Monday, August 30, 2010

Crude Oil Spill Control and Mitigation Technologies: An Arrested Development?

From the 1979 era “world’s worst” crude oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to the BP Deep Water Horizon spill of April 20, 2010, has crude oil spill control and mitigation technologies moving sideways for over 30 years?

By: Ringo Bones

When it comes to the worst ever industrial accident scenarios with the greatest environmental impact being prophesised by environmentalists during the past 50 years, nobody would have predicted that crude oil spills would claim their title as the top undisputed industrial disaster with the greatest environmental impact. Nuclear fission power plant accidents and chemical spills were predicted as the most probable industrial accidents that could irreparably ruin the environment and drive humanity to extinction. Yet now, it is a toss up between crude oil spills and irreversible global warming and climate change related environmental disasters caused by our insatiable “addiction” to crude oil that may spell the end of mankind. Similar crude oil spills had happened before, but the methods of mitigation and control stayed the same for 31 years despite of the increase of our consumption for the black stuff.

Back in July 3, 1979, a Mexican crude oil well named Ixtoc I began spewing crude oil in the Gulf of Campeche. By the middle of August 1979, millions of gallons of crude stretched nearly 1,000 miles (1,600-km) towards Texas and Louisiana, threatening a number of fragile wildlife habitats and a popular resort area on Padre Island. Attempts to contain the slick with booms continued into the fall of 1979, while crews worked to cap the well. Although relatively little of the crude oil reached the United States back then, more than 5 miles (8-km) of beaches were contaminated, and some of the spill remained adrift. And the full scope of such environmental disaster took years to fully assess.

Back in July 21, 1979, what could have been then the largest crude oil spill in history via supertanker mishap was narrowly averted when two supertankers filled with crude oil collided and burned at the eastern edge of the Caribbean Sea, just north of the island of Tobago. Timely cleanup response and favourable sea currents prevented extensive crude oil contamination of lucrative Caribbean beaches and thus averted what might have been – back in pre Exxon Valdez supertanker accident days – the largest crude oil spill via supertanker in history. Two supertankerfuls worth of crude oil burned at virtually 0 miles per gallon mileage rating.

Prior to the Exxon Valdez crude oil spill of 1989 and the BP Deep Water Horizon spill of April 20, 2010, the Gulf of Campeche - and potentially the Tobago coast collision of two oil supertankers of July 21, 1979 – were considered the worst crude oil spill in history. The Ixtoc I off the Gulf of Campeche contaminated the Gulf of Mexico with more than 100-million gallons (378.5-million liters) of crude oil. Back in 1979, the full environmental consequence of the tragedy was only assessed several years later.

Booms, caps, top kill and controlled burning, it seems that crude oil spill control and mitigation technologies seems to have stayed the same since 1979. And yet we are drilling offshore wells that are even too deep for helium-oxygen mix saturation divers to maintain at ever greater numbers just to satisfy our insatiable demand for crude oil. Due to our failure – and our government’s indifference to energy use conservation programs – we are transporting crude in ever greater quantities via supertankers whose spill control and mitigation measures remained unchanged for over 30 years. No, Mother Nature won’t be killed off via nuclear waste and polychlorinated biphenyls, crude oil will be the death knell for all of us.

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