March 5, 2015

No one missed the Deepwater Horizon disaster. People missed the recent oil spill in Bangladesh. But the world witnessed Deepwater Horizon. Millions of gallons of oil flooded the Gulf of Mexico everyday — for 87 days. The biggest accidental oil spill ever. Five years later the effects of the Deepwater Horizon blowout still endure. A new study confirms a massive undersea oil mat near the unlucky oil well — Macondo 252 — that blew on April 20th, 2010. Considering this tar mat is the size of Rhode Island, the Gulf is clearly still feeling the affects of the catastrophe five years on. Gulf sea turtles stranding more frequently, dolphins killed, observed oil slicks hundreds of kilometers in length after the well was “capped” — a depressing list of unknown length.

Will it ever be possible to safely drill oil wells 35,000 feet into the seafloor through 4,000 feet of water from a unanchored floating 32,000-ton oil rig? You’ve got to hand it to the oil companies, the engineering is ambitious. But given the demonstrated risks to our greater resources, will it ever make sense? Things aren’t going well for Shell in the Arctic. Their ice-strengthened drill barge, the Kulluk, got kicked around the Beaufort Sea like a tin can. The New York Times gives an engrossing account of how the Kulluk eventually runs aground in Alaska, destroying itself. Despite this dangerous negligence, Shell still has the green light to drill the Arctic. If they can.


The Kulluk Oil Rig Runs Aground in Alaska (2012)

Even when deepwater oil drilling technology is functioning perfectly, the simple noise of operations alters the natural environment of the water and its acoustically sensitive creatures. Think whales and dolphins. Mission Blue partner Michael Stocker of Ocean Conservation Research has devoted his career to this little known, but very real issue. Below he describes the noise impact of the floating oil platform, i.e. not even the drilling part of the operation.

These are remarkable vessels that may look like ships or like traditional oil derricks, but they are capable of stabilizing their working position in 70 mph winds and 30 foot swells. This takes a huge amount of energy, delivered to six 6,700 horsepower propeller-driven thrusters. And depending on the sea state they can be churning really hard. This is akin to having six supertankers all driving into each other – continuously, around the clock, 365 days per year. (The Marine Mammal Protection Act specifies an exposure threshold of 120dB re:1µPa for continuous noise. It is highly likely that these vessels exceed this under any sea state above World Meteorological Organization “WMO 4”.) [FULL TEXT HERE]

Unfortunately, for the first time in 30 years, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s 5-year resource extraction plan has targeted the Atlantic Ocean. Granted, the Obama administration did make rules to reduce drilling in the Arctic. (Not to mention the world’s largest Marine Protected Area in US waters in the Pacific.) Still, is it really a smart idea to drill 50 miles from the coasts of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia after what happened to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida? And even if the drilling is successful — that short-term success only contributes to our long-term problem.

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Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Permits Atlantic Drilling (2017-2022 Oil and Gas Plan)

And so the 5th anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon blowout approaches on April 20th. Look at the map above and note the “Congressional Moratorium” over drilling in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico until 2022. We don’t have to ask why this was put in place. We can only hope to learn from our mistakes in planning for the future.

Images from Wikipedia and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management

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