Scientific Papers Share Lessons Learned from the BP Oil Spill

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A collection of papers now out in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) looks at the response to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in 201, examining whether it was successful and how it could be improved. The release of the reports comes just days after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suspended BP from obtaining new U.S. contracts due to its “lack of business integrity” following the Deepwater Horizon accident that killed 11 workers. After the explosion, the rig’s Macondo well began gushing crude oil, a leak that would continue for nearly three months. Uncertainty surrounding the flow rate of the leaking oil was a key problem during the disaster, prompting these U.S. government scientists to recommend that future drilling permits require mechanisms to assess the flow rate.

Among other methods, dispersants were used to break down some of the oil after the spill. While dispersants have been used before, the 2010 BP spill was the first time they were added under the sea surface. Just as claims against the dispersant company were dismissed this week, a study—separate from the PNAS papers—suggests once the dispersants mix with oil, the mixture is more toxic.

In all, according to the 15 PNAS papers, information presented publicly during the spill was for the most part accurate. Oil was rapidly consumed by bacteria, and seafood was not contaminated by hydrocarbons or dispersants.

Fiscal Cliff Diverts Attention from Doha Climate Talks

Though the world’s carbon emissions jumped 3 percent in 2011, worries about the fiscal cliff—when the  terms of the Budget Control Act of 2011 go into effect at the end of 2012—still overshadowed negotiations for a global climate treaty at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Doha. While the Doha talks are slow, Spiegel runs down a list of four reasons for hope on climate change. Noting even though the international process takes time, it is delivering. “Since the Copenhagen summit in 2009, countries representing 80 percent of global emissions have made economy-wide pledges of action.”

Even so, the Kyoto Protocol—the only global agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions—is set to expire at the end of the year. Negotiations to move forward on details for a second phase haven’t materialized as of yet. Two traditional hold-outs are warming up to the idea of a global commitment. China has pledged to make its “due contribution” to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and President Barack Obama’s envoy said he is willing to participate in discussions on the issue of fairness in how nations plan to meet greenhouse gas reduction goals. At issue is whether some nations historically considered developing countries should be subject to more stringent carbon targets given their increasing emissions.

Climate Change in Spotlight as Coal Use Criticized

As natural gas continues to gain popularity, as much as 24 percent of coal-fired capacity in the U.S. could be shut down by 2035. The forecast comes from a new study released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. An official from BHP Billiton—one of the largest producers of aluminum, thermal coal, metallurgical coal, nickel, silver and uranium—said extreme weather caused by climate change is already impacting some of its assets, thus forcing the company to re-evaluate its investments in the coal sector. “In a carbon constrained world where energy coal is the biggest contributor to a carbon problem, how do you think this is going to evolve over a 30- to 40-year time horizon? You’d have to look at that and say … the usage of thermal coal is going to decline,” said BHP executive Marcus Randolph. “And frankly it should.”

In the southeastern U.S.—a region where coal-fired power plants have historically supplied much of the electricity—coal-fired generation has declined since 2010. In summer 2012, the U.S. Energy Information Administration saw an 8 percent decline in coal use. The reason, as Slate tells it: the drop in natural gas prices has “changed the dispatch order in the region.”

A new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council outlines a plan by which the U.S. could reduce power plant carbon pollution by 26 percent using the Clean Air Act. Under the plan, the EPA would set emissions goals for existing power plants that vary from state to state, depending on the state’s mix of power sources. Regulators and utilities could then determine how best to meet those goals. States would be free to pursue innovative strategies, such as trading emissions, as they see fit. Such a plan, according to the Washington Post’s Brad Plumer, is preferable to a one-size-fits-all carbon standard for all power plants, which could shutter many coal plants.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.