Today, oil industry experts and government entities are attempting to find a way to cap an offshore oil well in the Gulf of Mexico that has become uncontrollable due to a blow out. The blow out resulted in the destruction of the oil platform and the loss of 11 crew members. On June 4, 1979 oil industry experts and government entities were attempting to find a way to cap an offshore oil well in the Gulf of Mexico that had become uncontrollable due to a blow out. Yes, the incident near the mouth of the Mississippi River in the Gulf is not totally unprecedented. Red Adair practically invented and perfected the trade of capping wild wells. Red was instrumental in capping the 1979 wild well. Unfortunately, Red Adair is no longer with us and the previous incident does not provide much hope for a happy ending.
The Deepwater Horizon rig was a semi-submersible, state of the art drilling platform leased by British Petroleum. The location was about 65 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River but it was drilling in depths of 1520 meters (about 5000 feet) of water in the Mississippi Canyon sector 252. It was meteorological station number 42916 and was about 150 miles SE of New Orleans. Back in 1979, it was a little different situation. The IXTOC I was a semi-submersible rig located about 600 miles SSE of Brownsville Texas in the Bay of Campeche. It was drilling at a depth of about 11,000 feet below the ocean floor in just a few hundred feet of water. While the cause of the current Horizon blowout is unknown, the IXTOC blowout was the result of a loss of drilling mud in the casing. The general idea of mud in the shaft is to equal pressure throughout and allow for monitoring of gas. Without the mud, there was a buildup of gas pressure that blew out the well. The oil ignited and the rig collapsed.
Now, there are supposed to be blow out preventers and several layers of “fail safe” back ups to prevent such an incident. But, just like the Titanic was not supposed to be able to sink, anything that man builds can and does fail. It doesn’t happen often but it does happen. A big difference between the current incident and the IXTOC I was the water depth. There was a bunch of wreckage blocking the wellhead but divers and submersibles were able to work at the site. In the case of the Horizon, divers are not able to go to such depths and the environment is extremely dark naturally. With the presence of oil, visibility will be quite difficult. Throw in the fact that there are probably quite chaotic currents in the Mississippi Canyon at those depths and submersibles are very difficult to operate.
At IXTOC, divers were eventually able to reach and activate the blowout preventer on the ocean floor but pressures built up by the well resulted in valves that began to rupture. The blowout preventer was subsequently reopened to prevent it from being destroyed. As an alternative, two relief wells were drilled to relieve pressure and that allowed for the well to be capped. Here’s the bad news. It took about 9 1/2 months to complete the work. In the meantime, oil flowed at the rate of 10,000 to 30,000 barrels of oil a day. Notice I said “barrels.” That is what is the common unit of measure for oil. The media uses that term when it comes to trading other economic activity. But, in recent years when its a ecological matter, they go to gallons. The argument as to why they do that is because, in journalism, you are to write conversationally. Most people don’t know how much a barrel of oil but everyone knows the volume of a gallon. The only trouble with that argument is that they don’t apply the “coversational” principal consistently. I submit that since a barrel of oil is 42 US gallons, then it makes the numbers 42 times larger and therefore more headline grabbing than if they used barrels. No one seems quite sure of how much oil is flowing from the Horizon blowout, but most media estimates seem to be between 3000 and 5000 barrels per day. I just heard a newscaster say “200,000 gallons a day.” If that estimate is correct, then it’s a long way from the IXTOC disaster which was the worst oil spill in history aside from the deliberate destruction of the oil wells in Kuwait.
So, while the numbers are large, even Forbes Magazine points out that the world has seen far worse. However, I disagree somewhat with the point that the article makes. It says that, in order for this to surpass the 3 million barrels of oil (126 million gallons) of oil spewed out into the Gulf by IXTOC, the Horizon well would have to continue its current pace for 200 days. I say, “so what?” Hey it took them over 9 months to cap that well. This well is in a far more inhospitable an environment than the IXTOC I, which may hamper the capping efforts. Its proximity to so many populated areas and economic concerns adds to the potential problems. Then, when one considers the natural ocean currents takes the flow generally to the East and then Southeast, you consider that almost the entire US Gulf Coast is at risk. If that is not enough, then it’s not totally out of the question that the flow could get caught up in the circulation that feeds into the Gulf Stream which would take the flow through the Florida Straits and off the US East Coast toward England!
Will all of that happen? Probably not. First off, they will most likely have to drill relief wells in order to slow the flow from the original well. Given that the Horizon was drilling at some 18,000 feet deep, estimates are that it would take about 3 months for that to come about. Then, there is also the consideration that this oil tends to glob together after a period of time. We used to call them “tar balls” and they were a nuisance when we went to the beach in Galveston. While the tar balls would no doubt be much larger and more numerous, it may not affect the marine life quite as much as feared. Also, the ocean itself will probably break some of it up and a certain amount will evaporate. Still, its potentially an enormous disaster. A fly in the ointment of all of this is hurricane season. I’m not sure if anyone is really sure how a tropical cyclone would affect the oil. Would it break it up? Would it spread it out? It’s not clear. What is certain is that the effects will continue for a long time and it will be interesting how long it takes the media to move on to another subject. Marine life will be greatly adversely affected. The economies of coastal communities will suffer and it will bring great economic hardship to all the people whose livelihood depends on the ocean. Let us hope that this incident does not come close to rivaling the IXTOC I disaster. It’s bad enough as it is.
Weather Bottom Line: Look for temperatures to warm to the mid to perhaps upper by Wednesday. A cold front will try to come though Wednesday night and will get close enough to raise the chances for rain and t’storms but it will retreat in response to another system behind it. That system will be much stronger. With a good amount of moisture to work with as well as higher temperatures, that front will have plenty to work with for the potential of strong to severe thunderstorms Friday afternoon and evening. Following that look for temperatures for Mother’s Day Weekend about 20 degrees cooler than they had been.