On the night of April 20th, 2010 a rush of methane gas up the well pipe to the sea surface occurred and the Deepwater Horizon Oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers and injuring 17. The oil well head, almost a mile deep, began gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico. From the start Louisiana officials have argued that keeping oil away from the coastline, protecting the estuaries, marshlands and beaches to protect not only the ecology of the area, but also the fishing and tourist industries was of first importance. There was no immediate response, no deploying of manpower and resources to protect the coast for days as the oil gushed into the Gulf.
On April 22nd the Navy and Coast Guard were sent to fight the fire from the explosion. Since then, BP was left to respond to the spill and for days on end the oil catching booms sat idle. This is not the first blowout in history, though the difficulty of staunching the flow was compounded by the extreme depth of the well. For 40 days BP bumbled along trying different ideas to staunch the flow, these; however, were basically the same approaches used in the past. In 1979 when the Mexican Ixtoc well blew out in 150 feet of water it took just about nine months to staunch the flow. The Deepwater Horizon is about a mile deep so the difficulty of responding the spill ins not to be underestimated. The Mexican national oil company Pemex tried to stop the flow with drilling mud, and then with steel and lead balls dropped into the wellbore. It tried to contain the oil with a cap, but failed in all attempts despite being only 150 feet deep. Finally, after nine months a relief well successfully plugged the hole with cement and the flow was stopped after 138 million gallons of crude was released into the Gulf of Mexico.
Though BP has systematically tried to stop the flow by first an attempt to activate the blowout preventer valves, then by trying the first dome which became clogged with icy hydrates and failed, then by trying to divert and capture the flow with an insertion tube, followed by trying to plug the hold with mud and debris (as the Mexicans did). Finally this week BP was able to cut the riser and lower the second containment cap in place. This cap captured 6,077 barrels of oil during its first 24 hours in operation. This is estimated to be somewhere between 25%-50% of the flow. There are four vents at the top of the cap which are now open to relieve pressure and if they are successfully closed without blowing out the seal, the captured flow could be increased. This cap is a temporary measures to capture the flow until two relief wells are completed in the next three months and the Deepwater Horizon can be permanently sealed.
BP is preparing backup systems in the containment effort (risk management learned a little late). Several more caps are in the Gulf. BP plans to replace the currently installed cap with a heavier and more tightly sealed cap designed with storage capacity in case a hurricane forces the containment ship to leave the area. BP and US regulators appeared to believe that because there had not been such a catastrophic blowout in the Gulf since 1979, it would not happen. We were not prepared; we did not have an emergency plan or procedures to mitigate the impact from a catastrophic blowout. Inappropriate risk management took place and was compounded by inappropriate emergency response.
A thick film coats the shore from Louisiana to Florida, and tar balls and orange foam have washed up on Gulf Coast beaches, too. These are the immediate effects of a spill are obvious along with the images of oil soaked and suffocating and dead seabirds washing up on shore. More than 597 birds have been found dead along the coast, according to a federal tally released Friday. In addition more than 243 sea turtles have also been found dead. Dead dolphins were also washing ashore, 31 were dead as if June 7th. But some types of ecological damage are hard to measure and can take years to document. This ecological tragedy is immense. As David Leonhardt pointed out in the New York Times, people in general do a lousy job of estimating risk. Maybe requiring emergency response preparation and maintaining emergency response forces and measures is the true job of government.