Director of federal drilling safety oversight in Gulf calls it quits

By Stephen C. Webster
Monday, May 17, 2010 19:57 EDT
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Chris Oynes, appointed during the Bush administration to oversee offshore energy oversight at the Mineral Management Service (MMS), has quit.

“After 35 years of service,” an MMS employee told AFP, Oynes plans to announce his retirement soon, leaving behind a career forever tarnished by a photo of him presenting Transocean, the Deepwater Horizon’s owners, with a safety award.

His agency is blamed for severely lax safety oversight and neglecting inspections in BP’s massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Since the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on April 22, the well has been gushing some 70,000 barrels of crude per day, according to expert scientific analysis of video from the sea floor. At time of this writing, the spill was estimated to be generating a total volume of oil equal to another Exxon-Valdez disaster every four days.

BP claims it has fitted a mile-long tube onto the gusher and begun trapping as much as 1,000 barrels of oil a day, but the Obama administration insists that is “not a solution”. The president has assigned a team of America’s brightest scientific minds to shut the well after the oil company’s repeated failures.

RELATED: Transocean approves $1 billion dividend for shareholders

Oynes was named in 2007 as the associate director of the Offshore Energy and Minerals Management Program in the MMS, with responsibilities including administering the Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas program. He had previously served 12 years as Regional Director of the Minerals Management Service’s Gulf of Mexico OCS Region in New Orleans.

The director’s resignation comes amid not only scathing criticism of the agency for being too lax on enforcement of safety standards, but also being too close with the companies it regulates.

After the Gulf of Mexico disaster began, the Obama’s administration announced a breakup of the agency’s leasing and regulatory functions into two separate entities.


Meanwhile, BP is dumping literally tons of toxic chemical oil dispersant into the water, which causes some of the surface slick to sink to the sea floor, the idea being that it’s better there than on a coastline.

However, the chemicals are shown to accumulate in a variety of marine life, which in some cases is later consumed by humans and can cause a variety of illnesses.

“The exact makeup of the dispersants is kept secret under competitive trade laws, but a worker safety sheet for one product, called Corexit, says it includes 2-butoxyethanol, a compound associated with headaches, vomiting and reproductive problems at high doses,” Pro Publica noted.

The chairman of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council called it “worse than oil”. By roughly two weeks ago, BP had bought up more than a third of the world’s supply and was starting to mass produce more in Sugarland, Texas.

Additionally, some of the runoff from the gusher did not float upwards, instead collecting in massive seabed oil plumes miles wide and hundreds of feet deep.

The accumulation of oil at the bottom of the ocean presents a more startling threat to the Gulf’s ecology than shallow-water spills. Paul Montagna, a marine ecologist at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, explained to AFP: “What that means is that basically life in the entire water column is now being exposed.”

“Clearly you’d expect a huge die off in the water column as well as in the (affected) sediments,” said Wilma Subra, a chemist and consultant who works with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.

Another major concern is that the subsea oil and dispersants can be carried by currents in an entirely different direction that where the wind and waves send the surface slick, creating a “much larger area of impact,” she added.

Some experts fear there will be no way to stop the oil from continuing to pour into the gulf, with the retired chairman of an energy investment banking firm telling National Geographic recently that efforts to stop the disaster could prove fruitless and than oil could gush into the ocean for years.

The reservoir BP had tapped is estimated to hold tens of millions of barrels. If it is allowed to fully deplete those reserves, the Gulf could literally become a massive dead zone for generations to come.

During the days of the Soviet Union, four similar offshore oil disasters were shut down by controlled nuclear explosions under the sea floor. Komsomoloskaya Pravda, Russia’s best-selling daily publication, noted the potential exists for the United States to do the same, although success is not guaranteed. While the Soviets indeed saw four wells capped, they attempted it five times.

U.S. officials have not even acknowledged that possibility, as Cold War-era Americans also explored a peaceful nuclear detonation program called “Operation Plowshare,” but abandoned it due to environmental concerns. Instead, a number of experts have suggested the U.S. divert the Mississippi river, apparently to push the slick further out to sea.

President Obama and politicians of nearly all stripes have piled on the oil firms’ in recent weeks, with Obama insisting on Friday that he “will not tolerate more finger-pointing or irresponsibility.”

“The people of the Gulf Coast need our help,” he said, calling the private sector’s attempts to explain away their mess before Congress a “ridiculous spectacle” and promised to do whatever it takes to plug the well.

The United Nations, reacting to the advancing threats of pollution and overfishing, issued a report Monday predicting that Earth’s oceans would be wiped bare of all fish in the next 40 years unless new policies are undertaken to better provide protected underwater habitats.

With AFP.

Correction: A prior version mistakenly claimed the well is spouting 70,000 “gallons” per day. It’s actually 70,000 “barrels,” a much greater amount.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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