Oil Disaster In Gulf Is Not Unprecedented, but Past Reveals Little Hope


Deepwater Horizon Blew Out Two Weeks Ago But It Took Time for the Media To Understand the Disaster Potential

The Deepwater Horizon in Better Days

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.

Like the IXTOC I, The Deepwater Horizon Ultimately Collapsed

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. 

IXTOC I in Bay of Campeche in 1979

 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. 

Red Adair Helped Cap IXTOC I and It Will Take the Work of the Next Generation of Wild Well Men to Cap the Deepwater Horizon Well

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

Initial Weather Conditions Initially Took Oil North but General Current Pattern Should Take it East and then Possibly Southeast

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!

Oil on South Texas Beach in 1979; Notice How it Globs Together

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.

42 Responses

  1. It’s spelled “precedent.”

  2. What a beautiful leak – twenty thousand barrels of lovely lube a day. I love the oily mass that bulges outwards from a bent pipe. A brown Rorschach blot of the automobile culture.

    An endless orgasm of brown to win the King’s crown. The ejaculate of Hell sent by the wind-whipped swell.

    My most fervent hope is that all efforts to stop and mitigate this masterwork are failures. The incontinent flow of hydrocarbons shall continue for the decay of all.

    I would love to see a sea of greasy Devil’s blood flowing into the ocean forever more. The spew that flew right on through.

    Then the World can move on into its next phase, the Dark Phase of death, decline and destruction. Soon, all the works of humans will decay and so too will themselves be brought to the altar of slaughter, to account for their crimes of existence.

  3. Thanx. Will edit

  4. The oilmass grows like a joyous cancer full of many new kinds of life. Welcome to happy motoring.

    It’s time to drive to a slicker, browner future: put your keys in the ignition because Big Oil needs your dollars to make more oily art.

    For those who have already contributed, thank you for your kind support!

  5. I once had a guy ask me if I was an environmentalist. I told him that I cared about the environment. He responded that if you drive a car, then you are not an environmentalist. In that line of thinking, if one uses heat, electricity or air conditioning generated from a plant that uses fossil fuels, if you drive a car, if you use make up or buy vinyl records or use any of a number of products that are petroleum based, then one would not be assumed to be in a position to cast stones.

  6. Yet the politicos of Washington pressured by lobbyists still want to keep expanding…sad, how about if we don’t drill there then we’ll be 100% sure it won’t happen again
    http://bit.ly/aKRnEY

  7. If that were to occur, then there would be $7 a gallon gas, people would not be able to afford their electric bills, not to mention home heating bills. Since oil is also a part of the economy as it is used in products as well as the transportation of everything, then inflation would probably go wild as prices on all goods and food would spike. Any “alternatives” would take decades, if ever. Some of the alternative ideas are not very practical and possibly not even possible. Even if they were, then what does one do in the meantime? Every form of energy we use has a risk associated with it. Fact of life. In this case, my guess is that the proper safety procedures would have sufficed but that they may not have been followed. But that is just speculation. Pressures from the earth can be extreme, it may be that just the forces of nature overwhelmed man’s ability to control it.

  8. its not good for beach

  9. Nor a lot of other things.

  10. This is what happens when you mess with nature and the environment…

  11. I can see your point, gas is stable where it’s at now without adding new drills. Will new drills bring prices down, maybe, but that benefit is a long way off. Just as the benefit of alternative energy is a long way off also. I don’t want to stop what we’re doing now, it’s already started and it should keep on going. But like you said we should definitely explore new safety measures, so this won’t happen to the existing drills. I don’t want to ban offshore drilling, just new drills. Great post by the way..

  12. Interesting Post, thanks for sharing!

  13. Everything man does messes with the environment and nature.

  14. The development of a brand new field may take a decade to bring to capacity. It’s dependent on the obstacles such as location. But, take the idea of a hydrogen car. Can it even be economically feasible? The natural gas cars called for by T. Boone Pickens would still require drilling. Nuclear has the spent fuel to deal with. Wind has so many detractors who complain about noise, the appearance and the effect on birds and it takes an enormous amount of windmills to match a common carbon based plant. Hydroelectric screws with the fish and causes erosion, among other things. Coal is dirty and dangerous to get and with strip mining destructive and its dirty to burn. fusion may not be possible. Tidal power stations I suspect messes up the natural environment of something. Nothing is perfect and there is no answer around the corner. But, if you can come up with something cheap and feasible, then you’d be rich! In the meantime, no one likes to see this and everyone knows that it sucks on many levels. Thanx for commenting Jose and feel free to chime in any time.

  15. Thanks for the post, symon.

    I work in O&G, and every time I see one of these events it makes me cringe. Yes the business is dangerous, yes we take risks, and yes we only do so because the world demands that we do (and pays us while at the same time condemning us for it!).

    My frustration arises from the fact that even though it is a risky business (we’re poking a tiny pipe into high pressure pockets underneath the bottom of the ocean for goodness’ sake), at each step of the way there are methods of ensuring that the barriers are more substantial than the risks.

    Thanks again, and I hope that someday you have reason to hope for better. http://craftingcontext.ca/2010/04/10/purpose-and-frogs/. I have noted your post so that I can link to you next time I have a rant. Maybe the next one can be about environmental effects.

  16. I’m from Texas. My family worked in the oil business. Our neighbors worked in the oil business. My friends work in the oil business. I understand your frustration. What I meant about dashed hopes was reference to any idea that this will be fixed soon because it ain’t gonna happen. I do hope that it is resolved sooner than we think, just like the Kuwait oil well fires were put out way way before anyone expected. I appreciate your stopping by. Feel free to chime in any time. By the way, I love Australians.

  17. Informative post. This story is just a huge mess that will keep getting worse.

  18. I am a HUGE fan of current events and you really captured the mood of Ameria in this whole post. Well written and thanks for writing what you have. I very much appreciate it. Stop by my blog when you can and I can;t wait to follow your’s some more. Keep up the good work!

  19. I appreciate your kind words. But, if you look at other entries you will notice that, more often than not, I talk about some odd or significant historical event. While I do make a weather presentation daily, I only address current events on an inconsistent basis. Feel free to chime in any time.

  20. symon, I lived and worked in Texas for a year, and I understand entirely about being completely ensconced in the industry. After just dealing with the Montara incident on this side of the world, we are watching from Down Under to see the outcome and the ramifications for our industry.
    Cheers!

  21. You mention currents in the area and I’ve been wondering for several days if currents won’t make it impossible to properly position those domes over the leaks.

    I’d completely forgotten the hurricane season is beginning. Let’s cross our fingers on that, because nobody will be working the drill site or the clean-up if a hurricane comes through.

    I hope Red Adair can speak through some medium and tell those BP yahoos how to cap their damn well.

  22. You know what? I looked at the data regarding currents and at 1520 meters it didn’t look too strong. But, getting to that depth is another story. They seem to go in different directions at varying speeds through the descent. I’m sure a skilled person can get it down there but it will be difficult. Once there, then there is the visibility issue. Tough task ahead.

  23. By the way, it looks like the Times Square bomb has already blown the oil spill out of the headlines. Too bad. I want to watch BP burn.

  24. It will be interesting to see how it shakes out. Probably somewhere in between the best case scenario and the worst case scenario. Aside from the natural obstacles (depth, well pressure, wreckage, ecology, etc) there is the hurricane season that starts in these waters in a month.

  25. It will be interesting to see how long this holds the media’s attention because its not going away any time soon…but the media probably will, though it should not.

  26. Dear Obama, Please put a plug in it. We really do not need more off shore drilling.

  27. wow….. I like it

  28. Good info, helps us all understand the impacts of an oil spill.

    Remain.Simple

  29. Why don’t they asked for help from the Netherlands.
    They have special ships, wre arms can come, they suck the oil up.
    They would go if they were asked for help.
    Just like that time by the diaster from Katrina in New Orleans.
    The Dutch are very good when it comes to things like that.
    Is America again to proud that they can do it themselves?

  30. When are we going to stop using the Flintstone method of exploration. We have already seen the results ,many times, if we are not ready for the what IF factor.
    I believer that BP,and all other Oil Co,s should have the equipment and a plan designed and built to handle the what IF`s before they attempt to do a new technique (Dangerous Risky) First of all I can`t understand why they don`t circle the spill, as close as safety allowes, with big pumper(ships Barges, rigs.They could now put the oil booms between the pumper rigs(ships).Why are they not trying to contain the oil at the source?They can not boom the whole coast of gulf.
    If the oil was found gushing freely out of the ocean like this in the first place , it would hav been so easy to harvest.
    They would of quickly of figured out how to contain and surface pump and separate the oil/water.

  31. The ‘capping’ tank they are making up to place over the leak, has me a bit worried it won’t be heavy enough to stay on the sea floor, if, it fills with too much oil. The piping bringing the oil to the surface from the top of the tank, will also have to be perfectly balanced to suit the stress of the bouyance the oil will place on the pipe.
    Oil tankers are hard to sink, unless they break up and lose the bouyancy of the oil in their huge tanks.
    Somebody must have done the calculations ! We all hope this ‘capping’ wil work.

  32. Wouldn’t it be nice if in the “future” people said “I live in Texas, my whole family and all my friends work in the alternative energy business”

  33. And that would be nice because? Name me an “alternative” energy that is environmentally risk free, economical, efficient, feasible.

  34. What’s also ridiculous are some of the quotes that have been taken away from people. There have been government representatives who have claimed that the oil spill “looks like chocolate and will therefore disintegrate in the water” and that “the oil spread will thin it out and meld into the ocean making it ok”. Do these guys not understand viscosity or science? How did they get elected?! I’m so disappointed in what I’ve seen.

  35. There are so many questions I’d like answered. Were there no pressure indicators with remotes at surface, to warn the preventor needed to be kept shut ?
    How did the gas get into the casing ? Was it a stage cement job, and the top sleeve did not get shut back, or is it the casing parted, or fractured down hole somewhere ?
    Everybody in the offshore world oil industry needs to know truthfully what happened, to prevent it happening again.

  36. nice sparkly lights

  37. obama rocks in roll but he should do some thing abouta thisasa faste pleswe

  38. Be on the lookout for a press release on Friday concerning technology that exists and has since Exxon Valdez that could have been on site within 18 hours of the disaster, containing the oil spill while capturing and preserving the flowing oil until the well has been capped The oil industry said it could not justify the expense of manufacturing such a system. This was 20 years ago. How much is the cleanup costing daily? Watch for press release on Friday.

  39. PRESS RELEASE: For Immediate Distribution
    Herman J. Schellstede & Associates, Inc.
    “SEA CLEAN” ENVIRONMENTAL BATTLESHIP READY FOR PRODUCTION
    May 6, 2010 New Iberia, La

    The all oceans-classed, self propelled environmental battleship “Sea Clean” is ready for manufacture. Outfitted with suspended skimmers and on-board recycling facility capable of processing up to 38,000 gallons per minute, The “Sea Clean” is the most efficient vessel ever proposed as a solution for deep water blowouts. Conceived by New Iberia native Herman J. Schellstede, the massive cleanup vessel was designed to address all the requirements of deepwater well blowouts, and can be stationed within 18 hours of travel time to a specific location.

    Schellstede & Associates, Inc. were asked to design this solution for environmental cleanup following the Exxon Valdez incident in 1989, and the “Sea Clean” project was approved and air quality permits were granted to the New Iberia company in the early 90’s. Despite this, the vessel was never manufactured as oil executives determined it was not necessary, and regrettably chose not to proceed.

    Presently, the industry is not prepared to accommodate offshore deepwater well blowouts. Schellstede & Associates, Inc. are currently presenting the engineering, drawings and specifications to industrial executives Nationwide for immediate construction of this vessel, as a direct solution to the existing problem of lost oil in the Gulf & deepwater drilling locations worldwide.

    Link to News Segment Video:

    Recent National Press:

    Schellstede Popular Mechanics Article:
    http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/energy/coal-oil-gas/deep-sea-oil-cleaner

    Schellstede New York Times Article:
    http://www.nytimes.com/1989/11/15/business/business-technology-a-vessel-to-skim-and-recycle-oil-spills.html?scp=1&sq=A%20vessel%20to%20skim%20and%20recycle%20oil%20spills&st=cse

    All inquires to Matt Romagosa, Media Savant LLC. mpr@mediasavantllc.com

  40. If this pipe can not be capped, could a ‘Red Adair’-like method be employed? I’m not a scientist, but I thought the navy might look at sending down a bunker bomb to implode the 1800 foot pipe. This would certainly hit BP in the wallet, but stop the irreversible damage already created. The world cannot afford to wait 3 more months of this leaking oil pit.

  41. It’s not on fire. The nitro method used by oil well fire fighters is to essentially blow the fire out..robbing it from oxygen. I suspect that detonating an explosive would do nothing as there would still be a hole in the ocean floor. In fact, it would probably make a larger, more complex hole that would prove extremely difficult to cap. I often get people asking why they don’t drop a nuclear bomb into a hurricane to blow it out. Given that a hurricane is a giant heat engine and a nuclear weapon releases a bunch of heat, all you would get would be a radioactive hurricane that could be more intense. Sometimes, the simple solution is not always the best option. But, thanx for chiming in. I appreciaite all ideas and thoughts.

  42. Designer of clean-up ship rues missed opportunityBy Harvey Morris in New Iberia, Louisiana Published: May 12 2010 17:45 | Last updated: May 12 2010 17:45

    A project to build a rapid-response “oil spill battleship” that could have helped clean up the Deepwater Horizon leak was presented to US politicians and oil companies 20 years ago but rejected on cost grounds, according to the man who designed it.

    Herman J. Schellstede is an oil man’s oil man. He assigns no blame for the potential pollution disaster threatening four US states. He says BP, which leased the rig, is “a first-class oil company” and Transocean, which built it, is among the best in the world.

    He also has no truck with “those people in Washington who say ‘stop drilling’ ”. He added: “There’s a lot of history here in the Gulf. You don’t just eradicate it because BP had a bad day.”

    However, Mr Schellstede, 72, believes the industry and the inhabitants of the Gulf of Mexico coast would be facing less of a crisis today if the oil companies had taken him up on a proposal he believes would have limited the impact of a deepwater blowout. As head of Herman J. Schellstede and Associates, which he founded in the 1960s in the Louisiana town of New Iberia, he was called in after the Exxon Valdez spilled 10m gallons of crude off the Alaskan coast in 1989 in what was one of the biggest oil pollution disasters.

    Mr Schellstede’s task was to devise systems for incinerating oil-polluted waste. “I saw how inept we were at that time. I’ve never seen anything like it. They had housewives scooping up oil from small boats.”

    The Alaska disaster persuaded him and his design team to turn their attention to the problem of pollution from a deepwater leak, at a time when deepwater drilling was still in its infancy.

    They drew up a plan and a prototype for a 275ft by 217ft, 33-storey-high vessel that could be deployed to a spill site within 18 hours, encircle the slick with 20ft-high booms as used in the turbulent North Sea, sweep and clean 20,000 barrels of oil every 24 hours via three circular sweepers 40ft in diameter, return the water to the sea and transfer the salvaged crude to barges moored alongside.

    The prototype model, housed in the gymnasium of the former New Iberia school where Mr Schell¬stede has his offices, resembles a semi-submersible oil rig, like the offshore fire ships that have been deployed in the North Sea since the 1980s.

    The detailed prospectus for the so-called Sea Clean project, a copy of which he provided to the Financial Times, was presented to some 300 government officials, industry leaders and the press at a meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1990.

    It was also presented to congressmen in Washington, including Al Gore – then a senator – with whom Mr Schellstede had a two-hour meeting. “I don’t think I ever got over to him what was wrong – that it was a deepwater problem. Deepwater was just starting. I looked for government support to propose it to the oil companies. I told them, ‘We’ve a got a different frontier here. It’s a different ball game and we need other tools.’ ”

    Exxon and other oil companies expressed enthusiasm for the project but turned it down on cost grounds, according to Mr Schellstede, and because it addressed a problem they did not believe existed.

    “They concluded it was a wonderful design but they couldn’t invest $100m in it. They might have been right. We went a long time without any problems.”

    He estimates that such a vessel would now cost $220m to build.

    In 1990, Lieutenant Commander P. A. Tebeau of the US Coast Guard wrote to the federal environment engineering office, saying of the Sea Clean project: “We believe this proposal shows technical merit and ingenuity but would require ¬additional research and development.”

    As a project manager and designer in the oil industry for 43 years, Mr Schellstede believes companies have gone as far as they can in terms of safety. However, a standing fleet of rapid-deployment vessels would act as an insurance policy.

    When his father, Herman “Blackie” Schellstede, worked on the first offshore rig in Louisiana’s Ship Shoal Block 32 in 1947, there were no regulations governing the industry. That has changed, but the response to the latest crisis had still been piecemeal.

    “Everything they’ve had to piece together, we would have had on site.”

    Link to News Story Video:

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