A possible explanation

Obama thinks the spill will get much, much worse.

The conventional explanation for Obama’s disappointingly low-key speech is political prudence, aka cowardice: he doesn’t think a radical energy bill with cap and trade is winnable before the November election, or even worth waging a losing fight for to make a point. See this ridicule from Jon Stewart and an alternative rant from Rachel Maddows.

But ss Mark points out, Obama’s successful armtwisting of BP – immediately followed by the terrific own goal of Republican Rep. Joe Barton apologising to BP for the nasty man – does not suggest that the President has gone soft.

There is another explanation – and it should scare you. Obama may have been advised that the worst is yet to come. Via Julia Whitty at Mother Jones, we learn of industry insider “dougr” saying (not, I stress, uncontested by his peers):

All the actions and few tid bits of information all lead to one inescapable conclusion. The well pipes below the sea floor are broken and leaking …

[snip long section on the failure of kill attempts and the progressive breakdown of the well structure]
… the very least damaging outcome as bad as it is, is that we are stuck with a wide open gusher blowing out 150,000 barrels a day of raw oil or more. There isn’t any “cap dome” or any other suck fixer device on earth that exists or could be built that will stop it from gushing out and doing more and more damage to the gulf. While at the same time also doing more damage to the well, making the chance of halting it with a kill from the bottom up less and less likely to work, which as it stands now?….is the only real chance we have left to stop it all.
It’s a race now…a race to drill the relief wells and take our last chance at killing this monster before the whole weakened, wore out, blown out, leaking and failing system gives up it’s last gasp in a horrific crescendo.

Now you and I aren’t in a position to evaluate the likelihood of this nightmare scenario. But Obama and Hayward are. And their public actions are entirely consistent with it. Why did Hayward and Svanberg give in so easily to the demand for a $20bn escrow fund? It makes sense if they realize the disaster is unstoppable and their company is basically bust.

It also explains Obama’s speech. He likes to lead from behind: point a direction, wait for events, then step in with a solution.  If the well is going to be capped and the loose oil scooped up soon, the opportunity for a bold initiative was unique and he’s blown it. But if the situation is going to get much, much worse over the summer, then events are playing into his preferred method. As the coasts die, the pressure for action will build and build, and Obama can ride the wave to a new energy policy.

The price of saving the world’s climate may be the destruction of the Gulf of Mexico.  I’m not sure I want this or not.

Update 18 June

An afterthought. It’s a hole in my theory that Obama did not qualify his assurance that  “in the coming weeks and days, these efforts should capture up to 90 percent of the oil leaking out of the well.” He did warn the the American public in two places that there’s more damage to come – “The millions of gallons of oil that have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico are more like an epidemic, one that we will be fighting for months and even years … no matter how effective our response is, there will be more oil and more damage before this siege is done.”

How about this coda to save the appearances. He’s left BP in charge, and officially has to accept their assurances about capture of the “leaking” – spewing! – oil, documented in the paper trail. But they are lying, in the higher interests of their stockholders. He is a skilled politician and good at detecting when people are lying to him. Perhaps also Chu’s brains trust of top non-oil scientists are telling him that they don’t believe BP either.  Qualifying the assurance with “probably” would open up this dispute, create a media storm focused on the White House, not BP, distract the efforts in the field, and possibly create panic in coastal communities.  So Obama was forced to lie himself in the higher national interest. He doesn’t like lying for reasons of state, which helps explain his low key.

Update 22 June

A BP internal document from May just released by Rep. Markey concedes that in a counterfactual worst-case scenario, if  the “blowout preventer and wellhead are removed and if we have incorrectly modeled the restrictions, the rate [of oil flow] could be as high as 100,000 barrels a day.” This is the highest number yet from an official source. So BP thinks the reservoir is trying to push out that much, though insisting that their well will not collapse to allow it.

Update 23 June

Admiral Allen announces that the blowout preventer is leaning by 10-12 degrees. The president of Shell Oil says the “integrity of the well casing is a major concern.” Score two for dougr.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

9 thoughts on “A possible explanation”

  1. I still don't see how the destruction of the Gulf actually gets another vote in the Senate for a climate bill.

    I think it's time — well past time — for the Obama EPA to crack down with the strictest, most punishing emissions limits it can get away with. Stronger than anything Congress would ever pass. Stronger than what would be economically reasonable. That's the only way to pressure Congress to pass a real bill (one where the decisive Senator is the 40th most liberal, not the 60th). And if they can't organize to pass a bill and overrule the EPA regulations, then so be it.

    Of course, in real life the draft rules submitted by the EPA were a compromise, instead of an overshoot. They don't do enough, and they'll make tougher regulations even less likely down the road.

  2. If that scenario is possible, now would be the time for the govt. to tell us. To not tell is nigh criminal.

  3. I've been thinking lately about our collective response to the gulf crisis. Specifically, what has worried me is the degree to which this is obviously such a catastrophic event, yet we seem somewhat cavalier about it. It is as if we have struggled for so long on the front lines of the environmental wars that a sort of apathy has sunk in. For decades conservatism has fought tooth and nail for the view that private property absolutism and growth, no matter how greedy or cost-externalizing, is a net gain for society.

    Even today, after the issue seemed wholly settled in the mid 00's, after the successive IPCC reports, global warming is still doubted in polite company. After climategate, supposedly serious people were asking whether it proved once and for all that it was all a big hoax. Leader of this pack of absurdity, Rush Limbaugh, said shortly after the gulf leak started, “The ocean will take care of this on its own if it was left alone and left out there. It’s natural. It’s as natural as the ocean water is.”

    Look at what is happening out there! It isn't at all out of the realm of possibility that this turns out to be true, that the pipes below the sea floor may indeed be broken. And were that to be the case, even half the oil from an uncontained Macondo prospect would be 25 million barrels. The fact that we even considered allowing this to happen at all is unbelievable. And we still are! Their livelihoods drowned in crude, people in the gulf are arguing that we get right back to work. I guess one could argue the damage is done. What the hell is wrong with us?

    Have we become so wretched and apathetic towards the future that an ecological nightmare of this magnitude seems to summon in us only the most timid reflections on where we have gone wrong? Or have the ideological stakes somehow been raised so high that individual thought has withered on the vine, tribalism of thought solidifying before an endlessly more relative and post-modern world?

    Are we really ready for this? Has our brief history prepared us to take the care that is needed when the real threat of global catastrophe, political and economic collapse – the extinction of civilization – comes not from something so simple and philosophically targetable as war or corruption, but instead from the hubris of negligence.

    We have agreed to overcome so much – race, gender, human rights – the idea that we need look after and care for fellow man. We have enshrined it at the highest levels of law and government. We have learned so much about the world, technology why we do what we do, in such a short period of time. But now this unprecedented blossoming of human utility is now threatening to wash everything away, and we can't bear to face it. We are being asked to put the brakes on the one thing that has driven us so far so fast.

    Can ideology be expected to keep up? Part of what we have sacrificed to this machine of progress has been the dulling of the senses – the distancing, packaging, commodifying of existence en mass. If progress is the modern religion, then progress has become the opiate of the people. And it is from within this blankified state that we are expected to rise and transcend. How can we, from within progress, step out from it and see it for what it is. The media churns out the most grisly images of catastrophe, and yet we muster little more than a shrug. Back to business.

  4. "Make no mistake BP is operating at our direction…The United States government has always been in charge making sure the response has been appropriate." President Obama, May 28, 2010. I'd think that statement makes it hard to argue–not that the administration, shameless as they are, wouldn't try–that 'BP is in charge' of the clean up.

  5. James, I read The Oil Drum where a number of petro engineers and scientists post. The well-informed people there do not give any credence to dougr's apocalyptic hypothesis. There is just no evidence for it.

  6. Michael : the Oil Drum blog thread structure is very confusing. I looked for detailed refutation and couldn't find one, can you give a link?

    At least one datum tends to support dougr: the ever-increasing public estimate of the spill rate. The best-news interpretation of this is that BP were just lying from the start; the bad-news one is that things have been deteriorating.

    Obama's assurances on future capture ("up to 90%") imply that he expects at least 10% of the spill will not be caught. 10% of 50,000 barrels a day is still 5,000 a day. For 60 days to mid-August, that makes another Exxon Valdez (257,000 barrels), on top of the 6 or so Exxon Valdezes already released. That's the best case. Dougr's apocalypse implies 30 or so Exxon Valdezes to come. Reality will I suppose be something in between.

  7. James,

    Yes, The Oil Drum has one all-purpose open thread at a time, around 300 posts per day, most of which are not helpful. It's very hard to keep up with or to cite.

    The objection to dougr's hypothesis is that, were it true, oil and gas should be leaking through the sea floor around the wellhead, and they are not.

    The flow rate could have actually increased a good deal owing to (1) cutting the crimped riser pipe (2) flow channels developing in the reservoir sands and (3) the abrasive flow abrading obstacles within the blowout preventer. Or it may have increased only slightly, while the estimates have become more accurate. The estimate of 5000 bbl/day was not a serious try. The estimate of 12K-19K did not have pressure readings or hi-def. video to work with, and one of the teams essentially said they were unable to give an estimate at that time.

    Thanks for responding to my comment.

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