OIL AND OIL SPILLS IN THE GULF OF MEXICO
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC - OCTOBER 2010
THE WATERS of the Gulf below a thousand feet are a
relatively new frontier for oilmen - and one of the toughest
places on the planet to drill. The seafloor falls off the gently
sloping continental shelf into jumbled basin-and-range-like
terrain, with deep canyons, ocean ridges, and active mud
volcanoes 500 feet high. More than 2,000 barrels of oil a day
seep from scattered natural vents. But the commercial deposits
lie deeply buried, often beneath layers of shifting salt that are
prone to undersea earthquakes. Temperatures at the seafloor are
near freezing, while the oil reservoirs can hit 400 degrees
Fahrenheit; they're like hot, shaken soda bottles just waiting
for someone to pop the top. Pockets of explosive methane gas and
methane hydrates, frozen but unstable, lurk in the sediment,
increasing the risk of a blowout.
For decades the exorbitant costs of drilling deep kept
commercial rigs close to shore. But shrinking reserves, spiking
oil prices, and spectacular offshore discoveries ignited a global
rush into deep water. Recent finds in Brazil's Tupi and Guara
fields could make that country one of the largest oil producers
in the world. Similarly promising deepwater leases off Angola
have excited bidding frenzies involving more than 20 companies.
In the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. Congress encouraged
companies to go deep as early as 1995. That year it passed a law
forgiving royalties on deepwater oil fields leased between 1996
and 2000. A fleet of new rigs was soon punching holes all over
the Gulf at a cost of up to a million dollars a day each. The
number of leases sold in waters half a mile deep or more shot up
from around 50 in 1994 to 1,100 in 1997.
It wasn't long before the industry hit pay dirt. New fields
with names like Atlantis, Thunder Horse, and Great White came
just in time to offset a long-term decline in shallow-water oil
production. The Gulf of Mexico now accounts for 30 percent of
U.S. production, with half of that coming from deep water (1,000
to 4,999 feet), a third from ultradeep water (5,000 feet or
more), and the rest from shallow water. BP's Macondo well, in
about 5,000 feet of water and reaching another 13,000 feet
beneath the seafloor, wasn't particularly deep. The industry has
drilled in 10,000 feet of water and to total depths of 35,050
feet - the latter a world record set just last year by the
Deepwater Horizon in another BP field in the Gulf. The U.S.
government estimates that the deep Gulf might hold 45 billion
barrels of crude. "We're in deep water because that's where the
resources are;" says Larry Reed, an operations consultant in
Houston who has worked with many of the major oil companies.
Deepwater wells tend to be highly productive, he adds, like wells
in the Middle East.
As technology was taking drillers deeper, however, the
methods for preventing blowouts and cleaning up spills did not
keep pace. Since the early 2000s, reports from industry and
academia warned of the increasing risk of deepwater blowouts, the
fallibility of blowout preventers, and the difficulty of stopping
a deepwater spill after it started - a special concern given that
deepwater wells, because they're under such high pressure, can
spout as much as 100,000 barrels a day.
The Minerals Management Service routinely downplayed such
concerns. A 2007 agency study found that from 1992 to 2006, only
39 blowouts occurred during the drilling of more than 15,000 oil
and gas wells in the Gulf. Few of them released much oil; only
one resulted in a death. Most of the blowouts were stopped within
a week, typically by pumping the wells full of heavy drilling mud
or by shutting them down mechanically and diverting the gas
bubble that had produced the dangerous "kick" in the first place.
Though blowouts were relatively rare, the MMS report did find a
significant increase in the number associated with cementing, the
process of pumping cement around the steel well casing (which
surrounds the drill pipe) to fill the space between it and the
wall of the borehole. In retrospect, that note of caution was
SOME DEEPWATER WELLS go in relatively easy. The Macondo well
did not. BP hired Transocean, a Switzerland-based company, to
drill the well. Transocean's first drill rig was knocked out of
commission by Hurricane Ida after just a month. The Deepwater
Horizon began its ill-fated effort in February 2010 and ran into
problems almost from the start. In early March the drill pipe got
stuck in the borehole, as did a tool sent down to find the stuck
section; the drillers had to back out and drill around the
obstruction. A BP email later released by Congress mentioned that
the drillers were having "well-control" problems. Another email,
from a consultant, stated, "We have flipped design parameters
around to the point that I got nervous:" A week before the
explosion, a BP drilling engineer wrote, "This has been [a]
By April 20 the Deepwater Horizon was six weeks behind
schedule, according to MMS documents, and the delay was costing
BP more than half a million dollars a day. BP had chosen to drill
the fastest possible way - using a well design known as a "long
string" because it places strings of casing pipe between the oil
reservoir and the wellhead. A long string generally has two
barriers between the oil and the blowout preventer on the
seafloor: a cement plug at the bottom of the well, and a metal
seal, known as a lockdown sleeve, placed right at the wellhead.
The lockdown sleeve had not been installed when the Macondo well
In addition, congressional investigators and industry
experts contend that BP cut corners on its cement job. It failed
to circulate heavy drilling mud outside the casing before
cementing, a practice that helps the cement cure properly. It
didn't put in enough centralizers--devices that ensure that the
cement forms a complete seal around the casing. And it failed to
run a test to see if the cement had bonded properly. Finally,
just before the accident, BP replaced the heavy drilling mud in
the well with much lighter seawater, as it prepared to finish and
disconnect the rig from the well. BP declined to comment on these
matters, citing the ongoing investigation.
All these decisions may have been perfectly legal, and they
surely saved BP time and money - yet each increased the risk of a
blowout. On the night of April 20, investigators suspect, a large
gas bubble somehow infiltrated the casing, perhaps through gaps
in the cement, and shot straight up. The blowout preventer should
have stopped that powerful kick at the seafloor; its heavy
hydraulic rams were supposed to shear the drill pipe like a soda
straw, blocking the upward surge and protecting the rig above.
But that fail-safe device had itself been beset by leaks and
maintenance problems. When a geyser of drilling mud erupted onto
the rig, all attempts to activate the blowout preventer failed.
The way BP drilled the Macondo well surprised Magne Ognedal,
director general of the Petroleum Safety Authority Norway (PSA).
The Norwegians have drilled high-temperature, high-pressure wells
on their shallow continental shelf for decades, he said in a
telephone interview, and haven't had a catastrophic blowout
since 1985. After that incident, the PSA and the industry
instituted a number of best practices for drilling exploration
wells. These include riserless drilling from stations on the
seafloor, which prevents oil and gas from flowing directly to a
rig; starting a well with a small pilot hole through the
sediment, which makes it easier to handle gas kicks; having a
remote-controlled backup system for activating the blowout
preventers; and most important, never allowing fewer than two
barriers between the reservoir and the seafloor.
"The decisions [BP] made when they had indications that the
well was not stable, the decision to have one long pipe, the
decision to have only six centralizers instead of 21 to create
the best possible cement job-some of these things were very
surprising to us here;" says Ognedal. The roots of those
decisions lie in BP's corporate history, says Robert Bea, a
University of California, Berkeley expert in both technological
disasters and offshore engineering. BP hired Bea in 2001 for
advice on problems it faced after it took over the U.S. oil
companies Amoco and ARCO. One problem, Bea says, was a loss of
core competence: After the merger BP forced thousands of older,
experienced oil field workers into early retirement. That
decision, which made the company more dependent on contractors
for engineering expertise, was a key ingredient in BP's "recipe
for disaster," Bea says. Only a few of the 126 crew members on
the Deepwater Horizon worked directly for BP.
The drilling operation itself was regulated by the MMS
(which, in the wake of the accident, was reorganized and renamed
the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and
Enforcement). In 2009 the MMS had been excoriated by the U.S.
General Accounting Office for its lax oversight of offshore
leases. That same year, under the new Obama Administration, the
MMS rubber-stamped BP's initial drilling plan for the Macondo
well. Using an MMS formula, BP calculated that the worstcase
spill from the well would be 162,000 barrels a day - nearly three
times the flow rate that actually occurred. In a separate
spillresponse plan for the whole Gulf, the company claimed that
it could recover nearly 500,000 barrels a day using standard
technology, so that even a worst-case spill would do minimal harm
to the Gulf's fisheries and wildlifeincluding walruses, sea
otters, and sea lions. There are no walruses, sea otters, or sea
lions in the Gulf.
BP's plan also listed as an emergency responder a marine
biologist who had been dead for years, and it gave the Web
address of an entertainment site in Japan as an emergency source
of spill-response equipment. The widely reported gaffes had
appeared in other oil companies' spill-response plans as well.
They had simply been cut and pasted from older plans prepared for
When the spill occurred, BP's response fell well short of
its claims. Scientists on a federal task force said in early
August that the blownout well had disgorged as much as 62,000
barrels a day at the outset - an enormous flow rate, but far
below BP's worst-case scenario. Mark Ploen estimated in June that
on a good day his response teams, using skimmers brought in from
around the world, were picking up 15,000 barrels. Simply burning
the oil, a practice that had been used with the Exxon Valdez
spill, had proved more effective. BP's burn fleet of 23 vessels
included local shrimp boats that worked in pairs, corralling
surface oil with long fire boom and then igniting it with
homemade napalm. In one "monster burn" the team incinerated
16,000 barrels of oil in just over three hours.
"Shrimpers are naturals at doing this," said Nere Mabile,
science and technology adviser for the burn team in Houma. "They
know how to pull nets. They're seeing that every barrel we burn
is a barrel that doesn't t get to shore, doesn't affect the
environment, doesn't affect people. And where's the safest place
to burn this stuff? The middle of the Gulf of Mexico."
In June the Discoverer Enterprise and the Q4000 began
collecting oil directly at the busted blowout preventer, and by
mid-July they had ramped up to 25,000 barrels a day-still far
less, even when the efforts of the skimmers and the burn team
were added, than the nearly 500,000 barrels a day BP had claimed
it could remove. At that point the company finally succeeded in
placing a tight cap on the well, halting the gusher after 12
In 1990, after the Exxon Valdez spill, Congress's Office of
Technology Assessment analyzed spill-response technologies and
found them lacking. "Even the best national response system will
have inherent practical limitations that will hinder
spill-response efforts for catastrophic events - sometimes to a
major extent;" wrote OTA's director, John H. Gibbons. "For that
reason it is important to pay at least equal attention to
preventive measures as to response systems ... The proverbial
ounce of prevention is worth many, many pounds of cure."
Just weeks before the Macondo blowout, the Obama
Administration had announced with some fanfare an expansion of
offshore drilling. By summer the administration was struggling
in court to preserve a moratorium on deepwater drilling until
such time as it could be deemed safe. "In some cases I'm not
confident that the industry is tapping these resources safely,"
says Bea. "We can expect more of these in the future."
BY EARLY AUGUST BP seemed on the verge of plugging the
Macondo well permanently with drilling mud and cement. The
federal task force's estimate of the amount of oil released stood
at 4.9 million barrels. Government scientists estimated that BP
had removed a quarter of the oil. Another quarter had evaporated
or dissolved into scattered molecules. But a third quarter had
been dispersed in the water as small droplets, which might still
be toxic to some organisms. And the last quarter - around five
times the amount released by the Exxon Valdez - remained as
slicks or sheens on the water or tar balls on the beaches.
The Deepwater Horizon spill had become the largest
accidental spill into the ocean in history, larger even than the
Ixtoc I blowout in Mexico's Bay of Campeche in 1979. It is
surpassed only by the intentional 1991 gulf war spill in Kuwait.
The Ixtoc spill devastated local fisheries and economies. Wes
Tunnell remembers it well. The tall, 65-year-old coral reef
expert at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi earned his
doctorate studying the reefs around Veracruz in the early 1970s,
and he kept studying them for a decade after the spill coated
them with oil. Tunnell wrote an early report on the impact there
and on Padre Island in Texas. In early June, after the new
disaster had once again raised the question of how long the
impact of a spill can last, he returned to Enmedio Reef to see if
any Ixtoc I oil remained. It took him three minutes of snorkeling
to find some. "Well, that was easy," he said.
Tunnell stood in the clear, waist-deep water of the
protected reef lagoon holding what appeared to be a
three-inch-thick slab of sandy gray clay. When he broke it in
two, it was jet black on the inside, with the texture and smell
of an asphalt brownie. Here on the lagoon side, where the reef
looked gray and dead, the Ixtoc tar mat was still partially
buried in the sediments.
But on the ocean side of the reef, where winds and waves and
currents were stronger, no oil remained. The lesson for Louisiana
and the other Gulf states is clear, Tunnell thinks. Where there
is wave energy and oxygen, sunlight and the Gulf's abundant
oil-eating bacteria break it down fairly quickly. When oil falls
to the bottom and gets entrained in low-oxygen sediments like
those in a lagoon - or in a marsh - it can hang around for
decades, degrading the environment.
Fishermen in the nearby village of Anton Lizardo hadn't
forgotten the spill either. "The Ixtoc spill about destroyed all
the reefs," said Gustavo Mateos Moutiel, a powerful man, now in
his 60s, who wore the trademark straw hat of the Veracruzano
fishermen. "Octopus gone. Urchins gone. Oysters gone. Conch gone.
Fish almost all gone. Our families were hungry. The petroleum on
the beach was halfway up our knees:" Though some species, such as
Bay of Campeche shrimps, recovered within a few years, Moutiel,
along with several other fishermen who had gathered on the beach,
said it took 15 to 20 years for their catches to return to
normal. By then two-thirds of the fishermen in the village had
found other jobs.
Even in the turbulent, highly oxygenated waters of France's
Breton coast, it took at least seven years after the 1978 Amoco
Cadiz spill for local marine species and Brittany's famed oyster
farms to fully recover, according to French biologist Philippe
Bodin. An expert on marine copepods, Bodin studied the long-term
effects of the spill from the grounded tanker. He believes the
impact will be far worse in the generally calmer, loweroxygen
waters of the Gulf, particularly because of the heavy use of the
dispersant Corexit 9500. BP has said the chemical is no more
toxic than dishwashing liquid, but it was used extensively on the
Amoco Cadiz spill, and Bodin found it to be more toxic to marine
life than the oil itself. "The massive use of Corexit 9500 in the
Gulf is catastrophic for the phytoplankton, zooplankton, and
larvae," he says. "Moreover, currents will drive the dispersant
and the oil plumes everywhere in the Gulf."
In May, scientists in the Gulf began tracking plumes of
methane and oil droplets drifting up to 30 miles from the broken
well, at depths of 3,000 to 4,000 feet. One of those scientists
was University of Georgia biogeochemist Mandy Joye, who has spent
years studying hydrocarbon vents and brine seeps in the deep
Gulf. She found a plume the size of Manhattan, and its methane
levels were the highest she had ever measured in the Gulf. As
bacteria feast on spilled oil and methane, they deplete the water
of oxygen; at one point Joye found oxygen levels dangerously low
for life in a water layer 600 feet thick, at depths where fish
usually live. Since waters in the deep Gulf mix very slowly, she
said, such depleted zones could persist for decades.
BP was using old DC-3s set up like giant crop dusters to
spray Corexit 9500 onto surface slicks. But for the world's first
major deepwater spill, the company also got permission from the
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard to pump
hundreds of thousands of gallons of dispersant directly into the
oil and gas spewing from the well, a mile beneath the surface.
That helped create the deepwater plumes.
"The whole goal is to keep oil off the beaches, because
that's what drives the economy," Joye said one day in June as she
ran samples through her gas chromatograph aboard the R.V. E G.
Walton Smith. The little research ship was bobbing in an oily
sheen a few miles from the busted well. "But now you've got all
this material in the water column that no one is seeing and that
you can't get rid of. If oil gets to the surface, about 40
percent evaporates. You can skim it, you can burn it, you can do
something with it. But these tiny particles in the water column
will persist for God knows how long:"
Oceanographer Ian MacDonald at Florida State University
worries not only about the plumes but also about the sheer volume
of spilled oil. He believes it could have a major impact on the
overall productivity of the Gulf - not just on pelicans and
shrimps in the Louisiana marshes, but on creatures throughout the
region, everything from zooplankton to sperm whales. He's
particularly concerned about bluefin tuna, which spawn only in
the Gulf and in the Mediterranean; the tuna population was
already crashing due to overfishing. "There is a tremendous
amount of highly toxic material in the water column, both at the
surface and below, moving around in one of the most productive
ocean basins in the world;" MacDonald said.
DURING THEIR JUNE cruise Joye's team sampled water within a
mile of the Discoverer Enterprise, close enough to hear the
apocalyptic roar of its huge methane flare. Researchers and crew
members stood on the back deck of the Walton Smith and quietly
took pictures. The caustic vapors of oil, diesel, and asphalt
burned their lungs. As far as the eye could see, the cobalt blue
waters of the deep Gulf were stained brownish red. When Joye went
back inside she was in a pensive mood.
"The Deepwater Horizon incident is a direct consequence of
our global addiction to oil;" she said. "Incidents like this are
inevitable as we drill in deeper and deeper waters. We're playing
a very dangerous game here. If this isn't a call to green power,
I don't know what is."
Americans burn nearly 20 million barrels of oil a day. In
early August the U.S. Senate adjourned for the summer without
taking up an energy bill.
To the surprise of many this Deepwater Horizon Gulf spill is NOT
The National Geographic gave the top 10 off-shore spills. The
Deepwater Horizon the most horrific.
They (the experts) are saying the off-shore barrels of oil in the
Central Gulf are 30.3 BILLION barrels. And could be more as
The Central Gulf has 5,001 leases - oil areas being drilled for
oil, to capture these barrels of oil.
The Western Gulf they figure contains 10.7 Billions of barrels of
oil. 1,795 leases at present.
The Eastern Gulf 3.9 Billions of barrels of oil. 122 leases at
They are considering leasing the Straight of Florida, the South
Altantic and the Mid-Atlantic, which so far they estimate has
1.92 Billions of barrels of the black stuff.
At present (2010) the from the working Gulf annual revenue is
101.5 Billion dollars.
Jobs in oil as of 2010 from the Gulf is 645,000.
Tourism in the Gulf produces 38.1 Billion dollars. Jobs about
Commercial fishing in the Gulf produces about 0.7 Billion. And
about 14,000 jobs.
U.S. offshore leases in federal waters (as of 2009) other than
the Gulf: Alaska 675; California 50.
Federal revenue generated by these leases in Alaska about $35.8
Million. Portion shared with the state about $9.9 Million
Federal revenue generated by leases in Califoria is about $212.1
Million. Portion shared with the state about $7 Million.
Federal revenue generated by leases in Gulf about $5.6 BILLION.
Portion shared with Louisiana about $31.1 Million.
Portion shared with Alabama about $17.4 Million.
Portion shared with Texas about $9.1 Million.
Portion shared with Mississippi about $8.1 Million
Portion shared with Florida about $0.001 Million ($1,376).
With oil in the Gulf and Atlantic, with oil from the Alberta Oil
Sands (said to contain about 1/2 of all the oil in the world at
present), a logical mind can clearly see the FOLLY of the
theology of prophecy from the Fundamental prophets of the last 40
years, who were preaching and writing books, that the 3rd world
war and Armageddon would start over the fight for OIL.