Deepwater Horizon: Portrait of a Disaster

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deepwater horizon

On April 20, 2010, an explosion rocked the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico. The ensuing fire gutted the platform, and within two days it sank and was destroyed. The platform was owned and operated by TransOcean Industries, but was leased by British Petroleum (BP). BP also operated the field being explored by the Deepwater Horizon.

Eleven men died or went missing that day, from a crew of one hundred and twenty six on the platform, leaving behind wives, parents, and children, a tragedy in itself. Though their names are often lost in the wider discussions, they were the first victims of this disaster, and their families will continue to be the victims long after the Deepwater Horizon is merely a page in a book.

gulf oil spill map

Deepwater Horizon, however, left behind a different disaster, one with the potential to touch, or even destroy, thousands of lives, both human and non-human. When the rig exploded, the safety valve that was supposed to stop the flow of oil from the wellhead 1600 meters below the surface failed. Subsequent attempts to close off the valve on the main pipe likewise failed, including an attempt by a Coast Guard robot at the wellhead itself.

Since the day of the explosion, the ruptured pipes have been leaking 800,000 litres of oil a day into the Gulf, threatening fisheries and environmentally sensitive areas all along the coast and in the waters of the Gulf itself. Gulf fisheries have been closed, pending a health evaluation. The potential environmental impact, in the warm, rich waters of the Gulf, is enormous. Already dead jellyfish are floating ashore, and visions of oil-soaked seabirds are on the news.

The oil slick created by the Deepwater Disaster is over 80km across, but it extends down through the entire water column. While it is not yet at the scale of the Exxon Valdez disaster, it is well on its way.

oil spill

As of May 6, 2010, BP has managed to cap one of the pipes, and is in the process of lowering a cofferdam to trap and siphon off the largest of the remaining flow. They hope that this process, if successful, will trap up to 85% of the oil leaking from the site. Or course, this still leaves 120,000 litres a days to contend with, but it is certainly an improvement. However, this is the deepest that anyone has ever attempted to place a cofferdam, and all of the work has to be done via Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs), small, remote-controlled submarines. The cofferdam is strictly designed as a temporary measure, put in place to stem the flow until a relief hole can be drilled nearby to let off the pressure.

In the meantime, the oil slick is beginning to reach the shoreline around the area, touching on some of the barrier islands off the course of Louisiana. This despite the 240 km of containment booms, several controlled burns, and thousands of gallons of toxic dispersant. Even if the attempt to cap the well with the cofferdam is successful, that still leaves 13.6 million litres that needs to be dealt with.

A larger question looming is what effect will this have on United States energy policy. The decision to expand off-shore drilling was made shortly before the disaster, and now a moratorium has been placed on further off-shore drilling. Perhaps industry and politicians will use this as a springboard to examine alternative fuels and alternative energy sources, and make some good out of this disaster.