We might be powerless.
The oil flowing out from the seabed in the Gulf of Mexico may be under such great pressure that we do not possess technology to stop the tragedy. Chances are quite good we have no true sense of the dire nature of the situation. The facts that have been ascertained, however, lead to a dark scenario.
We know that the blowout preventers did not work but we do not know why. There are theories, though. The Deepwater Horizon rig was floating on pontoons about 5000 feet above the floor of the Gulf. When drillers struck an oil deposit, the bit was reported to be at about 18,000 feet, which is approximately three and a half miles beneath the platform. Does science even know what kind of pressure can be encountered at that depth, under almost a mile of water and two and half miles of rock?
BP and Transocean, which owns the rig, has said there was a maximum working pressure of 20,000 PSI but the system was able to handle a kickback pressure from gasses of about 60,000 PSI. The breakdown of the blowout preventers can be interpreted to mean the pressure coming up from the hole exceeded 60,000 PSI. Generally, various mixtures of mud circulate up and down the drill pipe to act as lubricants and equalize pressures encountered at great depth, and this process was said to be working at the time of the accident. Does this mean it's possible, even likely, that the Deepwater Horizon encountered pressures current technologies are not equipped to handle?
Although BP and Washington are trying very hard to convince the public that everything possible is being done to stem the flow of crude, there is seemingly little that might be accomplished. 5000 feet below the surface of the water with oil blasting out at tens of thousands of PSI, and wreckage from the giant rig scattered about, fixes are not easy to find. The latest plan is for a special funnel to be placed over the spout, which will then force the flow into a pumping channel. But how does a funnel get placed over the top of anything pushing at that kind of pressure? Consider that story to be an unrealistic solution.
A well blowout in 1979 offers a bit of context; except the Deepwater Horizon horror show is already about to transcend what happened in the Bay of Campeche off the coast of Mexico. The Ixtoc 1 rig blew and began to spew crude that flowed uninterrupted for nine months. Before the well was capped, 3,000,000 barrels of crude had drifted north to Texas and the northern coast of Mexico. The endangered Kemps-Ridley turtle, which nests along the border beaches, had to be airlifted to safety and has only begun in recent years to recover in population.
The Ixtoc disaster, however, is spit in the ocean compared to the British Petroleum apocalypse. Estimates are the current blowout is putting 200,000 gallons or 5000 barrels of crude per day into the waters of the Gulf. Ixtoc's blowout was not capped until two relief wells were drilled and completed at the end of those nine months, and regardless of optimistic scenarios from the federal government or BP, relieving the pressure on the current flow is probably the only way to stop the polluting release of oil. The only way to relieve that pressure is with additional wells. No one is going to honestly say how much time is needed to drill such wells but consider the scope of environmental damage we are confronting if it requires at least as long as Ixtoc. Nine months of 5000 barrels of crude per day ought to turn the Gulf of Mexico into a lifeless spill pond and set toxins on currents that will carry them to deadly business around the globe.
NOAA apparently believes the situation is on the verge of getting worse. A leaked memo suggests that the tangle of pipes on the ocean floor are covering and constraining two other release points. Pressure is likely to blow those loose and, according to NOAA, the gusher will increase by "orders of magnitude." In most interpretations, that phrase means a ten-fold rise in the flow, which will replicate the Ixtoc disaster in three days.
And there are no guarantees relief wells are the fix. That is a complicated project. They are drilled to intersect the main well and then concrete is forced down the holes to seal the leaking well. What do we do, if that doesn't work? Humans cannot function at 5000 feet of ocean depth and the mitigation efforts currently are being handled by robotic remotes. What is left to us as a solution other than an explosive device, which is often what is deployed during above ground blowouts? Given the pressures reported and the amount of flow, we may need a bunker-buster nuke to be placed over the wellhead. We can then begin to talk about the water pressures caused by burst at detonation and residual radiation. Is that a better or worse situation? Certainly, aquatic life in the Gulf of Mexico is doomed unless there is a reclusive genius to step forward and save us from our great failure.
The attorney general of Texas, Greg Abbot, informed reporters that it appears Texas will escape harm. Abbot's visionary powers must exceed his legal skills since there is no way to know when and even if the well will ever be capped. In fact, if there is no plug placed in the hole, it is not inconceivable that no part of the planet's oceans will escape harm. According to the non-profit, non-partisan Air and Waste Management Association, a quart of crude oil will make 150,000 gallons of water toxic to aquatic life. BP, which has been marketing itself as an energy company "beyond petroleum," is setting loose upon the planet what is quickly turning into humankind's worst environmental disaster.
Tone-deaf politicians, especially from Texas, are trying to manage public fears, which is exactly what the state's former governor attempted in 1979. Bill Clements, who was one of the founders of SEDCO and owned the Ixtoc platform, originally described concerns as "much ado about nothing." As oil moved toward the pristine beaches of the Padre Island National Seashore, his advice was to "pray for a hurricane." I confronted Clements on his lack of concern and he stuck his finger in my chest and told me the state was not hurt. Thirty years later the tar balls still roll in with shifts of tide and wind and oil was everywhere on the beach for years.
Anyone who thinks this tragedy is not going to result in massive kills of marine life is either blind, ignorant, or in denial. The one scenario that we all refuse to confront is the possibility that it is beyond our capabilities to stop this undersea blast of oil. If that is the case, the flow continues until the pressure eases, which might be years. How much ecological injury will that cause our planet?
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