Manual Deep Water: The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Drilling

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At a Washington, D. For much of the summer, that fear was widely shared. But the Associated Press calculated that, along the Louisiana coastline and roughly 18, km 2 7, mi 2 of marsh, only 9 km 2 3. Some of that vegetation was already re-growing by late summer. Yet while oil touched the fringes, water diversions, flood control, and 16, km 10, mi of channels cut into the Mississippi River Delta have done—and continue doing—real and permanent damage. The great Delta of the Mississippi once spanned roughly 22, to 25, km 2 8, to 10, mi 2.

About 20 percent of that area, or very roughly 5, km 2 1, mi 2 of marsh, has vanished. Recent loss rates have been estimated around to km 2 20 to 40 mi 2 a year. All these estimates vary, as do the reasons. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita dissolved over square miles of marsh to open water, but that is because much of that marsh had already been degraded.

The Mississippi River is the main source of sediment that is the Delta's nourishment, but engineering projects have almost completely isolated the river from its delta. Because of levees built to control floods, and the thousands of miles of channels sliced through the marshes for shipping and for vessels servicing the oil rigs, sediment that might build the marsh goes straight out to the open Gulf. Oil and gas pumping have also helped the marshes subside. Sea level rise adds to the problem. The marshes are a major reason that the Gulf produces more seafood than elsewhere in the lower 48 states.

But expect continued loss of marshes and wet cypress forest, affecting wildlife, recreation, and fisheries productivity: some estimates predict the marshes will largely vanish by [11] , [12]. These problems existed before the blowout, and continue afterwards. They have destroyed more marsh than the blowout, and they continue to drive the region's worst environmental calamity.

In the blowout, surface oil affected roughly 5 percent of the entire Gulf [3]. Approximately million Macondo gallons hemorrhaged into the Gulf's quadrillion gallons of water. That volume of water would dilute the oil, and the Gulf's microbes would begin metabolizing it.

Government Information: Gulf Oil Spill

But the carbon dioxide we're spilling into the atmosphere isn't getting diluted; it's becoming more concentrated. The greatest environmental catastrophe is not the oil we spill. It's the oil and coal we burn in our engines, whose resulting carbon dioxide is altering the heat balance of the planet and the acidity of the seas. It is melting polar systems, dissolving shellfish, killing coral reefs, and changing the abundance and distribution of organisms in many systems worldwide. Combustion, not leakage, is the real disaster.

And even combustion would be far less a problem if not for the sheer force of our overwhelming numbers.

One lesson from the events that caused the blowout is that human judgment is too frail and self-filtered to prevent all future accidents associated with deep drilling. Because deep-water accidents are difficult to contain, the stakes are increasingly high, with broad potential effects to natural assets that support regional economics like fishing and tourism. Much stronger government oversight could help. Drillers are turning to deep water because easier, less expensive, shallower, and land-based reservoirs are being depleted.

Increasing the complexity of the operation will always increase the risk. The Obama Administration has reversed its plan to expand offshore drilling. But the oil industry will continue to push for more drilling in more places. The country will not simply say no to new drilling, so we must also say yes to fast-tracking the scale-up of clean energy technologies.

We may have dodged a bullet with the Deepwater Horizon blowout because the water is warm, the crude is light, the microbes are hungry, and the walruses are far to the north. But it was, nonetheless, a multi-billion-dollar trauma to Gulf coast communities and businesses. If the same thing had happened where walruses really do live—where many people want to drill, baby, drill—the damage would be much greater and longer-lasting, with deeper ecological effects, and a vastly slower, more difficult response as a result of the distances between major human population centers and ports.

The Gulf of Mexico was arguably the best place in the world for such a large accidental release of petroleum. It likely represents the best case, not the mean. In the Santa Barbara, California, oil blowout shocked the nation and helped create the pivotal impetus for the burst of bipartisan environmental legislation of the s. The main value that might have come of the Deepwater Horizon blowout would have been in creating game-changing momentum toward a new energy path. But the country's current political polarity and a bitterly partisan Congress helped prevent that from happening.

It appears the moment was lost. Without that moment spurring policies encouraging stepped-up development of new energy options, the blowout was just a mess with no redeeming value. Its instructiveness has not been fully assimilated. The US needs the new investment, construction, and infrastructure for phasing in a diversified cleaner energy future.

But as long as Big Oil and Big Coal continue to get market-distorting subsidies, and as long as elections are undermined by corporate money, building the needed energy future will be very difficult for the US to achieve. The main problems existed before the oil blowout. And afterward, they remain. This does not suggest that the risks of deeper-water drilling are trivial.

Indeed, as drilling goes deeper—especially where oil companies operate with insufficient oversight and relative impunity as in the Montara example—the risks to regional coasts, marine life, fisheries, reefs, and poor peoples increases. The Deepwater Horizon blowout was yet another warning that the world's future energy needs cannot be met by sources that cause such large acute and chronic problems and are getting more difficult and more complicated to extract. Funding: The author received no specific funding for this manuscript.

Download: PPT. About the Author. Carl Safina holds a PhD in ecology from Rutgers University and has published over research papers, book chapters, books, and articles on seabird ecology, fisheries, and environmental policy. He is founding president of Blue Ocean Institute and adjunct professor in marine science and science communication at Stony Brook University. He has studied the ocean as a scientist, stood for it as an advocate, and conveyed his travels among sea creatures and fishing people in lyrical nonfiction writing.

The Blowout Itself In , the multinational energy company BP leased a piece of seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico about 80 km 50 miles from Louisiana's southern shore. Unpreparedness BP had a federally approved Gulf of Mexico spill response plan that explained what it would do for walruses and sea lions—creatures that don't live in the Gulf of Mexico. How Bad Is It? Mounting Crises At a Washington, D. Lessons and Implications One lesson from the events that caused the blowout is that human judgment is too frail and self-filtered to prevent all future accidents associated with deep drilling.

References 1. Safina C A sea in flames. New York: Crown Publishing. Gillis J 4 August U. New York Times. Accessed 14 March View Article Google Scholar 3. Tunnell J. Camilli R, Reddy C. M, Yoerger D. R, Van Mooy B. S, Jakuba M. V, et al. The American Petroleum Institute said earlier this week that voluntary standards already adopted by the oil and gas industry, and pared-down regulation, would enhance offshore drilling safety.

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Discover Thomson Reuters. Directory of sites. And that line showed zero pressure. But on a different line, another gauge was showing pressure building. The gauge indicating building pressure was correct. The line showing zero pressure was clogged with the viscous spacer. The increasing pressure indicated that the cement had failed, and that pressurized oil and gas were entering the well. But rig workers convinced themselves that the gauge showing zero pressure was correct and the other was an anomaly.

Because they intended to discard the spacer, when they returned it up to the rig they shunted it overboard, thereby temporarily bypassing other pressure gauges that could have provided further warning. When they realized they had a problem, confusion and issues over authority delayed assessment of its severity and caused hesitation in initiating attempts to activate the blowout preventer or disconnect the rig from the mile-long pipe to the seafloor.

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They had re-routed the fluid return back onto the rig when large amounts of methane reached the surface. Generator turbines sucked the gas in, causing ignition. One worker recognized the need to shut down the generators but knew he was not authorized to do so, and consequently did not. The rig's chief electrician has asserted that inhibited audio alarms also inhibited computer-activated emergency shutdown of air vents and power. The subsequent explosions killed 11 people. They also damaged controls to the blowout preventer and the emergency disconnect system, rendering them unresponsive.

What Happened at the Macondo Well? | by Peter Maass | The New York Review of Books

Connected to a nearly infinite source of fuel, the rig became an inferno. More than other people escaped in lifeboats or by leaping into the sea.

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  • The rig burned for two days, then sank on April 22, The broken pipe at the seafloor continued spewing oil until, after several attempts to cap or clog the well, a new cap succeeded in mid-July. To review: the cement mixture failed, highly irregular spacer material clogged a key pressure gauge, crew members failed to correctly interpret disparity between pressure gauges, other gauges were bypassed or overlooked at critical times, inhibited alarms may have prevented automatic shutdown of the ignition source, and hesitation over authority prevented manual shutdown that might have averted ignition of the pressurized hydrocarbons.

    A lot of what went wrong involved matters of judgment. Even the cement failure appears at least partly linked to inadequate testing, as well as to formulation and the difficulties caused by depth. Perhaps the main lesson is: even with literally billions of dollars and many lives at stake, incentives to hurry and to show bravura can seem more important in the moment. BP had a federally approved Gulf of Mexico spill response plan that explained what it would do for walruses and sea lions—creatures that don't live in the Gulf of Mexico.

    Major sections were merely cut-and-pasted from Arctic plans. No one paid attention to them.

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    In a region full of oil rigs and warehouses full of hardware, nowhere was there a device for shutting off a leaking pipe 1 mile deep. All the response equipment available was similar to what it had been in the s: booms adequate to contain small spills inside harbors, and dispersant chemicals. Quickly overcome by minor wind and wave action, the booms did little to contain the oil. About 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants were added to the oil at the surface and at the seafloor.

    Reasonable people can disagree on whether dispersants should have been used given the absence of any real preparation for stopping a blowout. I was very critical of dispersants as a response, partly because they exemplified the lack of real preparation, their chemical components were being kept secret, and they served BP's interests in hampering understanding of the amount of oil leaking.

    Legal liability is based on how much oil enters the environment. This gives an oil company strong incentive to minimize or hide the amount of oil. Critics used the analogy of putting the perpetrator in charge of securing and cleaning up a crime scene. BP's liability assessment will largely be based on how much oil leaked. In December , BP announced it would contest the official and academic estimates of the total amount of oil. Although minor blowouts are not uncommon, and more serious ones occur periodically, plans for responding to a blowout were essentially nonexistent.

    Drilling technology had improved radically, but response technology and preparedness had not changed in decades. The various caps that were tried and failed to stop the blowout were similar to those that failed in to stop the Ixtoc blowout, which leaked million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over 9 months.

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    The device that eventually stopped the Macondo blowout was designed and built specifically for that purpose; critics likened it to responding to a burning building by designing and building a fire truck. US oil spill response law, enacted in to prevent another Exxon Valdez —like tanker surface spill, was likewise unprepared for a blowout in deep water. The law required the spiller to conduct the cleanup, often putting the Coast Guard in a position of seeming to serve rather than direct the response.

    This situation also let BP inject money into expensive projects that politicians wanted, but that experts criticized as ineffective, ecologically damaging, and a waste of money. I witnessed wetlands being destroyed in Dauphin Island, Alabama, to harden shorelines and dig sand for miles of berms that looked like they would wash away in the first substantial wind. Some residents, business owners, fishing interests, environmentalists, and media fueled panicky predictions of permanent ruination of beaches and fisheries, crop failures from oil lifted by hurricane winds and swept inland, and even—in one widely circulated email—nothing less than death of the entire planet from a massive methane release that the blowout would trigger.

    Nor were scientists blameless in making overstated claims. Some scientists predicted scenarios that were very unlikely, such as thick oil blanketing the East Coast after getting entrained in the Loop Current and Gulf Stream. The Exxon Valdez was most people's mental picture of likely damage. In that case several factors, including the enormous numbers of birds and mammals killed and Exxon's callous response to the local community, had indeed added up to a catastrophe causing serious long-term ecological, economic, and psychological damage.

    Widespread predictions notwithstanding, the long-term effects will not be known until the long term. How long, where, and with what effect oil will remain in marsh and seafloor sediments also remains to be seen. The effects of oil on plankton, larval fish, many invertebrates, food webs, and other ecological interactions are largely unknown, and may never be known [3]. Oil has been found on the seabed in some areas and appears to have killed some benthic infauna and deep sea corals [4] — [7].

    Hundreds of birds were brought to rehab facilities, indicating likely uncollected mortalities in the low thousands. Exxon Valdez , though it spilled far less oil, killed an estimated quarter million birds and thousands of otters and seals. The physical configuration of that spill and semi-enclosed nature of Prince William Sound, the viscosity of the crude, the cold, and the presence of different families, orders, and densities of birds and mammals contributed to that difference [1].

    Effects on fish await further monitoring, but fishing bans greatly reduced fishing mortality, and when areas closed because of oil were reopened, fishing was reportedly excellent. Oil appeared to kill some adult dolphins, but there seem to be no well-documented mass kills. I saw dolphins swimming in moderate oil; perhaps many evaded heavy oil. The cause of recent elevated mortality of newborn dolphins—not unprecedented—remains to be evaluated. The critically endangered Kemp's ridley turtle was likely the Gulf species most vulnerable to extensive surface oil.

    Whether their recovery has suffered a measurable setback remains to be seen. Migrations put many sea turtles in the open Atlantic during the summer, away from the oil. About turtles were found debilitated or dead during the blowout, but a significant number showed no obvious signs of oil, suggesting that other causes—possibly including the nets of shrimp fishers hurrying to maximize landings prior to inevitable shut-downs—may have contributed. Some 70, turtle eggs were transplanted to Florida's east coast, which may boost those nesting populations, but will cost Gulf turtle populations the great majority of this year's cohort.

    Understanding the effects on adult turtle numbers will have to wait years, as future breeding seasons inform researchers of the effects of this year's mortality on adults and future maturing juveniles sea turtles take roughly 12 to 20 years to mature, and do not breed annually. The blowout's main effects already seem temporary compared to the clear-cutting of most of the Pacific Northwest's forests, conversion of prairies, disappearance of once-vast populations of wildlife including the now-extinct passenger pigeon and Eskimo curlew, near-extermination of vast herds of bison, deep depletion of formerly teeming fishes like Atlantic cod and bluefin tuna, and so many other long-term alterations of abundance and distribution.

    The most recent academic expert opinion predicts most commercially exploited Gulf marine resources except Louisiana oysters many of which were killed by freshwater diverted in an attempt to push oil away from the coast will return to pre-blowout abundances this year [3]. On a global scale, the blowout appears small and fleeting in comparison to deforestation, accelerating species loss, freshwater depletion, fisheries collapses, human population expansion, polar melting, coral bleaching, and changes to the planet's heat balance and the seas' chemistry.

    Beyond the US, spilled oil routinely causes worse problems for nature and people than did the Gulf blowout. Nigerians could scarcely believe the efforts exerted to stop the Gulf oil leak and to protect the Gulf shoreline, because an amount of oil roughly equivalent to the Exxon Valdez spills into the Niger Delta every year [8]. Such spills have destroyed farms and forests, contaminated drinking water, driven people from their homes, and ruined the nets and traps of fishing people.

    In the first week of May , a ruptured ExxonMobil pipeline spilled more than a million gallons into the Niger Delta over seven days. Oil companies claim these leaks are caused by vandals. Many Nigerians blame rusting facilities, and believe that oil companies simply don't care. In , poor safety procedures and avoidable human error on the Thai-owned West Atlas drilling rig caused a blowout in the Montara field in Australian waters.

    It leaked an estimated 30, barrels of oil that drifted over 90, km 2 to Indonesian waters over 74 days before a relief well plugged it. At a Washington, D. For much of the summer, that fear was widely shared.

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    • But the Associated Press calculated that, along the Louisiana coastline and roughly 18, km 2 7, mi 2 of marsh, only 9 km 2 3. Some of that vegetation was already re-growing by late summer.