Ernest Franz is the kind of guy you want to talk to if you're interested in what's happening with the Gulf oil spill. He's the President of Environmental Sampling, Inc., a 20-person firm that has been treating oil spills and conducting hazardous waste cleanup in the Louisiana area for almost 25 years. Environmental Sampling is an action response contractor for the state of Louisiana, having conducted thousands of investigations and cleanup projects for nearly every American oil and gas company.
Mr. Franz gave a candid assessment of the Gulf oil spill, the way the fallout has beent handled, and the timeline for environmental recovery.
BANDES: How badly did BP conduct themselves when this spill occurred?
FRANZ: From day one, I don't think anybody knew for sure what happened. The only people who could answer that were the people on the rig floor who were most probably killed from the blowout and subsequent explosion. After the fact, it appears that the rig itself had received several violations, but I don't really know if the violations were even associated to anything that could have caused the blowout.
When you're in a situation like that, until the actual thing happens, its going to be chaos. You don't know who's alive, who's dead, who needs help and so on. The lights are out, there's desk, beds and all kinds of debris everywhere, and I also understand that their was a strong methane smell which would create more panic. In regards to stopping the leak and cleaning up the release, originally I think BP thought they could get this thing stopped pretty quickly and it wasn't going to be all that big of deal. In hindsight, they probably could've mobilized things faster and contained the spill faster.but by the time they realized the situation, it was near impossible to contain it with the seas, swells, tides and such. Now they're fighting it on the beaches instead of near the source of the leak.
BANDES: What do you think of the way the Obama administration and Congress has been responding to the fallout?
FRANZ: People on the [Senate investigative] committees have been asking unfair and ignorant questions, that in some cases can't be answered. You can tell the people asking the questions really have not been schooled or know a lot about offshore drilling, blowouts or even environmental clean ups. By asking questions that don't make sense to the person your asking them too, it makes the people answering the questions look stupid in the eyes of those people who don't understand the issues. It makes BP and the people on the rigs look like a bunch of idiots, for no reason. There are a lot of hurricane chasers out there right now looking to make this into something its not.
This type of blowout is very different from what we are use to. The depth of water above the leak at the BOP and the magnitude of the release complicates everything. But I have to believe that BP and its engineers, experienced personnel and professional contractors they have working on this have a lot more knowledge, know how and experience about what needs to be done as compared to the Obama administration.
BANDES: How do you think the media coverage has been?
FRANZ: We're catching a lot of what the media shows us. You know how you see the same pictures over, and over again. I see this picture of five guys with shovels on the beach with one tar ball. I really don't think it's as bad as what the media makes it out to be at this point. Granted, it's bad enough, and there's been a lot of oil that has been release to the gulf, and a lot of it is probably suspended beneath the surface, but Mother Nature has a way of taking care of herself in time. Is there going to be some short term damage? For sure, no doubt. But [the media] is showing these birds that are covered with oil, and these fish, and this aquatic life that is being affected. I love the outdoors — I fish and hunt in these marsh lands and in the Gulf, but I've never seen a bird if he sees an oil slick, have a habit of landing in that slick. I think he would avoid it, and I think the media has blown it out of proportion.
BANDES: What about the long-term drilling effects?
FRANZ: Deep water drilling is probably going to have to have several different safety mechanisms from here on out. The rig was drilling in fairly deep water, after the blowout happened, due to the depth to the BOP and the point of the leak, it was hard to contain. In shallower waters, they can send divers down there, and get their hands on it and its just much easier. I haven't seen the engineering specs on the casing, but we know that in the future, there is going to be very stringent regulations surrounding BOP's, setting casing, cement and so on to insure or reduce the chance of something like this happening again.
This site is really setting precedent, but you have to remember, they've been drilling in the North Sea -- deeper and rougher than the Gulf waters -- for years. I don't think that's the issue as much as people would want you to believe. It's still very safe. I just think that things happen. And if they had maybe a few more checks and balances, maybe that might have not happened and I think that what will come out of this is better overall standards in regards to prevention.
BANDES: Should those checks be implemented by the oil companies themselves, or via government regulation?
FRANZ: If the oil field companies and their activities don't regulate themselves by operating properly, someone is going to have to regulate them. Whether the government agencies enforce more stringent regulations or not, a lot of the major oil companies go above and beyond most government regulations anyway. For example, I have to take ladder safety courses, and I don't even work with ladders. I work with many different industries and I believe that the oil industry most probably does more training of personnel than any other labor type of industry I can think of. To work for an oil company you have stringent requirements you must meet to get on their vendors list. These are the kinds of things you have to go through to work for these major companies, because they see the liabilities associated with hiring untrained people.
If you drill a thousand wells, you're going to have issues with one or two of them. But it wasn't like they were out there blindly or that there was malice intended. They didn't want this to happen. But it did. And they are losing billions of dollars, and it gives them a black eye. But I don't think that the oil company is the devil.
BANDES: How do you feel about the proposed gas tax to help pay for cleanup?
FRANZ: I don't see a problem with it, if you take the amount of consumables that the oil industry produces, and put a tax on that, and start a trust fund that oil companies can dig into. But I think it needs to be where it doesn't hinder the ability of people to make a profit, because if they can't make a profit in the United States, they will go elsewhere. I also don't have a problem with tariffs [on foreign oil]
BANDES: How is BP doing as far as clean-up so far?
FRANZ: The number of people they got down there, the amount of equipment, is astronomical. In a year from now, you're going to see that the spill and after affects got blown out of proportion. I'm not saying it's not bad. I just don't think it's as bad as people are making it out to be. My bigger concern is for when and if this oil hits our marshes and our grass, its going to burn the grass and vegetation, once that burns and dies, which is holding our banks and soil together, I think for a short period of time, you're going to see quicker erosion / loss of shore line happening along our coast than it does now. But I think it's going to be cleaned up a lot quicker than everyone else thinks it's going to be. In a couple years, it's going to be a lot better and virtually unnoticeable.
BANDES: But it's been over 20 years since Exxon-Valdez, and you hear people complaining about how long that took to clean up, and how there is still damage from that.
FRANZ: In Valdez, it was a different terrain and climate — there were mainly rocks. In the Gulf, you're dealing with a sub-tropical type climate. The natural organisms and ecosystem is going to take care of some of it. Right now, there are thousands of places across the United States, where people are using natural bacteria to clean this type and even a lot worse of contaminant up. I have not seen the full list of constituents of concern, but I would assume that a lot of what's on shore is the lighter ends -- and its going to volatilize a lot. An example would be if you go outside on the street and spill some of your gasoline, it's going to evaporate. But if you spill the heavy ended stuff such as oil, its going to stick around, but the gulf coast is. also this spill occurred in a lot larger area than where the Valdez took place. A lot of the oil is leaking far offshore -- Valdez was a lot closer.
Since Valdez, we learned a lot. We have better technology and just an overall better understanding and infrastructure to deal with it. What they're doing by putting up these barriers, booms and such -- it helps more than you would imagine. You see these machines on TV that look like a Zamboni going through the sand? When you look at these pictures -- do you see massive miles of beach destroyed by oil? No, you see five guys in tyvex suits cleaning up a couple of tar balls.
BANDES: Should BP be further penalized for this catastrophe?
FRANZ: I've been involved in numerous spills and even several blowouts where this kind of thing happens. If BP has the resources, and have stood up and said, we are going to pay -- then I think the government or Obama administration should let them do their daggone job, as long as they've got the money to pay. I really think now BP is doing what they have to do. And I think the administration knows this will be over soon, and the they say, oh, we want to jump in, because they know there is going to be progress, and they want to take responsibility for that progress.
I've been on sites with people from BP, Exxon, you name it, I don't care if it was a stain one inch in diameter, they want it cleaned up, because they worry about the ramifications and the liabilities. In fact, I can't think of a single major oil companies who does things blatantly just to save a buck, and I've worked with just about all the major [companies].
BANDES: What about how long it's taken to resolve claims from Exxon Valdez? Critics point to the fact that Exxon only resolved some of those claims in the past two years. Then there's the timetable for cleanup. Should we be worried?
FRANZ: I hate to think how many billions and billions of dollars went to illegitimate claims. And you adopt more liability when you don't have experienced people. Right now, there are work camps, with people sitting around, getting heatstroke. You just can't turn people loose in the marsh and expect them not to get hurt. You have to make sure they aren't on medication, that they've got respirators the proper protective equipment and that they have a boat that works. Can you imagine sending twenty workers from Wisconsin down to work, the boat sinks and they didn't have correct preservers and they all died? Who is going to look bad? BP. It's still chaos to try and get organized, but the spill is being cleaned up slowly but surely.
Bandes: Any advice for the future handling of this spill?
FRANZ: If [the government] has problems, get a panel of experts who have done this before. [Legislators] don't know what needs to be done if they're sitting in Committee all the time. You got to be down here, you got to go to the Gulf Coast. You don't just fly your presidential chopper over it. You get down, with the people, in the dirt, before you let everyone in there who doesn't know what's going on try and make decisions. I don't have a problem with our Army Corps of Engineers, but we've got too many people with no knowledge, who think they know what's going on, blowing it out of proportion.