The Gulf of Disaster: Deepwater Horizon

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On April 20th, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling ship exploded and sank, killing 11 men and plunging the United States into its worst environmental disaster ever. British Petroleum, the company that leased the rig from the operator, Transocean Drilling, has since been trying to both staunch the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, and clean up what has been spilled so far.

What has spilled so far is enormous, far larger than the Exxon Valdez leak that soiled the waters of Prince William Sound in Alaska. New estimates have the flow of oil in the Gulf to be between 6 and 10 million litres of oil a day. That’s an amount equal to the Exxon Valdez spill every 8 or so days.

BP has tried several measures to stop the massive leak. The latest effort, a riser cap on the damaged pipe, has at least partially succeeded in capturing some of the oil, to just over 2 million litres per day. This oil is being pumped to the surface to a waiting BP ship. In yet another example of how poorly this operation is going, on June 14, the ship, Discoverer Horizon, was struck by lightning and caught on fire. Though the fire was quickly extinguished, it’s just another example of Murphy’s law in this crisis.

The massive oil slick generated by the damaged oil well has grown to nearly 24,000 square kilometers. In addition to the surface oil, several huge underwater plumes of oil have been spotted, containing a large, but unknown, quantity of oil. There has been some speculation that the concerted use of over 200,000 litres of dispersants underwater led to the formation of these plumes, but so far there is no hard data to support these claims.

So far, the slick has come aground all over the Gulf Coast, from Louisiana to Florida, with devastating effects to local marine ecosystems, along with fisheries and tourism industries.

But how does something like this happen? After the Ixtoc 1 oil spill back in the late 1970s, and then the Exxon Valdez in the 1980s, how do oil companies let this sort of thing happen? First, there is the driving desire for money. Everything in our economy is, at the root, based on petroleum and other fossil fuels. Petroleum gives us gas and diesel fuel, upon which everything runs. Oil gives as plastics, and useful chemicals, and a whole range of products. BP, with profits of over $6 billion in the first quarter of 2010, exists to feed that root. All of the oil companies do. We can’t point the blame too far from ourselves.

However, a Congressional hearing in the United States has raised 5 key issues about the way BP conducted operations on the rig.

  1. The decision to use a well design with few barriers to gas flow;
  2. The failure to use a sufficient number of “centralizers” to prevent channeling during the cement process;
  3. The failure to run a cement bond log to evaluate the effectiveness of the cement job;
  4. The failure to circulate potentially gas-bearing drilling muds out of the well; and
  5. The failure to secure the wellhead with a lockdown sleeve before allowing pressure on the seal from below.

The common feature of these five decisions is that they posed a trade-off between cost and well safety, and BP seems to have chosen the decision with the greater economic gain. It remains to be seen where this congressional committee goes with its quest to find the cause of this accident.

On Wednesday, June 16, 2010, the President of the United States and the CEO of BP had a meeting, the outcome of which had BP agreeing to set aside a $20 billion fund to compensate those affected by the spill.

Alternative energy sources will take time to develop, whether batteries or fuel cells for cars, or wind, solar and geothermal for everything else. We need to start developing these alternatives now. The sooner we can move away from oil, the better.

  • 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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