The Gulf: Long on Oil, Short on Expertise

7 Jun

“The uncertainty surrounding the future of drilling is no small concern in a region so heavily dependent on the oil industry.” -The Washington Post, June 6, 2010

Seth: Few things are certain about the disaster (#1) that occurred at Deepwater Horizon. There was an explosion (#2), 11 workers were killed (#3), the oil rig sank with 700,000 gallons of diesel fuel on board (#4), and there is oil leaking from the well, about a mile underwater (#5). What caused the explosion and how much oil is leaking are important unanswered questions that pale in comparison to the question of the solution. Not much is known about drilling for oil at such depths; you can say BP is among the pioneers in the field. By the grace of God, disasters comparable to Deepwater Horizon are rare. However, as we all know, this blessing is the central reason BP has not been able to implement a solution thus far.  The latest attempt, a containment cap (think of an inverted funnel) is capturing about 10,000 barrels (420,000 gallons) of oil daily, which is estimated to be between forty and eighty per cent of the leak. The obvious problem with that estimate notwithstanding, the sheer numbers involved in this disaster are hard to wrap my head around. Take these official government numbers, as of June 5:

  • More than 20,000 personnel are currently responding to protect the shoreline and wildlife and cleanup vital coastlines. 
  • More than 2,600 vessels are responding on site, including skimmers, tugs, barges, and recovery vessels to assist in containment and cleanup efforts—in addition to dozens of aircraft, remotely operated vehicles, and multiple mobile offshore drilling units.
  • Approximately 15.2 million gallons of an oil-water mix have been recovered.
  • 125 controlled burns have been conducted, efficiently removing a total of more than 3.2 million gallons of oil from the open water in an effort to protect shoreline and wildlife.

Considering this enormous response, and the fact the that oil is still getting the best of us should shed light on the vast problem we face. Consensus is, that our best chance for a fix won’t come until August, when two relief wells should be able to plug the leak with cement. Truthfully, I didn’t get a real perspective on the leak until I saw the following pictures:

You can find more pictures here

You can find the government’s timeline of its own response here

This diagram from the Wall Street Journal breaks down the efforts to stop the leak:

There has also been controversy surrounding the Obama administration’s decision to halt all offshore drilling. This six month moratorium was put in place amid public protest concerning lax regulation from the Minerals Management Service, the government branch overseeing offshore drilling. Since that time, others have been clamoring for the moratorium to be lifted, as the oil industry supports more than 40,000 workers in the gulf area. Tomorrow’s edition of the Wall Street Journal reports that President Obama and the Department of the Interior will be releasing new safety regulations to allow for offshore drilling and exploration in shallow water. The moratorium on deepwater activity is not being reconsidered, even with the public’s outcry.

At the end of the day, this is an unbelievable situation that no one was prepared for. The more educated about this I become, the less hopeful I am for a positive resolution. This disaster will forever change the environmental and quality-of-life conditions for those living or working in the Gulf region, and beyond. The federal government truly seems to be responding as quickly and intelligently as possible; I have to give them the benefit of the doubt. However the magnitude of what they are dealing with far outweighs the available expertise.

Going forward, this should be a tremendous learning experience. Hopefully, progressive legislation concerning energy policy is on the horizon. That’s truly the best result we can hope from this mess.

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