Sunday, May 30, 2010

18 Blowouts in the Gulf of Mexico since 1983

I keep hearing from various quarters that the Gulf of Mexico blowout is uncommon but it actually isn’t according to Karl Grossman. In fact there were 18 blowouts in the Gulf from 1983 to the present Deepwater blowout. 18, how uncommon is that?


As to the claim of the situation being “unprecedented,” which has been widely asserted— in terms of the depth of the sea in which the rig was positioned and also the volume of oil gushing from a mile down, it is unprecedented.

But blowouts and consequent spills from offshore oil rigs—including those in the Gulf of Mexico—are not uncommon.

Indeed, last year there was a blowout, strikingly similar to what just happened in the Gulf, involving the West Atlas drilling rig in the Timor Sea off northwest Australia. The oil slick formed extended for more than 100 miles; it took 10 weeks for the blow-out to be brought under control; marine life was impacted and shores blackened.

“If anything like the Australian blowout ever takes places off of the Southeast U.S. beaches or in Florida waters, the economic and environmental consequences will last for decades,” said Richard Charter speaking for Washington-based Defenders of Wildlife at the time.

Of that spill, he said: “A global-scale environmental catastrophe so large that it is visible from space is unfolding in one of the earth’s last marine wilderness areas.”

The West Atlas rig was in water 260-feet deep. It took five attempts before heavy mud pumped down a relief well was able to move into the well that underwent the blowout on August 21 and cork the leak.

The reality is that wherever there’s oil drilling, there’s spilling. U.S. Department of Interior figures reflect 3 million gallons of oil spilled from 1980 to 1999 in the U.S. outer continental shelf offshore drilling program. As to blowouts, there were 18 in wells in the Gulf of Mexico from 1983 up to the eruption at the Deepwater Horizon rig.

Another thing I’ve been reading is that the oil is going to magically disappear. Yes, no need to worry because if we just close our eyes and count to ten (hopefully within the realm of most people’s math skills) the bad old oil will be gone! Poof! It’s Magic!! If only it were true. Bacteria will eat it and much will evaporate we are told by blithe individuals. This may or may not be true but a quick search on the Valdez spill shows that the arctic regions affected may take up to 30 years to recover.


Almost 20 years after the spill, a team of scientists at the University of North Carolina found that the effects are lasting far longer than expected.[20] The team estimates some shoreline Arctic habitats may take up to 30 years to recover.[5] Exxon Mobil denies any concerns over this, stating that they anticipated a remaining fraction that they assert will not cause any long-term ecological impacts, according to the conclusions of 350 peer-reviewed studies.[21] However, a study from scientists from the NOAA concluded that this contamination can produce chronic low-level exposure, discourage subsistence where the contamination is heavy, and decrease the "wilderness character" of the area.[16]

Also, consider this:

Because Prince William Sound contained many rocky coves where the oil collected, the decision was made to displace it with high-pressure hot water. However, this also displaced and destroyed the microbial populations on the shoreline; many of these organisms (e.g. plankton) are the basis of the coastal marine food chain, and others (e.g. certain bacteria and fungi) are capable of facilitating the biodegradation of oil. At the time, both scientific advice and public pressure was to clean everything, but since then, a much greater understanding of natural and facilitated remediation processes has developed, due somewhat in part to the opportunity presented for study by the Exxon Valdez spill. Despite the extensive cleanup attempts, less than ten percent of the oil was recovered[15] and a study conducted by NOAA determined that as of early 2007 more than 26 thousand U.S. gallons (22,000 imp gal; 98,000 L) of oil remain in the sandy soil of the contaminated shoreline, declining at a rate of less than 4% per year.[16]

The Valdez spill occurred in 1989 yet 26,000 gallons remained in the sandy soil of the shoreline as of 2007. I suppose the planet earth would eventually evaporate as well, given enough time that is. Despite reassurances that it will all come out in the wash the bottom line is we have no idea how long it really takes for an area to fully recover. It would seem likely that any ecology damaged by oil spills won’t recover in our lifetime. If ever.

Grossman writes that the depth of the oil well is unprecedented. I think that is very important to note when you consider the following:


The Obama administration joined BP in quashing environmental challenges to Gulf drilling in 2009 legal actions by Ken Salazar, Obama’s Secretary of Interior. They asked the federal court of appeals in Washington, DC to overturn their decision that blocked new drilling in the Gulf of Mexico’s outer continental shelf, referring to the same area where the explosion later occurred.

The appeals court partially approved Salazar’s petition, with the condition that the administration produce an environmental impact study for Gulf of Mexico drilling operations. The Obama administration granted BP a “categorical exemption” from producing a legally required environmental impact study and approved its exploration plan for the location of the future spill.

“…the same area where the explosion later occurred.” So, Obama had the block on new drilling in the Gulf of Mexico overturned, dispensed with an environmental impact study for an oil well of an unprecedented depth, a full mile down in fact, and the rest is history. Think of the lack of responsibility involved in allowing BP to drill a mile down in the most hostile environment on the planet especially when you must know that blowouts happen on a regular basis and in fact have.

I suspect that many of the people assuring us that the oil chugging into the Gulf will evaporate and be eaten by Martian microbes who came to earth riding on the backs of meteors are more concerned about Obama’s presidency than the oil in the Gulf. This doesn’t surprise me in the least because these are the same people who see everything that occurs through the lens of how it might affect Obama. Some things are more important than the Democratic Party and Obama’s presidency which I find to be the epitome of mediocrity.

As is so often the case despite hopes of learning from our mistakes this event will change nothing just as the Wikileaks video changed nothing rather was soon forgotten displaced by more recent spectacular events and as soon as enough time has elapsed to make it seem proper the drilling will again resume in earnest. It’s an easy trap to fall into, one I have done many times, “oh surely now that such and such has happened, surely people will see and things will be different blah, blah, blah.” But nobody ever does. In the end emotional realizations aren’t worth a damn.


At May 30, 2010 8:48 PM, Blogger Jonathan Versen said...

Good work Rob. I wish the Obama administration was good enough to be legitimately mediocre instead of deliberately corrupt and awful. And how many people know they actively pushed legal hurdles aside on behalf of BP?

Support for future drilling has gone down substantially, from the 70 percent range among the general public per a poll I saw, Ipsos, I think. But apparently over 50 percent of the US population still supports offshore drilling, which I guess should amaze me. It's very discouraging.

At May 30, 2010 9:37 PM, Blogger Jonathan Versen said...

there's also this, from New Orleans blogger Oyster.

At May 30, 2010 10:41 PM, Blogger rob payne said...

Hi Jonathan,

It doesn't seem like too many know about Obama's role in this. You can put the information out there but will anyone take it seriously?

Good link, thanks for sharing it.


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