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Conceivable and Precedented May 4, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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***For newcomers: I have created a page of questions and answers about offshore drilling and this oil spill here.***

BP did not build containment devices before the disaster because it “seemed inconceivable” that the blowout preventer would fail.

– BP spokesman Steve Rinehart

“The sort of occurrence that we’ve seen on the Deepwater Horizon is clearly unprecedented.”

– BP spokesman David Nicholas

These are lies.  Both of them.  And I can prove it:

Blowouts aren’t inconceivable, they are actually fairly common.

I have already explained in detail how blowout preventers (the last line of defense against catastrophes like this) are known and even quantifiably proven to be woefully inadequate last lines of defense against this sort of disaster.  A U.S. government report found 117 blowout preventer failures in just a 2 year period!  And the oil industry knew this; each data point on that report’s survey was an actual blowout on an oil company’s offshore rig!

It is true that not every blowout leads to a catastrophic oil spill like this.  Yet it doesn’t take an imagination to plot out a disaster scenario when highly pressurized, obviously flammable fuels come hurtling out of the ground with explosive force towards an oil rig.  And  the second lie is even more damning.

This “sort of occurrence” (the euphemism of the day) is not at all unprecedented: a similar blowout, oil rig fire and massive oil spill occurred off the northern coast of Western Australia just 8 MONTHS AGO. I want to swear here so badly.

Before I get into the more recent spill, I have to say that there have been plenty of significant offshore blowouts and oil spills (list here). The worst in history started on June 3, 1979.  An exploratory well in the Bahia de Campeche (600 miles south of Texas) experienced a blow out.  The oil and gas ignited, lighting the platform and soon causing it to sink.  Unfortunately, that platform fell on top of the wellhead, severely hindering efforts to activate the failed blowout preventer (I know what you’re thinking: “failed blowout preventer?  Those are the last line of defense!  They never fail!”  If you don’t understand that sarcasm yet, please read this).

The blowout preventer was ultimately closed, but it had to actually be reopened to prevent its complete destruction when some valves began to rupture.  Between 10,000 and 30,000 barrels of oil gushed from that well every day for nearly 10 months until they finally capped the well on March 23 of the next year.  3.5 million barrels (147 million gallons) of oil were released.

As BP well knows, the precedent for this type of spill is well established. This oil well gushed for nearly 10 months from 1979-1980.

There have been many more blowouts since then, but lets jump to the most recent: a blowout on the West Atlas rig in the East Timor Sea created a gusher on August 21 just last year.  Shockingly enough, a fire sparked.  The spill continued for 74 days through November while it took crews 4 attempts to drill a relief well like they are now trying to do in the Gulf.

The “Montara” oil spill, as it was called, released an estimated 9 million gallons (Exxon Valdez = ~12 million gallons) into one of the world’s most pristine oceanic areas, but went largely unreported because of its remoteness.

The East Timor Sea was home to some of the world’s most iconic and endangered species including 15 species of whales and dolphins, at least 30 species of sea birds, and five species of sea turtles (it’s been an especially bad year for them).  Furthermore, 10,000 communities and 7,000 fishermen rely on the area for their survival. Residents of villages in the region report skin problems and diarrhea from eating contaminated seafoodFish catches have been reduced by 80%.

The Montara spill gushed for nearly 3 months. Look familiar?

The Montara spill and the current crisis have a lot in common. The rigs involved were 2- and 3-years old, state-of-the art and reportedly safe.  In both cases, early flow-rates were obviously understated.  Both occurred in areas of vital ecological and even economic importance.

Yet all indications suggest that the Gulf spill will be far, far worse.  The West Atlas rig didn’t sink.  The flow rate in the Gulf is already much higher.  And the Montara spill occurred in only 600 feet of water.  The Deepwater Horizon rig spill is under more than a mile of water, and the oil deposit is more than twice as deep underground.

Recall that is took Australian crews 4 tries to drill a relief well.  In case it hasn’t been made clear, that process involves drilling down to depth and then a long distance horizontally towards the first, leaking well.  The goal of this extensive drilling is to locate and bore into the original pipeline, which is less than a foot across (at least for the East Timor pipe).  So in the Gulf, crews will have to drill through 18,000 ft of sea floor beneath more than 5,000 of water.  Then they have to drill laterally to find the pipe and pierce it from miles away. There is a reason this project is expected to take literally months, with barrels and barrels of oil leaking the whole time.

The biggest similarity between the two, however, is that the causes may have been identical.  I wrote yesterday about Halliburton’s involvement in the “cementing” process for the Deepwater Horizon rig, and how experts believe that cracks in a faulty cementing job could be responsible for the current disaster in the Gulf. Interestingly enough, although the inquiry into the East Timor spill is not complete, investigators have identical suspicions about the cause of that spill.  And I bet you can guess who was working on the cementing for that rig too – Halliburton.

Halliburton is still looking into the Montara spill.  If we get the Gulf spill plugged, I would imagine they’ll start looking into this as well (although they won’t have to bother – we surely will).  As Charlie Cray put it, “It’s starting to look like the only thing Halliburton can cap tightly is its own mouth.”

To be fair, BP’s lies are consistent with their actions.  While they actively fought safety regulations that might have prevented this disaster, internal documentation suggests that their surprise at this incident is genuine.  Stultifying and much closer to the actual meaning of inconceivable, but genuine.

In their 2009 exploration plan and Environment Impact Statement (EIS) for this well, BP wrote that it was virtually impossible for a major oil spill to occur that would cause serious damage to beaches, fish and mammals.  They write repeatedly that it is unlikely that an accidental surface or subsurface oil spill would occur from the proposed activities.”  You know, because oil spills are virtually unheard of.

Even if a spill did occur, “due to the distance to shore (48 miles) and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts are expected.”  And that’s it.  Having said that, they made no plans about how they would respond if there was an “inconceivable” oil spill.  Because what are the chances, really?

"Don't worry about our back-up plan. We don't have one. The rig will be 50 mi offshore, what could go wrong?"

That such a ridiculous EIS was accepted is further proof (not that any was needed after last year’s sex and drugs story broke) that industry is way too close with government regulators.  No reasonable, independent citizen of this country would approve a drilling application that, instead of having a worst-case scenario response plan, simply said “that’s really unlikely, and we don’t think it will happen.”  Incredible.

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