As we all know, the uncontrolled offshore oil well blow-out off the coast of Louisiana has spewed out massive quantities of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico for about two months now. We've seen the ongoing failed efforts to stop, or at least to contain the millions of gallons of crude that are blowing out of the well every day. We've seen the horrific, widespread environmental and economic devastation to the Gulf coast region, and the early efforts to try and clean up this huge mess. Our hearts go out to the people who have been, and will be directly affected by this disaster. This massive and ongoing oil spill should be considered a real ‘wake-up' call.
Not too long ago we were hearing the slogan: "drill baby, drill." Back in March, right before Deepwater Horizon exploded, even the president was on the bandwagon. The Obama administration was proposing to open more than 167 million acres of ocean to new offshore oil and natural gas drilling! The target areas included large swathes of the Atlantic coast, the eastern Gulf coast and also the north coast of Alaska. This proposal would effectively end the current moratorium on oil exploration along the East Coast from the northern tip of Delaware to the central coast of Florida.
In light of all we know now, there are a few valuable lessons to be learned from the Gulf oil spill:
Lesson #1 — History repeats itself
The blowout that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon mobile drilling platform and created the ongoing BP Gulf oil spill was not unprecedented. In fact, a strikingly similar offshore drilling accident occurred back in 1979, with the Pemex Ixtoc 1 well blowout in the Bay of Campeche in the Gulf of Mexico.
Ixtoc 1 was being drilled about 62 miles northwest of Ciudad del Carmen by Sedco 135F, a mobile drilling platform. The drill encountered a soft, porous strata at about 11,800' below the seafloor. It's thought that the drilling mud began to escape into this porous material.
Sedco 135F, the mobile drilling platform that was drilling Ixtoc 1, exploded, burned and then sank to the bottom of the Gulf (this sound familiar?). Like the BP Gulf oil disaster, the failure of Ixtoc 1 was attributed to the lack of an adequate column of heavy drilling mud and the failure of the blowout preventer (BOP). Just like in the BP Gulf oil disaster, the BOP hydraulic rams failed to shear through the drill pipe and cut off flow.
Eventually, relief wells were drilled near Ixtoc 1 and the well was capped after about 10 months. Before it was all over, the Ixtoc 1 well gushed an estimated 140 million gallons of oil into the Gulf, a lot of which ended up on the shores of Texas. Like Ixtoc 1, the BP well will eventually be capped, but probably not before far surpassing Ixtoc 1 in terms of the total volume of oil spilled.
Lesson #2 — If something can go wrong, sooner or later it will
As with all human endeavors, Murphy's Law applies in this case. Oil and gas drilling, especially deepwater offshore oil and gas drilling, is, and always will be, somewhat risky. There are many variables and unknowns involved, and it should be expected that some of these could directly cause or contribute to a well failure.
Murphy's Law accurately sums up a simple fact: there will always be some degree of risk in everything we do. This doesn't mean that the risks of offshore drilling can't be addressed and minimized — they can. Old Murphy just doesn't think you should be surprised when and if things go wrong.
Lesson #3 — All this will pass
Time marches on and BP will eventually get their well capped. While the current band-aids that they've applied either haven't worked or haven’t worked very well, the proposed relief wells that BP will drill will very likely solve the problem (as they did with Ixtoc 1). How long this will take is anyone's guess, but it will happen — hopefully it won't take 10 months!
Once the well is successfully capped, attention will shift fully to mop-up work and lots of interesting litigation. As with the case of similar large oil spills in the past, time, hard work and natural processes will eventually reverse most of the damage, though it will take many years.
Lesson #4 — Hindsight is 20/20
It's easy to blame BP — everybody's doing it. But mistakes will be made and accidents will happen. There will surely be more oil spills in the future and when they happen, there will be more people that point fingers and say "hey dummy! you should have done it this way…"
The BP Gulf oil disaster is a wake-up call. There’s obviously a major problem with current technology for offshore drilling when BP is out there dreaming up solutions on the fly. Junk-shots, top-hats, top kill, etc. – heck, they’ve tried just about everything but duct-tape and bailing wire!
The oil companies and their buddies, the government regulators need to get their heads around this problem and find a way to fix it. At a minimum there needs to be: 1.) an effective and reliable BOP design, 2.) a ready secondary failsafe mechanism, 3.) an effective method to get to the wellhead and physically shut off the flow in the worst case scenario, and 4.) responsible and effective government oversight of these guys.
Instead of reversing moratoriums and expanding off-shore drilling, we should instead think long and hard before allowing any new offshore drilling permits until such time that a more effective technology to prevent blowouts is developed.
Thanks for reading my post. I hope you found it somewhat interesting and thought-provoking. If you have any questions or comments, or if you think I should have my head soaked, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.