Welcome Bob Cavnar, The Daily Hurricane, and Host Riki Ott, rikiott.com.

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]

Disaster on the Horizon: High Stakes, High Risks, and the Story Behind the Deepwater Well Blowout

Riki Ott, Host:

After having spent five months in the Gulf, I decided to read Bob Cavnar’s book of the story behind the Deepwater well blowout starting with chapter 7 on the “BP-government merger.” This was one of the most troubling twists in events that I had witnessed in the Gulf. I figured if he could shed some light on this, then maybe he would have frank insights on how we got into this mess – beyond the human error – and how we might avoid another.

Cavnar is, after all, an oilman with 30 years of experience in drilling and production operations, and in management of private and public companies, and I am an Alaska fisherman and survivor of the Exxon Valdez oil spill; hence, my skepticism.

The first page of chapter 7 convinced me that Disaster on the Horizon would be worth the read. “It was clear that the government didn’t have the expertise to manage the blowout on the seafloor and the beaches were being guarded by both private and local government officials who answered to BP.”

Check. This situation had caused puzzled local residents to ask at community forums, “Why is BP in charge? I thought this was America.”

Cavnar went on: “A co-dependent relationship was formed that went beyond traditional industry-government coziness.” Agreed. Although I was familiar with this problem from nearly 25 years of work to increase oil industry accountability in Alaska, what I saw in the Gulf was shockingly disorienting. According to Cavnar, the BP-government merger gelled on June 16 when President Obama, Tony Hayward, and the BP chairman agreed that BP would commit $20 billion over four years to cover damages and cleanup. That $20 billion, it turns out, was backed with US assets. In other words, Cavnar says, “the deal guarantees that BP will remain viable in the US since they need assets to pay the costs.”

So much for the free market, as Cavnar points out. So much also, in my opinion, for any hope that polluters – or criminals in BP’s case – will take U.S. environmental laws (or politicians) seriously. Obama’s win-win arrangement signals that America’s door is wide open for oil business, and if you screw up, no matter if you put thousands of “small people” in the Gulf out of work, the oil company will be protected and allowed to continue its business. Oil at all costs. The losers are the American people. (I could not help but think of Scotland, where the government maintains a Rogues’ Gallery of oil tankers. Companies that take too many risks or have too many close-calls are no longer welcome.)

I went back to the beginning of the book. Cavnar describes in gripping detail the scene of the blowout, then shares several insights on the nuts-and-bolts of the disaster. He emphasizes throughout the book that, in the oil patch, complacency and success breed disaster. For example, just hours before the blowout, Transocean and BP executives had recognized the 7-year safety record on the rig. Ironically, a few hours before the Exxon Valdez, there was a similar celebration for one billion barrels of oil transported without a major spill. Oops.

I was struck by two other factoids among the many details. So-called “blowout preventers” (BOPs) fail. A lot. Cavnar describes a 2009 industry study of 15,000 wells drilled in North America and the North Sea. Of the 11 cases where BOPs were activated, only 6 were successful in shutting in the well and preventing oil spills. That’s a 45 percent failure rate! If there was a fire station in my neighborhood and it only responded 50 percent the time, I’d move.

But no. Somehow this dismal safety record passed muster with the federal regulators. It gets worse. The old-Minerals-Management-Service-by-a-new-accronym, BOEMRE (pronounced “bummer” in Louisiana) decided to actually test the BOPs in the two relief wells that were drilled in response to the BP blowout. According to Cavnar, these two BOPs failed four tests. Cavnar wrote, “Transocean was preparing to splash faulty BOPs for blowout prevention on relief wells being drilled to kill a blowout caused by a faulty BOP. Jesus.”

Okay by now I’m kind of liking Cavnar. He admits that the space-age deepwater oil drilling technology has really leap-frogged beyond human ability to control it – and he gives a number of harrowing near-calamities to prove his point. He states the obvious: “There is little (or no) margin for error in deepwater…” And he describes the wild-west attitude of the oil and gas industry – how it gambles with safety, games with politicians (and presidents), and captures regulatory agencies with ease without any thought that the shortcuts companies take to enhance profits might affect other people’s lives. Like the 11 men incinerated on the Horizon and their families, or like all of the families and businesses in the Gulf of Mexico (or Alaska), or ditto if this had happened in your backyard.

Cavnar observes it seems that the oil industry has “learned little from this disaster or the previous ones, except for how to protect their public image.” I witnessed first-hand the great Gulf cover up. By controlling the story, BP was able to make the disaster appear less than it was and so minimize its liability in terms of fines and penalties and, more importantly, public outrage and demands for stricter regulations and laws.

In the end, Cavnar calls on us “to elect leaders who will take the necessary steps toward reform…” Elected leaders? I think not. Our leaders will only protect us if they hear one loud chorus from the people – like what happened in the 1970s after the Santa Barbara blowout and then Congress passed laws to better protect the environment or in 1990 when President H.W. Bush placed a 10-year blanket moratorium on new area offshore leasing in response to environmental concerns.

I hope Disaster on the Horizon motivates Americans to get informed and demand a full halt to deepwater oil production because the risks clearly outweigh the benefits, and because, as Cavnar points out, it is time for society “to move beyond our comfortable yet dangerous dependence on a fossil-fuel economy.”

89 Responses to “FDL Book Salon Welcomes Bob Cavnar, Disaster on the Horizon: High Stakes, High Risks, and the Story Behind the Deepwater Well Blowout”

BevW November 21st, 2010 at 1:59 pm

Bob, Welcome to the Lake.

Riki, Welcome back and thank you for Hosting today’s Book Salon.

Riki Ott November 21st, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Bob, Maybe you could start out by sharing why you wrote this book?

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Good evening. Happy to be here.

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 2:02 pm

As the story of the blowout unfolded, I began writing about it on my blog, the Daily Hurricane.

dakine01 November 21st, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Good afternoon Bob and welcome to FDL and welcome back Riki.

Bob I have not had an opportunity to read your book but have followed this story as closely as most of us here at FDL have.

A couple of weeks ago I saw a headline I think at MSNBC of an AP article (not able to find it to link unfortunately) that was from Tony Hayward basically saying “We were making it up as we went along”

My mental response was “no shit, Sherlock”

Was this in line with what you discovered?

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 2:03 pm

At the same time, I was working on a book about the Politics of Energy Policy. My publisher and I decided to write a book about the blowout, because we both believed that my perspective could add something to the national conversation about not only the well, but about our use of energy in the US.

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 2:05 pm

Dakine – Absolutely. BP, and indeed, the whole industry had no idea how to control a blowout in deepwater. It was the accident that was never supposed to happen.

dakine01 November 21st, 2010 at 2:05 pm
In response to Bob Cavnar @ 4

As a technical note, there’s a “Reply” button in the lower right hand of each comment. Pressing the “Reply” pre-fills the commenter name and comment number being replied to and makes it easier for all to follow the conversation.

Note: some browsers do not like to let the Reply work correctly if it is pressed after a page refresh before the page completes loading.

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 2:07 pm
In response to dakine01 @ 8


Riki Ott November 21st, 2010 at 2:07 pm
In response to Bob Cavnar @ 6

Yes, good, I think people are hungry for solid information to make informed decisions. The push to change our energy use is going to come from the people, not our “leaders” — I think. One of the most startling tidbits in your book was that BOPs have a 45 percent failure rate. Why does the industry/government tolerate this?

Rayne November 21st, 2010 at 2:08 pm

Bob and Riki, am very glad to have you here today at FDL Book Salon.

Want to point out to readers who may see BP ads today:

1) BP has run network ads on FDL and other blogs frequently since the April oil spill, in a likely attempt to improve their image;
2) The current ads are similar to those BP has run earlier in the year, typically in sync with content which they may feel is less than positive for BP’s brand;
3) Picking and choosing advertisers implies endorsements, which we don’t do at FDL, hence seeing ads from entities like BP. There is no endorsement here;
4) The ad revenues help pay for the infrastructure to support FDL content about BP, worker safety, regulatory reform, energy and the environment. Readers can find FDL’s coverage of BP’s oil disaster at this link.

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 2:09 pm
In response to Riki Ott @ 10

The amazing thing is that failure is designed into the system. Drill pipe is about 30 feet long with about 3 feet of tool joints. BOPs can’t cut tool joints, which makes up about 10% of the length of the pipe. Add that to mechanical and hydraulic failure, brittleness of pipe, and other factors, you get that amount of failure. It’s about the only industry that I’m aware of that allows that level of failure.

RevBev November 21st, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Did Hayward have any expertise in anything? He seemed clueless everytime we heard from him, not just the blowout.

Jane Hamsher November 21st, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Thanks so much for being here today Bob, and to you as well Riki. Thanks for all your fine work.

I was struck that in the recent recommendations for cutting the budget, both US PIRG and National Taxpayers Union both recommended cutting subsidies that protect risky deep-water drilling:


There is support on both sides of the ideological spectrum for this. It’s the crooks on both sides of the aisle that keep getting bought off.

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 2:11 pm
In response to Riki Ott @ 10

The really disappointing thing about the proposed new rules is that they don’t include any fundamental re-design of basic safety/control systems. They just encompass third party certification of tests and condition of the equipment.

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 2:13 pm
In response to RevBev @ 13

By training, Hayward is a geologist. He was known as a good one. Unfortunately, being technically competent in one field doesn’t necessarily mean that you make a good leader. That is a different set of skills entirely.

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 2:15 pm
In response to Jane Hamsher @ 14

One of the largest donors to our “leaders” is the oil and gas industry. In the last 10 years, the industry has given about $120 million to Republicans and about $30 million to Democrats, according to OpenSecrets. With that kind of money flying around, you can’t expect behavior that is good for the people and limiting on the industry.

Riki Ott November 21st, 2010 at 2:16 pm
In response to Bob Cavnar @ 12

Wow. This is certainly not acceptable for me anyway. If enough people feel the same, and make noise about it, things shift. Do you mean to tell us that we can drill 5 miles beneath the earth’s crust and industry can’t figure out a way to cut tool joints? Or is this another “good enough for the oil industry” and damn everyone else and the ocean, too?

On the ads — FYI: just checked in with folks in the Gulf today and learned all BP’s “we can make it right” ads are really shutting down stories on the ongoing drama in the Gulf, in particular the health problems. Seems the media loves the advertising dollars. So much for “free speech.”

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 2:20 pm
In response to Riki Ott @ 18

On the BOPs, it is a standard accepted by the industry for decades, because we’re not supposed to have blowouts. It’s also one of the reasons that they have redundancy built into the stack. The problem is that the redundancy is tied to the same control systems.

Yes, BP has been blanketing our part of the country with advertising, trying to overpower the media. It’s been very effective.

Riki Ott November 21st, 2010 at 2:20 pm
In response to Bob Cavnar @ 15

We NEED fundamental change! Safety culture in the U.S. oil and gas industry focuses on time-loss accidents (or incidents as you say) as a measure of safety. In Norway (where I just was), the oilmen say such a focus pushes the onus on workers while U.S. management then slashes safety regulations and laws. The U.S. has 4 times less time loss accidents than Norway, but 4 times higher fatality rate. What is your opinion about the highly touted “safety culture” that clearly isn’t? What can the U.S. shift to focus on macro safety (systemic protections) instead of micro safety (time-loss)?

Rayne November 21st, 2010 at 2:25 pm
In response to Riki Ott @ 18

In re: tool joints and mechanical failure rates — I think this is an exception for the oil industry.

Much of the rest of the chemical industry is required to have secondary containment depending on the kind of chemical being transported. I think it would be quite interesting to compare other kinds of chemical piping standards in manufacturing environments to that of deepwater oil production.

Having worked with metal fabricators and chemical piping industries, I seem to recall a specification on a project which required piping and bits for terrestrial drilling rigs to be handled in clean room environments, if this pipe and equipment came in direct contact with crude oil. Human skin oils are corrosive and can cause potential points of attack by crude which is also corrosive. Are they using pipe which has been handled in this fashion? I don’t even see how it would be possible given deepwater conditions to assure such handling.

otchmoson November 21st, 2010 at 2:25 pm

Our only “speech” is in the letters/e-mail we send to our elected officials–and I’m not sure how effective this is. I heard rumblings of a BP boycott shortly after the accident, but Obama’s concession that “they need to stay in business in order to pay for their mistake” rather took the steam out of that. (Or perhaps Americans are just too lazy and/or unengaged to do anything that might inconvenience them–like patronize a different gas station if it means driving a block further or crossing the street.) I live near an Interstate service area, and immediately after the tragedy, the BP station had few customers. Today–business as usual. What does it take to wake us up and demand that we not do business with those bad actors who have little qualm about destroying our environment????

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 2:25 pm

The US industry does focus on incident rate, which is the number of “reportable” incidents relative to number of hours worked. It is very individual behavior oriented that does put the onus on the worker. That’s why they have lots of overhead hazard and slip and fall reporting. The problem is that there is a tendency to get very comfortable with high risk activities from years of success (or getting away with risk taking). This is what leads to overconfidence and subsequent inhibiting of alarms, disabling of safety shutdowns, etc. It comes directly from complacency bred from years of success. The problem is, that when something does go wrong, it’s catastrophic.

Riki Ott November 21st, 2010 at 2:27 pm
In response to Jane Hamsher @ 14

Oh, this is interesting and maybe politically viable. As long as we’re at it, maybe they could figure out a few more oil subsidies to chip away. According to Terry Tamminen, the annual oil subsidies are over $3,300 for every man, woman, and child in the U.S. Probably more if you throw in the more recent wars.

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 2:29 pm
In response to otchmoson @ 22

The problem for us is that there really is no way to boycott BP. The retailers are generally independently owned. BP sells product to many retailers/wholesalers/refiners. Oil is one of those weird products that we use every day, but never see. It goes from the well to the refiner to the retailer, into your tank, and then into the air. You pay for it in many ways, but don’t see it.

Riki Ott November 21st, 2010 at 2:33 pm
In response to Bob Cavnar @ 23

Hmmm. Yes, you state time and again in your book that complacency and success breed disaster. How do we avoid this? In Alaska, we avoid it with creation of Regional Citizens’ Advisory Councils — by far the best thing to come out of the Exxon Valdez. (Double hull tankers would have been scuttled if the citizens’ had not turned the oil lobby to scuttle double hulls 4 times over 25 year phase in period.) Support for a Gulf of Mexico RCAC is building. I wonder if we should also have one for the MSRCs — the Marine Spill Response Co. established under the Oil Pollution Act?

BevW November 21st, 2010 at 2:36 pm

Riki, what are your projections as to the real damage to the Gulf? If there is still oil just under the sand in Alaska 20+ years later, what is the Gulf looking at?

Riki Ott November 21st, 2010 at 2:36 pm
In response to Bob Cavnar @ 25

Stock divestments, maybe, instead of a boycott? I mean I thought Congress was on the right track with debarrment until Obama put the kibash on that with the $20 billion compensation package backed by U.S. assets.

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 2:37 pm

We avoid this kind of complacency by requiring real-time accountability. The advisory councils are a great way to do that. We don’t have much in the way of third party oversight in the oil and gas industry. The bureaucracy is genetically encoded to support the industry which they are supposed to regulate. This comes from decades of “cooperation” that gradually evolved into collusion. The only way to break this cycle is unrelated third party oversight and accountability. This can come from citizen groups or other government agencies that have no dollar based skin in the game.

BevW November 21st, 2010 at 2:38 pm

Bob, do you expect an expansion of deepwater drilling in the coming years? Even with the Florida Senators fighting it. Off shore drilling on all coasts?

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 2:40 pm
In response to Riki Ott @ 28

Yes, Riki, the government was really in a position of conflict. On the one hand, they were charged with oversight of the cleanup. On the other hand, they couldn’t afford to let BP go under because they were the responsible party.

Also keep in mind that, of the dozen or so deepwater operators, only 4, maybe 5 could have survived this disaster. Had it been one of the others, without the $75 million liability cap, all the other companies would have gone under and 100% of the cost put on the taxpayer.

Riki Ott November 21st, 2010 at 2:41 pm
In response to BevW @ 27

In Alaska, the critical problem was that the spill wiped out young-of-the-year — and this wasn’t really apparent until 4 years later when the young failed to show up as adults (herring) or the surviving adults couldn’t produce viable offspring (pink salmon). In a cold water ecosystem, if you take out the key forage fish, the whole system unraveled.

Tulane students have compiled a database of key ecological and economic species in the Gulf, and when their young life forms are in the water column. The next step is to analyze it to see what species are likely to be MIA b/c of the 90 days of oil and dispersant in the water column. There WILL be holes in the ecosystem, but whether enough of the holes line up to cause a collapse… ?? We’ll find out in 3-5 years, I bet. And the deep sea ecosystem? No idea.

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 2:42 pm
In response to BevW @ 30

Bev, the real problem here is our lack of comprehensive energy policy. We are burning about 20 million barrels of oil per day, over 60% coming from foreign sources. A third of our domestic production comes from the offshore, 80% of which comes from deepwater. Without it, we import even more oil from countries who hate us. We have allowed our elected leaders to abdicate responsibility, and have lost control of our own energy destiny.

Rayne November 21st, 2010 at 2:44 pm
In response to Riki Ott @ 28

Weren’t the foreign policy implications a key driver behind the kibosh on debarrment?

Much of the UK relies on revenues from BP to fund retirement; if BP was debarred by the U.S., it would cut into retirement and create a relations nightmare. (It does not help matters that the UK and the U.S. have been Frick-and-Frack on the Iraq War and nasty issues related to it, like torture.)

I’m wondering if there have been any efforts to work with UK-based activists to find a way to get around this problem.

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 2:44 pm
In response to Riki Ott @ 32

I believe the same problems will emerge in the Gulf. With the vast majority of the oil never coming to the surface, the deep sea damage it caused is unknown. We’ll only begin to have an idea of the damage through fishermen going out of business, falling sea life and bird populations. By then, no one will remember what caused it.

otchmoson November 21st, 2010 at 2:47 pm

Well, hey, let’s have some optimism here. From what I’ve been hearing, natural gas is going to be our bridge to the future. Will the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing–as well as the disruption of who-knows how many aquifers–prove as ecologically detrimental as oil and dispersants released into the gulf.

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 2:48 pm
In response to Rayne @ 34

Yes. BP plays a huge roll in world oil and gas supply, and in the economies of both Europe and the US. There was never an option for pushing BP out of the US. The only thing that could have been done (and incrementally it has occurred to some extent) is divestment of BP assets to other companies such as Exxon and Shell. Doing that, though, reduces BP’s commitment to pay the $20 billion and ongoing damages. A real catch 22.

Riki Ott November 21st, 2010 at 2:52 pm
In response to Bob Cavnar @ 31

It seems to me that the true costs are not tallied — we’re still paying in Alaska from what happened 21 years ago. The oil industry is good at shifting most of the costs off to the impacted people and environment. So if we the people are going to wind up paying one way or other, it makes more sense to me to pay upfront in prevention rather than after the accident. (There I go making sense of this.) Speaking of prevention, there seems to be quite a lot of rubber-stamping going on by our federal regulators just to allow drilling. Like dispersants for example. NOAA claims 8 percent of oil was dispersed. This seems low for industry to be touting. Why has the government not requested that industry come up with something that really works to clean up rather than just hide the spilled oil?

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 2:52 pm
In response to otchmoson @ 36

The whole issue of hydraulic fracturing and its possible effects on ground water are a whole other set of controversies. Without fraccing, domestic gas production would plummet, putting us even further at risk for more imports from foreign countries, but we have not held the industry to account for the chemicals (which they claim are proprietary) used, and more important, how those chemicals are disposed of as the wells flow back. To me, those are the largest risks that must be addressed. Clearly state and local governments can’t oversee these risks on their own. It takes federal policy, similar to the Clean Water Act.

Riki Ott November 21st, 2010 at 2:54 pm
In response to Rayne @ 34

Good idea. I just met a bunch at the globalization conference in Norway. I’ll follow up…
(and yes to your first points)

marymccurnin November 21st, 2010 at 2:54 pm
In response to Bob Cavnar @ 35

Aren’t people still getting sick? I read an article yesterday about people going to doctors with an unusual kind of pneumonia and swelling everywhere. Sorry, I cannot find the link. The article also spoke about doctors being hesitant to link illness to the “spill”.

Riki Ott November 21st, 2010 at 2:58 pm
In response to otchmoson @ 36

THAT’S optimism?? Good grief. Fracking is worse in the short run b/c the effects on the water supply are right in your face. Then there’s the long-term health problems of course. Gotta wonder about a species that thinks it’s sooooo smart yet keeps repeatedly fouling its nest. Not to mention poisoning the young. Back to the Gulf for the moment…

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 2:58 pm
In response to Riki Ott @ 38

No question that prevention is far better than clean up. After the Valdez, the Oil Pollution Act required plans in place to clean up spills, hence the Marine Spill Response Corporation, the collective formed by the industry. However, the “free market” intervened when another, for-profit company was formed, undercutting the business by offering lower cost services. To keep the business, MSRC cut costs. Research and Development funds were cut, so the clean up technology never advanced. Very little research was even done for deepwater spills, short of one study done in 2000 by a group of companies, including BP. That study found that the vast majority of oil released in deepwater never comes to the surface. The industry never responded to that study to develop a mitigant for that huge risk.

otchmoson November 21st, 2010 at 3:01 pm

Bob and Riki–

Please let me thank you for all your commentary during the 24-hour news cycles on cable television. I always came away from your interviews feeling like I’d been educated and told the truth–even if the truth was ugly. (Somehow it became more and more difficult to give credence to some or our “leaders” who came out to speak to us peasants after breaking bread with Mr. Heyward et al.)

And sorry to be a bit gross, but as one of “the small people”, I feel like the important people continue to fowl our collective nest (Planet Earth). Sadly, when they wake up and can no longer deny the stench and destruction that surrounds all of us–a condition to which we will become inured–there won’t be any more materials for new nest-building nor anyplace to build that nest.

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 3:02 pm
In response to marymccurnin @ 41

Yes. Riki is up to date on these cases as she has committed to stay on the Gulf Coast documenting these illnesses.

otchmoson November 21st, 2010 at 3:02 pm
In response to Riki Ott @ 42

Sorry, I forgot the snark (irony) tag.

Riki Ott November 21st, 2010 at 3:04 pm
In response to Bob Cavnar @ 37

Noo, nooo, noooo thank you. Let’s not go for anything that divides the spoils of an accident and recycles it back into the industry. I’d like to see some leadership where assets are seized and redistributed to the people or a public trust. So the assets are taken OFF the playing field. That would make the oil industry to be a little more safety conscious. I’d also like to see no new leases until a spiller fully makes amends for an accident — including an escrowed account for “unanticipated damages.” Exxon still owes $92 million for the mess in Alaska that the government never went to court to claim.

Rayne November 21st, 2010 at 3:04 pm
In response to Bob Cavnar @ 37

Yes, it crossed my mind that the debacle in the Gulf could create even bigger Too-Big-To-Fail corporations, but this time petroleum producers.

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 3:05 pm
In response to otchmoson @ 44

The only time in our history that we have changed course (civil rights as an example), the change came from OUTSIDE the government, not our leaders. LBJ got in the boat after huge unrest in the south that was in the news every day. We got out of Viet Nam after huge public outcry. Similar in Iraq. Energy is tougher because the cycle of money and re-election has overpowered independent voices. The only way this changes is gigantic outcry, or a tragic shortage of energy (that causes the outcry). It’s the only way that i see to change our direction.

Riki Ott November 21st, 2010 at 3:08 pm
In response to Bob Cavnar @ 39

well, not to go too far down this path, but WITH fracking our water supplies are going to plummet. I mean, come on, an exemption to the Safe Drinking Water Act? The proprietary argument is hollow. Chocolate chip cookie companies are in competition and they have to list ingredients. Nutritional supplements say “a proprietary blend of…” It’s a matter of political will. It’s lacking.

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 3:08 pm
In response to Riki Ott @ 47

One of my suggestions has been to put our deepwater acreage in a public trust, putting ALL deepwater operators on the hook for liability and pooling resources to manage risk and provide further oversight.

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 3:11 pm
In response to Riki Ott @ 50

Yes. The industry is beginning to fee the pressure, and Halliburton has announced they will voluntarily disclose ingredients. That’s not good enough, though. We need to know where the flowed back water goes, and that there is integrity in the wells where they apply them. The risk, in my mind, is greater with the shallower shales that are being fracced. The closer to fresh ground water, the greater the risk.

otchmoson November 21st, 2010 at 3:12 pm
In response to Bob Cavnar @ 49

Look back at our first cell phones (bag phones) and recognizes how far and how fast the technology has emerged. Imagine how far along the road to energy independence (renewables) we would be if Reagan hadn’t so disdainfully removed the solar panels Carter installed at the White House. I hope for such a world, but as Riki and I have mentioned–can such a Phoenix arise out of a despoiled “nest”?

Rayne November 21st, 2010 at 3:12 pm
In response to Bob Cavnar @ 51

How would creation of a public trust differ from public-ownership of the leaseholds with licensing?

Riki Ott November 21st, 2010 at 3:14 pm
In response to Bob Cavnar @ 45

Yes, people are really sick. Lots. I’m working with Gulf folks to run a GulfHealthSurvey.net to get a handle on prevalence. But I really think 4 to 5 million folks were exposed to dangerous levels of oil and/or solvent (chemicals in dispersant). Check out my blogs or Dahr Jamail’s stories. There’s going to be a lot of documentary films that include this aspect — most of the film crews got sick while doing the stories. Gulf folks are determined to get this story out — and have it STAY in the news.

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 3:15 pm
In response to otchmoson @ 53

I fear that the only thing that will give the public the will to force our leaders to act will be a catastrophe even larger than the BP blowout. The catastrophe will have to be so large that corporate/government message machines would be over powered. The fact that we don’t have a strong will to fix this problem after the BP disaster is a testament to the strength of the existing noise machine. That is the tragedy here, in my mind.

marymccurnin November 21st, 2010 at 3:16 pm
In response to Riki Ott @ 55

My family lives in New Orleans. Are they in any danger?

Riki Ott November 21st, 2010 at 3:16 pm
In response to Bob Cavnar @ 51

Like it. We need to talk more about this later!

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 3:19 pm
In response to Rayne @ 54

Public ownership with licensing is essentially what we have now. We, as citizens, collectively own the oil and gas under federal lands. The leases that operators take allow them to produce that oil and gas, paying a royalty to US through the BOEMRE. My proposal is to form pools of leases, where all of the deepwater operators own a piece of the pools. We still get our royalties, but the operators share the risk and the revenues over all the deepwater. It spreads risk to individual well failure. It also incents Shell to look over BP’s shoulder, since they are also on the hook for liability.

Riki Ott November 21st, 2010 at 3:19 pm
In response to marymccurnin @ 57

I’d keep out of the rain for the winter, especially if storms come from the Gulf. Oil and solvent is in the air and rain. The winter storms are going to “disperse” the oil and chemicals far and wide. Will have to reassess dangers in the spring. Also be aware that “colds and flu” can mimic chemical poisoning, so if illnesses don’t clear up quickly, I’d look beyond biological illness.

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 3:20 pm
In response to Riki Ott @ 60

Riki, are you still getting high readings for VOCs in the air there?

otchmoson November 21st, 2010 at 3:21 pm
In response to Bob Cavnar @ 56


That’s been in the back of my mind, too. And like you, it’s sad to think that as great as the BP disaster was, it has already headed down the memory hole for those whose lives were not directly/immediately impacted. I expect it would take back-to-back-to-back BP disasters–and skyrocketing gasoline prices along with “no gas” signs to get our collective attention for more than a few days. Another Catch 22, isn’t it?

Riki Ott November 21st, 2010 at 3:22 pm
In response to Bob Cavnar @ 59

Yep, this is another way to break the industry-government complacency — get the oil companies to be liable for each other’s accidents. Maybe citizen oversight and lease pools. It seems when liability grows, spill prevention increases.

BevW November 21st, 2010 at 3:23 pm
In response to Bob Cavnar @ 56

I am amazed by the lack of outrage from the spill. I grew up in the San Francisco bay area and remember the oil spills of the late 60s – 70s and the outrage from everyone.

Have you spoken on college campuses, are the young people engaged in the environmental effects? I would expect the businesses in the Gulf to be marching in DC by now, from the lack of support – another NOLA.

Your thoughts.

otchmoson November 21st, 2010 at 3:25 pm
In response to Riki Ott @ 60


Are there any studies defining the breadth of contamination? How far do airborne chemicals travel? Living with a chemically-sensitive individual–and at the far end of the Gulf–I’ve wondered if his rather frequent bouts with “colds and sinus” stem from environmental rather than biological factors?

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 3:25 pm
In response to otchmoson @ 62

Unfortunately, what you say is true. It’s like the wars we are in. If we had a mandatory draft, would we have invaded Iraq, putting sons and daughters of politicians and elites in danger? NO WAY. Only when people are directly affected (and it reaches their consciousness) do they act. Like the feel ups going on now at TSA. A national security zealot will turn in to a civil liberties activist after some federal agent grabs their crotch in public.

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 3:27 pm
In response to BevW @ 64

I am doing some talks around the roll out of Disaster on the Horizon, and have had the opportunity to talk about it on television. I intend, though, to continue speaking out about these issues to anyone who will listen.

Riki Ott November 21st, 2010 at 3:29 pm
In response to Bob Cavnar @ 61

Not sure, but I’d check with Bucket Brigade and Louisiana Environmental Action Network. Wilma Subra posts on the LEAN site and she does good work.

I DO know that dispersants are still being used in coastal and inland waters. Got reports from Louisiana and Alabama today. The Alabama truth-seekers thought to take out respirators and a reporter — both of which were needed. Dispersants were not designed to use in shallow water, especially with dense human populations. In Alaska when COrexit was sprayed, crews were ordered off beaches for 48 hours. But in the Gulf, the feds pretend they don’t know this is happening and people are getting sick. Like internal bleeding, puking, etc. Working (again) next week on ways to stop the spraying.

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 3:33 pm
In response to Riki Ott @ 68

It’s amazing to me that dispersants are still being applied months after the government said they had stopped. Shocking.

Riki Ott November 21st, 2010 at 3:34 pm
In response to BevW @ 64

BP controlled the story, the public was really kept largely ignorant of the extent of the disaster. Where is the impetus to fix problems if the people don’t see the problems and the harm?

I thought the Exxon Valdez was bad in terms of an industry-government lock on information. But it was a cake-walk compared to what happened in the GUlf. THe story was forcibly and VERY prematurely shut down in August by Obama. Of all people. For the mid-term elections, I suspect, but also to let the oil flow. It’s our job to get it back in the news by demanding pestering calling our local media for stories.

Rayne November 21st, 2010 at 3:34 pm
In response to Bob Cavnar @ 59

Huh. This I have to think about for a while. Mega-corporations already pool risk through reinsurance (in which they generally participate with each other through captive reinsurance firms) and through the use of swaps.

I can think of a couple examples of captive reinsurance firms which probably do have some of each others’ business in their portfolios, simply because they are a couple of the largest players in energy industry reinsurance:

Exxon -> Ancon Insurance Company, Inc.
Shell -> Noble Assurance Company

Riki Ott November 21st, 2010 at 3:36 pm
In response to Bob Cavnar @ 69

Yeah, well, what’s really shocking are the number of emails I get from sick people. And now women who were in their first trimester when the spill happened and the fetuses are starting to have problems (as medical doctors suspected they would). That’s women IN the Gulf and medical doctors OUTside of the Gulf. Of course.

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 3:36 pm

I might add here that there is a standoff building that will explode in 2011. Two components of deepwater reform, increasing the 30 day permit review limit to 90 days, and increasing the $75 million liability cap, require congressional action. I don’t expect the Senate to pass the CLEAR act that was passed in the House last summer, so it will die in the lame duck session. I expect the Republican House next year to just sit and stare at the president over reform and pass nothing. The administration will be faced with increasing joblessness in the offshore, or begin approving permits with no real reform.

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 3:39 pm
In response to Rayne @ 71

Rayne, there is a difference here. This risk, unlike mortgage and interest rate risk (at least before the crash) is uninsurable. The cost is so huge, the damage potential so massive, that no pool or underwriter on the planet would insure it. It would have to be a pooled risk, depending on the individual companies pooled balance sheets.

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 3:40 pm
In response to Riki Ott @ 72

The problem is that no major media outlet will cover this.

Riki Ott November 21st, 2010 at 3:42 pm
In response to otchmoson @ 65

According to some published papers (Laseter), one molecule of toluene (a VOC) released 10 feet above the ground in a 3 knot wind will travel for 21 miles (if it doesn’t it anything). Lots of folks in the Gulf reporting non-stop “colds” and/or skin “rashes” or other problems. Let’s not use the word “environmental” cause. Our natural environment is not toxic; the darn chemicals in it are the problem. So yes, I would suspect chemical illness, especially with chem. sensitive person. I’ve heard from such folks as far away as Albany, NY, when Gulf low pressure system flows north. One of the things to have students look at (I delegate out projects to university students) is the weather/meteorlogical data.

Riki Ott November 21st, 2010 at 3:44 pm
In response to Bob Cavnar @ 75

I’m not giving up yet!

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 3:45 pm
In response to Riki Ott @ 77

Your commitment to this issue is amazing. For everyone who doesn’t know, Riki has committed a year to recording and documenting the physical effects of the oil and dispersants that poured into the Gulf and the air over it.

Riki Ott November 21st, 2010 at 3:46 pm
In response to Bob Cavnar @ 73

Okay. Let’s assume we are going to get NOTHING out of Congress before it’s too late to stop irreversible climate damage (within next 4 years), so what can people do?

Here are some ideas. What are yours, folks?
– insist your community/state does something to reduce GHG emissions
– educate people by taking turns publishing articles or opinion pieces in local media — or hounding media to cover climate stories and what people are doing to pitch in and be part of solution
– support a CSA and encourage friends to do same
– pester local media for updates on the Gulf like once a week; let’s not lose this opportunity for demanding real change!
– pester national green NGOs to start up clean green energy businesses in the Gulf as small scale projects that could be scaled up

nonquixote November 21st, 2010 at 3:47 pm

Thank you for being here Mr Cavnar and Dr Ott.

I had a chance to view three of your video presentations on I recall was you website Dr Ott. Very informative, thanks.

To BevW @64, there are just too many distractions from joblessness and poverty to home foreclosures to the two, soon to be four wars we are fighting, the elections and everything else for this to have stayed in enough peoples’ focus to be much outrage continuing.

I am friends with several hunters and do work with invasive species remedation groups. Every chance I get I ask the hunters if they think they will see many ducks next season as many species through the Great Lakes flyways, winter in the Gulf. I ask the same kind of questions of the environmentalists I volunteer with and keep pressing the reminders. We all need to do that or it will not get done.

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 3:50 pm
In response to Riki Ott @ 79

I agree with all these suggestions. Pestering local media and your representatives is key. There needs to be a political price for our leaders who don’t respond with comprehensive policy and transparent information.

Rayne November 21st, 2010 at 3:52 pm
In response to Bob Cavnar @ 74

But that’s why reinsurance captives, Bob. I’ll tell you that I worked for a captive reinsurer held by a chemical company.

Many big corporations have risks for which they cannot buy insurance on the open market, as you’ve said. There’s some amount they will simply eat as a loss or as an expense, but the amount of risk above that which they can’t rationalize to shareholders readily requires them to save money.

Saving money in investments requires them to pay taxes on income made by the investments, which they don’t want to do. But saving money in the form of reserves held by a captive insurer means they don’t have to pay taxes — as long as the captive also writes some percentage of insurance on risks from other companies besides its own parent. So these captive insurers reinsure the risk of other firms. Shell, for example, would reserve against its deepwater risks through its own insurance firm, which in turn would participate in pooled risk offerings from other companies.

A pooled risk arrangement is going to have to be substantively different than this existing system. Right now they are already participating but not putting adequate pressure on each other to change their operations. What would change this?

Riki Ott November 21st, 2010 at 3:53 pm
In response to nonquixote @ 80

Oh, that’s a good idea. There are good bird records both formal and informal — like the Christmas bird count. Be good to follow that over time.

As for too many distractions, I see the youth rising. There is going to be a million minor march on Washington DC next mother’s day (May 8) with echos in communities across the world hopefully like 350.org. The kids want to tell the politicians they are not making decisions that are safe for them. iMatter organized by 16-year old Alec Loorz at kids-vs-global-warmning.com. As for the rest of us, we best figure out how to support the youth. From what I’ve seen in 35 states now over 3 years of touring and lecturing is that the youth are shouldering some very adult problems. Gonna be a wild next 4 years when we either sink or swim IMHO.

BevW November 21st, 2010 at 3:55 pm

As we come to the end of this important Book Salon,

Bob, Thank you for stopping by the Lake and spending the afternoon with us to discuss your new book and the Horizon disaster.

Riki, Thank you very much for Hosting this Book Salon.

Everyone, if you would like more information:
Bob’s website, book
Riki’s website, book

Thanks everyone,
Have a great week and Happy Holiday.
Safe Travels

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 3:56 pm
In response to Rayne @ 82

I understand the captives, but believe this scale of this liability (if the cap is lifted) is too great for one company. By pooling the risks (and upsides) overall risk is lowered for everyone and the shared liability will force industry self oversight. Shell would be on the hook for risky behavior from BP. That is a step towards more comprehensive regulation.

Riki Ott November 21st, 2010 at 3:58 pm
In response to Bob Cavnar @ 85

Thanks to Bob and everyone for the lively discussion with some good ideas for follow up. If you do anything, please call your media and tell them you want to know what’s going on in the Gulf. It’s not over.

Thanks all!

Bob Cavnar November 21st, 2010 at 3:58 pm
In response to BevW @ 84

Thank you, everyone. Stop by the Daily Hurricane anytime. We have great discussions about not only this issue, but many issues of the day.

Thank you, Riki, for hosting this. I know you’re jet lagged, and I appreciate you taking time. I wish everyone a happy holiday.


Rayne November 21st, 2010 at 3:59 pm

Thanks to Bob for his research and his book, to Riki for her persistence in tracking the damage to the Gulf, and to both for being here.

I’m hoping you’ll both stop in and continue to keep us up to date on the issues which need more attention, more eyeballs regarding the BP oil disaster.

skepticdog November 21st, 2010 at 11:31 pm

Multiple, independent, BOP’s. Is that too simple? It’s not rocket science.

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