Lessons from the Gulf blowout

Transocean’s semi-submersible drilling vessel Deepwater Horizon was finishing work on a wellbore that had found oil 18,000 feet beneath the seafloor, in mile-deep water fifty miles off the Louisiana coast. Supervisors in the control cabin overlooking the drilling operations area were directing routine procedures to cement, plug and seal the borehole, replace heavy drilling fluids with seawater and extract the drill stem and bit through the riser (outer containment pipe) that connected the vessel to the blowout preventer (BOP) on the seafloor.

Suddenly, a thump and hiss were followed by a towering eruption of seawater, drilling mud, cement, oil and natural gas. The BOP and its backup systems had failed to work as designed, to control the massive amounts of unexpectedly high-pressure gas that were roaring up 23,000 feet of wellbore and riser.

Gas enveloped the area and ignited, engulfing the Horizon in a 500-foot high inferno that instantly destroyed the cabin and killed eleven workers. Surviving crewmen abandoned ship in covered lifeboats. A few jumped 80 feet to the waters below.

The supply boat Tidewater Damon Bankston rushed to the scene and helped crewmen get their burned and injured colleagues aboard, as shore-based Coast Guard helicopters tore through the night sky to brave the flames and take critically injured men to hospitals.

Thirty-six hours later, the Deepwater Horizon capsized and sank, buckling the 21-inch diameter riser and breaking it off at the rig deck. That caused three serious leaks that spewed some 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) of crude oil a day into the ocean.

As the oil slowly gathered on the surface and was blown toward shore, it threatened a major ecological disaster for estuaries, marine life and all who depend on them for their livelihoods.

Thankfully, after getting rough for a couple days, the seas calmed. Industry, Coast Guard, NOAA, Minerals Management Service and volunteer crews had some time to recalculate the spill’s trajectory, deploy miles of containment booms and oil skimmer boats, and burn some of the oil off the ocean surface. They lowered ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) to cap the end of the riser and spray chemicals that break down and disperse the oil.

Aircraft sprayed more dispersants over oil on the ocean surface, and technicians rapidly built heavy collection domes specially designed to sit atop the broken riser and BOP stack, collect the leaking oil and pipe it up to tanker barges. Drill ships are heading to the scene, to drill relief wells, intersect the original hole, cement it shut and permanently stop the leak. ExxonMobil, Shell, ConocoPhillips and at least 16 other companies have offered BP, Transocean and Halliburton assistance on all these fronts.

How bad will the disaster be?  Much depends on how long the calm weather lasts, how quickly the domes can be installed, and how successful the entire effort is. There is much need for prayer, crossed fingers and hard work.

But it will take a long period of uncontrolled leakage before this spill comes close to previous highs, such as the:

  • Ixtoc 1 oil platform blowout (1979): 3,500,000 barrels in Mexico’s Campeche Bay;
  • Saddam Hussein oil field sabotage (1991): 857,000,000 barrels in Kuwait;
  • Natural seeps in US waters: 1,119,000 barrels every year from natural cracks in the seafloor.

Cold water and climate meant Alaska’s Prince William Sound recovery was slow; Campeche beaches and coastal waters largely rebounded much more rapidly. Mississippi River flows through the Delta region may help keep some oil from pushing too far into the estuaries and speed recovery of oyster, shrimp and fishing areas, as it did with spills during pre-1960 drilling. Prayers and crossed fingers again.

Should we stop drilling offshore? We can hardly afford to. We still need to drill, so that we can drive, fly, farm, heat our homes, operate factories and do everything else that requires reliable, affordable petroleum. Indeed, over 62% of all US energy still comes from oil and gas. And we certainly need the jobs and revenues that US energy development generates.

We’ve already banned drilling in ANWR, off the Florida, Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and in many other areas. We’ve made it nearly impossible to mine coal or uranium, or build new coal-fired power plants or nuclear reactors. We’ve largely forced companies to drill in deep Gulf waters, where risks and costs are far higher, and the ability to deal quickly with accidents is lower.

We’ve also forced companies to take drilling risks to foreign nations – and then increased the risks of tanker accidents that cause far greater spillage when they bring that oil to America. Meanwhile, Russia, China and Cuba are preparing to drill in the same Gulf and Caribbean waters that we’ve made off limits –employing their training, technologies, regulations and ecological philosophies.

Despite this blowout and its 1969 predecessor when a oil platform blew out in the Santa Barbara channel, America’s offshore record is excellent. Since 1969, we have drilled over 50,000 wells in state waters and on the Outer Continental Shelf. There have been 13 losses of well control involving more than 50 barrels: five were less than 100 barrels apiece; one was a little over 1,000 barrels; two (both in 1970) involved 30,000 barrels or more. Only in Santa Barbara did significant amounts of oil reach shore and cause serious environmental damage.

Tankers have spilled four times more oil than drilling and production operations, often in much bigger mishaps – and chronic discharges from cars and boats dwarf tanker spills by a factor of eight.

What should we do next? Recognize that life and modern civilization involve risks. Humans make mistakes. Equipment fails. Nature often presents us with extreme, unprecedented, unexpected power and fury. Learn the right lessons from this tragic, catastrophic, probably preventable accident.

Avoid grandstanding politicians and kneejerk reactions. Support those who have lost their income. Insist on responsible, adult thinking – and a thorough expert investigation to determine what happened.

Why did the BOP and backups fail? What went wrong with the cement and plugs, pressure detection devices and monitoring, supervisor and crew reactions, to set off the catastrophic chain of events? How can we improve the technology and training, to make sure such a disaster never happens again? How can we improve oilspill cleanup technologies and rapid response?

Ask what realistic alternatives we have. Not Sim USA and virtual energy. Real energy.

Can we afford to shut down our domestic oil and gas industry – economically, ecologically and ethically – and import more, as we export risks to other countries and shift risks from drilling accidents to tanker accidents? Can we afford to replace dozens of offshore rigs with thousands of offshore wind turbines, creating obstacle courses for ships laden with bunker fuel or crude oil? 

Drilling in deep waters far from shore is a complex, difficult, dangerous business. Let us remember and pray for the eleven who died in fire and water, those who were burned and injured, and their families and loved ones. Let us also salute and pray for all who daily risk life and limb, to bring us the energy that makes our lives, jobs and living standards possible.

For fascinating glimpses into offshore drilling and production, visit the NOAA emergency response page, Open Choke Deepwater Horizon spill page, and Drilling Ahead oil professionals network.

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About the Author: Paul Driessen

Paul Driessen

Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for CFACT and author of Cracking Big Green and Eco-Imperialism: Green Power - Black Death.