David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter
The Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill keeps getting worse—now gushing more than 200,000 gallons per day, according to NOAA estimates—five times more than original estimates and more than BP’s absolute worst case scenario in disaster plans filed with the government. That may not change any time soon. The last big blowout, at Ixtoc off Mexico in 1979, took almost a year to stop and spilled some 140 million gallons of oil before it was through, making it still the second largest oil spill ever (Saddam Hussein’s intentional opening of the Kuwaiti and Iraqi wells during the first Gulf War remains, by far, the largest oil spill at roughly 1 billion gallons.)
It would take two years for the Deepwater Horizon spill to surpass the 1979 event at present rates. But what’s more surprising is that this accident happened at all. After all, the 450-ton "blowout preventer" was designed to foil just this kind of occurrence. Now, underwater robots haven’t been able to get the preventer’s valves to close.
That leaves decidedly low-tech solutions like booms, skimmers and setting the slick on fire to keep it from hitting the wildlife refuges nearest to it on the Louisiana coast. And it will take at least months to develop a total solution, such as placing a cap or dome over the wellhead or drilling a new well to cut off the oil supply. The military has been called into the effort and coastlines as far away as Florida may end up being affected by this "spill of national significance," as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano dubbed it.
And there could be policy impacts too. A similar spill off the coast of California in 1969 helped spur a moratorium on offshore oil drilling—a moratorium President Obama effectively ended on March 31. That’s because Obama wanted to use offshore drilling to wean the U.S. off foreign oil—but there would have to be more "black gold" found than the Minerals Management Service estimates exists off our coasts to have an appreciable impact on the world price of oil. Exploration off the East Coast or in the Arctic would be vulnerable to similar disastrous spills. It remains to be seen whether those plans are now in over their heads in deep water.
Image 1: Courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory
Image 2: Courtesy of Oceana