Archive for September, 2010

Beyond The Oil
September 22, 2010

This is a post I have been meaning to write for more than a month. After sitting through 100 plus hours of testimony it has become clear the government’s Joint Investigative Panel is looking at more than just preventing another catastrophic oil spill. Safety is another key point. Not safety from the stand point of drilling operations, but basic safety on the water. 11 men lost their lives when the Deepwater Horizon exploded, but those who survived that night believe more lives would have been lost had it not been for the Damon Bankston. This is a supply vessel that was helping off load drilling mud at the time of the blast. The Bankston was also equipped with fast-moving rescue boats. Many of those who jumped from the rig were pulled to safety by Bankston crew members manning those fast boats. Several survivors, without hesitation, told the investigative panel if it had not been for the Bankston more people would have died in the water that night. As a result the panel may now require all off shore rigs have a fast boat on scene at all times. Remember, the fire aboard the Mariner Energy production platform a few weeks ago? Everyone survived, but it took a while for rescue boats and helicopters to reach the men who hit the water to escape the flames. The other main issue that got a lot of attention from the Coast Guard members of the panel dealt with fire and abandon ship drills. The Deepwater Horizon did these drills regularly as is required. However, these drills were conducted every Sunday morning at 10 o’clock. Many who work in the industry have argued running fire and abandon ship drills at the exact same time every week is not enough to prepare a crew for the real thing. Bob Cavnar has worked in the oil and gas field for more than 30 years. His argument is that these drills have to be varied and unexpected to truly give the crew the sense of urgency needed to prepare for a disaster. “It’s almost of no use,” Cavnar said when talking about the Sunday morning drills. “We’d wake people up in the middle of the night, get them out to pipelines, get them out to locations to really instill that sense of urgency that you don’t get when you have your normal 10 o’clock Sunday morning drill then go have coffee.” All the survivors questioned by the government’s panel said they felt the drills prepared them for the real thing, except when each one was asked to describe what it was like trying to get off that ship to safety–all of them replied, “chaos”. There was testimony about life boats being launched only half full, arguments over whether life boats should be launched and cutting tools needed to cut the lines tethering the life boats to the rig being lost in the scramble. Radio communications were instantly knocked out by the first explosion robbing the crew of the ability to talk with supervisors in different areas. The explosions also destroyed pathways to predetermined muster points. Many of the crew testified they couldn’t get to their assigned muster point and there had been no discussion of what to do if this happened. There was also some testimony the crew wasn’t exactly sure who was in charge during the crisis. The Deepwater Horizon, like many other off shore rigs, technically had two masters (for those of you familiar with maritime terms I’m not using master in the way the Coast Guard uses it). The Horizon had a captain and an off shore installation manager. Usually the way it works is when a rig is “underway” the captain is in charge, but once the rig is latched onto a well the OIM takes over. Maritime regulations are a bit outdated on this point. Current regulations state the captain is in charge when a vessel is underway, but that switches when an anchor is dropped. The Horizon did not have an anchor, it was a dynamically positioned vessel. DPV’s use small thrusters and GPS to keep it steadily positioned in one spot. So technically the captain should have remained in charge at all times since the Horizon never dropped an anchor. When the explosions happened some crew members testified they weren’t exactly sure who was in charge, the captain or the OIM. Once the explosion happened it should have been the captain since he is the only one with the authority to order an abandon ship. There are many more safety points I could go into but these are the main ones facing the investigative panel, which will ultimately suggest changes in how off shore operations are handled.

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Safety, at what price?
September 21, 2010

From the moment the federal government announced a six month ban on deepwater drilling the economic impact was clear. However, Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, and recently appointed Director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, Michael Bromwich, both said the moratorium was needed to ensure another Deepwater Horizon disaster did not occur. Today a report from the American Energy Alliance set out to detail exactly what financial toll the moratorium is exacting. Here are some of the bullet points from the report: 8,000 jobs lost in Gulf Region, 12,000 jobs lost nationwide, $700 million in lost wages, $2.1 billion in lost economic activity in the Gulf region and $2.7 billion lost nationwide. The moratorium is set to expire at the end of November. Beyond the numbers, 4 off shore drilling rigs have left the Gulf for work in other parts of the world. All this comes as a lawsuit filed in Alabama may be gaining some steam. Defenders of Wildlife and the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a suit claiming the government improperly allowed several off shore operations to move forward without Environmental Impact Statements or Environmental Impact Assessments. Essentially the suit claims the government’s method for calculating worst case discharge (spills) is flawed. Based on prior lease sale agreements (and the government’s formula) the worst case spill was set at an estimated 10,000 barrels a day. BP has shown us all that figure is way off the mark for a worst case scenario. However, other companies have received “categorical exclusions” (meaning they don’t have to do it) from having to provide environmental impact statements or assessments because the companies stated planned off shore operations all fell within that 10,000 barrel estimate. The suit challenges 198 new deepwater leases approved by the government.  I tried to talk with officials at the Bureau but haven’t gotten a response back yet.

Meanwhile, click here  for the full American Energy Alliance report.

Truckers-Update
September 20, 2010

Following up on my story from last week the state of Maine wants to make heavier trucks a permanent fixture on federal highways. As I reported last week 5 states currently allow trucks heavier than the federally allowed maximum weight of 80,000 pounds to run on the highways. These states were “grandfathered” and are exempt from the current federal requirements. Here is the information I received on Maine’s program regarding 100,000 pound trucks.

SENATOR COLLINS SECURES COMMITMENT TO PERMANENTLY LIFT TRUCK WEIGHT LIMITS IN MAINE

Administration agrees to Sen. Collins’ request to include provision in Fiscal Year 2011 Continuing Resolution

 

September 15, 2010

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Susan Collins, a member of the powerful Appropriations Committee, today announced that the Administration has agreed to her request to make permanent the pilot program that allows trucks weighing up to 100,000 pounds to travel on federal interstate highways in Maine. At Senator Collins’ request, the President included this provision in the Fiscal Year 2011 Continuing Resolution, an appropriations bill that would continue to fund the federal government past October 1.

“Increasing the federal highway truck weight limit on Maine’s interstate highways has always been one of my top priorities in the Senate,” said Senator Collins. “I have worked hard to convince the Administration that it simply makes no sense to force heavy trucks off the federal highway and onto our smaller roads in Maine. This increases the wear-and-tear on our secondary roads and jeopardizes the safety of both drivers and pedestrians. I am delighted that the Administration understands the argument and has agreed to my request to help make permanent the temporary provision allowing trucks on Maine’s federal interstate system.”

Brian Parke, President and CEO of Maine Motor Transport Association praised Senator Collins for her efforts to secure this commitment from the President, “By making the pilot project permanent, Maine truckers will be able to transport more goods across the state more efficiently and more safely. Trucking companies will not have to worry about a day where their drivers are forced back onto the secondary roads to deliver the freight that drives our economy. I applaud Senator Collins for all her efforts and hard work to come up with a permanent solution to this important issue.”

Last year, Senator Collins successfully included a provision in the FY 2010 Omnibus Appropriations bill that created a one-year pilot project that allows trucks weighing up to 100,000 pounds to travel on Maine’s federal interstates, such as I-95, 195, 295 and 395. The pilot project is set to expire on December 17, 2010, when the heaviest trucks in Maine would be forced to divert back to secondary roads through downtown areas. The Federal Highway Administration is currently conducting an assessment of the pilot program’s impact on safety, commerce and road wear and tear.

The U.S. Department of Transportation first notified the State of Maine in 1994 that it was in violation of federal vehicle weight requirements by allowing heavier trucks on the federal interstate. As a result, northbound trucks weighing more than 80,000 pounds were forced off Interstate 95 in Augusta. Maine State law already allows these heavier trucks to travel on smaller, secondary roads that pass through cities, towns, and villages, creating safety concerns.

In June 2004, Wilbur Smith Associates, a nationally recognized transportation consulting firm, completed a study which found that extending the current truck weight exemption on the Maine Turnpike to all federal highways in Maine, including Interstates 195, 295 and 395, would reduce heavy truck traffic through several communities such as Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Freeport, and Bangor and Brewer, and result in a significant decrease of three fatal crashes per year.

Last year, Senator Collins was appointed to a seat on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. During a Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, Senator Collins raised the issue of Maine’s truck weight disparity with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood who pledged to help address this issue. Senator Collins then continued to work with her colleagues on the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee to have her provision included in the FY 2010 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations bill. Since then, she has worked with the Administration to make the provision permanent.

Unfortunately, Senator Collins has faced stiff opposition to her efforts to make Maine’s truck weights provision permanent. In a July letter, California Senator Barbara Boxer expressed her opposition to extending Maine’s pilot program. However, in a letter sent to leaders of the full Senate Appropriations Committee this week, Senators Collins and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) wrote in strong support of the President’s request to make the pilot program permanent. (The temporary provision approved last year also affects federal highways in Vermont.)

Full text of Senators Collins’ and Leahy’s letter is as follows:
Senator Daniel Inouye, Chairman Senator Thad Cochran, Vice Chairman
Senate Committee on Appropriations Senate Committee on Appropriations
The Capitol, Room S-128 The Capitol, Room S-128
Washington, D.C. 20510 Washington, D.C. 20510

Dear Chairman Inouye and Vice Chairman Cochran:

We are writing in strong support of President Obama’s request to make permanent the pilot programs created in the FY 2010 Omnibus Appropriations Act that allow trucks complying with Maine and Vermont’s weight and safety laws to travel on the federal interstate highways in our two states. President Obama has proposed that such a provision be included in the FY 2011 Continuing Resolution. Should these pilots expire as planned on December 17, 2010, the heaviest trucks in Maine and Vermont will be forced to divert back to secondary roads and through downtowns and villages from Houlton, Maine, to Burlington, Vermont.

Current federal law restricts trucks weighing more than 80,000 pounds from regularly using the interstate highway system, though exemptions have been granted to some states-including New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York. For too long, Maine and Vermont have been at a competitive disadvantage, while our next-door neighbors have enjoyed the economic benefits that come with higher highway truck weight limits. The heaviest truck traffic in Maine and Vermont has had to travel over smaller roadways, creating significant safety concerns for pedestrians and motorists and putting pressure on our already overburdened secondary roads and bridges.

We are pleased that the Administration appreciates the positive impacts that the pilot programs have had in our states. Indeed, in language he sent to House and Senate leaders, the President aptly justified permanently raising the weight limit by noting that “continuing the program will improve safety on local roads and increase efficiency of commercial trucking in the region.”

We have heard from truckers, business people, and state and municipal leaders in both states who support making the pilot programs permanent. Additionally, a preliminary study of the Maine pilot program by the Maine Department of Transportation demonstrates the numerous benefits that are already accruing from the pilot, including improved safety, lower fuel consumption and emissions, and greater competitiveness for businesses in Maine. The pilot program has allowed businesses to receive raw materials and ship products more economically, thus helping to preserve and create jobs.

For these reasons, we ask that you include the President’s language to make the Maine and Vermont pilot programs permanent in the Continuing Resolution.

Thank you for your consideration of this request.

###

Big Mutha’ Truckers
September 16, 2010

While Congress debates whether to up the maximum weight limit and length for commercial trucks, I wanted to know what is the heaviest load to ever rumble down a Texas highway. Just drive down any freeway and you’ll see loads that are way above the currently allowed 80,000 pound limit. This year Texas granted an overweight, oversized permit to Mammoet USA. The total weight of the load…1.7 million pounds! (and I’m not one prone to liberal use of an exclamation point, but this deserved it). The cargo was a massive generator heading to a power plant just north of Waco. The cargo was delivered to the Port of Houston. The Texas Department of Transportation’s Carol Davis told me the entire trip took 30-days because the rig could only move 10 miles a day. If your one of the “do the math” people Davis said there were occasions when it would take 10 to 12 hours for the rig just go three miles, depending on obstacles. The entire set-up was as long as a football field, 18-feet tall and 38-feet wide. It took two trucks pushing from behind and two pulling from the front to move the equipment down the road. Everything made it safe and sound to its destination. I found a slickly produced video of the haul on You Tube. Check it out, it’s even got a nifty Southern Rock soundtrack. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsSIKqs1kbY

The Final Solution
September 13, 2010

BP is finally preparing to complete the much talked about “Final Solution” to the Gulf Oil crisis. This would be the ominous sounding “bottom kill”. When the Gulf was in the throes of this crisis all we heard was “bottom kill” was the only permanent solution to the millions of gallons of crude flowing into the water. Flash forward two months from those statements and BP’s relief well is three miles below the surface and about 50 feet away from intercepting the doomed Macando well. “Bottom Kill” will pump drilling mud and cement into the well to provide the final seals. This has already been done through the “top kill” procedure. A new, more hearty, Blow Out Preventer has also been placed on the well. There has been a lot of debate over the past several weeks as to whether “bottom kill” was necessary given the items I just mentioned seemed to have plugged the hole just fine. On Friday Admiral Thad Allen insisted BP complete the “bottom kill” procedure and today at 1:40pm the company started drilling the relief wells again.  I’ll keep you posted when the relief wells are complete. There is still the matter of all the oil that spewed into the Gulf. Researchers at the University of Georgia report they have discovered a “slime highway” on the seabed. University Marine Science Professor, Samantha Joye reports a 2 inch thick layer of oil, stretching for miles has been found on the seabed. Samples have been sent off to determine if the oil is from the Deepwater Horizon, but Joye noted, “it’s not from a natural seep.” Joye has been blogging her colleagues and her research into this disaster. Check out her blog at, http://gulfblog.uga.edu/2010/09/focusing-in-on-oil/. I also found out today that Texas A&M Oceanographer, John Kessler, is heading back into the Gulf to conduct more studies on gas levels in the water. Back in June Kessler was one of the first to find and document high methane levels below the surface of the water. This trip is a follow-up to that mission.

Risen From The Deep
September 6, 2010

While the sea (or Gulf) holds many secrets and mysteries, one of the most pressing is now waiting to be examined. This is not some never before seen Lovecraftian form of underwater creature. This mystery is very manmade. After a steady 24 hour-long ascent, the Deepwater Horizon’s Blow Out Preventer is now above the waters of the Gulf and onboard the Q4000 under the watch of law enforcement. This Leviathan is four stories tall and will be taken to NASA’s Michoud facility. The BOP will be under 24 hour guard and is in the custody of the Joint Investigative Board made up of the US Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. The Department of Justice is also involved as it continues its criminal probe of the April 20th explosion. While the investigation is focusing on decisions made above the water line, of equal importance is why the BOP did not work. This device is supposed to be the fail safe. Finding out why the BOP did not work is not only a crucial part of the government’s investigation, but to the drilling industry itself. The fact this behemoth did not work stunned many in the offshore business. There has already been testimony the BOP had been modified by Transocean and had not undergone a required five-year recertification. Analysis of the BOP will be done by a third-party forensic team. The Department of the Interior will put this job out for bids and hopes to have answers by this fall. Meanwhile I thought you would enjoy the video of the BOP being brought to the surface.

BOP Rising