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Testimony to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling

John W. Farrington, Interim Dean and Professor, School of Marine Science and Technology, University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and Scientist Emeritus, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

September 24, 2010—Before the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling

Slide 1

Good morning Senator Graham, Administrator Reilly and Commissioners. My name is John W. Farrington. I am the Interim Dean and Professor, School of Marine Science and Technology, University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and Scientist Emeritus, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Thank you for the invitation to testify and to contribute to the important work of the Commission. My remarks are my own and do not represent positions of organizations with which I am employed or affiliated.

I have been asked to testify on three topics and I have submitted written testimony in response. These topics are:

Slide 2

  • Scientific findings in the aftermath of IXTOC-I Oil Well Blowout 1979.      See also: Written testimony
  • Research on other applicable oil releases.
  • Direct experience related to and scientific recommendations regarding the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

I will summarize here a few of the key points.

Slide 3

1)      IXTOC I Oil well Blowout June 3, 1979 to March 23, 1980.

  • Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX) well, Bay of Campeche, Mexican waters, Gulf of Mexico.
  • 50 meters water depth.
  • Explosion, fire, oil release at ocean bottom.
  • 475,000 metric tons released.
  • Research cruise to site 11-27 September 1979.

The cruise track of the research cruise involving the NOAA Ship RESEARCHER and the contract vessel G.W. PIERCE is shown in SLIDE 4. and extended from Miami to the well site in the Bay of Campeche and then along the Mexican coast to the coast of Texas and into Galveston. Texas.   The next slide SLIDE 5 is an expand chart showing the sampling locations in the well site area. When we arrived at the well site, this is was the scene SLIDE 6 as recorded from the helicopter operating from the NOAA Ship RESEARCHER.  The day was misty. The oil slick is extending at us as we approached from the northeast. The two platforms to the right and left of the slick were drilling relief wells that eventually were used to stop the flow of oil and gas from the ISTOC I well blow out.

A closer view of the well site taken the next day SLIDE 7 shows the continuing flames from the gas bubbling to surface surrounded by a bubbling up of oil-water mixture from the vertical plume extending from the sediment water interface 50 meters below the surface of the water. The surface oil slick was then carried away by about a 0.5 to 1 knot current.  We sampled below the slick for analyses of gas and oil. The result for the gas assessment are shown in the next slide SLIDE 8 which documents the concentration of methane in the water column extending away in a horizontal plume to the northeast from the well site (towards  the right of the slide)until about 40 km down-current. At this point our salinity measurements indicated that the slick and plume encountered a plume of fresh water coming offshore from land as a result of extensive rains associated with a recent hurricane and tropical storm. SLIDE 9 documents the same horizontal plume for oil in the water.

Slide 9

There was an underwater horizontal “plume” moving with the current away from the vertical plume and under the surface slick.

Slide 10

2. Knowledge of Oil Pollution in the Marine Environment.

The National Academies of Science 2003 report “Oil in the Sea III” is an excellent compilation of knowledge about oil pollution in the marine environment.

Slide 11

Farrington and McDowell (2004) in an article written in Oceanus magazine: “Mixing Oil and Water”, summarizing the National Academy of Sciences 2003 Report for the layperson wrote:

“We also need to expand research on oil pollution in deep waters. Most concerns and research have traditionally focused on coastal waters. Yet new concerns arise as oil production moves offshore. We can only speculate on the impact of oil exploration and production in deeper waters until we have more detailed knowledge of the biological organisms in these habitats and the biogeochemical processes that govern their lives. “

Slides 12 AND 13

(Acknowledging that hindsight is often 20/20 or better)

  • Scientific research often gets tangled with debates about: “Who is to blame?”  Who will get credit for being the lead federal agency? The legal requirements of NRDA.
  • Delays and confusion within our government about allocations and release of research funding provided by BP for consortia of academic institutions resulted in missed opportunities to gain vital new knowledge about fates and effects of DWH MC252 Oil Spill
  • Too little attention had been given to the real potential for a deep water oil well blowout.
  • While I recognize that this was an accident, statements that this was an accident of an unexpected nature are not in accord with the fact that the National Academy Sciences report “Oil in the Sea III” discussed a scenario very similar to the DWH MC252 oil spill – a deep water oil well blow out at the bottom of the ocean in 1500 meters water depth.  (pages 106-108 of that report).

Slide 14

Overarching Recommendation 1
(Out of sight, Out mind should not prevail when visible oil slicks disappear.)

  • The nation should not let the lessons from the DWH MC252 fade from memory as has often happened to oil spills in the past.
  • Eleven people perished.
  • The economic well being and quality of life for countless other people has been severely disrupted.
  • There have been adverse impacts on living natural resources.
  • Forgetting has too often been the reality in the past!

Slide 15

Overarching Recommendation 2.
(Relative to BP Funds set aside for research.)

  • The funds for research set aside by BP should be released as soon as practicable by the responsible government agencies, if this has not yet happened as of this date. (I understand that the funds may have been released within the past 24 to 72 hours).
  • The award of funds should occur by way of an expedited peer review process.
  • The move towards “centralized” control of all research on the DWH MC252 oil spill is troubling. This should be rethought. Coordination is fine. However, too often, centralized control has the unwanted effect of stifling creative scientific research.  (If this is still happening, the process should be modified.)