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Triennial International Oil Spill Conference: The Worldwide Oil Industry Response to the BP Oil Spill

Last April Mike Rosen, organizer of the PDX 2 Gulf Coast project, attended the 21st Triennial International Oil Spill Conference 2011 in Portland Oregon.  Here is what he observed.

Anyone who is still skeptical that the 200 million gallons of oil carelessly released into the Gulf of Mexico during spring/summer of 2010 has magically disappeared and left one of the world’s most productive fisheries unscathed, would have wanted to attend the world’s foremost conference “on the ‘science’ of oil spill response,” in Portland in April.  Beginning the fifth decade of discussion among the world’s leading scientists, government regulators and the oil industry’s highest paid cheerleaders, the International Oil Spill Conference (IOSC) 2011 seemed to be the place to discover whatever lasting truths and new thinking resulted from the largest oil spill in US history.

Just after the leak was stopped I spent 10 days on the Gulf Coast with a team of 22 Portlanders seeking to acquire first hand knowledge of the impacts of the BP oil spill.  Needless to say we left with a lot of unanswered questions.  Given that, I was very interested to see what thousands of participants from dozens of countries, and 4 days of workshops and scientific seminars, could tell me about where things stand in the Gulf.  In particular I was searching for answers to the questions:

1.  Were the methods used to respond to the spill effective, understood, and safe?

2.  What were the primary “lessons learned” from this catastrophe?

Let’s start with the latter.

Every one of the lead conference speakers insisted that during the catastrophe the press and the public information demands were overwhelming, the public was not adequately educated in the science and practice of oil spill response, and that without immediate, understandable and credible information, the public concluded the worst.  And, these speakers were the “heavy hitters”, the ones who lead us into battle against a spill of previously unimaginable size — Adm. Thad Allen, US Coast Guard Retired (National Incident Commander for the spill), Juliette Kayyem, Obama’s former Assistant Secretary for Homeland Security (responsible for coordination and planning during the spill), Bob Perciasepe, Deputy Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and, Dr. Larry Robinson, Assistant Secretary of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). As Kayyem noted, there was an insatiable appetite for information with everyone asking questions and no one coordinating the answers. That said, you’d think the conference program committee, which included representatives of each federal bureau that responded to the spill, would welcome public inquiry and even extensive press participation at the IOSC.  Clearly this was a unique opportunity to begin the oil spill education process called for by so many.  Unfortunately the opportunity was squandered.

While the conference program committee included government representatives, the American Petroleum Institute (API) ran the conference and two days before it began, Eric Wohlschlegel, API’s press officer, informed me that attendance to all conference panels and workshops had to be pre-approved.  Wolhschlegel maintained that “some sessions” were closed to the press to ensure “an open exchange of ideas among conference attendees.”  Over 4 days, 114 technical presentations and 9 half-day science workshops were held.  I requested to attend 12 seminars and one half-day workshop and I was barred from every one.  Later, and minutes before the conference started, I was told that if I paid $800, on the spot, I would be able to attend any and all sessions.  As a result, I attended the opening and closing sessions, a short presentation of poster summaries of research (over 100 in all), and “wandered” into one technical presentation.

Even with severely limited access there was information that could be gathered regarding the use of chemical dispersants.   An unprecedented 2 million gallons of Corexit was used at the ocean’s surface and a mile below, to protect Gulf beaches and marshes from the 200 million gallons of oil released.  So, was the primary method used to combat the oil effective, understood and safe?  Admiral Allen told us, “I would not change one decision I made regarding dispersants.”  That may make sense because regulatory and oil industry leaders consistently asserted that as a result of this strategy a mere fraction of the oil released reached shore.  But what is the fate of and impact from the hundred million gallons of oil/Corexit mixture spread throughout the ocean?

Consider that the President’s Oil Spill Commission concluded in their October 2011 report that the government, “was not prepared for the use of dispersants” because federal agencies did not possess the scientific information needed to guide their choices.  When I questioned Charlie Henry, NOAA’s lead, on-scene scientist in charge of the Gulf spill response, I was assured the use of Corexit was safe and scientifically justified.  After all, recent studies in Norway showed how dispersants reacted with oil in deep water environments, and even if residual oil and dispersant cocktail remained at great depths, Henry maintained that there is no life down there anyway.  I admit to feeling somewhat assured, but only until I spoke with Eileen Graham, a biologist who works for Applied Science Associates, Inc.  ASA presented a poster on their study of the movement of dispersed oil in the deep ocean environment.  Eileen and her colleague maintained that only one test was performed in Norway (11 years ago) and it was not conclusive.  Further, they asserted that there is life in the deep ocean that very likely came in contact with the dispersant/oil mixture.  ASA is even studying the biological activity in the Gulf from the surface to the ocean floor because their client is preparing to sue BP for environmental damages under the Natural Resource Damage Assessment rules of the 1990 Oil Prevention Act.  And, ASA’s client is NOAA.

Later in the conference, Dr. Kenneth Lee, of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, presented the paper, “Toxicity Effects of Chemically-Dispersed Crude Oil on Fish.”  Dr. Lee has undertaken extensive study of the impacts to fish when dispersants are applied to surface oil releases.  Dr. Lee’s work is preliminary but shows some toxicity to fish.  When I asked how this research could apply to the deepwater application of Corexit in the Gulf, Dr. Lee replied that further study was needed on species inhabiting the areas of the ocean impacted by the release and monitoring needs to occur during a spill.

So where should government and industry go from here?  Well, instead of incessantly bemoaning their common belief that they are the victims of the public’s ignorance and the press’s misrepresentation, they ought to use major events like the IOSC to share rather than hoard their knowledge.  And, the government at all levels of involvement, needs to own up to the uncertainty of the decisions it made (or let BP make) in response to the spill and aggressively demand research that closes gaps in information.  Most people understand that in emergencies, making the best decisions you can in the little time that you have is unsettling but necessary.  But what I, and others, reject is the notion that not learning how respond more safely when catastrophe strikes again is acceptable.

An edited version of this article appeared as an opinion piece in the “My Turn” section of the April 2011 Portland Tribune





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