After the spill, a fresh drill?


The BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico must ensure that everyone, especially governments, learns their lesson about the risks of deepwater oil drilling, writes CLAIRE O'CONNELL

THIS WEEK saw promising glimmers of a conclusion to the ongoing saga of the underwater oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. In efforts to stem the escape of crude oil, the MC252 well has now been cemented as part of a “static kill” procedure, according to BP.

The story of the spill began hitting the headlines in April when an explosion left 11 people dead and 17 injured at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. The Macondo well has now gushed an estimated total of five million barrels of oil into the sea and efforts to stem that flow have introduced a wider audience to dramatic terms such as “top kill”, “junk shot” and “choke line”.

Clean-up and rescue operations have been mounted along affected coastlines and BP says it has so far paid out more than $300 million (€228 million) in claim payments to more than 40,000 adversely affected businesses and individuals.

So what have we learnt from the Macondo event?

This is not the first major leak in the Gulf of Mexico:In 1979 the Ixtoc I well, being drilled by Mexican company Pemex, leaked around three million barrels of oil into the Gulf. Containment operations included an attempt to halt the flow with a “top hat”-like structure similar to that tried by BP, although for the Ixtoc operation it was called a “sombrero”.

Big oil reserves are being drilled in deeper waters:According to Dev George, managing editor of the Oil and Gas International upstream petroleum news website, “there is a far smaller probability of making a significant oil discovery at shallow or even moderately deep locations today because virtually all of the reservoirs at those depths have been drilled numerous times and they are now only producing relatively small discoveries. The big oil reserves are today generally found only at great depth and in remote areas. BP’s Macondo well is quite deep, but there are many other ultra-deep wells that have been drilled and are being drilled around the world – and in the US Gulf of Mexico – that are deeper (Brazil, West Africa, for example).”

Problems at deep offshore sites can be more tricky to fix:The BP leak is under about a mile of water, and if things go wrong in those conditions it can be more challenging to access and fix them.

“It wasn’t the water pressure that caused the difficulty in the recent incident, it was the gas pressure inside the well. It’s when you are trying to fix it that the water pressure is an issue,” says Dr Clifford Jones, from the department of engineering at the University of Aberdeen. He believes that deeper drilling sites require more precise risk analysis as the conditions become more hazardous.

Not all oil spills are the same:The current situation in the Gulf of Mexico raises the spectre of previous disasters, such as when the Exxon Valdeztanker struck a reef close to the Alaskan shore in 1989. That spill led to widespread environmental damage, traces of which are still evident today.

But oil spills do not all have similar consequences. Experts point out that the cold Alaskan waters and the site of the spill on the surface contributed to the impact of the Exxon Valdez, while the warmer waters of the Gulf, its strong microbe activity and the offshore location of the underwater leak need to be taken into consideration.

It is also necessary to think about the scale of the Deepwater Horizon leak, says Dr Simon Boxall, a lecturer at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, England. “If you said the Gulf of Mexico was an Olympic-sized swimming pool, the amount of oil that went into that Olympic-sized swimming pool was one gram,” he says. “When a tanker dumps its oil , it’s not a drop in a swimming pool any more, it has a bigger impact.”

The University of Aberdeen’s Dr Jones also points out a distinction between the two events: “In the recent accident the oil was leaking from the seabed at a rate that was limited by the configuration of the well. In Exxon Valdeza tanker was broken open and the oil seeped out because of gravity, so the physics was quite different.”

However, marine scientist Prof Mark Johnson, from NUI Galway, warns that the deepwater nature of the BP leak means that the potential impact could be less well understood at present.

“A lot of the experience of oil spills has been from surface spills. The deep nature of this spill means that there are new, poorly understood factors to consider,” he says. “For example, the toxicity of the oil depends on its composition. A tanker spill would have a different composition to an oil well. I have not seen anything yet of the relative composition of the deepwater spill – but this would be one of the important assessments for people assessing how to deal with it.”

Watch what you say and do in a crisis:When it comes to PR, outgoing BP chief executive Tony Hayward is a case study of what not to do in a crisis – from inappropriate soundbites to attending a glitzy yacht race while his company was in the midst of managing a globally witnessed disaster.

‘[He] was quoted as saying, ‘I wish I had my life back’ – an ill-considered remark when people had lost their lives,” says Tim Pearson, from Carr Communications. “And he was photographed walking on the beach, looking soulfully into the distance – at a time when the corporation was being engulfed by a major crisis. The expectation of people looking on is that all senior executives would be completely focused day and night on actions to resolve this crisis.”

Twitter’s still a-tweeting:The Gulf leak has made frequent appearances on Twitter’s lists of “trending topics”, with people sharing their thoughts on the crisis in 140 characters or less. One of the more notable contributors is @bpglobalpr, a spoof account that offers posts such as “We’d like to be remembered as The Company That Saved The Gulf. What we saved it from is not important. #bpcares”.

The offshore oil industry will need to review its practices following this leak:Safety practices and monitoring are changing following the Macondo leak, according to Dev George, from Oil and Gas International.

“Around the world new regulations are being put into effect regarding deepwater drilling that are requiring blowout preventors and related systems with surface back-up facilities or twins in case a well starts to blow,” he says. “Furthermore, all sorts of requirements are being made law that call for frequent inspections of critical equipment on drilling rigs and platforms to verify their operability. I think it can also be expected that the rigs themselves will be required to undergo mandated thorough inspection and modifications when needed prior to a deepwater drilling permit being issued.”

And the biggest lesson?“Essentially, it has to be that everybody dropped the ball – some intentionally, it appears, for cost savings,” says Dev George. “It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that drilling operations in federal waters are as safe as possible, both for the personnel on the rigs and the environment.

“When shortcuts are taken and maintenance or inspection not carried out, it is the operator’s fault if an accident occurs – but until now, at least in the US, there have been few instances of oversight to assure that this didn’t happen. Allowing companies to police themselves simply doesn’t work – in any industry. Their prime motivation is, after all, profit.”