discovery’ in Hydrodynamics is being constantly violated by lay people as Patent Examiners, Patent Attorneys, and Scientists. Try to find any address of wick/wicking on Hydrology textbooks and you will see that this oil spill is something that could have been stopped on the day ONE if science were respected and honored.

This OIL SPILL is a consequence of a bunch of people pretending to be smart overstepping the boundaries of a classic science called HYDROLOGY.

Look at this. Mr. Obamas assigned Dr. Regina Benjamin 42 lbs overweight to take care of your health system. A person near obese in the health system that cannot help herself is going to provide Americans insights to shed weight and be healthy. This way Americans are becoming 85% obese by 2040.

I suggested Mr. Obama to resign because my advanced breakthrough ‘scientific discovery’ in Hydrodynamics is being violated by flawed patents that even do not work. Why to ignore science?

Just imagine if the well could be clogged in few hours by appropriate approach making gravity pull heavy objects downward on a bubbling upward flow with variable flow velocity due to the dragging effect of well casing.

The relief wells may not work as clay in the mud can only clog tiny pores but fail on cracks and fissures.

I believe this entire nightmare is preventable and consequence of a failing leadership you have.

How would I stop the spill?
Easily running some trials with a visible display employing translucent 22 in pipes with similar upward flow and check the dragging effect on many particle sizes and formats. The bubbling effect should increase fall by reducing the fluid density, as well as variable radial flow velocity which is higher in the center and lower around the containment case as a stationary surface.

When we start injecting the junk shot we know what to expect and change the particles sizes and formats as the velocity of spill reduces by the this downward effect from the falling particles. Lower and lower velocity suggests smaller and smaller particles until clay can be used to seal tiny pores inside the well lumen.

What am I charging for it?
I just want USPTO to stop violating my ‘scientific discovery’ US pat. 6,766,817 with flawed patents that even do not work shamefully harming and dishonoring HYDROLOGY. I got PhD at Penn State University and Bill Clinton was the speecher of my commencement on May 10, 1996.

CNN is controlling info by removing comments on its website. I am curious who takes advantages by this ongoing catastrophe.

Posted by Tubarc | Report as abusive

There was/is a lot of research completed, but like most things the cleanup was self regulatory and permits given at their word. MasterListofOSRRProjects.htm

Are other oil companies as wrecklass in their estimates? I hate to answer your question with a question… but here it is…

“Clueless and inept is really the only way to describe the ongoing situation at MMS,” said Mike Senatore, vice president for Conservation Law at Defenders of Wildlife.

“This agency is at the epicenter of the worst environmental disaster in our nation’s history and yet it’s still going about business as usual. How else do you explain MMS’s approval of the right to drill hundreds of new wells in the Gulf, including 13 for BP, based on the same fundamentally flawed and patently illegal environmental documents used to green-light the Deepwater Horizon operation?”

The most recent lease was handed out on June 10 and all over-state their capacity for clean up, hastily handed out to beat the moratorium.

Now that the MMS has been renamed “The New Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE) things are bound to get better. Right?

Posted by hsvkitty | Report as abusive

(oops reckless)

Posted by hsvkitty | Report as abusive

It’s hard to keep your foot on somone’s throat when you got your hands in their wallet ..

Posted by Woltmann | Report as abusive

A huge boodoogle by the Obama admin and BP. There are many good and better solutions that be implemented by the more experienced professionals, but BP has to save face and the Obama conies are too inept to make a difference.
This mess has turned into an colossal disaster. The worst part of it is we cannot fix it until Obama is removed from office.

Posted by EagleDriver | Report as abusive

I hear that BP shareholders are planning to sue the US gov bc BP did not use the safety equipment which was developed after the 1988 Piper Alpha explosion (google it), which is mandatory in most of the world. The US gov standards are lax and thus caused the spill, wiping out shareholder value, so they are seeking compensation… makes sense….?

Posted by GA_Chris | Report as abusive

In this deregulated world of ours, there’s a whole lot of skimming going on. Just not much of it actually helping clean up carelessly spilled oil, or any of the other greasy lubricants of inhumane unkindness.

Truth is, things won’t get a whole lot better until guys in expensive suits can be reduced to tears over every last drop of milken spillage they have wrought.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

Spill response plans are designed to fail because they emphasize the amount of oil that can be pumped rather than the amount of area that can be covered by skimming systems. Spills spread very quickly to a very thin average oil layer, much less than 1 mm average thickness, so the real problem is concentrating the oil so the it can be recovered faster than it spreads. Regulators must first account for the spreading of spills in high currents and severe weather and only then approve the skimming systems that can reliably and quickly cover the large areas predicted by spill dispersion models. There are fast skimmers that can be configured to safely operate in high seas but they are not used because regulators only calculate the theoretical oil pumping rate when approving response plans. For example, BP claimed its skimmers could recover 491,000 bbl/day but they actually recovered less than 900 bbl/day, more than 545 times less than claimed. Once the industry is compelled to use the ASTM F1780-97 methodology or the NOAA Mechanical Equipment Calculator, that factor in the area that can be covered by skimming systems, we’ll have a much more effective spill response capability.

Posted by lakosh | Report as abusive

GA_Chris is correect.
BP has been denied by US companies to use Piper Alpha and later equipment. The US companies use existing laws to block assistance.

To skim and recover 500 000 bbl per day would be a huge operation – that is a new VLCC (tanker) every 4 day. But, remove the drilling turret on a FPSO, and you have the device – of course, not invented in the “land of the brave”. The recovery will be easy, waves here never exceed 10m / 30 feet. What to do with the recovered crude remains to be addressed, because a refinery cannot take it since the condensates will have evaporated.

There has been a similar disaster further south. PDVSA in Venezuela lost an oil rig on one of their (wet-gas) fields. But with safety regulations in place, identical to the North Sea, not a pint was spilled, nobody was killed – but the rig sank.

Just as when a person is about to drown at sea, he should not deny help because “I only want to be saved by Pamela Anderson as in Baywatch”. When you drown – your relatives have no sympathy here (or anywhere else). They will admit that silliness killed you. The same is the law in the Mexican Gulf: deny help and do not blame anyone later.

Posted by knut | Report as abusive

BP and USCG have been employing an “Out-of-Sight, Out-of-Mind” strategy with the excessive use of dispersants and media control and restriction.

The National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan, more commonly called NCP, is the federal government’s blueprint for responding to both oil spills and hazardous substance releases.

Pursuant to NCP Section 300.310, “As appropriate, actions shall be taken to recover the oil or mitigate its effects. Of the numerous chemical or physical methods that may be used, the chosen methods shall be the most consistent with protecting public health and welfare and the environment. Sinking agents shall not be used.”

Sinking agents means those additives applied to oil discharges to sink floating pollutants below the water surface.

The question is whether BP’s dispersants are “sinking agents” when they are applied a mile underwater at the source of the well leak.

BP and USCG are knowingly and systematically underestimating the size of the spill to limit the financial impact on the oil company. Under the CWA, the company faces fines of up to $4,300 for each barrel spilled. Furthermore, pursuant to Section 2702 of OPA 90, BP may be required to pay royalties (18.75%) owed to the federal government for the oil gushing from the well.

For a clear understanding of the issues involved, visit: 0/06/14/why-bp-does-not-want-an-accurate -measurement-of-the-gulf-oil-spill/

Posted by BrianJDonovan | Report as abusive

Collection of the BP oil spill has never been a “skimming” operation. This “spill” is a gusher of oil being released from the seafloor, approximately one-mile below the sea surface. USCG is using conventional skimmers, boom and dispersants normally deployed for inland waterway surface oil spills.

BP and USCG will eventually use tankers to collect the oil that has been released into the Gulf of Mexico as a result of the Deepwater Horizon blowout of April 20, 2010. Unfortunately, this decision will be made after the devastation of many coastal communities.

The blowout of April 20, 2010 aboard the Deepwater Horizon was clearly preventable. The fact that the BP oil spill has been allowed to reach coastal areas is inexcusable.

For a clear understanding of the issues involved, visit:  /bp-is-not-the-only-responsible-party/

and 0/06/05/the-oil-pollution-act-provides-f or-the-federalization-of-the-bp-oil-spil l/

and 0/06/14/why-bp-does-not-want-an-accurate -measurement-of-the-gulf-oil-spill/

Posted by BrianJDonovan | Report as abusive