Gulf Oil Spill, Deepwater Disaster
by Joel K. Bourne, Jr.
Synopsis and resource annotations by Max Grinnell
On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion set off a
massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that lasted three months. The
resulting environmental damage was significant, and by the time the wellhead
was capped, it was estimated that 4.9 million barrels of crude oil had been
released into the Gulf. This thoughtful article by Joel K. Bourne, Jr.
appeared in the October 2010 issue of
Geographic Magazine and it takes a close look at the likelihood of future
oil disasters and the risks associated with deepwater oil drilling.
The article begins by describing the initial reaction to the Deepwater Horizon
incident and then offers a brief summary of the challenges faced by those
companies seeking to drill deep into the Gulf of Mexico for oil. Not
surprisingly, the obstacles are significant, and they include deep canyons,
ocean ridges, active mud volcanoes that are over 500 feet high, and
temperatures ranging from near freezing to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Deepwater digging in the Gulf was not terribly common for decades, as the
costs associated with such projects was prohibitively expensive. In 1995, the
U.S. Congress passed a law forgiving royalties on deepwater oil fields leased
between 1996 and 2000, and soon new rigs were popping up across the Gulf. By
1997, there were over 1,100 rigs extracting oil. One of the problems with the
quick expansion in deepwater drilling was that methods for preventing blowouts
and cleaning up spills for these massive new oil exploration projects were not
sophisticated enough for the new conditions.
The article goes on to note that, by the early 2000s, scholars became
concerned with the increasing reports from the oil industry of the increasing
risk of deepwater blowouts and the fallibility of blowout preventers. A 2007
study from the Minerals Management Service (MMS) noted that only 39 blowouts
occurred during the drilling of more than 15,000 oil and gas wells in the
Gulf, and that few of these released much oil. However, this same report noted
that there had been a significant increase in the number of blowouts
associated with cementing - a process that involves pumping cement around the
steel well casing to fill the space between it and the actual borehole.
This aspect of the report would have a direct bearing on the Deepwater Horizon
project, as the article goes on to mention. By early April 2010, the project
was six weeks behind schedule and this delay was costing BP more than $500,000
a day. BP had also chosen to drill in the most expeditious fashion, which in
this case turned out to involve a "long string." This technique places two
barriers between the oil and blowout preventer on the seafloor. One of these
barriers was a metal seal, known as a lockdown sleeve, and it had not been
installed when the well blew out. Additionally, congressional investigators
and other professionals found that BP made significant shortcuts on this
cement job; they failed to ensure that the cement had cured and sealed
correctly nor did they test to make sure the cement had bonded properly.
While each of these decisions may have been legal and cost effective, they
each increased the risk of blowout.
The piece moves on to talk about the events on the night of April 20th, when
things started to go very wrong at the Deepwater Horizon project site. For
starters, a large gas bubble got into the casing and shot straight up. While
the blowout preventer should have stopped the bubble from moving upwards, it
did not. The device failed to function properly, and subsequent attempts to
activate the preventer failed. The article then talks a bit about BP's recent
corporate history, which involved the take-over of the companies Amoco and
ARCO. After this merger, BP forced thousands of older and more experienced oil
workers into early retirement. As a result, BP began to become more dependent
on contractors for various areas of engineering expertise. The piece also goes
on to note that the drilling operation was regulated by the MMS (which has
since been renamed) and that this particular agency had not adequately
reviewed BP's spill-response plan for the entire Gulf. Curiously, this plan
had made mention of the minimal harm a spill would have to the creatures in
the Gulf, such as walruses and sea otters, neither of which live anywhere near
this particular body of water. And, just weeks before the spill, the federal
government announced that there would be an expansion of offshore drilling. Of
course, there was a moratorium placed on such projects after the Deepwater
Horizon incident. BP was still in the process of cleaning up the spill as of
August 2010 and by that point, the Deepwater Horizon spill had become the
largest spill into the ocean, even larger than the Ixtoc I blowout in 1979 in
Mexico's Bay of Campeche. The article describes the long-term effects of the
Ixtoc spill on fisheries and the economy of the Bay of Campeche. Wes Tunnell,
a coral reef expert at Texas A&M University points out that it is still easy
to find oil remaining from the 1979 spill. A quote from local fisherman
Gustavo Mateos Moutiel is also quite telling: "Urchins gone. Oysters gone.
Conch gone. Fish almost all gone. Our families were hungry. The petroleum on
the beach was halfway up our knees." It took 15 or 20 years for catches to
return to normal, and by then most of the fisherman had found other jobs.
The piece ends with a bit of commentary from Florida State University
oceanographer Ian MacDonald. Remarking on the sheer volume of spilled oil, he
noted that the long-term effects on many creatures in the region could be
tremendous. MacDonald expressed deep concerns about the bluefin tuna
population in the region, which spawn only in the Gulf and in the
Mediterranean. While only time will tell what will these long-term
ramifications of the Deepwater Horizon spill will be for the Gulf's overall
environmental health, some people would like to use this event to think about
adopting greener and cleaner sources of energy.
Found below is a list of useful resources that will illuminate and enhance
understanding of the topics found within this article.
The first link
take users to a helpful educational resource created at Kennesaw State
University that provides an introduction to the world oil market.
The second link
whisk visitors to the P.O.R.T.S. project containing access to real-time
Moving along, the third
will take interested parties to the homepage of the Lophelia II, a
ship that has been documenting the Gulf of Mexico over the past few years. The
site includes a profile of the ship's investigations in and around the
Deepwater Horizon site, which is well worth a look.
The fourth link
take users to the website for the Office of Response and Restoration at the
NOAA's Ocean Service. The site includes information on historic oil spills,
along with photographs and other documentation.
The fifth link
takes users to a helpful teaching activity that helps students learn about the
long-term effects of major oil spills.
The final link
to a resource provided by the WGBH Educational Foundation that uses animations
and other materials to help students learn about the effects of oil spills.