Deepwater Horizon Revisited

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by Tim Willmott : Be the first to leave a comment

Political and regulatory background
BP’s 2009 spill plan for the Deepwater Horizon rig was approved by the US Federal Government before the well was drilled. In the report’s pages were:

  • A national wildlife expert who died in 2005 but was listed as part of the response team.
  • So-called “sensitive biological resources” that included walruses, sea otters, seals and sea lions – none of which live in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Numerous incorrect names and phone numbers for marine life specialists, spillage cleaning equipment companies etc.

BP claimed in the plan that it “has the capability to respond, to the maximum extent possible, to a worst case discharge, or a substantial threat of such a discharge, resulting from the activities proposed in our Exploration Plan”, and that “due to the distance to the shore and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts are expected”.

In June 1979 the Ixtoc offshore well exploded, pouring 140 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. It took the state oil company of Mexico, Pemex, 297 days to cap the well, located in just 150 feet of water. The Deepwater Horizon spill is almost one mile down.

Following Ixtoc the US imposed a moratorium on drilling in some federal waters which expanded annually until 1992. But by then the shallower Gulf waters had been thoroughly exploited and oil companies wanted to go deeper again. Under the existing regime this was too expensive, so the oil companies lobbied for lower royalties, and in 1996 the Clinton administration passed the Deepwater Royalty Reduction Act, at the same time ruling that environmental concerns over deepwater drilling were outweighed by the potential boost in oil services and by increased oil security, as these were in US waters.

In the same year the Minerals Management Service, the agency that regulated offshore oil development, also ruled that any spills would be “localized and low-impact” – based on an analysis that these would be from shipping, not wells. Then in 1997 the MMS announced a relaxation of testing requirements for BOPs – blowout preventers.

Disquiet existed in some quarters about the ability to stop a deepwater spill once it had begun, but nevertheless, an MMS report in 2000 described a deepwater blowout as “highly unlikely” and the likelyhood of it reaching coastal waters “very low”.

The Deepwater Horizon was owned and operated by oil exploration company TransOcean, leased to BP for the drilling operation. At the time of the explosion, workers had finished pumping cement to fill the space between the pipe and the sides of the hole and had begun temporarily plugging the well with cement; it isn’t known whether they had completed the plugging process before the blast. This operation was sub-contracted by BP to oilfield services firm Halliburton, famous for its links with the George W. Bush administration and implicated in another blowout incident in the Timor Sea in 2009.

As Sadad al-Husseini, vice-president for for exploration and production at Saudi Aramco, reported in the Independent said, “If you have an offshore platform that is beyond the boundaries of a certain country and you can dump chemicals into the sea, you do. If you have to abandon a facility that is a pollutant, you abandon it without clearing it up. If you’ve hired people and you can work them in unhealthy environments where you’ve got sulphur dioxide, you do it. All these are ways in which you say, it’s not my problem. It’s not my cost.”

What happened

Deepwater Horizon was finishing work on an exploration well named Macondo, in an area called Mississippi Canyon Block 252. After weeks of drilling, the rig had pushed a bit down over 18,000 feet, into an oil-bearing zone. Transocean and BP personnel were installing casing in the well. Then a massive thud shook the vessel, followed by another strong vibration. Within a moment, a gigantic blast of gas, oil and drilling mud roared up through three miles of down-hole pipe and subsea risers. The fluids burst through the rig floor and ripped up into the gigantic draw-works. Something sparked. The hydrocarbons ignited. In a fraction of a second, the drilling deck of the Deepwater Horizon exploded into a fireball. The scene was an utter conflagration. There was almost no time to react. Emergency beacons blared. Battery-powered lighting switched on throughout the vessel. Crew members ran to evacuation stations. The order came to abandon ship.  The lifeboat skippers saved as many as they could find — 115 — but couldn’t account for 11 workers who were, apparently, on or around the drill deck at the time of the first explosion. But the Deepwater Horizon itself wasn’t going to make it. The situation deteriorated, to the point of complete catastrophe. The ship was lost.

What should have happened next is that the blowout preventer controlled the flow of oil. It didn’t. The crude oil released from the Deepwater Horizon at great pressure is hotter than boiling water and is mixed with natural gas. Even though the MMS joint-funded a deep sea oil release in 2000 to study the effects, little is known about what actually happens. In its environmental impact study published to support the leasing plan that included the Macondo licence that houses Deepwater Horizon, MMS said that “spills in deep water are not likely to affect listed birds… deepwater spills would either be transported away from coastal habitats or prevented, for most part, from reaching coastal habitats by natural weathering processes.”

al-Jazeera video explaining the mechanics of the blow-out.

Anthropogenic impact on the hydrosphere.
In contrast with land ecosystems, in the water environment, pollutants quickly spread over large distances from the sources of pollution. The World Ocean has a large inertia of response to all forms of internal impact. It requires a long hidden (latent) period to manifest the evidence of non-obvious consequences of this impact. The danger of the situation is complicated by the fact that when it happens, it will be too late to do anything.

Numerous data undoubtedly indicate the existence of a large-scale (global) field of background contamination of the hydrosphere …in shelf and coastal zones, which take only 10% of the World Ocean surface and less than 3% of its volume, the most intense processes of bioproduction, including the self-reproduction of the main living resources of the sea, take place. The main press of anthropogenic impact is also concentrated here.

Oil Spills in the Sea
Complex processes of oil transformation in the marine environment start developing from the first seconds of oil’s contact with seawater… a marine ecosystem destroys, meatbolizes and deposits the excessive amounts of hydrocarbons, transforming them into more common and safer substances.

An oil slick usually drifts in the same direction as the wind. A considerable part of oil disperses in the water as fine droplets that can be transported over large distances away from the place of the spill. Most oil components are water-soluble to a certain degree, and on reaching the surface a considerable part transforms into gaseous compounds. The mousse-like formations are the result of emulsification – a jelly-like mixture of oil and water.

Chemical transformations of oil in or on water are mainly oxidative and often involve photochemical reactions under the influence of ultraviolet light. these reactions increase the oil’s viscosity and promotes the formation of solid aggregates. 10-30% is deposited on the bottom of the sea.

The fate of most petroleum substances in the marine environment is ultimately defined by their transformation and degredation due to microbial activity. Eventually the original and intermediate compounds disappear and carbon dioxide and water form. This self-purification of the marine environment inevitably happens in water ecosystems as long as the toxic load is not too great.

Effects on marine wildlife
Oil and oil products are a group of pollutants that have complex and diverse composition and various impacts on living organisms – from physical and physiochemical damage to carcinogenic effects.

The US Environmental Protection Agency says: “Most biological communities are susceptible to the effects of oil spills. Plant communities on land, marsh grasses in estuaries, and kelp beds in the ocean; microscopic plants and animals; and larger animals, such as fish, amphibians and reptiles, birds and mammals, are subject to contact, smothering, toxicity, and the chronic long-term effects that may result from the physical and chemical properties of the spilled oil.”

Both marine mammals and seabirds are at serious risk from, among others, hypothermia, toxic effects and secondary organ dysfunction due to ingestion of oil; congested lungs; damaged airways; emphysema due to inhalation of oil droplets and vapour; gastrointestinal ulceration and hemorrhaging; eye and skin lesions; decreased body mass due to restricted diet.

Fish may ingest large amounts of oil through their gills. If this does not kill them directly through similar injury to that suffered by other animals, the oil may affect reproductive capacity and/or result in deformed fry.

Not much is known about the effects of oil on shellfish other than it makes them inedible by humans (and presumably other predators).

Dispersants
The role of dispersants is almost totally unknown. They do not reduce the amount of oil entering the environment, and by increasing the amount of oil that physically mixes with water will potentially reduce the amount of contamination to species that exist on the water surface or shoreline, but will increase its likelyhood for organisms that live in the water column or on the ocean floor. According to a report by the National Academy of Scence in 2005, few studies have been conducted to validate the assumption that chemical dispersants dramatically reduce the impact to seabirds and aquatic mammals, and any effectiveness “was evaluated primarily by visual observation”. And if dispersants place the oil slick under the surface, the study notes that “unlike surface slicks, that are affected primarily by surface winds, the nature and trajectory of subsurface dispersed oil plumes are more susceptible to currents”.

Recovery
In can be many years, sometimes even decades, before an area or ecosystem has fully recovered from an oil spill. Generally, recovery will proceed faster in warmer climates and on rocky shores, slower in colder climates and, for example, marshes.

Socio-economic effects
The surface slick threatens the ecosystems and the economy of the entire Gulf Coast region. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that up to 32 National Wildlife Refuges could potentially be affected by the spill. By June 2, 2010, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had banned fishing in about 36% of federal waters, or 86,895 sq mi (229,270 sq km) of the Gulf.

The economic impacts from the spill originate in the communities affected by the spill, but then ripple throughout the entire nation. Commercial fishermen in the Gulf harvested more than 1 billion pounds of fish and shellfish in 2008. In addition, there are approximately 5.7 million recreational fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico region who took 25 million fishing trips in 2008. Fisherman in areas closed to fishing, or whose catch are harmed by the spill, feel the immediate effects, as do hotels, restaurants and other businesses that are tied to tourism, conventions and recreation in the Gulf Coast. The reduction in the harvest of oysters, shrimp and other seafood caused prices to rise sharply in the weeks following the spill, which in turn caused food prices to rise in restaurants as far away as New York City. The mere threat of oil caused thousands of hotel cancellations in the run-up to the usually hectic Memorial Day weekend.

Paradoxically, a significant oil industry support service of small boat owners and other related local businesses have been affected and are complaining vociferously about the 6-month moratorium on offshore drilling imposed by Obama.

Last Word
A last word goes to the late Richard Feynman: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” We believe our own story about human ingenuity and the progress of technology that combats ever more complex problems, until Three Mile Island, or Chernobyl, or a volcano in Iceland, demonstrate that an unavoidable component of the heroic human project is hubris, and proof that there are forces far more powerful than us that are unleashed if we forget our real relationship with Nature.

History shows that things could go either way. The Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969 was swiftly followed by the passing of the National Environmental Policy Act and then the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as a host of other acts legislating for clean air and water and protecting coastal areas and endangered species. By contrast, the Exxon oil spill in 1989 was attributed to the fact that oil tankers should have double hulls, and the technical improvement of future tankers was seen as enough protection against future incidents.

Now all the corporations are back making money, fines are still being paid, and the world’s attention has moved on.

Credits: AP, Reuters, Gulf Restoration Networkwww.offshore-environment.comUNEPNational Academy of Sciences , www.drillingahead.comEncyclopedia of the Earththe Independent.

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