Berm notice: Oil Spill Commission staff finds Jindal’s sand piles were “Underwhelmingly Effective, Overwhelmingly Expensive”

Back in June, I warned that Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) was demagoguing a sand barrier ‘solution’ that probably won’t help, will take many months, use up valuable resources, vanish in the first storm “” and many scientists think will make things worse. As one Coastal geologist explained: “I have yet to speak to a scientist who thinks the project will be effective.”

By July, surprise, surprise, Jindal’s “barrier islands” were washing away [see photo above]. Now the staff of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling offers its least surprising finding in a white paper, “The Story of the Louisiana Berms Project”:

The Commission staff can comfortably conclude that the decision to green-light the underwhelmingly effective, overwhelmingly expensive Louisiana berms project was flawed

Duh.

The next sentence is “But whether it was flawed at the time, or only flawed in retrospect, with the benefit of hindsight, is not a question this paper seeks to answer.” That may be fine for a non-partisan commission, but I had scientists emailing me in June what a bad idea this is. And when I asked people to e-mail me if they thought it was a good idea, there were no replies.

Dr. Robert Young, “a professor of coastal geology and director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University,” wrote two pieces in June “” a NYT op-ed, “A Sand Trap in the Gulf” and a longer piece for Yale e360, “Under Pressure to Block Oil, A Rush To Dubious Projects” (reposted on CP), asserting:

The state of Louisiana has a wealth of fine coastal scientists who have been working on the coastal restoration of the Louisiana delta region for decades. Yet those who I have spoken with have indicated that they have not been consulted on the project. I have yet to speak to a scientist who thinks the project will be effective. In the end, we have a project that is incredibly expensive. There has been little scientific review. It is questionable if the proposed berm will prevent oil from entering the wetlands it is designed to protect. The structure will be very short-lived. And there are many potential negative impacts of this structure on the coastal environment that have not been evaluated. Coastal dredging and filling can cause significant damage to marine organisms and local ecosystems as massive amounts of sand are dug up in one location and then deposited on the sea floor in another spot. In addition, building a 45-mile sand berm could alter tidal currents and lead to the erosion of natural barrier islands that protect the Louisiana coast from hurricanes.

The Spill Commission staff report does make very clear that it was intense political pressure by Gov. Bobby Jindal that forced everyone else to go along, however reluctantly. In theory you can try to fault the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Incident Command, led by Commander Admiral Thad Allen.

But in reality, the fault is entirely Jindal’s. The Governor of the state that was most affected by this worst oil spill in US history made clear he was committed to demagoguing this counterproductive strategy, and that if it was not put into place, he would spend the rest of his life shouting to anybody in the media that failure to adopt his solution was the reason why Louisiana coasts were harmed.

The report is worth reading by anybody who thinks the oil spill somehow turn Bobby Jindal into Rudy Giuliani.

Here are some of the Report’s conclusions:

A. The Louisiana berms were not a success.

With the benefit of hindsight, the evidence available to the Commission staff suggests the Louisiana berms were not an effective spill response measure. In his book Leadership and Crisis, Governor Jindal claims that berms “proved to be one of the most effective protection measures . . . . Indeed, time and time again, [berms] stopped the oil that got past the skimmers and boom.” Similarly, appearing recently on Meet the Press, Governor Jindal argued “[t]he sand berms were a great success.” We disagree. From a long-term coastal restoration perspective, the berms may indeed be a “significant step forward,” as Governor Jindal has claimed, but they were not successful for oil spill response.

The Louisiana berms project does not survive a rigorous cost-benefit analysis, even without taking yet unquantified environmental impacts into account. The value of the berms as an oil spill response measure depends on how much oil they trapped. Estimates vary, and no precise figures are available, but no estimates of how much oil the berms captured are much greater than 1,000 total barrels. In comparison, according to peer-reviewed government estimates released in November, burning, skimming, and chemical dispersion addressed a total of between 890,000 and 1.85 million barrels spilled from the Macondo well.

To be sure, had the berms been constructed sooner and more extensively, had weather and other factors pushed more oil toward the Louisiana coast, had other response measures been less effective, and had the spill lasted longer, perhaps the berms would have trapped more oil. But not much more than 1,000 barrels, in the context of a spill in which nearly five million barrels of oil were released, and approximately four million barrels entered the ocean, is a miniscule amount by any measure.

On the cost side of the equation, according to the state, as of November 1, five months after the Corps and National Incident Command approved the project, “10 miles of sand berm have been built and two more berms segments … are scheduled to be completed within the next two weeks” at a cost of about $220 million.317 To put this dollar figure in perspective, according to BP’s estimates, it has paid approximately $581 million to the federal government, $65 million to Florida, $62 million to Alabama, $77 million to Mississippi, and $293 million (including the cost of the berms) to Louisiana for “response and removal.” BP’s expenditure on berms is about three times greater than its expenditures for all other response and removal activities in Louisiana. The $220 million BP has spent on the berms to date, along with the additional $140 million BP has committed to the project, represents about one-third of the total amount BP has paid to the federal government and the states for oil response and removal in the Gulf of Mexico….

From the perspective of the Commission staff, however, $220 million for a spill response measure that trapped not much more than 1,000 barrels of oil is not a compelling cost-benefit tradeoff.

Ouch. That would be $220,000 a barrel. You could have bought Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen’s 416-foot yacht “the Octopus” [picture below] which has a helipad and a crew that includes “several former Navy Seals” and sent it out to skim for a lot more oil at that price. But I digress.

The Report found:

B. Berms like the Louisiana project are not a viable oil spill response measure.

More generally, evidence available to the Commission staff reveals two main concerns that counsel against employing offshore barrier berms as a spill response measure in the future.

First and foremost, the length of time and cost to build only a fraction of the proposed project shows that, even with advance planning and preparation, and rapid review of proposed actions, it is unlikely that offshore barrier berms could ever be constructed to any effective scale during an emergency. In late May, a few weeks after CPRA filed its initial permit application with the Corps, Governor Jindal complained that “[w]e could have built 10 miles of sand [berms] already if [the feds] would have approved our permit when we originally requested it.” But by November 1, five months after the Corps and National Incident Command had approved the project, only ten miles of berms had been constructed. While there were unforeseen delays, even the rosiest construction time frame estimates plainly stated that five of the six berm reaches would not be completed until November 1 and the sixth reach would not be completed until the end of November, months after a relief well would have stopped the flow of oil.323 Indeed, by the time the well was capped, less than six percent of the berms project had been completed. If the pace of construction for the Louisiana berms is even within the general range of what can be expected for similar projects in the future, offshore barrier berms cannot be constructed quickly enough to protect coastlines from oil spills.

To the extent that construction of offshore barrier berms continues after a spill ends, to guard against residual oil intrusion or lingering subsurface plumes, the design of such berms as “sacrificial” poses similar concerns. To ensure that the berms do not degrade for however long the threat of oil remains latent (to the extent that can even be determined), the berms would have to be: (1) designed to be permanent, which would slow down construction and thus reduce effectiveness during the emergency active spill phase; (2) constantly maintained in a sacrificial state for as long as the residual oil threat persists; or (3) built initially as sacrificial structures and later converted to permanent structures. Under any of these scenarios, there are serious questions about whether offshore barrier berms could ever be constructed in time to be effective, especially since, as EPA argued, partial construction during the emergency period could result in oil washing onto the bayside shore of the berms and barrier islands, making matters worse from an environmental perspective.

Duh!