Commentaries

APRIL 19, 2012

Deep-water drilling is still risky business

Donald Boesch argues that the lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill should be enshrined in legislation before they fade from memory in the April 19, 2012, issue of Nature.

Two years after the blowout of the BP oil well drilled by the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico, the United States is largely failing to act on the lessons learned from that experience to ensure that deep-water drilling and production is safe and environmentally compatible. In particular, the US Congress has not enacted any legislation to improve safety and protect the environment. Meanwhile, high oil prices are stimulating the expansion of drilling into ever deeper waters in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as off Brazil, Africa and Europe. Drilling is also proceeding in shallower, but ice-prone, regions of the Arctic, including the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska.

I am one of two scientists who served on the US president's commission that produced the report Deep Water: The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Drilling — the other was Cherry Murray of Harvard University. The commission concluded that the root causes of the blowout and explosion were deficiencies in regulatory oversight and multiple poor decisions made in the absence of a comprehensive risk-management system. Other investigations into the disaster essentially agreed.

We were impressed by the technologies developed to produce hydrocarbons from ever deeper, more highly pressured formations, but surprised by the lack of sophistication in techniques for detecting and controlling risk, containing the flow of hydrocarbons, collecting spilled oil and protecting vulnerable resources. For example, 'down-hole' events — those taking place deep below the seabed — are often inferred from indirect measurements of pressure and volume rather than measured with state-of-the-art in situ sensors of the type used in geophysical research and other industries.

Cement formulation, testing and placement — major factors in the blowout — seem to be more of an art than a science. Cementing is also central to debates on the increased recovery of hydrocarbons by hydro-fracturing, because it is critical both to limiting fugitive emissions of methane and to preventing contamination of shallower aquifers.

The 2010 accident showed that no operating company in the world had the capacity to rapidly contain a deep-water blowout. It took months of seat-of-the-pants engineering to build and deploy a capping stack that provided effective containment. Confusion reigned over the fate of the oil and gas released 1,500 metres below the surface, largely because of a lack of understanding of the operating environment, including the direction and speed of water currents, and the behaviour of hydrocarbons released at depth.

“Root causes of the blowout were deficiencies in regulatory oversight and multiple poor decisions.”

There have been some positive responses to the Deepwater Horizon experience. The US Department of the Interior (DOI) temporarily suspended deep-water drilling in the Gulf until new safeguards, including a demonstrated capacity to contain blowouts, were put into place. The DOI also reformed its management and oversight of offshore oil and gas development, separating safety regulation from developmental decision-making, and has established a new safety and environmental management system.

The oil industry, in addition to developing the needed containment capacity, has improved its safety processes. The American Petroleum Institute, the industry body, has created a Center for Offshore Safety and named Charlie Williams, a seasoned and respected scientist from Royal Dutch Shell, to head it. We shall see whether this new centre can develop the planned third-party audit process and if the industry, working with the DOI, will advance cutting-edge research and development (R&D) of safety technology.

BP has funded an independently managed Gulf Research Initiative to support longer-term research on the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Through this, and the natural resources damage assessment being conducted by state and federal agencies, we will learn much about the fate and the effects of the hydrocarbons released during the blowout. And a task force established by President Barack Obama has developed the first phase of a Gulf of Mexico Regional Ecosystem Restoration Strategy to address the long-term degradation of Gulf ecosystems, some of it due to the 60-year history of oil and gas development in the region.

Unfortunately, the US Congress — caught up in partisan rancour, including debates about expanding offshore oil drilling — has failed to adopt legislation to address the lessons learned and the recommendations of the oil-spill commission and others. Such legislation should codify the executive reforms mentioned earlier into law, increase liability limits, and dedicate sustained funding for oil-spill research and environmental assessment and monitoring.

Even in the current constrained fiscal circumstances, improved oversight and essential R&D could be supported by industry fees amounting to pennies per barrel, imperceptible within the daily fluctuations in price on the world market or at the pump.

New laws were passed within a year of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. If important lessons are not to be lost as the events of 2010 fade from memory, there is a pressing need tochange the law to make such accidents less likely, and our response more effective.

 

FEBRUARY 11, 2012

This is the only moment we will ever have to restore the Bay

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is developing a strategy to ensure that the Bay restoration goals are fully met by the 2025 deadline. It’s being called “A Moment in Time.” During discussions among CBF trustees, I made the point that we are not just facing a moment in time, but what I believe to be themoment in time, because I don’t think we will get another chance if we fail.

I have spent nearly 30 years as a scientist doing research on the Chesapeake Bay or facilitating the research of others. I have seen science develop and mature to the point that we know more about the Chesapeake than any comparable coastal ecosystem in the world.

We know why the bay has become degraded and what we need to do to restore it. While science is still needed to guide and monitor the recovery, our diagnosis and treatment regimen are as solid and reliable as they come.

But we as a society have repeatedly failed to complete the required regimen.

In 1987, the bay states and federal government formally committed to reduce nutrient pollution by 40 percent by the year 2000 in order to restore degraded water quality and the health of the bay. We failed miserably, but recommitted to achieve the goal by 2010, guided by some better numbers.

So remorseful were the states and the feds back in 2000 that they committed that if our voluntary approaches were not successful by 2010, mandatory requirements under the Clean Water Act would be forced. Fear of such tough medicine was meant to spur us on. While we made some progress, by 2010 we had not gotten much past half the way on our nutrient pollution goal.

It’s now time for the tough medicine.

We have entered the mandatory phase in which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is requiring the states to develop plans to reduce pollution to total maximum daily loads (TMDLs), a determined amount that the bay can tolerate and remain healthy.

This TMDL goal — not all that different than the one set for 2010 — has been pushed back 15 years to 2025. Yet, some state and local governments are acting like this is a new and arbitrary imposition rather than a lingering deficiency that must now be addressed. Agribusiness and development groups have even gone to court to challenge the whole premise of the TMDL.

Mind you, the new goal date is 38 years after the states and federal government first committed to a goal, and 25 years after the first goal was missed and the parties committed to move to mandatory approaches if they failed to meet the second goal.

That’s why I think that this is not just a moment in time, but the only moment our society will ever have to restore the bay.

As a scientist, I am trained to rely on empirical evidence rather than wishful thinking. There is just no evidence for concluding that we will have another chance after 2025 given the record of performance and additional mounting pressures that will result from population growth and climate change.

A whole generation will have passed during the struggle for bay restoration, with most of the public and those in charge in 2025 with no recollection of a healthy bay and previous commitment. They will be more willing to accept conditions as they are.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We know what needs to be done and I believe that we can find effective and more efficient ways to accomplish them.

It starts with taking responsibility for curbing one’s own pollution, whether one is a farmer, developer, industry or family. Collective investments through the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund (aka “flush fee”) are beginning to yield enormous benefits, but it will cost more to complete the job.

Sewage sludge and animal wastes can be recycled to fertilize crops, but this use must be better managed to achieve that end, rather just waste disposal on the land. We need to limit sprawling development with household wastes drained into pits in the backyard. And, we need more we need more wetlands and oysters to clean up the pollution we can’t control.

It’s that simple, really. We have less than 14 years and we — and only we — can restore the Chesapeake Bay.

This commentary was published in the February 11, 2012, edition of The Capital newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland.

 

FEBRUARY 6, 2012

Plant Zones and Climate Change

The Free For All section of the February 4 Washington Post carried the following letter I wrote under the caption “So, why are the plant zones changing?.”

The interesting front-page story about the shifts in the Agriculture Department’s plant hardiness zone maps since 1990 [“New plant map shifts area to warmer zone,” Jan. 26] included this headline on the continuing page:“Plant map doesn’t measure climate change.”  However, nothing in the article discusses the relationship of the zone changes to climate change, whether global, national or regional. 

The nearly uniformly northward shifting zones reflect increases in “average winter low temperatures between 1976 and 2005 at 8,000 weather stations.” While this doesn’t fully measure all the changes in climate, if this nationwide pattern is not attributable to global climate change—specifically to the global warming that scientists have concluded is unequivocal—what, pray tell, is responsible? The failure of The Post, not only to make the connection with global climate change but also to seemingly disavow it, is most puzzling.

I thought I should provide more information than allowed by the brief letter both on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) map and the evidence that these shifting zones reflect a clear winter warming trend across most of the United States since the mid-1970s that is consistent with global warming.

The online 2012 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is intended to be the standard by which gardeners and growers can determine which plants are the most likely to thrive at a location. 

Each 10-degree F zone “represents the mean extreme minimum temperature for an area, calculated from the lowest daily minimum temperature recorded for each of the years 1976–2005.” The previous edition of the USDA PHZM, revised and published in 1990, was drawn from weather data for 1974–1986. So, the new map is not intended to reflect the minimum temperature conditions that have prevailed from 1987 through 2005 in contrast to those that prevailed during the previous 13 year period but to reflect the full 30-year period. 

The USDA states: “Climate changes are usually based on trends in overall average temperatures recorded over 50-100 years. Because the USDA PHZM represents 30-year averages of what are essentially extreme weather events (the coldest temperature of the year), changes in zones are not reliable evidence of whether there has been global warming.” It is probably this caveat (based on 30-year averages, just single minimum temperature measurements for a year) that the Agriculture officials were trying to convey when they “stressed that the new map is not a tool to measure climate change.” But, the Post headline writer stated this in a way that is likely to mislead the reader that the shifting zones are unrelated to climate change.  A closer look indicates that they are related to climate change and, in fact, under-represent it. 

“The new PHZM is generally one half-zone warmer than the previous PHZM throughout much of the United States, as a result of a more recent averaging period (1974–1986 vs. 1976–2005).“ The warming is consistent with the 0.4 to more than 1.2°F per decade warming trend in mean temperature over most of the continental U.S. during the months of January, February and March from 1976 through 2005, based on Weather Service analysis. This 1976-2005 period corresponds exactly with the period considered for the new PHZM. However, if the annual minimum temperature data for just the 1987-2005 period had been used to construct the new map, the plant zones would certainly have shifted more. 

 

Moreover, this warming trend is consistent with the increase in global mean temperature and specifically with the warming during this time period in the northern latitude zone in which the U.S. lies as shown below based on NASA analysis. This global warming has been termed unequivocal by theIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and has been attributed by the National Academy of Sciences largely to human activities, particularly to the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. 

I was motivated to write the letter not only to point out the Post’s poor construction that leaves readers with an important misconception, but to ask why this national-class newspaper based in our nation’s capital, did not do a more thorough job in examining the rather obvious connection.  The story by Seth Borenstein of the Associate Press clearly did this and ironically was carried by the Post online. Also, the Capital Weather Gang’s blog on the Post’s website observed that the shift in the planting zones “is a rock solid indicator of climate change.” That blog included a NOAA graph showing the preponderance of much-above-normal annual minimum temperatures in the U.S. since 1990. 

There is a back story to the new map and the reticence of the USDA spokesperson to relate its shifts to climate change, captured in this USA Today story. An earlier attempt by the American Horticultural Society to update the 1990 plant hardiness zone map resulted in a draft map in 2003 was rejected by the USDA, which stated that a longer, 30-year period was required in order to develop a new climate map (despite the fact that only 13 years of data were included in the 1990 map).  Some suggested that the map was squelched by officials in the George W. Bush Administration to limit the public’s awareness of climate change. 

So, in 2006 the National Arbor Day Foundation released a new, unsanctioned map, based on minimum temperature data from 1991 to 2005 that showed marked warming and northward movement of zones.  Coming nearly five years later, the USDA’s 2012 map, while based on more data and providing much more geographic detail, is generally very similar to the Arbor Day Foundation map.  However, the USDA map is slightly cooler and arguably more out-of-date because it averages over the full 1976-2005 time period, rather than just post-1990 as did the Arbor Day Foundation map.

The USDA should have made it clear that, while the map itself is not a particularly good instrument for determining climate change, the changes in minimum temperatures on which they are based are very consistent with more thorough documentations of climate change by NOAA, NASA and such Federal reports as Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States.  USDA apparently recognizes climate change as a reality as it has a program to coordinate assessment, mitigation and adaptation.  The Washington Post should have, through interviews or citing these sources, indicated that the new plant map does, in fact, reflect climate change.  I know that almost everything is being politicized these days, but gardening?