Underwater Dirty 'Black Gold' Volcano: Unprecedented Environmental Emergency

London, UK - 2nd May 2010, 00:10 GMT (Last Update)

Dear ATCA Open & Philanthropia Friends

[Please note that the views presented by individual contributors are not necessarily representative of the views of ATCA, which is neutral. ATCA conducts collective Socratic dialogue on global opportunities and threats.]

President Obama is flying out to the Gulf of Mexico coast as the emergency grows post the "Deepwater Horizon" catastrophe. The problem with the dirty "black gold" oil spill is that it is not a spill: it is an abundant flow, like an underwater oil volcano. A hot column of oil and gas is continuously jetting into freezing dark waters 5,000 feet below, where the pressure nears 2,200 pounds per square inch, making it extremely difficult to send down divers to carry out repairs manually. Experts are now calling it a continuous, 24/7 round-the-clock calamity. Unlike a leaking oil tanker, this emergency situation's source will not empty itself in hours or days. As a result, the "black gold" slick is spreading towards the four US states of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida, that have all declared a state of emergency.

Consequences of Dirty 'Black Gold' Spill for Wildlife

Poseidon's Rage

Poseidon, the God of the Sea, is clearly upset. The slick has tripled in size in a day and now covers nearly 4,000 square miles, an area the size of a small country. That suggests the oil has started spilling from the well more quickly. 5,000 barrels or 200,000 gallons of oil are gushing into the ocean every single day since the explosion on April 20th killed 11 men. This threatens all marine life in the surrounding area, wildlife in the marshlands, and the entire fragile and interlinked environmental web. The ruptured well, located in ocean water nearly a mile deep, has churned out an estimated 2 million gallons of oil to date into the Gulf. Some experts studying satellite images suggest that the figure is four to five times higher than that already. With no immediate solution to the leak available, it is possible that the oil well could keep churning out the same amount of oil or more for a few months yet. The commandant of the US Coast Guard, Admiral Thad Allen, has said it's impossible to give an exact estimate of how much oil is leaking. He has now been officially designated national incident commander for the uncontrolled oil release accident and reports directly to the US president, and the secretaries of Homeland Security and Defense.

Damage, Ownership and Responsibility

BP's "Deepwater Horizon" drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico sank on April 22nd after a fiery explosion two days earlier and the oil well it was connected to is still gushing crude oil. The spill and the spreading of the sheen is getting much faster and expanding quicker than was originally estimated. The damage it has done is likely to include the environment and natural habitats of several US states and BP's reputation as a company as well as its market capitalisation.

The cause of the explosion is still under investigation but more than two dozen lawsuits have been filed since last week blaming oil contractor Halliburton. Halliburton denies any claims that they failed to properly cap or "cement" the well.

The rig that suffered the catastrophic blowout was not owned by BP but by Transocean. It was leased to BP through September 2013. BP operated the rig and in the regulatory wording, is the "responsible party" for the field -- given that it owns 65% -- and that is a key factor. President Obama has said that BP is "ultimately responsible" for the cost of the spill and clean-up. With 76 vessels trying to contain the spill, BP's chief executive, Tony Hayward -- also on his way to the Gulf of Mexico -- has called the scale of the response "truly unprecedented".

Colossal Concerns

. The "Deepwater Horizon" catastrophe could soon eclipse that of the Exxon Valdez, which spilled 11 million gallons of oil off the coast of Alaska in 1989. It is considered to be one of the most devastating human-caused environmental disasters ever to occur in history.

. Everything about the "Deepwater Horizon" catastrophe is unprecedented. Oil disaster containment knowledge is based on a one-shot event. With this, nobody has any idea as to when it's going to stop.

. High seas are forecast for the near future and could push the blanket of dirty "black gold" deep into the inlets, ponds, creeks and lakes along the coastline of The Gulf of Mexico. With the wind blowing from the south, the mess is likely to reach not just Louisiana but also the coasts of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida as well.

. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) documents show the US government is concerned that pipes at the bottom of the Gulf could deteriorate further and the spill could turn into an unchecked gusher, an order of magnitude bigger, ie, 50,000 barrels a day. As a result, this could end up becoming 2 million gallons of crude oil gushing out each day like a river of oil.

. State of Alabama's governor is preparing for a worst-case scenario of 150,000 barrels, or more than 6 million gallons per day. At that rate the spill would amount to a Valdez-sized spill every two days, and the situation could last for months.

. The spill -- a slick more than 130 miles long and 70 miles wide and growing -- threatens hundreds of species of wildlife and sealife, from birds to marine mammals and fish: including dolphins, shrimp, oysters and crabs. This will affect the livelihoods of the Gulf's local communities, some of whom are still recovering from the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005.

. Experts caution that if the spill continues growing unchecked, sea currents could suck the oil sheen down past the Florida Keys and then up the Eastern Seaboard into the North Atlantic. The Florida Keys are home to the only living coral barrier reef in North America, and the third largest coral barrier reef in the world.

Cures (Not) Working

Whilst oil company workers and government employees scramble to stop the oil spill from spreading, it's clearly a complicated task. Officials have said stemming the flow of oil is their top priority, but the seas have been too rough and the winds too strong to:

. Burn off the oil;
. Suck it up effectively with skimmer vessels; or
. Hold it in check with the miles of inflatable booms strung along the coast.

Waves are going from a man's height to 8 feet high and getting bigger. The floating barriers are breaking loose in the choppy water, and waves are sending oily water lapping over them.

Rival Assistance

BP has also sought ideas from some of its rivals and is using at least one of them -- applying chemicals underwater to break up the oil before it reaches the surface. That has never before been attempted at such depths. BP and federal government authorities have said the dispersant was released overnight at the site of the leak, nearly 5,000 feet underwater, and they are evaluating the results of that effort at present.

Safety Record and Contingency Planning

What the world is learning about oil companies' emergency preparations is shocking, to say the least. Until recently it had almost been routine for oil companies and drill baby drill proponents to tout the excellent safety record of offshore drilling. The recent "Deepwater Horizon" oil disaster is changing all that very fast. Though oil rig blowout prevention has got better and better, greatly reducing the probability of a repeat of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, the probability is not yet zero, particularly as drilling moves into deeper waters and more difficult environments. Unfortunately for BP, its political stock in the US is not very high. It is BP's fourth major incident in the United States in as many years. In late 2009, a US government agency declared that BP still had "systemic" safety issues at Texas City, the refinery where 15 people were killed and 170 injured in 2005. Documents have also emerged showing BP downplayed the possibility of a catastrophic accident at the offshore rig that exploded. BP suggested in a 2009 exploration plan and environmental impact analysis for this specific well that an accident leading to a giant crude oil spill -- and serious damage to beaches, fish and mammals -- was unlikely, or virtually impossible.

Nuclear Power Option

Nuclear power advocates would do well to take note of how rapidly risk perception can change following a low probability high impact event such as the "Deepwater Horizon" oil disaster. When -- not if, given that the probability is not zero -- the next major accident occurs, the resulting public backlash could add further costs and delays to the expansion of nuclear power as well.


All commercial and leisure activity has been shut down in the Gulf of Mexico and humanity may not be able to control this leak -- the underwater oil volcano -- for several months. The designate emergency area provides a third of the US seafood. The livelihoods of tens if not hundreds of thousands of Americans are at stake. Humans have played a dangerous game with the Earth's natural resources for centuries, and in this case, Mother Nature is striking back with tremendous force.

"I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all." -- Ecclesiastes 9:11. Don't unforeseen occurrences befall all of us, regardless of how swift, strong, wise or skilled we believe ourselves to be?

Clearly, it is not enough to consider only the recent safety record of an industry. One must also honestly consider the worst-case scenario, and how it might change the game rules going forward forever. President Obama has halted any new offshore drilling projects unless rigs have new safeguards to prevent another disaster.


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