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March 30 2012


Deadly Bacteria Found In Gulf Coast Tar Balls

Since the very first tar balls began rolling onshore along the Gulf of Mexico following 2010’s Deepwater Horizon oilrig explosion and subsequent underwater oil geyser, the oil industry told us to relax because those tar balls were completely harmless. But as we approach the two year anniversary of the disaster, new studies have confirmed that the tar balls we’re seeing along our beaches contain bacteria that are capable of killing human beings.

The new study, conducted by scientists at Auburn University, confirmed the presence of a bacteria called Vibrio vulnificus. According to researchers, this is the same bacteria that is responsible for causing illness and death from eating bad oysters. The tar balls contained concentrations of this bacteria more than 100 times greater than the surrounding water. The Centers for Disease Control says the following regarding Vibrio vulnificus:

Wound infections may start as redness and swelling at the site of the wound that then can progress to affect the whole body. V. vulnificus typically causes a severe and life-threatening illness characterized by fever and chills, decreased blood pressure (septic shock), and blood-tinged blistering skin lesions (hemorrhagic bullae). Overall, V. vulnificus infections are fatal about 40% of the time. Wound infections with V. vulnificus are fatal about 20% of the time, and aggressive surgical treatment can prevent death.

Persons who have immunocompromising conditions and especially persons with chronic liver disease are particularly at risk for V. vulnificus infection when they eat raw or undercooked seafood, particularly shellfish harvested from the Gulf of Mexico, or if they bathe a cut or scrape in marine waters. About three-quarters of patients with V. vulnificus infections have known underlying hepatic disease or other immunocompromising illness. Otherwise healthy persons are at much lower risk of V. vulnificus infection.

It is important to remember that this isn’t a fleeting threat to those of us who live, work, and play along the Gulf Coast. National Geographic recently pointed out that tarballs are continuously washing up along the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico, meaning that the threat of bacterial infection is not only real, but it is persistent. And with Spring Break season in high gear, beaches along the Gulf Coast are currently inundated with out of state families playing and relaxing on top of these toxic bacteria balls.

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December 17 2011


Report Partially Blames Federal Government For Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig Explosion

Perhaps one of the most honest assessments of last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion reveals the numerous failures of both industry and the federal government in the worst marine oil disaster in U.S. history.

The U.S. Department of the Interior sanctioned the report, compiled by more than a dozen experts operating with the temporary group called the Committee for Analysis of Causes of the Deepwater Horizon Explosion, Fire, and Oil Spill to Identify Measures to Prevent Similar Accidents in the Future (The Committee). And while the experts on The Committee identified failures we’ve documented in the past - particularly the shoddy design of the well’s blowout preventer - the committee highlighted plenty of new information as well.

Noting again that it was sanctioned by the federal government, it's interesting that this was one of the first reports to explicitly implicate the federal government’s irresponsible actions as a cause of the massive oil disaster that followed the explosion:

The regulatory regime was ineffective in addressing the risks of the Macondo well. The actions of the regulators did not display an awareness of the risks or the very narrow margins of safety.

As DeSmog has reported in the past, the federal government’s role in the disaster can be traced all the way back to 2001, when then-Vice President Dick Cheney was holding his secret Energy Task Force meetings with oil industry executives. During those meetings, the industry insiders in attendance helped the Vice President draft legislation that would eviscerate basic health and safety standards that protected workers and the public from the oil industry's reckless practices.

Among the regulations that were revoked was the requirement for offshore rigs to maintain an acoustic switch – a device that would explode and seal off an oil well permanently in the event of a blowout. There was no acoustic switch installed on the Deepwater Horizon rig. Triggering the switch makes the well no longer usable.

Another failure of the government involved the actual rig inspections. Again, our previous reports revealed that the regulators charged with insuring the rig’s safety allowed the oil companies to fill out their own inspection reports in pencil, with the regulators going back over them in pen after they were sent back.

While these aspects were not specifically mentioned in the new report, it does at least put some blame on the government.

The new report also lays plenty of blame at the feet of the companies involved with the Deepwater Horizon rig, which were BP, Transocean, and Halliburton:

The actions, policies, and procedures of the corporations involved did not provide an effective systems safety approach commensurate with the risks of the Macondo well. The lack of a strong safety culture resulting from a deficient overall systems approach to safety is evident in the multiple flawed decisions that led to the blowout…

The (blow-out-prevention) system was neither designed nor tested for the dynamic conditions that most likely existed at the time that attempts were made to recapture well control. Furthermore, the design, test, operation, and maintenance of the (blow out prevention) system were not consistent with a high-reliability, fail-safe device.

Earlier this year, rig-owner Transocean attempted to claim in their own report that the blame for the explosion and oil leak should be levied at BP and Halliburton, and that the Transocean-owned blowout preventer was fully operational. An additional Transocean report tried to lay the blame for the explosion on the rig workers.

The new report also comes on the heels of a recent lawsuit filed by BP claiming that Halliburton was attempting to destroy evidence of their shoddy cement work prior to trial.

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September 09 2011


San Bruno Gas Explosion One Year Anniversary, Lax Oversight is Blamed

One year ago today, at about 6:11 pm, a massive natural gas line explosion ripped apart a residential neighborhood in San Bruno, California. The blast was described as “a thunderous roar heard for miles,” and the geyser of fire that spewed forth killed eight people, injured dozens, destroyed 38 homes, and damaged another 70.

Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which regulates energy and resource pipelines, revealed the findings of their year-long investigation into the causes of that fatal, catastrophic blast.

"Our investigation revealed that for years, PG&E exploited weaknesses in a lax system of oversight," said NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman. "We also identified regulators that placed a blind trust in the companies that they were charged with overseeing to the detriment of public safety."

San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion-a remnant of the line
Close Up Pictures of Gas Line Explosion Damage (CC) by smi23le on Flickr.

San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion at night
San Bruno fire at night (CC) by MisterOh on Wikimedia Commons.

The report, which also offers 29 new recommendations to the Department of Transportation, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, and local regulators, includes this eye-opening section on probable cause. (Emphasis mine.)

The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the accident was the Pacific Gas and Electric Company's (PG&E) (1) inadequate quality assurance and quality control in 1956 during its Line 132 relocation project, which allowed the installation of a substandard and poorly welded pipe section with a visible seam weld flaw that, over time grew to a critical size, causing the pipeline to rupture during a pressure increase stemming from poorly planned electrical work at the Milpitas Terminal; and (2) inadequate pipeline integrity management program, which failed to detect and repair or remove the defective pipe section.

Contributing to the accident were the California Public Utility Commission's (CPUC) and the U.S. Department of Transportation's exemptions of existing pipelines from the regulatory requirement for pressure testing, which likely would have detected the installation defects. Also contributing to the accident was the CPUC's failure to detect the inadequacies of PG&E's pipeline integrity management program.

Contributing to the severity of the accident were the lack of either automatic shutoff valves or remote control valves on the line and PG&E's flawed emergency response procedures and delay in isolating the rupture to stop the flow of gas.

It’s worth noting that these regulatory exemptions and examples of lax oversight are precisely the types of government regulation that many Congressional Republicans are now calling an “unnecessary burden on business.” They call them “job killers,” but many would call them “life savers.”

Finally from the You Can’t Make This Stuff Up Department: The day after the NTSB released its findings, blaming PG&E and lax government oversight, another PG&E gas line exploded, destroying a Cupertino, California condo building. The utility’s crews took over an hour and a half to shut off the gas flow after the explosion, and investigators immediately found at least seven leaks in the line.

While there were thankfully no fatalities in this blast, the NTSB will investigate the blast to determine any “commonalities” between it and the San Bruno tragedy.

I’m working on a much broader, more comprehensive report on the safety and hazards of gas pipelines, part of a series covering energy pipelines in North America. Stay tuned for much more.

June 24 2011


Transocean Report Blames BP For Gulf Oil Disaster

Offshore oil drilling giant Transocean released the results of an internal investigation this week on the causes of last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion. The investigation concluded that well owner BP was to blame for the explosion and the resulting 3-month oil geyser in the Gulf of Mexico.

Transocean claims that BP’s actions led to the blowout, as they were in charge of most of the decision-making on the Deepwater Horizon rig. Transocean says that BP’s poor decisions caused a succession of problems ranging from the well design itself to the construction process of the Macondo rig. Transocean officials also fault BP for causing a breakdown in communication during construction, which they claim led to many of the failures aboard the oil rig. Here are a few highlights from their report:

BP did not properly communicate to the drill crew the lack of testing on the cement or the uncertainty surrounding critical tests and procedures used to confirm the integrity of the barriers intended to inhibit the flow of hydrocarbons from the well. A hydrocarbon is a compound consisting of hydrogen and carbon that is found in oil and gas.

BP adopted a technically complex nitrogen foam cement program for sealing the well. The resulting cementing job was of minimal quantity, left little margin for error, and was not tested adequately before or after the cementing operation. Further, the integrity of the cement may have been compromised by contamination, instability, and an inadequate number of devices used to center the casing in the wellbore.

Cement contractor Halliburton and BP did not adequately test the cement slurry used to seal the well.

BP also failed to assess the risk of the temporary abandonment procedure used at Macondo. At the time of the explosion, BP was making sure the well was sealed so it could temporarily abandon the site and perhaps come back at some point in the future to produce oil from the exploratory well. Transocean said BP generated at least five different temporary abandonment plans for the Macondo well between April 12, 2010, and April 20, 2010. After this series of last-minute alterations, BP proceeded with a temporary abandonment plan that created risk and did not have the required government approval.

Transocean’s report also claims that their blowout preventer (BOP) was fully operational and played no part in the explosion and oil leak. Transocean was the owner of the blowout preventer, a device that had the potential to prevent the massive oil leak into the Gulf of Mexico. Their claim that the BOP was working properly goes against the findings of previous reports.

As we’ve reported in the past, numerous failures led to last year’s disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, including a lack of regular inspections and a cozy relationship between rig owners and federal regulators.

Transocean is facing numerous lawsuits for their role in the Deepwater Horizon explosion, and their report is likely an attempt to shift the blame onto BP and Halliburton. The likelihood of their internal investigation playing a significant role in litigation remains small, as the government’s report has clearly stated that all parties share in the responsibility for the catastrophe.

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January 07 2011


Breaking News: Fire Breaks Out At Tar Sands Site in Alberta


A fire has broken out at the Horizon oilsands site near Fort McKay in northern Alberta.  Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., which owns the site, has confirmed that the fire was set off by an explosion around 3:30 MT Thursday afternoon.

Reports suggest flames are shooting several metres into the air.

So far, three employee injuries have been confirmed, two of whom's condition is unknown. The third has been taken to hospital with third degree burns.  All other employees have been accounted for.

The fire started in a upgrader across from a plant that converts bitumen into crude oil.  Production has been suspended at the site and it is not known when it will resume.

Read on about this breaking story here


February 08 2010


Wind & Solar Poised to Supply New Demand

wind-farmThe recession was supposed to slow down white-hot renewable energy growth. A lack of financing and tax equity was to reduce the wind and solar markets as much as 50% in 2009. Instead, last year brought new records in capacity additions. Wind power in the US grew 9.9 GW (almost 40%) to extend the US lead as top producer of wind power globally. And while robust solar numbers won’t be available until March, many analysts predict that the solar market definitely grew in the US and probably throughout the world.

Global Growth Shines

The global wind power market also grew at an astounding rate — clocking a 37.5% growth rate in its annual market (37 GW vs. 27 GW in 2008). China’s annual growth became the biggest in the world at 13 GW, which makes sense due to their larger electricity demand growth. At the end of 2009, China became the 3rd largest wind energy producer after the US and Germany (35.1 GW, 25.8 GW, and 25.1 GW). China will become the 2nd biggest wind producer in 2010 and may challenge the US by 2011.

The global solar market didn’t grow as quickly due to the collapse of its top market of 2008 — Spain (~50% of the world market that year). But Germany rode to the rescue and extended its lead as the biggest solar power producer in the world (it may have passed 8 GW). Germans took advantage of a 40+% decrease in solar module prices and had record growth (becoming ~50% of the global market themselves).

In the US

As I wrote last year, wind was already replacing oil-fired electricity in 2008. In 2009, wind took some market share from the most polluting power source, coal. In the years ahead, wind and solar can provide for new electricity demand growth and then begin to take significant bites out of the market for the leading electricity sources, coal and natural gas.

At 35 GW, wind now produces ~2% of US electricity demand. At almost 2 GW, solar produces ~.1% of US electricity demand. Biomass and geothermal produce ~1.5% and hydro almost 7%. The big three power sources today are nuclear (~20%), natural gas (~23%), and coal (~45%). When you look at particular states, it is exciting to see that wind power already provides three states with more than 20% of their power needs (Wyoming, Iowa, and North Dakota). By 2023, wind could provide 20% of the whole country’s electricity and solar another 12.5% (based on growth rates of 17.6% per year for wind – half the recent rate – and 40.4% for solar – a slight pickup from the last few years).

The US Energy Information Administration predicts US demand growth for electricity at a rate of 1% per year through 2035. I personally think that rate is higher than necessary as electricity demand growth has fallen every decade since the 1950s and it only grew .4% per year in the ’00s. Increased efficiency efforts can help electricity demand stay flat or even fall, as Google presents in its Clean Energy 2030 Plan.

Trends in Europe as a Glimpse at Our Future?

Europe installed over 10 GW of wind power capacity in 2009. The continent now gets ~9% of its electricity from wind and wind was the top source of of new electrical capacity at 39%. Solar power was third at 16% after natural gas which supplied 26%. Adding hydro and biomass, renewable energy provided 61% of new capacity. Meanwhile, coal is on the decline, as over 3 GW were decommissioned. The US can accomplish this same feat of most new demand coming from renewables in 2010 and beyond.

Price Curves Favorable for Wind & Solar

The prices of wind and solar should continue to drop in 2010, as opposed to an increase in the price of oil, natural gas, and coal. This trend should help maintain swift growth from these sources and make them the new energy titans within a few more years.

The Human Toll of Fossil Fuels

As I discussed a few months back, our addiction to fossil fuels has a serious human toll (on top of inducing global warming and hurting air quality). The tragic blast at a Connecticut power plant that killed at least five people today is a grim reminder of this. Our transition to an efficient reliance on renewable energy will help to reduce such accidents in the future.

Nuclear & “Clean Coal” Not a Near-term Remedy

While Obama has been trumpeting nuclear and “clean coal” as a necessary bridge to a renewable energy future that he thinks is decades away, renewables are actually better situated to provide for us. It takes ten years to commission and build a new nuclear power plant. And carbon sequestration coal is not market-ready yet. In contrast, wind and solar are growing quickly, proven technologies, and falling in cost. Here’s to further record growth for wind and solar in 2010 — finally putting to rest any doubts that they can lead us to a new climate-friendly energy future.

Onwards in the Sustainable Energy Transition-

Dennis Markatos-Soriano

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