Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#395: Oil Spills... Repeating the Past

In my last column I wrote about the environmental issues prevalent in southern California at the time I first arrived on Catalina to teach marine biology. This week I will address the second "big issue" of 1969, the Santa Barbara oil spill caused by a blowout on Union Oil's Platform A. In January of that year Union Oil requested a waiver from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to reduce various well casing requirements. The well casing prevents oil and natural gas from escaping out of the drill hole itself and entering the adjacent geologic formation into which the well is being drilled. Sound familiar? The official at the USGS granted the waiver, allowing the normally required 300 foot conductor casing with a blowout preventer to be decreased to 238 ft, and the required 870 ft of surface casing to be ignored. That drilling rig was operating in a mere 188 feet of water about six miles offshore.

A mere two weeks after drilling of this well began, the well blew out. Oil burst through the geologic formation creating five large gashes in the ocean's floor that released at least 77,000 barrels in the first 100 days of the spill. The Coast Guard placed the total volume at 100,000 barrels or 4.2 million gallons over the duration of the spill. By comparison BP's Deepwater Horizon rig is releasing anywhere from their own absurdly low ball initial estimate of 5,000 (since sharply upgraded) to an extreme estimate of nearly 100,000 barrels of oil per day! Currently "accepted" flow rates have reached 60,000 barrels a day. Of course BP also requested, and received, waivers from the Mineral Management Service (MMS)... some of whose employees were literally "in bed" with oil industry "lobbyists" (I hear they have another name for them at the "Mustang Ranch" in Nevada).

Despite being a "kelp hugger" (and proud of it), I'm not going to adopt a holier than thou attitude towards the entire petroleum industry due to this spill. As the proud owner of a gas powered golf cart here on the island and an ancient (but very fuel efficient) Toyota Tercel on the mainland, I purchase gasoline and other petroleum products myself. Although I use less than 100 gallons per year combined, I have only a little basis for assuming the moral high ground. Every one of us is in part to blame for this disaster since few of us have eliminated petrochemical fuels from our lifestyle or stopped purchasing products made from that source: plastic bags, plastic coke bottles, plastic this, plastic that.

I think our grandparents and parents were much wiser than my generation. In the 60s and 70s we touted ourselves as the environmentally aware ones and often criticized our parents for their lack of understanding. However, I remember growing up in an area that was still influenced by the austerity programs of the Great Depression and World War II. Every week I tied up our newspapers so they could be picked up and recycled. Aluminum was also saved. Back then I only received a quarter in allowance, so I often supplemented that by picking up glass bottles from the empty lots and fields near our neighborhood and taking them to the local grocery store for redemption. I could easily double or even quadruple my allowance with an easy day of collecting... often while searching for snakes, rabbits and snapping turtles! Of course Mom always returned our empties... on the few occasions we were allowed to consume soft drinks. Things were not disposable in those days... they were re-used. My generation brought change... but not always for the better as we intended in our youth.

With respect to the BP spill in the Gulf, I have to give a lot of "credit" to BP itself. Based on my research, and reports in the media, they've had a rather questionable history of environmental (and human) safety. Their apparent disregard for the warnings about corrosion in the Alaskan pipeline that broke, and safety warnings at the Texas oil refinery where workers were killed in a preventable explosion, appear to be testimony to a corporate callousness. The decisions they made on the Deepwater Horizon rig, contradicting advice reportedly given by Halliburton regarding cementing the well casing, and TransOcean regarding the use of water rather than heavier drilling mud to stem the flow of oil, seem to further substantiate this disregard. Eleven workers died in the explosion on that platform... not to mention hundreds of thousands, if not millions or billions of marine and shore-based critters. BP CEO Tony Hayward deserves a Razzie for his ill-thought-out statements to the media and probable intentional misrepresentations. So indeed, I think BP deserves a black eye on this one... but it could have been any oil company. Our government under both Republican and Democratic administrations deserves no pass either based on the "actions" (or lack thereof) by the Minerals Management Service and inadequate (if not non-existent) reforms by the leaders of our government.

Some in BP such as Hayward were quick to suggest that this incident was "unprecedented" or "unexpected" despite indications in their own internal assessments that such an incident could indeed occur. Well, we have been exhorted to learn from previous mistakes. Back around 1905 George Santayana wrote his famous phrase "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Are there lessons from the past that might have foretold the current situation in the Gulf of Mexico? Indeed there are. Did we learn from them? Apparently not.

In June of 1979 the Ixtoc I oil well located in the Gulf of Mexico off the Gulf of Campeche created the world's worst accidental oil spill. It is second only to the intentional spills created by Saddam Hussein's armies as they fled the oil fields of Kuwait. As many as 30,000 barrels per day were released into Mexican waters. This is half of the highest realistic estimate for the current Gulf spill, but the release of oil in this case continued for nearly 10 months and involved a total of approximately 3.3 million barrels (nearly 140 million gallons) of oil. We still don't know how long the BP Deepwater Horizon spill will last. When you're #2, do you try harder?

The Ixtoc incident occurred in about 160 feet of water, a depth I can easily SCUBA dive to, compared to over 5,000 feet in the current BP situation. What caused it? A failure of the blowout preventer! Sound familiar? What did Pemex, the Mexican national oil company, try to stop the leak? Chemical dispersants, retaining booms, oil skimming vessels, the use of a top hat (referred to as "Operation Sombrero" down there) to contain the leaking oil, pumping salt water and cement into the well ("top kill") and burning off the oil gathering at the surface. "Deja vu all over again" as Yogi Berra would say! What finally worked to stop the spill? Two relief wells completed about nine months after the spill began, allowing the original well to be capped. Oh, and concerns about deep water plumes of oil were even raised as a possible consequence of this shallow well's failure. Shouldn't be BP (and the industry as a whole) have learned from this lesson?

Despite its massive scale, independent scientific investigations suggest that within five years much of the environmental damage caused by Ixtoc I had ceased. As bad as it was, the spill occurred in shallow water allowing most of the oil to reach the surface where the volatile components such as benzene could evaporate (fouling the air of course) and microbes could digest it. Sandy beaches were the habitats primarily endangered by the oil that reached land. In the current incident the depth of the well head increased the probability that deep water plumes would form and less of the oil would reach the surface where it could be ameliorated to a degree by evaporation, dispersants, burning and skimming. Habitats being impacted by the BP spill include a number of wetlands and salt water marshes. These are important nursery grounds for shrimp and gamefish, and feeding and nesting areas for shorebirds. They are impacted to a far greater degree and for much longer duration when oil reaches them. Removal of oil from sandy beaches is a far easier process than eliminating it from the vegetation and mud of a wetland or marsh. The timing of this spill is bad news for the massive bird migrations in the region, as well as the spawning and larval survival for many ecologically (and commercially) important fish species including blue fin tuna.

The Ixtoc I spill occurred in warmer waters further south in the Gulf of Mexico. Water temperature has a direct impact on the recovery process following a spill. Warmer temperatures allow faster evaporation of the toxic volatile chemicals in fresh oil, rendering them less harmful. Chemical reactions such as the "weathering" of the oil and even the biochemical ones involved when microbes "munch" on the oil are affected. For every 10 degree rise in temperature, many chemical reactions double their rate. This was a big problem with the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill in Alaska. Water temperatures there were on the order of 5 degrees Centigrade vs the 25 degrees in the region of the Ixtoc spill. More than 20 years after the Valdez spill we are still seeing negative environmental impacts in those colder waters.

We must decide as a country, and as members of a global community, whether the continual degradation of our environment, our own habitat, is an acceptable trade-off in exchange for a reliance on fossil fuels. Fortunately major oil spills like the ones mentioned here are a relatively rare phenomenon. However, they are only a small part of the environmental "cost" of using these fuels. The continual contamination of the air we breathe, the ground we walk on, the underground water supplies we rely on, and the tremendous trash burden affecting not only our landfills but our oceans as seen in the great plastic "garbage patches" that have formed in both the Pacific and Atlantic undoubtedly have a more pervasive and longer term impact on the health of our planet... and therefore us. We need to decide what risks we are willing to accept. We need to "motivate" our government to do the right thing for human beings, not just the large corporations such as the petroleum industry. A good start would be to limit legal political bribery to all candidates! What will you decide? What will you do?

© 2010 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

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Oil platform in the Santa Barbara Channel

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