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Oil spill worsens, offshore drilling plans in dire straits?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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deepwater-horizon-oil-spill-from-space

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





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  1. 1. JohnSciNew 4:16 pm 04/29/2010

    A mature, reasonable nation would take this accident as a sign that it is finally time to reduce our dependence on oil.

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  2. 2. tjj300 4:42 pm 04/29/2010

    A mature, reasonable nation would take this accident as a sign that some modifications to the technology is in order.

    Link to this
  3. 3. JohnSciNew 5:04 pm 04/29/2010

    Webmaster, I only entered that comment one time. What’s with the duplication?

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  4. 4. JohnSciNew 5:08 pm 04/29/2010

    Oops! Webmaster, please forgive my duplication mis-statement.

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  5. 5. ysmad 7:04 pm 04/29/2010

    A mature, reasonable civilization would take this incident as a sign to cut back on consumption until modifications to technology are proven to work without harming its very foundations. ysmad.com

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  6. 6. dwbd 11:14 pm 04/29/2010

    So this Oilfield, according to Wikipedia is expected to produce about 750 million barrels of Oil total. That would make about 120 GW-yrs of thermal energy, after refining. A standard Westinghouse AP1000 Nuclear Reactor produces about 3 GW of thermal energy. With a 60-80 yr expected lifespan. So that’s about double the energy that the ENTIRE Oilfield will produce, probably needing about 7 DeepWater Horizon drilling rigs.

    Yep, better to pollute the whole ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico, than deal with that 1400 tons of nice solid, easy to store, doesn’t hurt anything or anybody Nuclear Waste. Especially when GenIV reactors can burn up that Nuclear Waste, and you wouldn’t need to even mine any for the next several hundred years. And the USA had a GenIV IFR reactor ready for a commercial build, but Oil/NG Puppet, Bill Clinton – ordered it destroyed.

    And the Oil/NG/Greenpeace/Sierra Club gang want to shut down the clean, green Nuclear Power plant, Vermont Yankee, because it released one key fob’s worth of tritium over the entire site. Even if a person drank the entire amount of contaminated water, and they would have to consume 378 litres of water per day for an entire year, they would still recieve a very low dose of radiation, equivalent to eating 10 bananas a day.

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  7. 7. Flatroofer 6:22 am 04/30/2010

    God is talking, no one is listening.

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  8. 8. Flatroofer 6:23 am 04/30/2010

    God is talking, no one is listening.

    Link to this
  9. 9. matt7195 11:32 am 04/30/2010

    The concern should be that there has not been a mass outcry against the oil industry following this event. There is certainly alarm and no one is cold enough to dismiss the environmental effects. But where is the condemnation of the oil industry with mass public meetings? The Tea Party Movement has gain national support and infamy from their broad based attacks on issues as harmless (and possibly beneficial) as health care reform.

    It’s time for this country’s critical thinkers to stand up rightfully against the dangers that large important corporations are assuring us are necessary. Long-term energy solutions that do not threaten our existence need to be the highest priority of the western world.

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  10. 10. andreanis 3:45 pm 04/30/2010

    When accidents happen first thing to do is limit as much as possible damage (in this case acting quickly maybe can decrease damage putting floating barriers etc..),next step is to see if some oil can be retrieved..lastly a "debriefing " should be made (analysing why the accident happend) with the view of preventing future episodes…

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  11. 11. jack.123 4:07 pm 04/30/2010

    Last week the President said he wants more offshore drilling,then this thing blows up?Sounds alot like Eco-terrorism.If this is the case the persons who did it should be put away for life.

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  12. 12. Grasshopper1 5:57 pm 04/30/2010

    Why don’t they collect the oil and store it (and maybe get energy from it)?

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  13. 13. Quinn the Eskimo 1:57 am 05/1/2010

    I’d like to see an Executive Emergency Order banning *all* offshore drilling until they can PROVE they have remote shut-off capabilities.

    Santa Barbara, Exxon-Valdez, and Louisiana. Wow! The big-oil-boys are on a ROLL with sesame seeds.

    Stop ‘em before they kill us all.

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  14. 14. bertwindon 6:00 am 05/1/2010

    I wish they would not keep refering to this hideous disaster as a "spill". "Spill" is a finite quantity from a container which then has no more. The "container" in this case is of geological dimensions, and is spill-ING, and CONTINUES to "spill". It is not just another tanker-load. It’s difficult to believe that this needs to be pointed-out. So what will happen to these head-cases if the whole Earth gets suffocated by a "film" of sludge ?

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  15. 15. bertwindon 6:02 am 05/1/2010

    Oh, I agree. Nuclear disasters are much less hassle. And the waste is great on cornflakes.

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  16. 16. bertwindon 6:17 am 05/1/2010

    Quite so Matt-.
    Did you realise that (any) Turbine exhibits a smaller is higher ppower to weight ratio ? It’s Area / Volume. Not many have rumbled it it seems. An electrical machine – Alternator for instance – is also required. Here One Big one is half the price of 4 of 1/4 the thro’put which it replaces. Opposite of the T.
    These two facts lead to fact that there is a size at which the T costs about the same as the A. This is the size of lowest cost/m^2 of wind faced, and occurs at about one metre diameter. Either halving the size and making 4, or doubling to replace 4, increases the cost off the same "farm" in the following way: Cost (Wads) 2, 2.5, 4.25, 8.125, 16.- and so on. This, plus 3 other physical facts account for why "modern windfarms" are about 40 times the cost of a sensible design, which doesn’t even alter the view.
    God may or maynot be talking, but I defineately am pointing-out simple facts here. A sensible design can commonly return 5%p.a. of its cost, and considerably more in special sites (West of UK, coasts !). So really know who – or what – is in charge. I call it oil-fired stupidity. Their "solution" then – having demonstrated that "Wind-energy doesn’t work" – is to build assortments of atom-splitting technology all over the place. So far this disease had only just beenn recognized, and there is no guarantee that a cure will be available.

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  17. 17. bertwindon 6:23 am 05/1/2010

    Collect 200,000 gallons of oil – per day – slopping-about over a field of several hundred square miles ? What means would you recommend ? Are you the top brass in BP perhaps !

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  18. 18. mike cook 11:46 am 05/2/2010

    Politics in the US may or may not shut down off shore drilling for awhile, but the fact will remain that until electric cars become a lot cheaper and their long term costs better understood, oil is a really nifty and energy dense fuel. Traditionally, the USA will not just quit when confronted with a disaster, but will fix it and go on. We are not quitters, we are overcomers.

    Regarding offshore oil, keep in mind that Cuba claims oil fields right up to the coast of Florida and even if the Americans turn sissy and quit Cuba already contracts China and Russia to go take the oil. Short of war, we can not stop them.

    In the interests of honesty, I do own oil field interests, but in Montana, a long way from any offshore platform. I also plan to buy a Chevrolet hybrid crew cab truck this Fall, which only gets about 20 mpg highway solo and 12 towing an Airstream trailor, but that is still a lot better than my old truck and I love the idea of regenerative energy when going down mountain passes instead of just heating up brakes and wasting the energy.

    I also love the RV lifestyle. America (and Australia and Canada) are the only nations to really have this, which is great for us old ducks. We really don’t burn more gasoline than we used to when commuting to work because typically I will pull the trailor to a new area we tend to explore and we stay there a few weeks or months before we move again.

    Living in the trailor is quite economical on air conditioning compared to our house (which we shut down most of the year.) No matter how crazy, dictatorial, and intrusive the greenies get on American lifestyle choices, I don’t figure any little Hitlers can stop me at this point because the economics of RV touring would still work for me with gas at $9/gallon.

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  19. 19. ashmar 6:59 pm 05/3/2010

    human error and cost cutting… these things do not just happen

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  20. 20. mike cook 12:13 am 05/4/2010

    OK, I am not top brass at BP or at the US Coast Guard, but here is what I recommend to quickly remedy blow-outs like the present source of deep oil bubbling up.

    We build concrete domes about 200 feet in diameter with hollow compartments like floating dry docks. We station these floating domes strategically around the Gulf of Mexico at Galveston, Mobile, and Pensacola. When a deep blow-out we tow the dome (which will weigh about 25,000 tons when unflooded) over the area from which oil is bubbling up.

    Then we carefully flood the dome and sink it until it settles in the mud directly over the blow-out. Being lighter than water, oil will displace the sea water on the inside of the dome. As we begin pumping oil out from the highest point inside the dome, we create vacuum pressure that will settle the dome more deeply in the mud.

    In essence, the dome will become a permanent part of the oil production process at the site of the mishap. It will be an expensive part at probably one billion dollars US for each dome, but the domes should last until the oil field is completely pumped out in several decades and there is no longer anything to leak.

    The domes I envision would be about the size of the Pantheon in Rome, which concrete structure has stood for 2000 yrs. Smaller domes might work, but I believe in overkill when a quick fix is needed to assuage unnecessary mass hysteria and political advantage seeking.

    Link to this
  21. 21. mike cook 12:14 am 05/4/2010

    OK, I am not top brass at BP or at the US Coast Guard, but here is what I recommend to quickly remedy blow-outs like the present source of deep oil bubbling up.

    We build concrete domes about 200 feet in diameter with hollow compartments like floating dry docks. We station these floating domes strategically around the Gulf of Mexico at Galveston, Mobile, and Pensacola. When a deep blow-out we tow the dome (which will weigh about 25,000 tons when unflooded) over the area from which oil is bubbling up.

    Then we carefully flood the dome and sink it until it settles in the mud directly over the blow-out. Being lighter than water, oil will displace the sea water on the inside of the dome. As we begin pumping oil out from the highest point inside the dome, we create vacuum pressure that will settle the dome more deeply in the mud.

    In essence, the dome will become a permanent part of the oil production process at the site of the mishap. It will be an expensive part at probably one billion dollars US for each dome, but the domes should last until the oil field is completely pumped out in several decades and there is no longer anything to leak.

    The domes I envision would be about the size of the Pantheon in Rome, which concrete structure has stood for 2000 yrs. Smaller domes might work, but I believe in overkill when a quick fix is needed to assuage unnecessary mass hysteria and political advantage seeking.

    Link to this
  22. 22. 2008RealityCheck 12:14 pm 05/7/2010

    $125,000,000 per day is added to American GDP every day through oil extraction. Keep this in context. Sure it would be nice to not have to need oil (it’s used for more than just fuel) but we aren’t even close to that point. Without the income, America will come closer to resembling Greece.

    The article fails to mention that there are other options to stopping the flow. One is to fill the pipe from the top to plug it up. Another is to get that heavy metal cap to contain most of the oil.

    Remember that 600,000 metric tons of oil seep naturally into the oceans every year. And remember that this Gulf oil is a light, sweet crude which has a much higher proportion that evaporates before it ever gets to shore.

    Also, remember that adding the 40,000,000 marginal acres to grow food for fuel (in an attempt to reduce petroleum use) has resulted in more nitrate runoff that has expanded the Gulf of Mexico ‘Dead Zone’. Biofuels are not benign.

    Bielio, please include more facts in your articles because your political bias is showing.

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  23. 23. 2008RealityCheck 12:16 pm 05/7/2010

    Correction: $125,000,000 per day is added to American GDP every day through offshore oil extraction in the Gulf of Mexico.

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  24. 24. 2008RealityCheck 12:26 pm 05/7/2010

    I’m not sure what policy wonk came up with the talking points about "–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. " This is clearly nonsense because any shutdown of some rigs by a hurricane causes a large spike in prices. How could adding oil NOT cause a drop in oil prices.

    $2.36 trillion could be added if we ended the moratoria. Read the NARUC report http://www.naruc.org/News/default.cfm?pr=183. America has more oil and natural gas than you know, and the numbers keep increasing as out technology improves. A recent report finds that some old oil fields actually are starting to fill up again from deeper underground deposits. This particularly true in the Gulf of Mexico.

    Remember that oil represents the carbon that used to be in our atmosphere early on. Bringing it to the surface only returns it to the biosphere from whence it came. What could be more natural?

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  25. 25. 2008RealityCheck 12:30 pm 05/7/2010

    That is overkill. The bigger the dome, the less likely a crane could maneuver it. The concept of standby containment domes is a sound one though.

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  26. 26. ysmad 12:08 pm 05/8/2010

    I wonder what nature was doing all the time until we finally came along to return her all the carbon she was missing for so long. Glad we’re here. — Can we safely assume that "2008RealityCheck" is a troll?

    Link to this

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