Deepwater Horizon Could Result in 2nd Largest Oil Spill in History

Sometime within the next two weeks the free-flowing Deepwater Horizon well could surpass the second largest oil spill in history. Indeed, if we assume the highest independently measured estimates of the leak's flow rate, Deepwater Horizon may have already released 84% of the total petroleum that was dumped into the Gulf of Mexico by the Ixtoc I, a similar rig blow-out that occurred in 1979.

One of the highest estimates to date has been made by Mirko Gamba, a post-doctoral researcher at Stanford. Using a computer imagery analysis tool called Particle Image Velocimetry (PIV), Gamba has measured the parameters of the flow at between 30,000 and 95,000 barrels per day (bpd). At 30,000 bpd it would take approximately 117 days for Deepwater Horizon's total oil release to exceed Ixtoc I. As of Thursday, May 20, 31 days have elapsed. At the upper-limit of Gamba's range, Deepwater Horizon will become the second largest oil spill in history on Wednesday, May 26.

Most independent estimates of the Deepwater Horizon's flow rate are five to nineteen times as large as BP's 5000 bpd estimate. Nevertheless, BP has insisted on this figure, which the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has used also.

These measurements are so disproportionate, however, that many scientists have voiced concern about BP's refusal to make more data public, as well as the companies restriction of further attempts to gauge the leak's flow rate.

Attached is a simple chart comparing Deepwater Horizon to Ixtoc I and other similar ocean rig blow-outs.

Given that almost one month has elapsed and the well has not been capped, it is likely the leak will continue to flow at high rates until relief wells are successfully drilled. Relief wells typically take weeks or months to finish depending on the depths and conditions confronted. For Deepwater Horizon this process may take another two-three months. Combined with a flow rate that exceeds 20,000 bpd average over this time frame the leak will easily surpass Ixtoc I.

There is a remote probability that Deepwater Horizon could even surpass the 10+ million barrel spill of the Persian Gulf War, still measured as the largest in world history.


The US-Russia START Treaty - Just What Does "Arms Control" Really Mean?

There's a funny if intimidating gun-nut bumper sticker you may have seen on the road: "gun control means using both hands." It's clever, invoking gun control to brazenly undermine it.

This last week the United States government, by its actions, formally adopted this bumper sticker as its de-facto nuclear weapons and arms control policy. Actually the U.S. did much worse. Reasonable people can disagree about laws governing the sale and possession of firearms, and at least the libertarian gun lobby is honest about their intentions. They want as few restrictions on small arms as possible and don't have double standards about who can possess what.

With nuclear weapons and the states that possess them it's another story entirely. For the rest of the world they want the sort of "gun control" that Liberals like —firm restrictions and penalties on everything from processing nuclear materials to possession of the bomb— but when it comes to their own militaries they want a more, how shall we put it?, two-handed technique.

The basic position of the Obama administration is that it seeks strict nonproliferation measures to prevent any and all non-nuclear nations from obtaining nuclear arms capabilities. This is not very different from past administrations except that the current White House has proven a little more patient and multi-lateral in confronting potential proliferators. At the same time the administration is making an unprecedented fiscal commitment to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal, while also keeping the military's "nuclear posture" virtually the same as it has been throughout the Cold War. In spite of its title and much of the press it has gotten, the recently penned New START treaty in no way puts restrictive "controls" on U.S. nuclear armaments. In fact, the Congress is demanding, and the administration is delivering a minimum $80 billion dollar reconstruction funding package for the nuclear weapons complex, and another $100 billion investment package in a new generation of nuclear subs, missiles, and bombers, all just so that the Senate might ratify the treaty.

A START Toward What?

President Obama's newly negotiated arms control agreement with Russia does not actually reduce either state's stockpile of weapons in any significant way. It certainly doesn't involve any disarmament-inspired steps. And yet it is being drummed up in the press as an arms control treaty. How is this? Comments from Ireland and South Africa's delegates to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, currently underway in New York, provide a useful perspective here. According to one report:

"Both the South African and Irish delegations stated that arsenal reductions do not automatically mean a commitment to nuclear disarmament. South Africa’s representative said that reductions could be undertaken for a variety of reasons, such as strategic stability, financial constraints or safety issues. The Irish delegation said that reductions alone do not explain the whole story and that one can only judge a state’s true intentions by surveying the full range of its actions and pronouncements."

So what is the whole story behind New START? What might be the true intentions of the U.S.?

Stabilizing and economizing measures are two of the prime functions of the treaty. On the stability front it serves the aggressively imperial ambitions of the U.S., while addressing the concerns of a fiscally weakened Russia. Russia has had major concerns with U.S. plans to build a "missile defense" system for many years now. Most of the world understands this system to be part of a larger offensive U.S. military stance, not a "defense." START is one attempt to smooth things over on this front, while also formalizing small cuts in nuclear arsenals that both states were likely to make with or without the treaty. "Missile defense" is moving ahead full speed. Defense Secretary Gates has said, “the reductions in this treaty will not affect the strength of our nuclear triad," and furthermore; "nor does this treaty limit plans to protect the United States and our allies by improving and deploying missile defense systems.” The military's head of missile defense, Lieutenant General Patrick O’Reilly, said in support of the treaty, “relative to the recently expired START Treaty, the new START Treaty actually reduces constraints on the development of the missile defense program.”

During a briefing on Nuclear Posture Review —the administration's stated nuclear doctrines which were drafted parallel to the New START treaty— General James Cartwright forthrightly admitted that, “There are no constraints in this treaty associated with our missile defenses or our prompt global strike capabilities, read conventional.” Prompt global strike refers to a new class of weapons, ICBMs tipped with conventional, non-nuclear warheads. This system is intended to provide U.S. leadership with the ability to strike any point on the planet within an hour. Like "missile defense" it has elicited a lot of concern from the Russians (to say nothing of other nations for whom it is intended to be used upon). Here again the New START treaty has functioned to negotiate a resolution that will allow the U.S. to develop and deploy this new, highly asymmetrical, strategic weapon under terms that do not miff the Russians too much. In other words, it's not really about nuclear weapons, up or down. It's about finding a way to roll out a new class of extremely destructive and destabilizing conventional weapons.

A related function of the treaty is to provide both states with more fungible accounting rules with respect to nuclear missile warheads and bombs. New START only barely reduces a fraction of the hugely disproportionate nuclear arms of each state. It does this through fuzzy accounting methods, ones that do not address warheads and bombs in storage, or tactical weapons. It amazingly counts nuclear capable bomber jets, each of which can hold many nuclear weapons, as single warheads.

New START expires the SORT Treaty signed under President George W. Bush. One of the SORT treaty's biggest flaws (in the eyes of many nuclear proponents) was that it did not allow for these fuzzy accounting methods. SORT was an impediment to pro-nuclear strategists. As Hans Kristensen puts it, "the United States resisted restrictions on its upload capability, which it achieved by the high limit on delivery platforms. The 'fake' bomber count enables more weapons to be deployed on ballistic missiles and more weapons to be retained at bomber bases than would have been possible under the Moscow Treaty."

Article V of the treaty explicitly allows for the "modernization" of existing designs. This allowance was written into the treaty by negotiators to permit weapons scientists to aggressively re-design existing bombs and warheads, so long as they stay within technical boundaries, but these boundaries are by no means certain. Both U.S. and Russian weaponeers are already hard at work refurbishing and rebuilding weapons, often with improved components. The Americans are miles and miles ahead and possess an arsenal without peer, of course. Thus the treaty also states that "when a Party believes that a new kind of strategic offensive arm is emerging, that Party shall have the right to raise the question of such a strategic offensive arm for consideration in the Bilateral Consultative Commission." None of this is for contingency. "Modernization" of the stockpile already being carried out under what are called "life-extension programs." Big dollar amounts will soon flow into the U.S. nuclear weapons labs to further tinker with weapons designs, START treaty or not. The treaty's possible ratification by the Senate is only expected to boost these funding amounts. It has already emboldened proponents in the weapons labs, Congress, and military who'd like to see the physics packages of warheads and bombs opened up entirely under attempts at component replacement.

Modernization of the nuclear weapons complex is seen as a necessary step in tandem modernization of the weapons themselves. Prior to the New START treaty's handover to the Senate, the Obama administration had already proposed a $5 billion down payment to the National Nuclear Security Administration over the next five years. Much of these funds will subsidize the rapidly growing costs of planning and building a uranium enrichment facility at the Y-12 site in Tennessee, and a plutonium "pit" manufacturing center at Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Succeeding Where Bush Failed?

Under the George W. Bush administration there were two names for the NNSA's costly infrastructure aspirations. At first the federal agency called its plan to rebuild the nation's nuclear infrastructure "Complex 2030." Then it was "Complex Transformation." The latter title was adopted and its environmental impact statements are officially guiding construction and operations at the nation's nuclear labs and facilities today. Key components related to the administration's transformation plan were nixed by Congress however, including their centerpiece proposal, the Reliable Replacement Warhead. Now the language is once again shifting from "Complex Transformation" to "Modernization," a term that is being applied to both the complex and the weapons it builds, and far larger sums of money are being offered up than during the Bush era.

Ironically then for a president who has pledged himself to a vision of a nuclear free world, the question is not whether a new weapons complex (the operational life-span of which will be generations into the future) will be built, but how quickly funds will be ponied up for it, and at what levels. The difference between Obama and treaty skeptics like Senator Jon Kyl is on the order of billions of dollars. But it's necessary to keep in mind that the low end commitment, which Obama has already pledged, is still a 13% increase over the FY2010 budget, from $6.4 to 7 billion, with a major ramping up of spending again in 2014, by hundreds of millions, finally culminating at $9 billion by 2018.vi So what we're really talking about is the difference between Obama's major nuclear weapons spending increase, and Senator Kyl's double-major spending increase.

And yet the treaty has been promoted as an "arms control" agreement, and even praised by some observers as consistent with the President's famous April, 2009 Prague speech in which he affirmed a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. If anyone had any doubts about what New START accomplishes with respect to cementing the place of nuclear weapons in this world, the administration's own boosters have made it clear that the treaty is in fact a very pro-nuclear law. Former Defense Secretary William Perry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “the President’s FY11 budget submission proposes substantial increases to the nuclear weapons program for [improvement of the nuclear weapons complex]…. The administration has been consistent in its statements and proposals on this point, all of which support upgrade and improvement of the nuclear weapons complex.”

Accompanying the New START treaty's arrival in the Senate for ratification (which may not even occur this year anyway) is a plan required by the Congress in which the President must outline his administration's commitment "to enhance the safety, security and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile of the United States, modernize the nuclear weapons complex, and maintain the delivery platforms for nuclear weapons."viii Informally called the "section 1251 report" after the legislative language requiring it, this classified plan states that the U.S. will consolidate its nuclear arsenal around 420 deployed ICBMs, all with a single warhead, and 14 submarines armed with 240 SLBMs spread between them. It's the bombers again that neatly illustrate the nature of the treaty, being more about the "both hands" version of arms control than genuine reductions in the spirit of de-escalation and disarmament. According to a White House fact sheet on the section 1251 report: "The United States currently has 94 deployable nuclear-capable bombers. Under the baseline plan, some will be converted to conventional-only bombers (not accountable under the treaty), and up to 60 nuclear-capable bombers will be retained."

Again, under the treaty these sixty bombers each count as one nuclear weapon, but each can actually be armed with multiple nuclear bombs and nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. Former Secretary of State George Shultz, a protege of Perry and one of the Obama administration's most influential supporters with respect to nuclear policy, has praised the New START treaty, Nuclear Posture Review, and other initiatives by saying:
“One of the things in the nuclear posture review that has gotten zero attention—but deserves some attention—is the common sense notion that deterrence involves more than just nuclear weapons. There are all sorts of ways historically that you can deter an enemy. If you are an Al Qaeda fighter in the hills of Pakistan, you are much more worried about a drone than a nuclear missile.”
On the flip side, if you're George Shultz, you are much more worried about the United State's strained ability to bomb Afghanis, Pakistanis, and Iraqis into submission with "conventional" weapons than you are about maintaining 94 nuclear capable bombers. After all, the cost savings achieved by transferring 34 of these bombers to other missions can and will be passed straight into more urgent military missions. Combined with the fuzzy accounting methods of New START the U.S. doesn't really lose any real capacity in this wing of the nuclear triad. It does so while gaining kudos for supposedly "reducing" its stockpile.

With respect to this administration's arms control agenda, the whole story behind New START and other recent U.S. arms control overtures appears to be one of a foreign policy establishment worried about its military being over-stretched in current wars and occupations, and paranoid about states like Iran and North Korea that might seek a capable deterrent in nuclear weapons. Pursuing economizing measures to better balance its more-than-all-the-world-combined annual military budget, and also attempting to position itself as a good guy when it comes to its own disarmament obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the U.S. has an able tool in the New START. It would seem to accomplish all of this at once. Unfortunately it has little to nothing to do with disarmament, and a lot to do with the heightening of U.S. militarism.


Et in Arcadia, Oil!

The entire Gulf Coast wetlands ecosystem is a delicate and profound balance of tides, winds, and ocean temperatures. It's almost cosmic. Tides push and pull vast and deep columns of water through narrow passes into lakes and bays and back out to the open ocean. This is a marine cardiovascular system on a continental scale, one supporting waters that roil with life. Winds move shallow layers of salt water toward the shore and push back with undercurrents of brackish and freshwater from lakes like Pontchartrain, Borgne, and Salvador. The coastal prairies and cypress swamps breath. Water temperatures and salt concentrations from the edge of the continental shelf and as close as the shallows of Chandeleur Sound and Barataria Bay trigger complex movements of sea life, telling them when to spawn and where to feed. Larger seasonal shifts provide signals to migratory birds, ushering them to land upon horizon-to-horizon beds of grass where they feed from the bounty all around.

And humans too live in this balance. For hundreds of years Cajun, Isleno, Creole, and African American fishermen have watched the tides and licked their fingers to the winds, following the shrimp, oysters, fish, and fowl of this land-meets-ocean edge world that their ancestors deemed a paradise. "Acadiana" from which "Cajun" is a modified anglicization which at its root refers to the idyllic place of Greek beauty and bounty, Arcadia.

But as Nicolas Poussin's shepherds remind us, even "et in Arcadia ego" — interpretable as "even in paradise, death exist." The seeming paradise of southern Louisiana, resulting from cosmically dynamic interactions of ocean tides, wind, and river flows, has been morbidly upset by human greed. Beginning with the plantations in the 1700s vast forests along the Mississippi and distributary bayous were cleared, wetlands drained, levees erected and canals dug with slave labor. King cotton and queen sugar reigned supreme and befouled their hinterlands until the early twentieth century when the petrochemical industry and shipping industry eclipsed any ecological harm they had ever caused. The shift from agricultural plantations to chemical plants, from the extraction of crops to the extraction of minerals did more than upset the balance. Southern Louisiana is dying today. The land is disappearing. What land remains has been made toxic by the chemical plants and oil wells, dump ponds, slag and waste.

The Deepwater Horizon's explosion, and the "river of oil" now flowing from its ruptured well riser five thousand feet beneath the ocean surface is a catastrophe, the proportions of which are unknown and only beginning to be understood. Usually indifferent to the "everyday" environmental disasters surrounding their city —including almost monthly chemical leaks, explosions and oil spills on relatively smaller scales— New Orleanians can smell the oil coming at their coastline, blown by strong onshore winds.

Estimates of just how much oil is spewing forth from the undersea well are being upped on a daily basis. First BP claimed 1,000 barrels, but now they agree it's 5,000 and up. Some knowledgeable observers estimate that the flow is actually much higher. BP and the government are now desperately throwing resources at the oil slick, but the company's efforts have so far been mismatched to the speed at which the disaster is unfolding. Upset with the slow pace at which the federal government has marshaled resources, some in the Crescent City have already called this "Obama's Katrina," or a "slow-motion Katrina." The administration finally declared the spill an "event of national significance" on Thursday, April 29.

Billions and Trillions

Shrimp are almost cosmic. Their life cycle is fused with geophysical forces - tidal and temperature movements propelled by the sun, earth, and moon, and by unfathomably complex wind patterns. Their life cycle begins far out in the ocean in waters of several hundred feet in depth. There are right now many trillions of shrimp eggs floating in the Gulf of Mexico, suspended in columns of water. April and May are in fact the heaviest spawning months, but the phenomenon occurs year round and follows both seasonal and episodic fluctuations in temperatures and tides.

From their early nauplius and protozoea larva stages they remain in the deep waters, the pelagic zone that is neither close to shore nor the ocean bottom. They move with the current, feeding off anything suspended around them, growing with amazing speed. From this stage to adulthood they provide a source of food for nearly everything that swims around them. They are reduced from many trillions to fewer trillions in number. Into the mysis larva and post-larva stage shrimp begin to move toward shore with flood tides. Strong northerly winds also push them toward the marshes when they rise toward the surface. They continue to feed and grow. From the juvenile through adult phases of their lives they live right along the coast, often letting surface flows, deep currents, and tides push them far into the brackish water marshes. Here they flit among the protection and abundance of the Spartina grass that is absolutely necessary for their survival. They forage along the shallow bottoms of bayous and bays. In these rich saltwater prairies they gain mass and prepare for the final stages in their lives.

Subtle signals in the water, from temperature to salinity, stimulate a final movement among adult shrimp, back out into the ocean. They congregate by the hundreds of millions in bayous and passes at night and await strong tides to pull them back out into the open Gulf where they will forage along the bottom at depths of up to several hundred feed. In this benthic zone they grow to full size and finally, when water temperatures increase, they rise and spawn, floating trillions upon trillions of eggs to renew the cycle.

But there are other sublime numbers beneath the Gulf: billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. These billions and trillions are measurable as billions of dollars in profits for corporations like BP, Halliburton and other major energy firms. It was with the discovery of oil in the swamps in the early 1900s that Acadiana, paradise found, was lost for good. The industry tore byzantine networks of canals through the marshes in order to reach prospects and haul drilling equipment in on barges. The shipping industry —a large portion of which services the petrochemical refineries upriver of New Orleans, which themselves were sited in proximity to the natural gas fields of the Gulf— did its part also to cut the wetlands into fragments. Concentrated salt water intruded where it should never had. Flood deposits of sediment were reduced and finally deleted as the Mississippi and other major waterways were locked into place. Subsidence, storms, the die-off of cypress and oak forests, and the melting of horizon stretching expanses of prairie grass, it all intensified after World War II. By the 1990s southern Louisiana had seen almost 2000 square miles of land disappear beneath the Gulf's waves. In the early 2000s the rate of land loss was 24 square miles a year, an area larger than Manhattan.

Atë, another word of greek origin comes to mind here. In Greek tragedies atë is the action of a protagonist leading to downfall as a result of their hubris. Atë means defying the gods. Few words better describe the cosmic folly some humans have brought upon the Gulf Coast today: tragic, hubristic nemesis. But here all literal refrains to Greek mythology and language fall flat. Unlike Greek tragedies where the hero brings shame and death upon himself, the slow-Katrina destruction of Acadiana is not clearly the fault of prideful Louisianans over-stretching their limits and pretending to godly levels of knowledge and power. Search as you might, you will find few people more humble and happy with simplicity and sustenance than the majority of New Orleanians, Cajuns, Creoles, Islenos, and African Americans who call southern Louisiana home.

Rather, the death of the wetlands is the result of corporate and state hubris, largely beyond the control of most Louisianans. Their state is being disappeared by a hydrocarbon hungry US economy and the major oil corporations that sit atop it. The gods, the cosmic forces of tides, river flows, winds and temperatures that is, are being defied by a small elite who seek the billions in profits at the expense of trillions of living beings, including millions of Louisianans who live in New Orleans, Houma, St. Bernard Parish, Terrebonne Parish, and down all the bayous.

Orders of Magnitude

The latest National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration projections show that the oil slick from the Macondo blow-out has already reached portions of Louisiana's marshlands around the "bird food," the delta tip where the Mississippi terminates in the Gulf. It's also pushing oil ashore to the north, across portions of Chandeleur Sound's marshes. One internal NOAA estimate (dated April 30) reads:

"Strong SE winds of 15-25 kts are expected to continue through Saturday night. These winds will continue to bring oil towards the shoreline. Oil was observed today within several miles of the Delta between Garden Bay and Pass A Loutre. This could be the leading edge of the tarballs concentrating in the Mississippi River convergence as well as oil from an additional (unrelated) source near platform Ocean Saratoga. Shoreline impacts are likely to begin Thursday evening with the persistent onshore winds."

Documents leaked from NOAA and other federal authorities indicate that the well may soon begin to flow without any restrictions whatsoever, a scenario in which millions of gallons of oil could shoot into the Gulf every day. What is already a major disaster could very well become the second largest oil spill in history. The first, the oil apocalypse unleashed by Saddam Hussein and the United States military during the Gulf War in 1991 resulting in a much as 400 million gallons, would be hard to rival from a single well head, no matter how much pressure it's under. But the second largest spill, from the Ixtoc I well is very much like the Macondo blow-out. Ixtoc I spewed between 450,000 and 500,000 tons of crude oil, also into the Gulf of Mexico between June 1979 and March 1980, the time frame it took for Pemex to cap the well. Ixtoc I released about 10,000 barrels each day, exactly the same amount the Macondo blow-out is probably releasing right now if the latest candid projections of this spill are true.

A NOAA document dated from April 28 reads that "[t]wo additional release points were found today in the tangled riser. If the riser pipe deteriorates further, the flow could become unchecked resulting in a release volume an order of magnitude higher than previously thought."

Shrimp might almost be cosmic, but being almost cosmic is by no means unique to them. Many shellfish, fish, birds, crustaceans, and other life forms live in similarly sublime tandems with the tides and winds of the Gulf Coast. And that's the final damning reality of this catastrophic oil leak. Crude spewing from the Deepwater Horizon's well into the Macondo prospect is now riding the same wind-driven waves as the shrimp. It's coming ashore into the wetlands with them. BP and federal authorities have begun using dispersant chemicals to break up the oil patches and sink it beneath the surface. This strategy, however, may prove unwise. It will sink the oil so that it rides the deep currents and affects submarine life.

A 2005 National Academies study on the use of oil dispersants observes that little is actually known about the trade-offs between sinking oil slicks with chemicals versus struggling to contain them on the surface. These are two very different strategies that lead to very different kinds of exposure for sea life. After all, "dispersing" oil is simply a euphemism for sinking it in particulate form where it remains dissolved in columns of water, eventually settling on the ocean floor. For the shrimp, an indicator species in the sense that countless coastal species depend upon them for food, dispersants are perhaps just as bad as letting the slick reach the shore. In the former case they may be killed in open waters by oil particles, or at the bottoms where they feed. In the latter case their marsh habitats may be choked with crude oil. There seems to be no good strategy, just bad and worse. According the National Academies:
"the relative importance of different routes of exposure, that is, the uptake and associated toxicity of oil in the dissolved phase versus dispersed oil droplets versus particulate-associated phase, is poorly understood and not explicitly considered in exposure models. Photoenhanced toxicity has the potential to increase the impact “footprint” of dispersed oil in aquatic organisms, but has only recently received consideration in the assessment of risk associated with spilled oil. One of the widely held assumptions is that chemical dispersion of oil will dramatically reduce the impact to seabirds and aquatic mammals. However, few studies have been conducted since 1989 to validate this assumption."

And that;
"Many studies have shown that oil, floating above subtidal reefs [on the surface], has no adverse effects on the coral; however, if allowed to reach the shoreline, the oil may have long-term impacts to a nearby mangrove system. In addition, oil may persist in the mangrove system creating a chronic source of oil pollution in the adjacent coral reefs. The trade-off would be to consider the use of dispersants. Application of dispersant would result in dispersion of the oil in the water column and so provide some degree of protection to the mangroves; however, the reef system would now have to endure the consequences of an increase in dispersed oil in the water column...."

Furthermore, little is known about the ecosystemic effects of precipitating oil into columns of water, as well as the toxicity of the dispersants themselves, especially when combined with oil.

Is Acadiana lost? In truth the Cajuns and their kindred have been losing their idyllic wetlands for decades. Deepwater Horizon may just be the atë, if you will.

"Mississippi Canyon 252"

This graphic taken from an internal NOAA document maps the oil spill's projected landfall in Louisiana for Sunday, May 2.

What it basically says is that this spill is about to hit the wetlands where it will choke marshes and destroy estuary habitat. If the spill is as bad as they say it is then the slick will expand over many weeks, months, perhaps longer.

The Gulf Coast is in trouble. This is akin to a slow motion Katrina.