Carl Safina On The B.P. Oil Spill

In his new book A Sea in Flames ocean conservationist and writer Carl Safina looks back at the events surrounding the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Up next, the BP oil spill one year later. It seems like yesterday. It was April 20, 2010, when we first got the news of a blowout on an oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. At that time, I don't think many of us knew just what that meant or could have predicted how long it would take.

It took months and a lot of jerry-rigged equipment to stop the oil flowing from that damaged well. And we learned a lot of new terms in the days after the blowout: junk shots, relief wells, things like that. And we learned about dispersants and booms and tar balls, and we watched this drama unfold in what felt like slow motion last spring and summer.

And watching along with us was my next guest, and he's written a book about his observations and about his changed - and how he's changed his mind about what he thought was happening in those first days of the crisis.

Carl Safina is president and co-founder of the Blue Ocean Institute. He also is the host of the PBS series "Saving the Oceans with Carl Safina." His new book is "A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout." He's with us here in our New York studios. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. CARL SAFINA (Author: "A Sea in Flames"): Thanks, Ira, great to be here again.

FLATOW: Very interesting book. It's almost like you're just telling us a story and how your mind is changing and what you're thinking along the time.

Dr. SAFINA: Well, that's the whole point of the book was to try to really bring everybody there with me. And it was a very changeable situation, and it really still is.

FLATOW: And there were - as I'm reading through the book, and you're describing it, there are certain passages near the end of the book that you talk about you changed your mind about certain personalities in the book and certain situations.

Dr. SAFINA: Yeah, I was really angry all summer long at the Coast Guard. And, well, I was really angry all summer long about a lot of things. But my mind changed particularly about the Coast Guard because I came to appreciate later how much their hands were tied by the law.

They're - you know, they're required to enforce the law, and the law says that the spiller is in charge of the cleanup. All summer long, I thought there were many opportunities for the Coast Guard to kind of shove BP out of the way now that the oil was all over everything.

I mean, BP had a license to drill a hole in the ground, not to pollute the whole Gulf of Mexico, and at that point, I thought that really the federal government should step in and federalize it.

But what I didn't quite realize until later was how much the Coast Guard's options were limited by the law.

FLATOW: And did you get an idea of who actually helped write the law? I mean, could it have been the oil companies that helped write the law in this?

Dr. SAFINA: Well, the law was written after the Exxon Valdez, and it was really based on the model of a big boat hits something, it rips open, it spills the oil that's in it. You know how much oil there is, you know who spilled it, they have to go clean it up.

And that made a lot of sense, and it's worked, you know, pretty well in a lot of spills. Nobody envisioned that, 20 years after that law, we would be drilling in water a mile deep, and there could be a leak, and the oil companies would have absolutely no idea what to do about a leak in their own pipe in their own oil well.

FLATOW: And you talk about meeting Thad Allen, who was in charge of the cleanup.

Dr. SAFINA: Yeah.

FLATOW: And how your views changed about him when you met him.

Dr. SAFINA: Yes, when I got to meet him and really, you know, put directly to him, right across the table, some of the things that I was most furious about -you know, the Coast Guard at one point made it a felony to go near some of these booms. And the booms for the most part were so silly. They really weren't doing anything.

And it seemed to me part of the orchestrated attempt to keep a lot of people away from seeing what was going on, and there was certainly a lot of that.

BP and the guards that BP hired, they were harassing people. They were harassing anybody who had a camera, anybody who looked a little too interested. And it seemed like the Coast Guard was in cahoots.

But Allen explained that the idea behind that was that people had actually been - I couldn't believe that, and it's still hard to imagine - people had actually been tampering a lot with the booms and breaking these lines of booms to get boats in and out.

FLATOW: You also said that when - there were so many choppers in the air that they might be hitting each other, news choppers and things.

Dr. SAFINA: Right. That was another thing. They had eight really near-collisions in midair. So they closed the area around there to most flight.

And so this looked and felt when I was there, including to the aviation company, like a giant conspiracy to keep everybody away. And I think it was probably a contained conspiracy to keep people away. And I think the Coast Guard was trying to manage a situation it was finding, in many ways, unmanageable. And there were some unintended consequences.

Thad Allen did say in a written edict that, despite this idea of a felony to get near the booms, that nobody should be prevented from going and seeing what was going on. No reporters should be harassed or detained, and it should be completely open unless there is a possibility for some sort of safety hazard.

Well, of course, in the enforcement of that, anybody can decide in the spur of the moment that there's a safety hazard. So as he explained to me at the end of our conversations, often what looks like a giant conspiracy is just a lot of incompetence colliding with each other. And I found his seeming honesty and his humility rather convincing.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're chatting with Carl Safina, author of the new book, "A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout." You can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I.

Another major player, Jane Lubchenco.

Dr. SAFINA: Yes.

FLATOW: You also said you had a change of heart a bit about her role in this.

Dr. SAFINA: Well, less a change of heart. I mean, I have a lot of respect for Dr. Lubchenco, and I've known her for a long time, since the mid-'90s. So usually when we see each other, we're on a first-name basis.

And I could see the incredible strain she was under to try to find out what was really going and to try to say and do the right things.

But there were times when I thought she was threading the needle a little too closely and parsing words a little too finely and getting a little confusing.

But what was more confusing than what she was putting out was what other people in the government and in the media were saying about what her agency was putting out. There was a tremendous amount of misinterpretation.

FLATOW: Such as? Give us an example.

Dr. SAFINA: Well, for instance, they put out a somewhat confusing pie chart showing where the oil was at that period of time last summer. A certain percent was in the water. A certain percent had evaporated. A certain percent had washed ashore.

And her agency is NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but the head of the EPA comes out and says, in a news conference, well, NOAA says that all the oil is gone.

FLATOW: I remember when she said that.

Dr. SAFINA: And, you know, people were very, very angry at Jane Lubchenco, but her agency had in fact said no such thing at all, not even close. And then some of the writers who were actually looking at the pie chart seemed to really just misread it.

And, I mean, I have the verbiage right in the book word for word, and it's incredible how much misinterpretation there could be. There were some things about it that were not that clear, but it got - you know, it just got sort of out of control. The confusion was amazing.

FLATOW: And you also talk about the White House, and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs sort of being tone-deaf about what Americans needed to hear from the White House. The wrong message was coming out.

Dr. SAFINA: Yeah, I mean, the people in the Gulf needed - they needed time to grieve. They didn't need to be told that everything was OK. And even though, in fact, a lot of things have played out better than our worst fears, there are still people there who are sick. And I think we're starting to appreciate this more now, that what may have looked like we completely dodged a bullet is looking like - there are quite a few wounded people still, and there's still -despite the fact that many of the fish and shrimp survived and are still there, the prices are really depressed.

You know, there's some concern on the part of consumers about whether the food is tainted and those kinds of things. So people are still - you know, it's not just that the place bounced back. There are still people who are really feeling it.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Mary(ph) in Arnold. Where's Arnold, Mary?

MARY (Caller): It's in Maryland, near Annapolis.

FLATOW: Aha. Go ahead.

MARY: I wanted to comment on the authority to order BP to take action. And earlier in the discussion were talking it'll be probably about OPA(ph) and that BP had (unintelligible) to clean up the spill.

I think that they're - and I'd like to think about this - another source of authority for the federal government to have used, had it chosen to, that would have allowed it to direct BP in the cleanup and the control of the leaking gas, and that is the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

Section 7,003 gives the federal government, via the Environmental Protection Agency, the power to address any release of hazardous or solid waste that might cause imminent and substantial endangerment, which is actually legally not a particularly high standard to meet and certainly would have been met in the situation.

It did allow the EPA to direct the entity responsible, to direct cleanup in the control of the release. It's rarely used, in part because (technical difficulties)...

FLATOW: Let me get a reaction, because...

MARY: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: Good question.

Dr. SAFINA: I didn't mean to imply that the federal government could not have done more or responded quite differently. I think it's pretty clear. My strong impression is that the Obama administration was terrified to use the powers that it might have called upon to get everybody else out of the way and federalized the cleanup because after what happened with Hurricane Katrina and with, you know, the lack of expertise in dealing with something like this, I think they were terrified that all the failure would be heaped directly upon them if they took it over, and I think that that's why they decided not to. I think they probably could have.

FLATOW: Mistake, do you think? (Unintelligible)

Dr. SAFINA: I don't know, because I don't know how they might have done it. You know, BP really just doesn't do much, except hire contractors. And in a real way the federal government, if they knew which contractors they simply wanted to hire to do that kind of work, they could have done it. But I think the risk of doing a lot that really didn't work and that wasted a lot of time and money was very high.

In fact, I think that the way that BP conducted its activities all summer wasted an absolutely staggering amount of time and money doing things that made absolutely no difference.

FLATOW: Such as?

Dr. SAFINA: Dragging booms around, putting booms on shrimp boats and having them drive through oil slicks, where the water just went right over them. I mean, I have aerial pictures that I took myself of all of the oily water going directly over the boom, and it looks like the boats are just stirring it. And they spent millions, I would say, sending thousands of people out day after day going around in circles. And I think it was just giving them something to do so they wouldn't riot, really, quite frankly.

FLATOW: Do we know what happened to the oil?

Dr. SAFINA: Not exactly. But we do know that some of it is in the water, a lot of it dissipated in various ways. Microbes ate a lot of it. It got diluted in the vast volume of the Gulf of Mexico. Some of it evaporated. Some of it came onshore. Some of it is in the sediment. It did a lot of things in different directions, and some of it is still coming up in the places especially that were heavily oiled, where it's - some of it is sitting on the seafloor, and you know, when the water stirs it, it comes back.

FLATOW: If we have a hurricane season again and there are big hurricanes in the Gulf, could that bring some of that oil?

Dr. SAFINA: Yeah. You - I would say you would certainly see some of it. I don't - I wouldn't expect you would see thick mats of it that - you know, I mean I don't think the future of that could be worse than it was at the height of it.

FLATOW: Talking with Carl Safina, author of "A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout" on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

So what are the take-home lessons from now we've had a year to think about it?

Dr. SAFINA: Oh, there are so many. For one thing, we had 30 years of incredibly advancing sophistication with deep drilling and absolutely no attention on what to do if there's a leaking pipe.

It is an oil well, after all. You would think that they would know how to catch the oil if some of it started leaking. A lot of that was actually mandated in Congress after the Exxon Valdez, that we were supposed to put money into developing ways of picking up oil out of seawater and almost all of that was slashed from budget after budget and totally defunded.

FLATOW: The NOAA budget?

Dr. SAFINA: The - yeah. Well, yes, the NOAA budget, right. And I think that the reason that that happened was part of this same very board sweep of deregulation that has - I would say - afflicted us now for the last 30 years, and so I see the banking collapse and the bailout and this blowout as part of one enormous gesture to make it very hard, if not impossible, for the government to protect the long-term public interests while in fact aiding the shorter-term narrow interests.

FLATOW: Killer bees.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SAFINA: Well, so I think that's one. The other thing is that the main problem with oil and other fossil fuels is not the oil that we spill, because that does eventually dissipate. It's the oil that we burn which is actually causing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to concentrate, and that is creating an imbalance in the heat budget of the entire planet. It's acidifying the oceans, and it's creating enormous and unprecedented long-term problems globally that everybody will have to deal with in a variety ways.

The other thing is that the more concentrated you make energy, the more concentrated you make the risks, and accidents always happen. They will happen again.

FLATOW: Are we making any - are the new oil leases that are coming out again, are they - do they have better blowout preventers on them now? Or do they have better drilling, you know, techniques than they had before?

Dr. SAFINA: They have better oversight of their plans. I don't think that they would get away with just having walruses in the plans for the Gulf of Mexico because people in the past just didn't even bother to read those plans. They have better oversight. They broke up the oversight service so that the enforcement and the oversight is different from the part of it that is supposed to encourage more resource extraction.

So that is better, but the blowout preventers, we only learned a few weeks ago that fundamentally in the design of this blowout preventer, the force of the blowout caused the pipe to bend slightly. It was off center by about an inch, and that seems to have prevented the blowout from being able to - I mean, the preventer from being able to actually shear the pipes. So fundamentally, that's the same. There's no more hardware than there was to deal what I think within be an inevitable reoccurrence at some point.

The damage cap is still $75 million. BP has spent billions of dollars that they didn't - they weren't required by law to spend. And another oil company just decides not to do it or does it in a place where they're not so many people, they're just not required to pay much, and Congress decided not to up that cap, which to me is astonishing. It's the first easy thing that could be done.

We're still giving giant, giant subsidies to the oil companies. Why are we doing that? It's - we need to develop all kinds of alternative fuel, harness the eternal energy that actually runs the planet that is not subject to these kinds of spills and explosions and hazards, and we're still putting out the banquet for the sumo wrestlers and leaving the entrepreneurs starving.

FLATOW: All right. Thank you very much, Carl, for taking time to be with us today.

Dr. SAFINA: You're very welcome.

FLATOW: Carl Safina is president and co-founder of the Blue Ocean Institute, also the host of the PBS series "Saving the Oceans with Carl Safina." His new book, "A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout," very informative if you want a blow-by-blow account of what happened last year. He was here in our New York studio.

Thanks for taking time to be with us today.

Dr. SAFINA: Thanks so much, Ira. I really appreciate it.

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