Drilling Advocate Frustrated By Handling Of Oil Spill

The Gulf's blue waters are streaked with reddish tendrils of oil. Debbie Elliott/NPR i i

The Gulf's blue waters are streaked with reddish tendrils of oil. Debbie Elliott/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Debbie Elliott/NPR
The Gulf's blue waters are streaked with reddish tendrils of oil. Debbie Elliott/NPR

The Gulf's blue waters are streaked with reddish tendrils of oil.

Debbie Elliott/NPR

As thick oil coats Louisiana's fragile marshlands, there's growing frustration with BP's inability to stop a gusher in the Gulf of Mexico and the government's oversight of the environmental disaster. Fed up with the response, one man who pushed for offshore drilling is rethinking his role in the tragedy.

Tom Hutchings. Debbie Elliott/NPR i i

"I was kind of on the bandwagon," environmental consultant Tom Hutchings says. "I was drinking the company Kool-Aid." Debbie Elliott/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Debbie Elliott/NPR
Tom Hutchings. Debbie Elliott/NPR

"I was kind of on the bandwagon," environmental consultant Tom Hutchings says. "I was drinking the company Kool-Aid."

Debbie Elliott/NPR

Tom Hutchings is flying south over Mobile Bay, into the Gulf of Mexico. It's his sixth such flight since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig sunk more than a month ago.

About 40 miles south of the Alabama coast, he points to a line of sheen glistening in the morning sun. It turns brighter, becoming strands of pinkish crude as his plane nears the site of the oil rig explosion. The strands get thicker and darker.

"What I'm seeing now is different from what I've seen before," Hutchings says. "These large, dark, almost burgundy spots of oil. They look like blood, really."

Early on he saw a frothy mix. Now, pools and streams of the red oil streak the deep blue water.

"The whole sea is nothing but a reflection of the oil on top of it," he says. "That is not what the Gulf of Mexico should look like."

Hutchings is an environmental consultant who typically works with industries to manage environmental risk. He's spent his career forging the middle ground between economic and environmental interests. He lives in Montrose, Ala., on the red clay bluffs that line the eastern shore of Mobile Bay.

"Stories go back to where people supposedly sat on this particular bluff and watched Admiral Farragut and his troops come up the bay," he says. "I'm really hoping the defenses at the mouth of the bay are a little better than they were in the Civil War. But it's distressing, it's permeating. It's touched me from the moment I saw that rig on fire."

And ever since, his frustration has grown in proportion to the amount of oil that's spewing from the sea floor. He doesn't understand why BP can't stop the leak.

"It seems to me that they certainly had a PR plan for the disaster, but they certainly had no plan for the spill — for handling the actual consequences of the spill."

BP's first attempt to curtail the flow with a containment dome failed. A tube inserted into a leaking pipe has diverted some oil, but it's not clear what proportion of the daily spillage that is. BP and the Coast Guard have said 5,000 barrels a day are spewing into the Gulf, but scientists tell NPR it could be 10 times that amount or even more.

Last week, BP Chairman Tony Hayward told Sky News that the company was having success getting control of the spill. "Everything we can see at the moment suggests that the overall environmental impact will be very, very modest," he said.

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    A boat uses a boom and absorbent material to soak up oil in Cat Bay, near Grand Isle, La., on June 28. A tropical storm is expected to hit the Gulf and impede cleanup efforts.
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  • Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and wife Carole Rome Crist (right) stand with others during a Hands Across the Sand event June 26 in Pensacola, Fla. The event was staged across the nation to protest offshore oil drilling.
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    Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and wife Carole Rome Crist (right) stand with others during a Hands Across the Sand event June 26 in Pensacola, Fla. The event was staged across the nation to protest offshore oil drilling.
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  • President Obama stands with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (right) and Gulfport, Miss., Mayor George Schloegel after meeting with residents affected by the oil spill.
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    Crude oil washes ashore in Orange Beach, Ala., on June 12. Oil slicks, 4 to 6 inches thick in some parts, have washed up along the Alabama coast.
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  • Sand from a dredge is pumped onto East Grand Terre Island, La., to provide a barrier against the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, June 8.
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  • Plaquemines Parish coastal zone director P.J. Hahn lifts an oil-covered pelican out of the water on Queen Bess Island in Plaquemines Parish, La., June 5.
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    Plaquemines Parish coastal zone director P.J. Hahn lifts an oil-covered pelican out of the water on Queen Bess Island in Plaquemines Parish, La., June 5.
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    Heavy oil pools along the side of a boom just outside Cat Island in Grand Isle, La., June 6.
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  • President Obama walks alongside Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle (from right), U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is in charge of the federal response to the spill, and Chris Camardelle after meeting with local business owners in Grand Isle, La., June 4.
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    President Obama walks alongside Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle (from right), U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is in charge of the federal response to the spill, and Chris Camardelle after meeting with local business owners in Grand Isle, La., June 4.
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    A brown pelican sits on the beach at East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast after being drenched in oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, June 3.
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  • U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announces that the Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into the BP oil spill. With him, from left: Stephanie Finley and Jim Letten, U.S. attorneys for the Western District of Louisiana; Ignacia Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division; Tony West, assistant attorney general, Civil Division; and Do...
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    U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announces that the Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into the BP oil spill. With him, from left: Stephanie Finley and Jim Letten, U.S. attorneys for the Western District of Louisiana; Ignacia Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division; Tony West, assistant attorney general, Civil Division; and Don Burkhalter, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi.
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  • A worker leaves the beach in Grand Isle, La., on May 30. BP is turning to yet another mix of undersea robot maneuvers to help keep more crude oil from flowing into the Gulf.
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    A worker leaves the beach in Grand Isle, La., on May 30. BP is turning to yet another mix of undersea robot maneuvers to help keep more crude oil from flowing into the Gulf.
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  • Protesters cover themselves with a water and paint mixture during a demonstration at a BP gas station in New York City on May 28.
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  • Residents listen to a discussion with parish officials and a BP representative on May 25 in Chalmette, La. Officials now say that it may be impossible to clean the hundreds of miles of coastal wetlands affected by the massive oil spill.
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    Residents listen to a discussion with parish officials and a BP representative on May 25 in Chalmette, La. Officials now say that it may be impossible to clean the hundreds of miles of coastal wetlands affected by the massive oil spill.
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  • An oil-soaked pelican takes flight after Louisiana Fish and Wildlife employees tried to corral it on an island in Barataria Bay on the coast of Louisiana. The island, which is home to hundreds of brown pelican nests as well at terns, gulls and roseate spoonbills, is impacted by oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill.
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    An oil-soaked pelican takes flight after Louisiana Fish and Wildlife employees tried to corral it on an island in Barataria Bay on the coast of Louisiana. The island, which is home to hundreds of brown pelican nests as well at terns, gulls and roseate spoonbills, is impacted by oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill.
    Gerald Herbert/AP
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    A sign warns the public to stay away from the beach on Grand Isle, La. Officials closed the oil-covered beaches to the public indefinitely on Saturday.
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  • Pelican eggs stained with oil sit in a nest on an island in Barataria Bay on May 22.
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  • A bird flies over oil that has collected on wetlands on Elmer's Island in Grand Isle, La., May 20. The oil came inland despite oil booms that were placed at the wetlands' mouth on the Gulf of Mexico.
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    A bird flies over oil that has collected on wetlands on Elmer's Island in Grand Isle, La., May 20. The oil came inland despite oil booms that were placed at the wetlands' mouth on the Gulf of Mexico.
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  • The hands of boat captain Preston Morris are covered in oil after collecting surface samples from the marsh of Pass a Loutre, La., on May 19.
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  • Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (center) and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser (right) tour the oil-impacted marsh of Pass a Loutre, La. "This is the heavy oil that everyone's been fearing that is here now," said Jindal.
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    Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (center) and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser (right) tour the oil-impacted marsh of Pass a Loutre, La. "This is the heavy oil that everyone's been fearing that is here now," said Jindal.
    Gerald Herbert/AP
  • BP Chairman and President Lamar McKay (left), with Transocean President and CEO Steven Newman (center) and Applied Science Associates Principal Deborah French McCay, testifies during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing May 18 on response efforts to the Gulf Coast oil spill.
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    BP Chairman and President Lamar McKay (left), with Transocean President and CEO Steven Newman (center) and Applied Science Associates Principal Deborah French McCay, testifies during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing May 18 on response efforts to the Gulf Coast oil spill.
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  • This undated frame grab image received from BP and provided by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee shows details of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP has agreed to display a live video feed of the oil gusher on the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee's website beginning Thursday evening.
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    This undated frame grab image received from BP and provided by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee shows details of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP has agreed to display a live video feed of the oil gusher on the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee's website beginning Thursday evening.
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  • President Obama speaks with local fishermen about how they are affected by the oil spill in Venice, La., on May 2.
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    President Obama speaks with local fishermen about how they are affected by the oil spill in Venice, La., on May 2.
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  • Danene Birtell with Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research tends to a Northern Gannet in Fort Jackson, La., on April 30. The bird, normally white when full grown, is covered in oil from the oil spill.
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    Danene Birtell with Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research tends to a Northern Gannet in Fort Jackson, La., on April 30. The bird, normally white when full grown, is covered in oil from the oil spill.
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  • Since the explosion, a third oil leak has been discovered in the blown-out well.
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    Since the explosion, a third oil leak has been discovered in the blown-out well.
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  • In this aerial photo taken April 21 more than 50 miles southeast of Venice, La., the Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns.
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    In this aerial photo taken April 21 more than 50 miles southeast of Venice, La., the Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns.
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  • Tendrils of oil mar the waters of the Gulf of Mexico in this satellite image taken Monday. An estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day are seeping into the Gulf, after an explosion last week on a drilling rig about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast.
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    Tendrils of oil mar the waters of the Gulf of Mexico in this satellite image taken Monday. An estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day are seeping into the Gulf, after an explosion last week on a drilling rig about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast.
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Hayward also told the Guardian that the Gulf of Mexico is "a very big ocean, and the volume of oil we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume."

Hutchings disagrees. "If a BP exec wants to call something tiny," he says, "call the effort tiny."

Hutchings thinks BP and the government should be doing more — living up to the assurances that convinced him to support offshore oil and gas development.

"I was kind of on the bandwagon," he says. "'Hey, it's safe.' I was drinking the company Kool-Aid. They had the safety regulations in place. Everybody was touting no risk to this, no risk to that."

Even with the looming threat, Hutchings says it's not realistic to stop offshore drilling now. But he doesn't think the industry should be able to push the frontier in such deep water until the safety technology catches up. He says that's where the government has failed.

"We've not been able to say no to apparently any oil industry request," he says. "That's not what I think EPA is for, Coast Guard is for, that's not what our government is for."

Administration officials are defending BP's response to the disaster. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had a lengthy and somewhat testy exchange with reporters on Friday.

"There's nothing that we think can and should be done that isn't being done," Gibbs said. "Nothing."

From his plane over the oil-streaked Gulf of Mexico, Hutchings is disheartened. "This thing is huge. Out of control," he says. "The truth is, they don't know how to stop it."

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