It May be Worse Than We Thought: The Deepwater Horizon Disaster continues

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On April 20, 2010, a suspected natural gas blow-out on the drilling platform Deepwater Horizon caused a massive explosion, killing 11 men outright. Fire consumed the remainder of the platform, sinking in within two days.

Since then, an estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day has spewed forth. Or, at least that’s the estimate provided by British Petroleum, the company responsible for the disaster and its cleanup. However, new estimates have been suggested, based on the volume of oil seen spilling out of the pipe on the seafloor. Using a technique called particle image velocimetry, Steven Wereley, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, calculated the well was actually spilling out closer to 56,000-80,000 barrels a day. If this is correct, then the oil spill is already worse than the Exxon Valdez disaster. In fact, if the higher value is correct, after 24 days this would be in the top three or four worst oil spills of all time.

In the meantime, the cofferdam BP had hoped would staunch the flow of oil last week failed due to a buildup of methyl hydrate ice. Their current scheme is to insert a line into the leaking pipe, hopefully stopping the leak and allowing the remaining oil to be recovered. Should that fail, they have a smaller version of the failed cofferdam standing by. This smaller version has been approved to use an antifreeze to keep methyl hydrates from forming, thus preventing the problem that plagued the first cofferdam.

Though local wind and wave conditions have helped to keep the oil slick from moving ashore in the lower United States, the shorelines of some barrier islands are now at risk. Isolated clumps and tarballs have been washing ashore along these islands, possible precursors of much worse to come. Dauphin Island, directly in the path of the spill, is the home of several migratory bird sanctuaries.

gulf oil spill containment boom

In order to combat the encroaching flood of oil, the coast guard, along with the help of local fishermen and various others, has deployed 260 kilometers of containment booms, sucked up hundreds of thousands of litres of contaminated water, and deployed hundreds of thousands of litres of dispersant. When informed of the possibility the leak could be far worse than has been reported, U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen said “We’re attacking this as if it were a much larger spill anyway.”

The spill itself has started to break up, splitting off into smaller pieces. This presents a more manageable risk should it start to come ashore, as cleanup crews will only have to deal with relatively small stretches at a time. Some of the slick, though, is now headed for Texas, increasing the scope of this disaster.

All the while, the three corporations at the centre of this storm, BP, Halliburton, and Transocean, continue to play the blame game, pointing fingers at each other, while refusing to take any responsibility. US President Barack Obama has called on the companies to stop the finger-pointing, and get the mess cleaned up.

The only silver lining in this debacle is the possibility the world will wake up and reexamine its relationship with fossil fuels. Alternative vehicles are becoming more available, with many plug-in hybrids expected over the next year, and Toyota is planning a hydrogen-powered car for 2015. It is now up to the consumer to push demands for alternatives to the dirty, often disastrous, world of fossil fuels.

  • Colin Dunn

    Colin Dunn was born and raised in Northern Alberta. Growing up in the boreal forest gave him an appreciation for nature, an appreciation that was enhanced by the works of his artist mother, Svala Dunn, who captured the landscapes and wildlife of the north in her oils and watercolors. He holds a Degree in Geography from the University of Alberta, with a concentration in Urban Studies. He has since found career in information technology, but still pursues his first interests in geography and the environment. He lives and works in southern Vancouver Island, with his wife and three children.

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