Tag Archives: oil spills

Rivers of Crude Oil: the poisoned land of Iraq

A biological remediation pilot project seeking to enhance nature’s own ability to clear up oil spills in Iraq’s conflict-affected areas has been launched in Kirkuk, Iraq…This UNEP initiative seeks to harness naturally occurring soil bacteria as a powerful natural ally to decontaminate poisoned land.  Over three years ago in summer 2016, the residents of Qayyarah—a small town of around 25,000 people, some 60 km south of Mosul—were caught in the line of fire as so-called Islamic State fighters torched nineteen nearby oil wells. So thick were the clouds of smoke, that people could not distinguish day from night for weeks in what infamously came to be known as the “Daesh winter”.  Rivers of crude oil flowed through Qayyarah’s streets and into seasonal wadis as oil wells spewed tens of thousands of barrels of oil relentlessly for months. The specter of an even worse environmental catastrophe was heightened as the oil slick migrated to less than three kilometers from the Tigris River, Iraq’s water lifeline.

Following an epic battle to control the oil fires that took nearly a year, North Oil Company, which manages the oil fields of northern Iraq, is currently collecting an estimated 20,000 tonnes of remaining oil waste in Qayyarah into around a dozen large pits.  Progress, however, has been slow and pools of heavy viscous oil remain on the doorsteps of entire neighborhoods and households, who complain about the impacts of noxious fumes on their children’s health.

“In some places, the layer of heavy oil is two to three meters thick, and long stretches of wadi channels are now effectively tarmac roads on which cars can be driven,” observed Mohammed Dawood, head of Qayarrah oil refinery’s environmental unit. Furthermore, Environment Ministry officials expressed concern that exceptionally heavy rains and flash floods of the 2018/19 winter season washed out oil from the holding pits into the Tigris River.

While oil production restarted in Qayyarah immediately after the conflict ended in June 2017, reaching currently an estimated 40,000 barrels per day, little has been done to clean up the conflict’s toxic aftermath… The UN Environment Programme in collaboration with the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq delivered a four-day hands-on training workshop on remediation of oil spills by the use of bacteria  in September 2019. “By adding nutrients from manure, bulking agents like wood chips and water, we are simply creating the ideal conditions for bacteria to thrive and speeding up the natural process of breaking down the oil,”

Excerpts from  Microbes offer hope of cleaning up Iraq conflict’s pollution legacy, UNEP Press Release, Oct. 23, 2019

How Companies Buy Social License: the ExxonMobil Example

The Mobil Foundation sought to use its tax-exempt grants to shape American laws and regulations on issues ranging from the climate crisis to toxic chemicals – with the explicit goal of benefiting Mobil, documents obtained by the Guardian newspaper show.  Recipients of Mobil Foundation grants included Ivy League universities, branches of the National Academies and well-known civic organizations and environmental researchers.  Benefits for Mobil included – in the foundation’s words – funding “a counterpoint to so-called ‘public interest’ groups”, helping Mobil obtain “early access” to scientific research, and offering the oil giant’s executives a forum to “challenge the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) behind-the-scenes”….

A third page reveals Mobil Foundation’s efforts to expand its audience inside environmental circles via a grant for the Environmental Law Institute, a half-century-old organization offering environmental law research and education to lawyers and judges.  “Institute publications are widely read in the environmental community and are helpful in communicating industry’s concerns to such organizations,” the entry says. “Mobil Foundation grants will enhance environmental organizations’ views of Mobil, enable us to reach through ELI activities many groups that we do not communicate with, and enable Mobil to participate in their dialogue groups.”

The documents also show Mobil Foundation closely examining the work of individual researchers at dozens of colleges and universities as they made their funding decisions, listing ways that foundation grants would help shape research interests to benefit Mobil, help the company recruit future employees, or help combat environmental and safety regulations that Mobil considered costly.  “It should be a wake-up call for university leaders, because what it says is that fossil fuel funding is not free,” said Geoffrey Supran, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard and MIT.  “When you take it, you pay with your university’s social license,” Supran said. “You pay by helping facilitate these companies’ political and public relations tactics.”

In some cases, the foundation described how volunteer-staffed not-for-profits had saved Mobil money by doing work that would have otherwise been performed by Mobil’s paid staff, like cleaning birds coated in oil following a Mobil spill.  In 1987, the International Bird Rescue Research Center’s “rapid response and assistance to Mobil’s West Coast pipeline at a spill in Lebec, CA not only defused a potential public relations problem”, Mobil Foundation said, “but saved substantial costs by not requiring our department to fly cross country to respond”.d of trustees at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (recipient of listed donations totalling over $200,000 from Mobil) and a part of UN efforts to study climate change.

Wise ultimately co-authored two UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, serving as a lead author on one. One report chapter Wise co-authored prominently recommended, among other things, burning natural gas (an ExxonMobil product) instead of coal as a way to combat climate change.

Excerpts from How Mobil pushed its oil agenda through ‘charitable giving’, Guardian, June 12, 2019

The Pristine Waters of Alaska and Big Oil: Exxon Valdez

Thirty years ago this Sunday, at just after midnight on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez supertanker ran aground in Prince William Sound off the south coast of Alaska. No-one was hurt, but the ship’s hull was ruptured, and of the 1.26m barrels of crude on board about 258,000 spilled into the water. The National Transportation Safety Board inquiry found that the causes of the accident included the failure of the ship’s master to provide a proper navigation watch “because of impairment from alcohol”, as well as inadequate personnel training and deficient management oversight.

In terms of volume released, the spill does not make the list of the world’s largest, but it was one of the worst in US waters. The harm caused by a spill is also not a direct function of the quantity of oil: a release in the cool waters of Prince William Sound, where oil breaks down more slowly, could be more damaging than a larger volume in the Gulf of Mexico, where temperatures are warmer and there are more plentiful microbes that thrive on natural oil seeps. The location of the spill also added to its emotional impact: the pictures of the oil fouling the pristine waters of Alaska shocked the world.

Exxon Valdez Clean up

Even decades after the spill, there was still evidence of the oil visible on some of the beaches in the region. Exxon agreed to pay $900m for restoration to settle damages claims from the state and federal governments, and the work of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, which oversees the use of that money, goes on. The Pacific herring population in Prince William Sound has collapsed since the early 1990s, although it is not clear whether the spill was responsible, and other wildlife such as sea ottershave recovered.

For the oil industry, the disaster was transformative. Single-hulled tankers began to be phased out, to be replaced by safer double hulls, first in the US and then worldwide. The process was accelerated after the sinking of the tanker Erika off the coast of Brittany in 1999, an accident that was considered one of France’s worst environmental disasters.

For Exxon in particular, the Valdez spill prompted a fundamental rethink of its safety culture and practices. The company developed what is called its Operations Integrity Management System, a framework that “puts safety at the center of everything we do”. By the time that Rex Tillerson ran ExxonMobil, in 2006-16, the company could rightly boast of having a safety record that was admired across the industry, and its OIMS was widely emulated….But any employer’s highest duty is to make sure workers can do their jobs safely and go home at the end of the day, and on that measure Exxon has performed better than its peers. Any workplace death is one too many, of course, but over the past decade Exxon has suffered significantly fewer than other leading oil companies.

Excerpts from Ed Crooks,  The Exxon Valdez spill 30 years on, Financial Times, Mar. 22, 2019

Cleansing the Oil Tanker

The oil spill that hit the Fujairah coast on January 25, 2018 was the result of tankers illegally cleaning out their holds.  That is according to the general manager of Fujairah port (UAE), Capt Mousa Murad, who has called for 24-hour monitoring of ships to tackle the issue.  “The recent oil spills have been caused by tank cleaning by passing ships,” Capt Murad told The National on Tuesday.  “Especially when tankers change from [carrying] one product to another,” he said, implying that the spills are made up of residue cleaned from within the tanks.  He said the oil “comes from international waters and could hit Dibba, Fujairah or Khor Fakkan.”…

TankerTrackers.com, a pro-bono website that monitors the flow of oil at sea and investigates oil spills, previously suggested that January’s spill was caused by a ship-to-ship transfer.Ship-to-ship transfers happen when a smaller vessel supplies a larger one with oil and spills from overflow can happen through negligence or by accident.

Excerpts from Fujairah oil spill caused by tankers ‘illegally cleaning their holds’ , The National UAE Edition, Feb. 14, 2018

100 Years of Oil Leaks: Gulf of Mexico

A decade-old oil leak where an offshore platform toppled during a hurricane could continue spilling crude into the Gulf of Mexico for a century or more if left unchecked, according to government estimates obtained by The Associated Press that provide new details about the scope of the problem.  Taylor Energy Company, which owned the platform and a cluster of oil wells, has played down the extent and environmental impact of the leak. The company also maintains that nothing can be done to completely eliminate the chronic oil slicks that often stretch for miles off the coast of Louisiana….

Federal regulators suspect oil is still leaking from at least one of 25 wells that remain buried under mounds of sediment from an underwater mudslide triggered by waves whipped up by Hurricane Ivan in 2004….A Taylor contractor drilled new wells to intercept and plug nine wells deemed capable of leaking oil. But a company official has asserted that experts agree the “best course of action … is to not take any affirmative action” due to the risks of additional drilling…

The AP’s review of more than 2,300 Coast Guard pollution reports since 2008 showed a dramatic spike in sheen sizes and oil volumes since Sept. 1, 2014. That reported increase came just after federal regulators held a workshop August 2014 to improve the accuracy of Taylor’s slick estimates and started sending government observers on a Taylor contractor’s daily flights over the site.

Presented with AP’s findings, the Coast Guard provided a new leak estimate that is about 20 times greater than one recently touted by the company. In a February 2015 court filing, Taylor cited a year-old estimate that oil was leaking at a rate of less than 4 gallons per day.

A Coast Guard fact sheet says sheens as large as 1.5 miles wide and 14 miles long have been spotted by Taylor since the workshop. Since last September, the estimated daily volume of oil discharged from the site has ranged from roughly 42 gallons to 2,329 gallons, with a daily average of more than 84 gallons.,,, Based on satellite imagery and pollution reports, the watchdog group SkyTruth estimates between 300,000 and 1.4 million gallons have spilled from the site since 2004, with an annual average daily leak rate between 37 and 900 gallons.

Ken Arnold, an industry consultant, said natural oil seeps from cracks in the seabed can last for thousands of years. But he has never heard of another commercial oil spill lasting more than a decade, let alone a century.

In 2008, Taylor set aside hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for leak-related work as part of a trust agreement with the Interior Department. The company says it has spent tens of millions of dollars on its efforts to contain and halt the leak, but it hasn’t publicly disclosed how much money is left in the trust. The company sold all its offshore leases and oil and gas interests in 2008, four years after founder Patrick Taylor died, and is down to only one full-time employee.

Justice Department officials say the company approached the government concerning the trust fund, but they declined to discuss the terms of its proposal. Federal agencies responded that more work needed to be done, including installing a more effective containment dome system, and that the company remained responsible for doing that work, the officials said.

Oil leak that began after 2004 storm could last a century, U.S. says, Chicago Tribune, May 15, 2015

 

 

Crying over Spilled Oil; BP Deepwater Horizon

After the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in 2010, killing 11 workers and spewing a lake of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, BP knew it would be punished severely. So far, the British oil firm has set aside $42 billion to pay fines, compensate victims and clean up the mess. Of this, some $36 billion has already been paid out or earmarked. America has also temporarily barred the company from bidding for federal contracts.

In all, BP has shelled out $14 billion to stop the spill and restore the coast to the way it was. It has paid out or earmarked $17.5 billion to compensate individuals and small businesses, plus another $4 billion to settle criminal charges with the Department of Justice. It has also set aside $3.5 billion to pay penalties for oil leaks under America’s Clean Water Act.  These have yet to be determined. A civil trial, set to begin on February 25th in New Orleans, will apportion blame for the accident, determine how much oil gushed out and apply financial penalties. The federal government is demanding $21 billion in compensation for spilt oil. To get that much, it must prove BP was “grossly negligent”. It must also persuade the court to accept its estimate of the size of the leak, rather than

As if that were not enough, BP’s annual results, released on February 5th, harboured another nasty surprise. Tucked away on page 42 were details of hefty new claims against the oil giant. Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Louisiana are demanding $34 billion for economic losses and property damage. These mainly relate to tax revenues allegedly lost as a result of disruptions to businesses, says BP.  The oil giant knew that a bill was in the post: a three-year statute of limitations will soon expire. However, it was not expecting the bill to be so big. BP disputes the way the sum has been calculated and is ready to fight the claims in court. It reckons that the states will have a tough job substantiating their calculations of forgone taxes.

Both claims seem likely to be settled out of court…BP would far rather end the matter quickly and get on with its business. The uncertainty over the final bill is weighing down its share price. And its sheer size is daunting. If all the claims against it are upheld, BP’s total bill will amount to $90 billion or so. By way of comparison, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was ordered to pay reparations of $52 billion ($88 billion in today’s money) for invading Kuwait.

One reason why a settlement has proved elusive is that the case is so complex. It involves three pieces of legislation and several layers of federal, state and local government with precious little co-ordination between them. For example, BP notes that 11 tiny Louisiana parishes have made a separate claim for damage to local wildlife. BP’s woes are not over.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster: Spills and bills, Economist, Feb. 9, 2013, at 66