Spill on the brain

June 14, 2010
It's probably just as difficult to write in this confined space about the ongoing oil spill in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico as it is not to.

It's probably just as difficult to write in this confined space about the ongoing oil spill in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico as it is not to.

I say difficult because so much has already been written since Apr. 20, when news first broke about the runaway Macondo well, which was being drilled by BP PLC using Transocean Ltd.'s Deepwater Horizon semisubmersible on Mississippi Canyon Block 252 off Louisiana when it blew out, ignited and sank the rig, and started an oil spill of disastrous proportions. After all that's been reported, what more light could be shed on an incident that has reached such infamy and will undoubtedly be the subject of debate for years?

Conversely, it's not such a difficult topic to write about because since that fateful day, OGJ editors have done exactly what their readers always expect: They've made best efforts to uncover answers to difficult questions such as why did this happen? How can industry keep it from happening again? And what will it mean for the future of deepwater drilling in the US?

Many of these questions will likely be answered in time as the incident comes under increasing scrutiny by an angry president, an interrogative Congress, and a chagrined and saddened public.

History lesson

This latest devastating incident is not the first of its kind in gulf waters. Some long-time OGJ editors, upon hearing mention of the blowout and resulting spill, quickly recalled the Ixtoc wildcat, which blew out in mid-1979 after reaching 11,863 ft in 164 ft of water in Campeche Sound off Mexico (OGJ, June 11, 1979, p. 33).

Ixtoc was being drilled by Petroleos Mexicanos when it blew out, resulting in what is now known as the second-largest accidental spill in history.

The Ixtoc blowout discharged an estimated 10,000-30,000 b/d of oil into the gulf until capped nearly 10 months later on Mar. 23, 1980.

Certain initial efforts to stem the flow of hydrocarbons from Ixtoc eerily resemble those being tried more than 3 decades later with Macondo. Attempts made on Ixtoc included capping the well with a type of "steel hat," placing steel balls and other materials into the well in a kind of "junk shot," and drilling at least one relief well.

In the case of Ixtoc, however, only the relief well was ultimately successful in stopping the oil's flow. In BP's current situation, the company's lower marine riser package, lowered June 3 onto the well's damaged riser, would appear to have been a success in capturing at least a portion of the escaping oil and gas (see related story, p. 21).

At this column's writing last week, the drilling of two relief wells continued near the site of the Deepwater Horizon rig's sinking, completion of which is expected sometime in August.

Water depth differed greatly between the Pemex and BP wells, which has complicated the more recent spill's recovery efforts. Oil from the Pemex well, in shallow water, floated more readily to the surface, while flow from BP's well, in water 30 times as deep, has drifted into even deeper water than the location of the wellhead itself. Time will tell what further complications are encountered by oil spill responders.

A different world

Covering these two events for OGJ has its similarities and differences as well. In at least one way they are the same because reporting on topics of such magnitude demands a necessary seriousness: to get facts correct, to report event changes quickly, and to do so with OGJ readers' focused informational needs in mind.

Despite this similarity, however, coverage of the Ixtoc event differs from present day. Frequency, for one, is different. OGJ reporters covering the Ixtoc event wrote weekly stories for print publication in OGJ.

For BP's spill, however, OGJ staffers such as Senior Staff Writer Paula Dittrick and Washington Editor Nick Snow, who continue to be instrumental in covering the spill and its operational, political, and legislative aftermath, are able to inform OGJ readers with greater frequency via OGJ Online's web site—a more-timely informational vehicle that was nonexistent in Ixtoc's time.

Also, the way in which information is disseminated to the press and public differs. It was amazing, for example, to view real-time online images of operations being conducted by remotely operated vehicles nearly a mile beneath the ocean's surface through the use of numerous video cameras.

Ultimately, one can hope that something positive comes from this tragedy. That soon after the gushing oil is stopped, the spilled oil cleaned up, and the last company executive or industry specialist questioned, that industry can move forward, somehow changed in the brain by the whole chain of events, and wiser and more cautious from the experience.

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