Placing Blame For The BP Oil Spill

Guests

Elizabeth Shogren, national environment correspondent, NPR
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, (R-Fl.)

Far more oil than originally feared may be gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. BP insists that it's impossible to calculate the amount oil spewing from the broken rig. Investigators continue their search for answers about what happened and who is responsible.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

BP claimed today that a mile-long hose siphons 5,000 barrels of oil every day from the massive leak in the Gulf of Mexico, which is about the size of the leak, according to a recent BP estimate.

Independent analysts believe the leak could be as much as 20 times bigger than that. Large swaths of the Gulf have been closed to fishing, a thick blanket of oil has begun to wash into marshes and onto beaches along parts of the Gulf shore, and oil is now finding its way into currents that could take it down the west coast of Florida, onto the north shore of Cuba, and up the East Coast.

The investigation into what happened and why, who's responsible and who will pay whom and how much has only just started. A presidential commission will now be part of that investigation, but it's likely to be years, if not decades, before this is all resolved.

In a moment, an update on what we know now. Then Florida Congressman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will join us. Later in the hour, a new comic book where Macbeth battles Richard III and Iago accompanies the prince of Denmark on a quest to kill Shakespeare.

But first, blame and pay for the oil spill. If you work in the oil industry, from your experience, who do you think is responsible? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

By the way, if you go to that website now, there's a link to a live video feed from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico that shows the gushing oil. It's just been posted by a congressional website after inquiries to BP. We understand they're being a little swamped right now. So the feed may be a little slow to get up. But again, go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We'll begin here in Studio 3A with NPR's Elizabeth Shogren. She's the national environment correspondent that's been covering the Gulf leak, and thanks very much for being with us today.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: My pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And how can we even begin to estimate what's going to be needed, what kind of damage there might be, if we can't figure out how much oil is gushing into the Gulf?

SHOGREN: Well, that is a huge question, isn't it? I mean, we don't know how much is going in there. The government says that they will do more to try to estimate it. They're pushing BP to do more, but so far they really can't tell us.

CONAN: And it may be some time before - it's three weeks now since the disaster happened.

SHOGREN: A month.

CONAN: A month, my gosh. So at this point we are seeing not sheen, not light crude in the shore areas, but heavy oil.

SHOGREN: Yes, in fact, I was just in Louisiana just a couple days ago, and by that point they had not seen yet the heavy oil in the marshes, but since then they have started to see it.

And the concern is that these marshes are very fragile, and they're also an incredibly rich ecosystem for all kinds of seafood to start its life and develop. And so if you see - and if the marshes do get covered with oil, the plants can actually die, and then instead of being a marsh it would turn into open water, and then it's not that wonderful nursery for all kinds of marine life.

CONAN: And among the many other benefits it provides to us all, it helps protect us against rainstorms, and, well, hurricane season is coming.

SHOGREN: That's right.

CONAN: Another thing that a lot of people are interested in: What do we know now about who's been responsible? We had congressional hearings last week where people pointed a lot of fingers. Do we know more about what happened and why?

SHOGREN: Well, the government keeps saying that BP is responsible, but I think responsibility is - BP keeps saying we are responsible, but we share it with other companies, and some of the - one of the other companies involved is Halliburton, that had a crew on the rig doing a cement job just before the blow happened.

CONAN: And we understand that cement was involved in sealing down the well head so that the oil goes through the pipe and then can be pumped up to - well, I guess pressure takes it to the surface, and that can be put on ships and into pipelines and then taken away for processing, for refinement.

But nevertheless, Halliburton apparently told its stockholders yesterday: We don't think we're going to have to pay a dime.

SHOGREN: Well, we'll have to wait to see what comes out of the investigation. The oil experts, the engineers I spoke with, said that it's hard for them to imagine a way that this disaster would have happened if that cementing job was done perfectly.

Of course, we don't have all the answers yet, but what they say is that if the cementing job had been done perfectly, it's really hard to imagine how this well blew in the first place.

CONAN: Well, then there's also the blowout preventer that's supposed to be there, and obviously that didn't work perfectly either.

SHOGREN: There's no question that failed its job. There's no question that failed. So that's also in play. And is the company that built it responsible? Is the company that owned the rig responsible because it should have done more? And is the government responsible? Because, after all, it does regulate this industry, and it's supposed to do it quite aggressively, because - to prevent against these kinds of disasters, because obviously the consequences aren't consequences just borne by the company but by Americans who - because these are natural resources that we all share.

CONAN: And within the past two weeks we've seen a succession of proposals to reform the agency, the MMS, that's responsible for overseeing these operations, first to split it into two parts, now into three parts.

SHOGREN: But these are all very modest changes so far. And I think that one of the problems is that when government is trying to regulate very difficult technologies, it doesn't do it very well yet, and that's because - how do you know what the most up-to-date way is to do anything?

And I think that the Minerals Management Service was pushed pretty far with this because this technology is very complicated and what we're trying to do is to drill a mile below the surface and then send a drill down quite a ways, thousands of feet below that.

So this is a very different world than most of the drilling that had been done offshore for decades.

CONAN: Yet just a few years ago, the MMS was involved in a scandal involving literally being in bed, in some cases, with the oil industry, and there's been a succession of charges that agency is much too close to the business it's supposed to regulate, much too concerned with the extracting-the-payments part of this and not so much concerned with the environmental protection and the safety part of this.

SHOGREN: Those criticisms have all been sent towards MMS, and there's no question that even the Interior Department has found a lot of trouble with those kinds of practices.

I mean, it's clear that there was this one part of MMS, which was Royalties in Kind, and the government officials would go to the production place and collect the money there, and that's part of where a lot of this corruption was happening.

And the Interior Department was closing down that branch, and they were trying to do reforms, but maybe things were just not going fast enough.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR national environment correspondent Elizabeth Shogren. If you've worked in the oil industry, what does your experience tell you about what happened, why, who's responsible? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Kevin's on the line, calling from Amherst in Massachusetts.

KEVIN (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi.

KEVIN: I was a petroleum geologist working on land in the Rockies and the Appalachians through the '70s and '80s. In general terms, BP is liable for this, but all of the contractors and BP are responsible. They all hold their own responsibility.

CONAN: Is the situation analogous, one company will own the well, another company will own the rig, another company will manufacture the equivalent of a blowout preventer?

KEVIN: That's always the case, yes. But the idea that the BP - I mean, the BP company man is always on the rig. The drilling company always has their company man and the drillers on the rig. Halliburton, when they're on-site, has a chief engineer who is responsible for all of the cementing and testing after the fact.

If there was a bad cement job on the surface casing, on the primary casing, that was cemented a long time before they ever ran into an oil-and-gas-producing (unintelligible). So they could not have possibly pressure tested that cement job if they had such a catastrophic blowout.

SHOGREN: You know, I have a question for you. One of the things that was interesting to me in reporting this, especially in the early weeks, was that the government officials who regulate the industry and the industry engineers and the industry executives all said the same thing.

They were shocked that this happened. They couldn't believe that it would happen, and if something like this would happen, they had no inkling that such consequences could happen.

Does that surprise, being from the industry?

KEVIN: It doesn't surprise me that they would say it. It surprises me that they might believe themselves while they're saying it. Running into a high-pressure formation like this and getting a kick that would empty the well bore of the drilling bud and all of the hydrostatic pressure that actually keeps the well under control is something that the mud engineer and the company man are responsible for.

The company that I started working for was called Baroid Petroleum Services, and they're the ones who make up the barite mud that they drill with, and it's the mud that keeps the well actually under control if they hit a high-pressure zone.

CONAN: Well, Kevin, thank you very much for that. That's all very interesting information. Given that experience, do you think there's going to be a - and it's 5,000 feet down, it's a mile down - do you think there's going to be tremendous trouble in controlling it?

KEVIN: It's like trying to thread a needle from a mile away, and they have the technology to do it. I'm surprised that it has taken them this long to come up with even methods that don't work.

You know, they should have within, you know, a week or two have been able to close off that well and start pumping on it to relieve the pressure around the preventer and to stop the leak.

CONAN: Well, Kevin, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.

KEVIN: Yeah.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking about the oil leak. Oil continues to spew into the Gulf of Mexico. Again, there's a live video feed that's just been available on a congressional website. You can find a link to it on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Be patient. As you might assume, they're being a little overwhelmed right now. So it'll come up eventually.

Stay with us. We're talking with Elizabeth Shogren, NPR national environment correspondent. In a few minutes, we're going to be joined by Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a congresswoman of the 17th District of Florida, about liability and how much the cap should be raised, if it should be raised at all, or maybe it should be infinite. We'll talk about it. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music) CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

As long as oil continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico, most attention remains focused on stopping the blowout and cleaning up the mess, but investigations are already underway into who's responsible, what happened and who will be liable to pay who for what and how much.

As the lawsuits number 130 and counting, eventually somebody will pay for the economic damages suffered by Gulf Coast businesses and properties. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican from Florida, wants to make sure it's the oil companies who pay.

She's proposed a bill dubbed the Big Oil Bailout Prevention Act. A similar bill in the Senate was derailed by Republicans. We'll talk with the congresswoman in just a few moments. She's currently voting on the floor of the House, and she'll join us after that.

And still with us, Elizabeth Shogren, NPR national environment correspondent, who's been covering the oil leak, and let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. David's with us from Destin, Florida.

DAVID (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, David.

DAVID: How are you doing?

CONAN: We're well, thank you.

DAVID: I - you know, clearly the responsibility is, you know, squarely on BP's shoulders, but having been in the oil business for several years, having worked in and around the service industry out in California, is that one thing that I think is extraordinary is that everybody's trying to calculate the flow rate and this type of thing.

You know, the rig has logs that they produced that, you know, clearly can identify the flow rate at the time that they were completing the well. So it seems that that's a question that needs to be asked, so that, you know, here on the Emerald Coast, you know, we can at least triangulate on, you know, what the flow rates are and how much oil is pouring into the Gulf so that the environmentalists can put some kind of plan together to deal with that. And I find it extraordinary that that hasn't come out.

Number two...

CONAN: Well, let's get a - let me ask Elizabeth about that. Has that kind of information been available?

SHOGREN: It has not. One of the things that BP told me is that this well and the - for one thing, this well wasn't producing yet. So it hadn't started flowing by the time this accident happened. In fact, I guess the accident was the kind of catastrophic beginning of this well producing. And since then it has been producing, and one of the BP executives I talked to said one of the reasons that it looks like so much is flowing, so much more than BP estimates, is that a huge portion of what's coming out is actually gas and not oil. And it's unusually large for wells like this.

So I don't know whether they're right or whether they're not, but that's one of the reasons that they say it looks like a lot more than it actually is.

DAVID: Right. Well, the - you know, the flow rates out of these deep-water wells is extraordinary, and I think that anyone in the industry will tell you that. And I believe that the reason why they're not interested in essentially cutting off the header pipe, getting some fishing tools in there to get the drill pipe out and then just completing the well is that they are just scared to death of the flow rate and being able to quickly contain it.

So I think all of these Rube Goldberg-type of approaches to solving it is clearly representative of the fact that they're deeply concerned about what the ultimate flow rate would be if they tried to approach it, you know, the way that these things would normally be approached.

CONAN: And the Rube Goldberg devices, the containment box, the top hat, the hose that they're using now.

DAVID: Exactly. So I think that clearly what needs to happen is they need to put aside all of these, you know, this concern and just get after the business at hand, which is to, you know, cut the header pipe off and get in there, get the stem out and get the thing completed. Because I think we've just wasted an extraordinary amount of time to do that.

And you know, at first I thought, well, you know, possibly the rig had fallen on top of the structure, but you know, I've seen from some of the recent videotapes that doesn't (technical difficulties) the case. So why they're not just getting down there and doing that, I have no idea.

CONAN: David, good points. Thank you very much for the call.

DAVID: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Mark in Alabama: I've been involved with drilling wells all around the world. I've worked shoulder to shoulder with drilling engineers.

Here's the truth: An offshore rig is a ship. The drilling engineer on board is the captain of that ship. The drilling engineer works for the operator, BP in this case. If the casing seat is not cured - that's the concrete he's talking about - if the blowout preventers are inoperable, if the rig puts dangerously low-weight mud in the hole, if the crew fails to notice the beginnings of a blowout, it's the drilling engineer's fault.

It is a direct indictment of the BP management structure that they do not take direct responsibility. They failed to take responsibility before 4/20, then that caused the blowout, and they continue not to take responsibility for this event.

And that's fair enough. They seemed to be, in terms of taking responsibility, at the congressional hearing last week, Elizabeth, saying no, no, no, Transocean.

SHOGREN: There was a lot of finger-pointing at that hearing, and there's still a lot of finger-pointing now. I don't think BP is saying it bears no responsibility though.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get - this is a call from Yitzhak(ph), Yitzhak calling us from Jerusalem in Israel.

YITZHAK (Caller): Hi. I'd worked on - in the Gulf of Mexico on offshore rigs, not as deep as the one that is - that the BP one is, but in thousand or 1,200 feet of water. And I just want to ask Elizabeth, before I - well, let me just make my point.

The Minerals Management Service may also bear liability here. There's a law known as the National Environmental Policy Act which requires environmental impact assessments of every federal project where a lease or a permit is issued. And they didn't do that.

There were documents floating around all over the Net showing how they - BP tried to get away, get out from the responsibility of doing all sorts of things, including an EIS, environmental impact statement.

CONAN: Elizabeth, is that right?

SHOGREN: Yes. Actually, I have some interesting context to add here. So one of the things to step back and remember is that we have been as a nation pressing to get more and more and more domestic fuel produced. And Congress has passed laws that try to accelerate that production.

And one of the things that the Interior Department says, that that - that recent laws have hamstrung their efforts to do these very environmental impact statements because Congress says that they have to come back in 30 days with a decision, and that's not enough time to do these thorough reviews.

YITZHAK: Well, normally what happens, Elizabeth, is that the person who is going to perform or asking the permit, they do it, and then the government will review it.

So even if they can - if the government isn't doing it, 30 days is obviously a very, very short leash. They have to, though, try to come up with at least something that they have to approve. That's the issue, and that's where I think that the Department of Interior, the parent agency of the MMS, is going to be responsible.

I do have a question for you.

CONAN: Go ahead.

YITZHAK: Because when this whole thing went down, the first thing I thought of, and you all may recall this, is that when the Gulf - after the Gulf War in Kuwait, there were organizations, Boots & Coots and others, who were blowing up the wells.

And that is the first thing normally you would do onshore. Offshore it's a little more difficult, but why BP didn't blow up the well or even get, as crazy as it sounds, the Navy to put a submarine in there and shoot a missile or a torpedo into it and just have the well crash in on itself is beyond me, because that is doable, and that would have obviated all the problems here.

And with regards to BP...

CONAN: Yitzhak, let me just ask Elizabeth if that was considered, if that ever came up.

SHOGREN: You know, I do not know if that, those particular scenarios were considered. No one has mentioned them to me. However, I do know that I spoke with the U.S. Coast Guard commander in charge of the response, Admiral Landry(ph), just a couple days ago, and she said that basically there has been a lot of concern about this well basically blowing and starting to produce a lot more than it has been.

And I remember this from the early days of this investigation, that clearly this well is producing, but it could produce a lot more if something happened, and my hunch is that they fear that if they did something like what you're suggesting, that instead of having a well producing at the rate that it is now, which is very - which is, of course, a lot, it would produce a lot more.

YITZHAK: Well, I think the simple fact is that there are engineers in the oil industry who could probably implode the well so that it wouldn't even be producing a drop of oil. I also believe, just from reading, and obviously this is going to come out, that what probably happened is they hit a gas pocket, and that, under tremendous pressure, just as your previous caller said, and that basically blew the whole works to the sky. And...

CONAN: That seems to be consensus, at least at this point, though obviously these investigations are going to be continuing.

YITZHAK: One other thing. Since I'm overseas, I read The Guardian and The Guardian had an article where they quoted Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP, as saying that, you know, this is just a drop in the Gulf because it's not that much. And he says, Americans are very litigious.

CONAN: Well, he's right about that last part. But is this just a drop in the Gulf, Elizabeth?

SHOGREN: It's not a drop in the Gulf. One of the groups of scientists I spoke to when I was in Louisiana just over the weekend was that a group that had been out in the ocean, measuring the - sending capsules down in - containers down into the ocean and capturing the water to sample how much oil was in there. And they saw what looked to them to be large plumes, many miles long of oily water very deep in the sea.

And we don't know yet what all the consequences are for all kinds of species that live out there, whether it's - whether we're talking about blue fin tuna or whale sharks or turtles. They have seen some dead animals. But the scientists, whether they work for the federal government or independent, they think that there's probably a lot more impact than they'd been able to see because most of these animals live far away from where any biologists' eyes have been.

CONAN: And just - I was in the Gulf at the end of the first Gulf War and the machinery often was not damaged when the Iraqis - set fire to it as they retreated. And the companies that were in fact also very effective afterwards were Russians companies that came in with jet engines, normally used on MIG-21s. And they set up the engine and literally blew out the flame. And after the fire was out, then engineers could go in and close the valves that had not been that much seriously damaged. So there were any number of different approaches to be used. I don't think that's possible 5,000 feet below the surface of the water. And, indeed, I don't know what the possibilities of explosives are.

In any case, we're talking with Elizabeth Shogren, NPR national environment correspondent, who's covering the oil spill for NPR. We still hope to talk with Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. She's still voting on the floor of the House of Representatives. We're told she's on her way back to her office.

We hope that she arrive there in time to talk us a little bit about liability. She's sponsoring a bill to raise the limit on liability from about $27 million now to $10 billion. There are some in Congress who want to make that an infinite cap, saying no cap at all. However much it costs, that's what the oil companies should pay, and these construction companies. Anyway, stay with us. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Charles(ph), and Charles is with us in Taos in New Mexico.

CHARLES (Caller): Yes. I've done a lot of drilling under high pressure. And one of your problems with it when you're casing or shminning(ph) deal like that is to keep a hydrostatic column in your hole at all times. And the only way I can imagine this happened is somebody had a dry hole. Because, I mean, they wouldve known they had a problem, okay, because there wouldve been a lot of material coming back up that hole. And you monitor that all the time.

CONAN: So you think they had a dry hole where there wouldve been no liquid of any sort coming up the hole?

CHARLES: Correct.

CONAN: And what would the effect of that have been?

CHARLES: That would've been a typical blowout, okay? And the rig wouldve exploded.

CONAN: It's interesting because what we've - the theory that we've heard thus far is that, in fact, there was sort of bolus of gas under enormous pressure down there at 5,000 feet, methane, and that it expanded - shot up the pipe up to the surface and that's what caused the explosion.

CHARLES: Well, I personally - in my experience, says that if they have fluid in that hole and then it was weighted up - and they shouldve been looking in their mud tanks, and suddenly the - it started - the level in their mud tanks started showing that more was coming up...

CONAN: Charles...

CHARLES: ...and was going down.

CONAN: Charles, thanks very much for that. I'm sorry to cut you off, but the congresswoman is on the line with us. So thanks very much...

Representative ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN (Republican, Florida): Guys, we had votes and so I am so sorry.

CONAN: Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida. Thank you very much for being with us today. And we know you've got other priorities. You have to actually cast votes there in Congress from time to time.

Rep. ROS-LEHTINEN: I like it when democracy gets in the way.

CONAN: Indeed. In any case, you held a roundtable down there in your district on Monday about how Florida could be impacted. How did that go?

Rep. ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, it was very good. It was just in the initial days of the oil spill where there was still a lot of conflicting information about the depth of the spill, how all-encompassing it was. And still, even today, so many days after the oil spill, you're getting new information. The latest information yesterday was that, boy, did BP underestimate the amount of oil getting spewed out. It's now four million gallons a day, 20 times what they had estimated originally.

And there's still a lot of speculation in my home state of Florida about if it's going to get down there. Estimates are that it could be there in eight to 10 days. The tarballs that we had wash along the Keys shoreline on - just a few days ago, yesterday, it was determined that they were not from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill so...

CONAN: And...

Rep. ROS-LEHTINEN: ...its sort of like good news and bad news every minute.

CONAN: We just have a couple of minutes left. I know you're co-sponsoring legislation to raise the current cap on the oil company's liability from $75 million to $10 billion. You've dubbed it the Big Oil Bailout Prevention Act. Right now, that kind of legislation is being blocked by some of your fellow Republicans. Can you tell us what you're telling them about why this should go ahead?

Rep. ROS-LEHTINEN: And it's a shame because when it hits their space and when they see what the kind of the damaging impact it can have, not only just physically, which was devastating to our precious coral reefs, but also the amount of lost revenue due to loss in tourism. And that's so difficult to give a real hard number because we don't know how many recreational fishermen are having their reservations canceled because people are thinking, why am I going to go deep-sea fishing in the Florida Keys? They might have...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Rep. ROS-LEHTINEN: ...oily seas, et cetera. And now the news today about dispersants possibly being very toxic...

CONAN: The chemicals being used, yeah.

Rep. ROS-LEHTINEN: ...and requiring BP to identify a less toxic alternative. So they need to pay up. And what if the next time we don't have a company that says they're willing to pay and they will be chintzy with their money, and then what will happen to those states? So all of those people who don't want the liability increased, they should think about what could happen. Their state could be next.

CONAN: And we have literally 30 seconds left. The U.S. government is in contact with the government of Cuba to coordinate when the - if and when this oil lands on their coast. Is that...

Rep. ROS-LEHTINEN: Just a fairly routine conversation that happens also during hurricane season. It impacts the global community, and I don't think it's anything to worry about. But I'm telling people - my message is, come on down, the water is fine. And all those guys who wanted to be drilling - drill, baby, drill - well, look at what we've got now. They should reconsider that position. It's been very harmful to our environment.

CONAN: Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, we thank her for her time. Also Elizabeth Shogren. This is NPR News.

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