Sunday, May 30, 2010

Inconceivable or Forseeable

In 1979, the IXTOC I was an exploratory oil well in the Bay of Campeche of the Gulf of Mexico that suffered a blowout. The 1979 blowout resulted in the second largest oil spill and the largest accidental spill in history. The largest was the Gulf War oil spill during the first Gulf War.

That is until now.

The BP blow out in the Gulf of Mexico is eerily similar.
- Like the Deepwater Horizon spill, the Ixtoc I spill on June 3, 1979, involved the failure of a blowout-preventer device, a kind of emergency shutoff valve. In both cases, metal domes put over the well failed to stop the leak.
- And as they did in Mexico, BP crews are trying to stop the spill by drilling reliever wells horizontally through the seafloor, a technique that could take months.

- Pemex and a series of U.S. contractors struggled for months to stop the leak. One company managed to close the well casing, but the oil broke through below the seal and caused another blowout. Another contractor built a dome for the well that it called the Sombrero, Spanish for hat, but oil continued to seep from cracks in the sea floor.

- In August 1979, balls of sticky tar began washing up on the hotel beaches of South Padre Island in Texas. Crews scraped them up with construction equipment and giant vacuum cleaners, and the Coast Guard stretched a net across the Port Mansfield inlet to catch submerged tar balls.

- Pemex began drilling two horizontal relief wells soon after the spill in June 1979, but they did not reach the Ixtoc I well until November, five months later. The crews used the relief wells to pump mud and steel balls into the gusher, finally capping the leak on March 25, 1980.

- BP, which owns the well in the Deepwater Horizon spill, began drilling its own relief wells on May 2 and May 16, respectively. They will take about three months to complete, the company says.
Despite these similarities, BP officials are claiming that the apocalyptic failure of its deepwater exploratory rig was unforeseeable, unprecedented and inconceivable.

Climate Progress notes that the I don’t think anybody” excuse has been used before.

I don’t think anybody foresaw the circumstance that we’re faced with now.” — BP spokesman Steve Rinehart [AP 5/2/10]

I don’t think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon; that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile.” — Condoleezza Rice [CNN, 5/16/02]

“The sort of occurrence that we’ve seen on the Deepwater Horizon is clearly unprecedented.” — BP spokesman David Nicholas [AP 4/30/10]

I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees. They did anticipate a serious storm. But these levees got breached. And as a result, much of New Orleans is flooded. And now we are having to deal with it and will.” — President George W. Bush [GMA, 9/1/05]

BP did not build containment devices before disaster because it “seemed inconceivable” the blowout preventer would fail. — BP spokesman Steve Rinehart [AP 5/2/10]

I don’t think anybody anticipated the level of violence that we’ve encountered. I guess the other area that I look at, in terms of an area where I think we were faced with difficulties we didn’t anticipate was the devastation that 30 years of Saddam’s rule had wrought, if you will, on the psychology of the Iraqi people.” — Vice President Dick Cheney, 6/19/06.

However, there is evidence that this event was very foreseeable.
Failure of blowout preventers.

There is evidence that the failure of underwater blowout preventers on oil rigs is common.
A 1999 report commissioned by the federal agency that oversees offshore drilling suggests failures of underwater blowout preventers designed to stop oil spills like the massive one threatening the Gulf Coast were far from unknown, the chairwoman of a key Senate panel.

Citing a Minerals Management Service
report, Sen. Maria Cantwell , D- Wash. , said there were 117 failures of blowout preventers during a two-year period in the late 1990s on the outer continental shelf of the United States .

The unclassified version of the 1999 report said the failures involved 83 wells drilled by 26 rigs in depths from 1,300 feet to 6,560 feet.

A similar report released by the agency in 1997 found that between 1992 and 1996 there were 138 failures of blowout preventers on underwater wells being drilled off Brazil , Norway , Italy and Albania .

Blowout preventers, which can weigh up to 500,000 pounds and stand 50 feet tall, are bolted on the top of a wellhead on the seafloor and in an emergency can cut off the flow of oil to prevent a gusher. The blowout preventers can be activated by throwing a switch on the drilling rig. They are also supposed to activate automatically in the event of a major problem or, in some cases, can be activated by acoustic sound waves produced from a ship on the surface.

No one is sure what caused the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon off the coast of Louisiana to burst into flames on April 20 and sink two days later into the Gulf. The accident left 11 workers missing and presumed dead and 17 others injured. The blowout preventer apparently failed to cap the well, allowing an estimated 210,000 gallons of oil to escape daily.

The cause of the explosion and fire is under investigation, and efforts to activate the blowout preventer 5,000 feet below the surface have, so far, been unsuccessful.

Climate Progress has a list of the forseeability factors.

Failures of blowout preventers and actual blowouts are common. Between 1992 and 1998 there were 319 failures of blowout preventers found in US offshore drilling, an average of 45 a year. [MMS, 1999] Between 1992 and 2006 there were at least 39 blowouts off the US coastline, 38 of them in the Gulf of Mexico. [MMS, 7/07] From 2007 to 2009 there were 19 blowouts, all in the Gulf of Mexico. [MMS]

The largest accidental oil spill in history was a Gulf of Mexico exploratory rig blowout. On June 3, 1979, the exploratory well IXTOC I blew out and ignited, burning down the platform. Divers later activated the blowout preventer to no avail.The well continued to spill oil at a rate of 10,000 to 30,000 barrels per day until it was finally capped on March 23, 1980. [NOAA]

A major deepwater blowout followed by a two-month spill occurred in 2009. In “one of Australia’s worst oil disasters,” a PTTEP oil rig blew out in the Montara oil field on August 21, 2009. Efforts to control the leaking rig set it on fire on November 1st, two days before the leak was finally plugged. Official estimates of the leak rate were five times higher than those of the oil company. [Wikipedia]

A ’spill of national significance’ exercise in 2002 concerned a major rig blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Adm. Thad Allen led a “spill of national significance” exercise in 2002 that dealt with the scenario of an oil rig exploding off the coast of Louisiana, with an “uncontrollable discharge” of oil that lasted for a month. These training exercises take place every three years as mandated by the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, the most recent of which occurred in March, 2010.

Rachel Maddow shows how the BP disaster is very similar to previous events. WATCH:

In an appearance on "Face The Nation," Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of a House energy committee investigating the oil spill, put into context BP's response to the Gulf disaster.
"I think they were either lying or incompetent. But either way,the consequences for the Gulf of Mexico are catastrophic."

"I have no confidence whatsoever in BP. I do not think they know what they are doing. .. I do not think people should really believe anything BP is saying in terms of the likelihood of anything that they are doing is going to turn out as they predicted."

"I think that without question, if the word 'criminal' should be used in terms of an environmental crime against our country, then what's going on in the Gulf of Mexico is going to qualify, yes."
If history has any relevance in this man-made disaster, the notion of a quick fix is inconceivable while further incompetence is foreseeable.

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