Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill - MODIS/Terra Detail (with interpretation), May 1, 2010
Image from SkyTruth May 1 / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I can’t imagine watching and waiting for oil to wash up on my shores. But many of my neighbors can. I wasn’t here in 1989, but for those who were here when Exxon Valdez happened, it’s deja vu all over again. Hig’s mom remembers Exxon’s delay tactics, and Seldovia’s all-out attempt to stave off the impending oil (which didn’t end up reaching here). Hig was 12, and remembers a public meeting where an Exxon official stood up and insisted that cleanup had to be delayed because there “wouldn’t be a slack tide until next week.” Even the children knew that there were four slack tides in a day.

This time around, we have satellite imagery to show the growing spill. Some think the current spill is already bigger than the Exxon Valdez, and since oil will most likely continue to pour out for months as they work to drill a relief well – it’s almost certain to dwarf the Exxon spill before long. If the kinked pipes that are slowing down the flow of oil degrade further, it could gush out an order of magnitude faster.

Deepwater Horizon Fire - April 22, 2010
April 22 rig fire, image from the Coast Guard / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


But this isn’t a leaking tanker. A boat can only spill oil until none is left. This is a blowout – an undersea volcano of oil, gushing out a mile below the surface of the ocean. This is the worst case scenario for all offshore drilling operations.

Blowouts are uncommon. In the wisdom of the oil industry, blowouts basically don’t happen. They’re barely mentioned in Environmental Impact Statements – the largest spill considered in a recent EIS for arctic oil drilling was “only” 142,000 gallons, less than the amount that’s spilling from the Deepwater Horizon blowout in a day.

And really, for any given well a blowout is very unlikely. But there are 3500 production platforms in the gulf of Mexico alone. Even the long odds of a large catastrophe come back to bite now and then.

Just last August, there was a major blowout near Australia in the Timor Sea. It wasn’t much covered in the US media, but oil is a global industry, with multinational companies using the same technology across the globe. When this well went, it spilled oil for 10 weeks, until the 4th attempt to drill a relief well finally stopped the flow – after somewhere between 1.2 and 9.3 million gallons spilled.

These two accidents both happened during the risky period when the wells were being capped off and gaps cemented shut. In Australia, the problem has been pinned on the cement job, the problem in many offshore well control incidents. In the Gulf, we don’t know yet, but the problem may be similar.

Transocean Deepwater Horizon Drilling Rig Oil Slick, Gulf of Mexico, USA
April 26 oil spill and cleanup vessels from Digital Globe / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Clean Up?

In BP’s exploration plan for the Deepwater Horizon, they state that even if there were to be one of those unlikely oil spills “due to the distance to shore (48 miles) and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts are expected.” But the ugly truth is that despite all the effort we put into it, spilled oil is extremely difficult to clean up.

Like a car crash next to a hospital, this spill happened where rapid and well equipped response was possible. The Gulf coast has relatively mild weather (when there’s no hurricane), transportation and other infrastructure is nearby, as well as a lot of oil spill response equipment. We may have been more prepared here than almost anywhere. But it isn’t good enough. Waves slosh oil over booms, dispersants and fires don’t always work out, the oil keeps flowing…

Arctic Oil

While I don’t know much about the Gulf of Mexico, Hig and I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about the risks of oil drilling here in Alaska. When we work as environmental consultants, we do a fair amount with oil. Currently, Hig’s working on analyzing data for patterns in the dozens of spills per year (mostly small) on the North Slope. And I’m working on explaining the risks of drilling in the Chukchi Sea.

Imagine this spill on ice. Imagine it under the ice – where no one could even track it until the spring. Imagine response boats trying to maneuver their way through broken ice, where booms and skimmers are rendered useless. Imagine sub zero weather and constant darkness. Imagine trying to bring in responders and equipment from thousands of miles away, to a place with virtually no infrastructure to support them. Cleanup is difficult and uncertain in the Gulf of Mexico, and the situation in the arctic would be far worse.

Accidents happen. Safety can be improved. Regulation can be improved. But oil in the ocean is a risky enterprise, and we will never make absolute fail-safe equipment (or error-free people to operate it). A catastrophe every now and then is inevitable. Catastrophes can’t be undone. The question is, do we accept that risk?