The Great Gulf Blowout: Understanding the Blame Game (Guest Voice)
Hi there, Dr. E here. In circles where Richard Lamm, former Governor of Colorado, suddenly calls himself an ‘environmentalist’ as one who seemingly believes that certain humans are pollutants to the environment, and thus runs for (and is defeated soundly) for a seat on the Board of the Sierra Club… and also in our times, suddenly, conservative Christians claim it’s God’s command to them to ‘take care’ of the environment from the Biblical viewpoint, meaning having full dominion over all creation… and as some calling themselves ‘environmentalists’ seem more like violence-artists, and meanwhile the beautiful Butterfly sat innocently in a tree…
I’ve come to see that what ‘environmentalist’ means today, is clearly not Emersonian nor Thoreau-esque any longer. It appears ‘caring for the environment’ means whatever it means in the mind of each person, and that there is now a spectrum to ‘environmentalism’ as wide as the one from left wing to right wing politically. Unfortunately too often, like the political landscape, the spectrum of ‘environmentalists’ is as deeply divided.
This is an essay by a friend who is a geologist. He gives his point of view about oil, BP and other matters as he sees them. I have been blessed to have friends from most every side of the political spectrum all of whom are outspoken and passionate. Ed is a Libertarian.
The Great Gulf Blowout: Understanding the Blame Game
by Ed Warner
Most of you know my background. But for those who don’t, I’m one of those rare characters that bridge the great divide between energy companies and environmentalists. I was a partner and chief scientist in the Jonah-Pinedale discoveries and development, the third largest gas field in the history of the US. I am now an honorary faculty member at the Center for Collaborative Conservation at Colorado State University. I’ve lectured all over the world both in geology and cooperative conservation.
Instead of operating out of the Instantaneous Present, I’d like to take you back a few decades to give the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico some historical context.
In 1973, following another humiliating loss to the Israelis, the Arab oil producers embargoed the western democracies. Panic reigned in the US for a few days and we actually had gasoline shortages as everybody and their aunt tried to fill the tank of their car at the same time. The only shortage was caused by the consumer, not the supplier. Our oil imports at that time came from Canada, Mexico, Venezuela and Indonesia. We did not import a barrel of oil from the Persian Gulf. But, France did. Back then they burned a lot of oil to generate electricity. The only domestic power source for the French was Hydro coming from the Alps. The French said “Never again!” They promptly designed a nuclear power policy, implemented it and now, 80% of French electric demand is supplied by a safe, reasonably priced, carbon-free source.
During the same time period, American Oil Demand rose from over 9 million barrels per day to 21 million. Domestic production declined from a peak of 8 million barrels to around 5. Thus, our imports rose from a paltry 1 million barrels to 16 million in a 35 year period.
During this same time frame, American suburban housewives fell in love with the Jeep Cherokee. Houses grew in size. Commuting times doubled. Our energy demand topped 25% of the world’s usage. In addition, the Mississippi River was completely channeled out to the continental slope, creating the unnatural ‘Birdsfoot’ delta. With virtually no sediments reaching the marshlands the delta continues to subside and retreat. The greatest threat to the marsh is the Corp of Engineers.
During the 1986 oil price crash, the US lost 1 million barrels of daily production from stripper wells (between 1-and 10 barrel of oil per day per well) costs having exceeded income due to very low oil prices. Once plugged, these reserves could never be recovered. EPA and OSHA regulations forced the closing of many oil refineries. Where we once exported products like gasoline we now have to import. We have created our energy dependence. We will never be independent again unless we change our energy consumption habits.
As oil supplies worldwide became tight due to rapid demand growth from the 3rd World and old fields declined the oil companies had to seek new discoveries in more remote and difficult geographic, environmental and political places.
Drilling is a dangerous activity. Wells blow out, rigs burn down. Poisonous gases kill workers. Everyday occurrences around rigs include smashed fingers, hernias, broken bones and more. During my career I witnessed death by electrocution, explosion and hydrogen sulfide poisoning. And that doesn’t consider traffic fatalities driving in blizzards and dust storms.
The safety procedures developed to prevent many of these catastrophes included the engineering of the infamous “blowout preventer.” In most configurations it is a stack of three devices that can seal and divert an uncontrolled flow from a well. The upper and lower BOPs seal the drill pipe or casing with a heavy rubber gasket under enormous pressure (10,000 pound per square inch (psi) or more). The middle BOP is the Ram. In case of an instantaneous disaster like a surge of high pressured gas, the Ram is designed to snap steel plates shut, crushing the drill pipe and sealing the well.
A blowout onshore might be controlled by diverting the oil and or gas flow though a system of piping below the upper or lower BOP. The hydrocarbons are diverted to a “burn pit,” set on fire and burned until the flow can be killed.
In the near offshore in shallow water depths, drill platforms and production facilities are firmly planted in the seafloor. A blowout can be handled in the same fashion as onshore, but if it gets out of control, it can burn until relief wells are drilled to kill the flow from the bottom of the hole(s).
Whilst I was working for Shell Oil in 1971, they had a blowout at their Bay Marchand Block 2 Field in the shallow offshore of Louisiana. Shell is a great scientific and technical company. But, they made a poor decision based on economics. They produced the enormous oil wells; each dually competed while they drilled additional wells, because of the amount of cash flow at stake. Shell was producing 44 zones in 22 wells at a total rate approaching 500,000 barrels per day, when, attempting completion of the 45th zone, that well blew out. The entire platform burned. It was the biggest production disaster in the history of the Gulf of Mexico. Shell let it burn rather than pollute the nearby delta. It took 9 months to drill all the relief wells to kill 23 boreholes. Shell removed the burned platform, built a new one, and redrilled the field.
In late 1971, Ray Thomassen, then Exploration Manager for Shell’s Offshore Division gave me a little project. Investigate the environmental impact of oil drilling on the Gulf of Mexico. What I discovered was the unlikely development of steel platforms into artificial reefs that support a huge increase in fish populations. The Gulf is a vast mud bank. Corals and other sessile creatures need hard materials for points of attachment. The legs of platforms provided the kick off points for reef development. The Florida pompano, a valuable food species, was never seen in the Louisiana Gulf before offshore development.
In the 19th Century, there was a large network of boat traffic between Gulf ports. I found a news item from the late 1880’s reported by a paddleboat captain on a passage between Pensacola and Galveston. For three days, the ferry sailed through ‘six inches of green oil’. This occurrence must have been a natural blowout, up a fault zone, breaching the seafloor. If the plume resembled the BP blowout it had to have been 300 miles long and maybe 20-30 miles wide. If it was 1 inches deep it would have amounted to something like a billion barrels of oil.
In 1979, in Tampico Bay, Pemex, the national oil company of Mexico, suffered a terrible blowout. Over 50,000 barrels of oil per day poured into the Gulf of Mexico for about 10 months, or roughly 15 million barrels. Today, if you traveled with a marine biologist he would be hard pressed to show you any ecological consequences of that blowout. Warm water, light crude that evaporates easily, bacteria that eat the oil and sedimentation encasing the residual tar, has combined to heal the damage.
Go to the Santa Barbara Channel in California. Naturally occurring oil and gas seeps produce in excess of 40 barrels per day. That’s about 2,000 gallons per day. That is 700,000 gallons per year. In the last 30 years, since the ‘Santa Barbara Oil Disaster’ Mother Nature has contributed 20,000,000 gallons of oil to the offshore waters. Walk the beaches and look at the tar balls. Turn around and examine the cliffs. You will find tar balls 10’s of thousands of years old representing billions of barrels of oil. Oil is a natural part of Earth’s ecology and has been for several billion years.
There is evidence of natural “paleo” oil spills in volumes estimated at billions of barrels of nasty old black, sulfurous oil – all processed by the environment. One of them may have poured down the Grand Canyon a couple of million years ago. The remaining evidence is tar balls.
In the case of the BP blowout, the drilling platform was a “drillship” due to the extreme water depths. The BOP on the ocean floor was subject to 2,000 psi of pressure by the water column and could only be worked by submersible robots. To my knowledge this system has never been given a test which imitates catastrophic failure. Why not? Cost. I’d estimate that a full blown test could cost upwards of $100 million dollars. Why hasn’t the regulatory agencies required it? Ask them. Why hasn’t industry gotten together and jointly tested and produced off the shelf fixes? Ask them.
So, what happened at the BP well? Human error. Maybe poor cement design. Definitely a lack of recognition of the how big the risk and how small the reward for cutting corners on safety. Right now, things are ugly. There’s a lot of income lost to the local communities. The shore is messy. There is an ecological price being paid by wildlife and humans for a short period of time. But, that damned well will be killed. BP will have to pay a lot of money. They have a lot of money. The public will lose trust in technology, but go back to using excessive amounts of fossil fuels. Politicians will be seen as nasty and ignorant. The Administration and Congress will lose some public support. Congress has so little currency with the American public that it can’t lose much more! Regulators will go back to regulating an overwhelmingly complex industry. BP will continue searching for more oil reserves. Maybe they will abandon drilling in US waters. The next oil spill will happen somewhere else. But, it will happen.
We can make a lot of changes. New base load electric could be generated by natural gas and nuclear. We can continue to subsidize and grow wind and solar. But, what we can do quickest and most effectively is conserve energy. It means raising your thermostat in the summer and lowering it in the winter. It means being more organized when driving. It means living closer to work or working out of our homes. There are a lot of approaches.
And me? I will continue to repeat my favorite line: my old oil partner, John, has two jets and a helicopter. I have a bicycle.