Gulf of Mexico Deep Water Drilling Disaster: Oil Slick Now Over 1,800 Square Miles and Growing

Oil spreading from the site of BP's Deepwater Horizon platform (photo courtesy of NASA)

The environmental consequences of the explosion and collapse of BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform rapidly grow more ominous–as do the implications of expanding this type of oil exploration. This post updates an earlier story which can be found here.  –Ed.

The collapsed riser pipe left behind after the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sunk spews oil at 42,000 gallons per day. The oil slick that was, Saturday, 400 square miles in extent, and then Sunday, was at 600 square miles in extent, has grown hugely:

… Coast Guard officials said Monday afternoon that the oil spill near Louisiana was now covering more than 1,800 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico, and they have been unable to engage a mechanism that could shut off the well thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface …

Engineers with British Petroleum continue to try to shut off the flowing well the Horizon was capping when it exploded with the activation of a 450,000 kilogram cutoff valve:

… The response team was trying three tacks to address a spill caused by an explosion on an oil rig last week: one that could stop the leaks within hours, one that would take months, and one that would not stop the leaks but would capture the oil and deliver it to the surface while permanent measures were pursued.

On Sunday morning, officials began using remote-controlled vehicles to try to activate the blowout preventer, a 450-ton valve sitting at the wellhead, 5,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. The blowout preventer can seal off the well to prevent sudden pressure releases that possibly led to the explosion on the rig last Tuesday night …

Emphasizing the lack of preparedness on the part of either industry or (more terribly) the Federal government, BP is clear about the reliability of this procedure:

… BP said it was the first time such an operation had been mounted.

“It is a slow process,” said Ron Rybarczyk, a BP spokesman at the joint command centre in Louisiana.

“If you can visualise it, it’s like robotic arms doing something outside the space station. It is operating something with a mechanical claw on it that grasps things and turns things and adjusts equipment way down at the floor of the ocean.” BP also admits that the robots may not be successful …

Concurrently, the Coast Guard had been able to recover 48,000 gallons of oil from the rapidly spreading slick. Their apparent maximum rate at which they can contain and remove the oil is about 1/3 the rate at which this spill is growing.

And the rate at which this spill is growing is miraculously constrained by the random way in which the leaking riser pipe collapsed and bent after the explosion. Without the bent riser pipe, the rate of oil leakage would be much larger, the same “gusher” that shot a continuous fireball into the sky over the Horizon as burned for 48 hours prior to sinking.

As has been the case to date, there is no mention of the plan to recover the Horizon itself, the 32.5 million kilogram hulk, containing 700,000 gallons of heavy diesel, under 5000 feet of water. If the Horizon’s wreck begins to leak fuel, it has the potential to put 2 weeks “worth” of the current well leak into the Gulf. The Horizon displaced 20 million kilograms of water more than its own mass, and was always intended to float. If its pontoons cannot be de-ballasted, and the hulk safely re-floated, it is not clear what will raise the wreck, and the Gulf will be home to a large, highly toxic, fuel-engorged rusting artificial reef.

If the well leak is capped today, the huge issue of the 350 million dollar wreck will still loom.

Now, the politicians begin to respond. Leading the charge to not address the grave seriousness of this issue in a context in which the only current effort on climate change legislation has centered on opening up our waters to more oil drilling, we have the Obama administration:

… President Barack Obama has no plans to reconsider his proposal for new offshore oil drilling in the aftermath of an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the White House said on Friday.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the administration had taken swift action to ensure the safety of workers and the environment after the spill, which on Thursday measured one mile by five miles.

Asked whether Obama had second thoughts on offshore drilling, Gibbs said, “No.” …

You read that right. Obama is shrugging off the Horizon’s explosion, and the still uncontained leak and the rig wreckage.

Adding insult to injury, Obama, via his mouthpiece, claims that the administration has ensured the safety of the environment at a point in time in which the Coast Guard cannot contain the oil being produced by a slow leak even half as fast as it is produced, and in which the US government is relying on engineers at British Petroleum to try an ad-hoc, improvised plan to stop the well leak in lieu of any Federal capacity to address the problem. All along Louisiana’s Gulf Coast communities are preparing their shorelines for an oil deluge as activists note that quite recently another of these rigs had a disaster off Australia.

Mary Landrieu, a figure who has received lots of oil industry donations and done the industry’s bidding is scuttling for cover:

… “It is critical that [federal] agencies examine what went wrong and the environmental impact this incident has created,” Sen. Landrieu said in a statement. “These findings should be reported to Congress as soon as possible.” …

In past weeks, Landrieu has been a sticking point for the Obama administration, as she has demanded that Obama’s move to open the waters to further drilling placate her and certain other Senators in terms of revenue sharing from the proceeds. She seems to have only Saturday discovered the need for an environmental concern over drilling.

And what of the might environmentalism of the Democrats?

We have three lone voices in the wilderness:

Added Rep. Jim Costa (D) of California: “This incident is a grim reminder of the risks involved in developing public energy resources off America’s shores.” …

… “Big Oil has perpetuated a dangerous myth that coastline drilling is a completely safe endeavor, but accidents like this are a sober reminder just how far that is from the truth,” said Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg in a statement …

Unsurprisingly, Republicans have nothing to say at all. But where is the House Progressive Caucus? That bastion of environmentalism? Where is their resounding challenge to Obama after this disaster? And of the many Democratic Senators who are supposedly liberal populists (paging Senators Franken and Sanders. Earth to Al and Bernie, do you copy? paging Feingold … Cantwell … Babs? Dianne? Anyone home?) we have two voices alone?

This disaster shows conclusively that in all likelihood, expanded offshore oil drilling should be stripped from the administration’s climate change legislation where, perversely, it resides. To quote David Helvarg, President of New Frontier:

… This should be a wake-up call … I’d rather have a wind spill than an oil spill.

Failing the removal of expanded drilling from our energy future, this disaster exposes clearly the Federal government’s complete lack of a major capacity to prevent and respond to disasters of this sort. The Coast Guard evacuated survivors and then futilely battled with limited resources to take a minority of oily water out of the ocean. Otherwise, the Federal government simply stands by, watching British Petroleum engineers attempt to ad-hoc a response to this disaster, after the fact.

It may take months to stop this oil spill in our Gulf Waters. The damage to the coral, fisheries, and the marine ecosystem in general may be huge and not completely recoverable. Even after the spill is stopped, someday, there is still the ticking time bomb of the wreck of the Horizon itself and its 700,000 gallons of diesel. The Federal government has so doted on the oil industry that there isn’t even a response capacity in place to address potential spills currently feasible, leaving a huge gaping potential for disaster after disaster in offshore “exploration” . We cannot have another Deepwater Horizon, ever.

Update 1:

… BP, which was leasing the drilling platform and is responsible for the cleanup under federal law, was mobilizing two rigs that could drill the relief wells, which could send heavy mud and concrete into the cavity of oil and gas that drilling apparently punctured by accident.

If the blowout preventer does not seal off the well, officials intend to place a large dome directly over the leaks to catch the oil and route it up to the surface, where it could be collected.

This has been done before, but only in shallow waters, said Doug Suttles, the chief operating officer for exploration and production at BP.

“It’s never been deployed in 5,000 feet of water,” he said. “But we have the world’s best experts working on that right now.” …

From the Times article above, updated in place by NYT.

We have the information that Federal law places all the responsibility for cleanup and emergency response onto the rig’s operator. BP leased the rig from Transoceanic, hence, BP is liable.

Obviously, without massive regulation and investment, British Petroleum is not going to plan and prepare effectively for disasters like this. Such preparation is not profitable to them.

Handling a disaster like this should without doubt be a Federal obligation. BP can absorb the costs, but the Feds should fulfill the mandate for having plans and personnel ready for response, and requirements and safety guidelines that prevent and mitigate disasters as well.

As it stands, of the three initial possible responses:

1) Activate the massive cutoff valve, stopping the flow of oil, via improvised use of deep-sea ROVs,

2) Drill “intervention wells” over a period of months,

3) Place an apparatus over the well that transports the leaked oil to the surface where it can then be removed from the sea indefinitely,

That BP, which owns the decision in lieu of Federal regulations and agency authority, is going to elect for (3).

That means that oil will be going to the surface, and recovered, until the “something can be done”. In other words, this oil leak in the Gulf may go on for a very, very long time.

I’d like to see the Obama administration rectify its statement today that it has “acted swiftly to protect the environment” in light of the fact that it is not clear that there is even a Federal capacity to respond to this situation, and the best of our information is that the leak will continue indefinitely, with the Feds needing to figure out how to remove the oily water produced for months, and the wreck of the oil rig left at the bottom of the deep blue sea.

Update 2:

We have an oceanographer and a professional activist telling us to expect bad news when the slick starts to hit the beaches going from Louisiana to Florida.

… George Crozier, oceanographer and executive director at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama, said he was studying wind and ocean currents driving the oil.

He said Pensacola, Fla., is probably the eastern edge of the threatened area, though no one really knows what the effects will be.

“We’ve never seen anything like this magnitude,” he said. “The problems are going to be on the beaches themselves, that’s where it will be really visible.”

Aaron Viles, director for New Orleans-based Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental group, said he flew over the spill Sunday and saw what was likely a sperm whale in the oil sheen.

“There are going to be significant marine impacts,” he said.

Concern Monday focused on the Chandeleur and Breton barrier islands in Louisiana, where thousands of birds are nesting …