Oil Spill Update: Hitch with Plugging Leak; Obama Extends Drilling Moratorium; Wildlife Deaths on the Rise; BP Saw Warning Signs

Lousiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologists untangle an oiled pelican from fishing wire and take it to be cleaned. Photo by Kim Hubbard/Audubon magazine.

It’s been 37 days since the first explosion hit the Deepwater Horizon oilrig in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20. After a month of waiting for the slick to hit land, in the last week oil has begun washing up on more and more of the coast, claiming a growing number of wildlife victims and taxing response efforts. This morning S. Elizabeth Birnbaum, head of the MMS, resigned under pressure.

Here’s the latest news on the Gulf oil spill: 

BP drastically underestimated size of leak
The flow of oil from the broken wellhead may be four times the amount BP said was pouring into the ocean, making it the largest oil spill in U.S. history.
Government experts announced today that their preliminary investigation showed that the flow is in the range of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day—far more than BP’s figure of 5,000 barrels daily. The group, made up of experts from the federal, private, and academic sectors, used three different methodologies to make the calculations because measuring oil flow is extremely challenging, given the environment, unique nature of the flow, limited visibility, and lack of human access to BP’s leaking oil well.

Workers deploy hard boom around an island containing a pelican nesting colony. Many of the pelicans are already oiled, including the one shown on the far right. Photo by Kim Hubbard/Audubon Magazine
Oil and wildlife
The waiting is over: Oil is washing ashore. "Unfortunately, it's looking like a real oil spill now," Larry McKinney, who heads the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, part of Texas A&M University, told the San Francisco Gate. "This is the stuff that does the damage."

Pass-a-Loutre marsh. Photo by Kim Hubbard/Audubon magazine
Louisiana is being hit hardest, with oil making its way onto beaches and into marshes filled with birds. In Pass-a-Loutre marsh, the rust-colored grease is clinging to the plants and the birds.
To date, wildlife rescuers have found 440 birds, 393 of the dead and the rest captured alive. Experts are still determining how many turtle and dolphin mortalities are due to the spill. On Monday, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition to have the Atlantic bluefin tuna listed as an endangered species; the Gulf of Mexico is the only documented spawning ground of the western stock (the eastern stock spawns in the Mediterranean).
Setback holds up effort to plug leak
UPDATED 7:40am May 28: On Thursday night BP resumed its efforts to stop the leak from the wellhead 5,000 feet below the surface. Though the company and government officials indicated on Thursday morning that the process seemed to be working, they later said that they'd actually stopped pumping on Wednesday night when engineers saw that too much of the mud was escaping with gas and oil.

No explanation was given as to why officials created the impression that pumping was underway Thursday morning. "The engineers also said that the problem they encountered was not entirely unexpected, and that  they believed they would ultimately succeed," The New York Times reports. 

The “top kill” procedure works by injecting heavy drilling fluids through the blowout preventer on the seabed, down into the well. If enough of this “drilling mud” accumulates, it should overcome the upward pressure of the crude oil escaping from the well and plug it. 

From The New York Times:

A technician at the BP command center said that pumping of the fluid had to be stopped temporarily while engineers were revising their plans, and that the company hoped to resume pumping by midnight, if federal officials approved.
Once engineers are satisfied that it’s plugged, they plan to cement the well to permanently cap the flow. See the video above.
Obama extends offshore drilling moratorium
Today President Obama ordered an extended six-month moratorium on new permits for offshore oil and gas wells. He also suspended work on 33 exploratory wells being drilled in the Gulf of Mexico; halted Shell’s exploratory drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off Alaska slated to begin this summer; and cancelled lease sales in the Gulf and off Virginia’s coast.
Environmental groups that oppose offshore drilling applauded the decision. “The decision is testament to the Administration's pledge to proceed cautiously in sensitive frontier areas,” Mike Daulton, Audubon’s senior director of government relations said, referring to drilling in the Arctic. “This short-term reprieve must undoubtedly become long term protection”
The Obama administration, meanwhile, says that what’s needed is stricter regulations, not a permanent hold on offshore drilling. At a press conference today, President Obama said that he did not regret pushing to open up new areas to offshore drilling. “Where I was wrong was in my belief that the oil companies had their act together when it came to worst-case scenarios.”
“We’re not going to be able transition to clean-energy strategies right away,” Obama said. “Domestic oil production is an important part of our overall energy mix.”
During the six-month moratorium, a newly formed commission will determine what caused the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and new environmental and safety protections will be put in place.

BP saw warning signs before explosion
A May 25 memo by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce revealed that there were warning signs of that there were leaks 24 hours before the explosion. For the inquiry, the committee reviewed more than 105,000 pages of internal documents from BP, Transocean, Halliburton, and Cameron, and called company officials in to testify. In addition to warning signs that crude was escaping from the well, the memo highlights several concerns about the blowout preventer.
From McClatchy Newspapers:
In its briefing to congressional committees, BP said that crews noticed unusual pressure and fluid readings that should have alerted them not to remove heavy drilling lubricants known from the well — a move that apparently allowed a sudden upwelling of gas that led to the explosion and sinking of the rig about 50 miles from the Louisiana coast.

Company executives and top drill hands on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig argued for hours about how to proceed before a BP official made the decision to remove heavy drilling fluid from the well and replace it with lighter weight seawater that was unable to prevent gas from surging to the surface and exploding.

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