Depending when the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is capped, it pales by comparison to the world’s largest accidental oil spill also in gulf waters in 1979. There are striking coincidences between the two spills.
The current spill is gushing an estimated 5,000 barrels per day at 5,000 feet below the Gulf’s surface.
On June 3, 1979, the Ixtoc I submersible platform leased by Mexico’s Pemex exploded causing a spill of 30,000 barrels daily for several months and then 10,000 bpd until it was capped on March 30, 1980. That leak was at a depth of 160 feet.
A total 3 million barrels of crude destroyed the habitat for the rare Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles at Rancho Nuevo in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. Currents floated the slick onto 162 miles of beaches on the Texas coastline where 1,421 birds were coated with the oily substance and rescued by volunteers.
The Mexican government refused to compensate U.S. claims for damages, according to Wikipedia.
Ixtoc I was an exploratory oil well in the Bay of Campeche and drillers had reached a depth of nearly two miles when it lost drilling mud circulation. In modern rotary drilling terms, mud is circulated down the drill pipe to equalize the pressure through the shaft and to monitor the returning mud for gas on the rig platform. Engineers for Sedco 135 which leased the platform to Pemex, determined that hydrocarbons filled the well column when the mud counter-pressure failed to work. The gases rose to the platform and ignited, quickly sinking the platform on top of the ruptured pipe on the gulf floor. The cluster of fallen debris hampered efforts to contain the leak.
The investigation also determined that the drilling broke through bed rock into softer strata subsequently causing the loss of hydrostatic pressure from the drilling mud. Such an event has not been reported in the blowout in the Mississippi Canyon site of the Deepwater Horizons rig. But the blowout of mud is similar, according to testimony of surviving crew working the platform.
As in the case of the BP spill 31 years later, the blowout preventer devises failed to work. Shear rams contained in the preventers were unable to severe the thick steel walls of the drill collars leading to a catastrophic blowout.
Since the April 20 accident the BP spill has covered about 3,650 square miles, the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, said Hans Graber, director of the University of Miami’s Center for Southeastern Tropical Advanced Remote Sensing.
Meanwhile, President Obama Friday vowed to end the “cozy relationship” between the oil companies and the Interior Department’s Mineral Management Service.
The agency has been accused of failing to inspect oil rigs for safety violations and issuing drilling permits without environmental impact studies required by the National Environmental Policy Act established after the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. One agency official at a Coast Guard hearing this week in Kenner, Louisiana, said inspectors took the word of oil officials that tests were conducted and the oil platform drilling operations had substantial fail safe preventions.
A review of the overall environmental policy procedures for the Minerals Management Service is an important part of the comprehensive and thorough investigation of the explosion and the resulting leak, said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
Researchers still have not assessed the total damage caused by the Ixtoc I oil leak.
The Coast Guard, meanwhile, has shut down fisheries in the northern and eastern waters — about a third the size of the Gulf of Mexico. The biggest economic and ecological fear is the loss of the shrimp and oyster industry if much of the oil leaked from the Deepwater Horizons site settles on the gulf floor.
Already, the spill has hit the region’s $2.4 billion seafood industry. Key shrimp and oyster fishing areas have been closed, pushing prices higher. The Gulf produces 73% of the nation’s domestically produced shrimp and 59% of its oysters, says the National Marine Fisheries Service.
These people don’t have deep pockets and cries of sympathy for BP are unheard. BP, whose shares have tumbled and wiped out $30 billion of market value since the rig fire on April 20, said the oil spill had cost it $450 million so far.
It promises to pay all cleanup costs.
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Jerry Remmers worked 26 years in the newspaper business. His last 23 years was with the Evening Tribune in San Diego where assignments included reporter, assistant city editor, county and politics editor.