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Lessons of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster

Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig on April 21, 2010. (source: US Coast Guard District 8 via Flickr)

[Ed. note: Guest contributor Professor Rick Steiner, Conservation and Sustainability Consultant, hails from Anchorage, Alaska  He is a member of the IUCN Commission on Environmental, Economic, and Social Policy.]

If one of the hallmarks of intelligence is the ability to learn from mistakes, we must not be looking very intelligent these days.

Time and again over the past few decades we have been presented with the hard, brutal facts about the costs of our addiction to oil – health impacts from air pollution, wilderness lost to drilling, wars to secure oil supplies in the Middle East, vast sums of money paid to oppressive oil-dictators, and the growing and devastating impacts of climate change. And of course, oil spills. As a former oil minister in Venezuela dubbed it, oil is indeed “el excremento del diablo” – the devil’s excrement. Despite the destructive effects of our oil addiction, we still don’t seem to want to seriously change our use of it. We are all junkies looking for the next fix. As many observers have said, we need an overwhelming, clear signal of the costs of oil in order for the public and political leaders to begin to break our century-long addiction to oil.

Today, as millions of gallons of toxic crude oil continue to spew uncontrolled from the mile-deep Deepwater Horizon blowout into the Gulf of Mexico, we are hopeful that this catastrophe will be the very catalyst we need. This may be looked at some day as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are to the nuclear industry. Indeed, the Deepwater Horizon disaster may provide our last best chance to hasten the switch to sustainable energy in time to avert global ecological and economic disaster.

This spill disaster from the Deepwater Horizon blowout at “Mississippi Canyon 252” is like no other humanity has dealt with – it is historic in its size, depth, and potential offshore impact. Here’s what we know so far.


While much still remains to be learned about causes for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, early indications are that like other disasters, it was caused by a combination of human error and mechanical failure. The drill rig had discovered a large oil reservoir about 18,000 beneath the sea floor, and were in the process of disconnecting and capping the well for a future production rig. In this process, many wells in the Gulf use a liner along with the cement casing around the well stem as it provides a better seal from gas kicks. But as this takes a little longer and costs more, BP did not install a liner in the MC 252 well. Although the rig had several dangerous gas kicks from the well in previous weeks, the rig workers were ordered to perform a dangerous procedure to expedite the disconnect. The workers removed heavy drilling mud from the well stem, and began replacing it with lighter seawater, before the concrete plugs were installed down the pipe near the top of the reservoir. Without the heavy muds and concrete plugs in place, the only safety backstop to a dangerous gas kick to the surface was the Blowout Preventer (BOP). The BOP was not built as designed, included some demonstration parts (a hydraulic ram intended to close an uncontrolled blowout), had a failed battery, and the design may not have allowed the shear ram to fully cut through the stronger well pipe.

And the well did kick gas and oil. The last entry in the well logs on the Deepwater Horizon ominously read: “10 PM 4-20-10, EXPLOSION AND FIRE.”

Stopping the blowout:

Although the BP Regional Oil Spill Response Plan for the Gulf of Mexico envisages a worst-case scenario similar to the Deepwater Horizon blowout, neither BP nor the federal government had planned for such. Blowouts are not uncommon in the U.S., and one federal study reported that 39 had occurred in a recent16-year period, half of which were caused by failed casing cement jobs. There have been catastrophic blowouts offshore as well: the 1979 Ixtoc-1 blowout in the southern Gulf of Mexico, the 1980 Funiwa No. 5 off Nigeria, the 1977 Ekofisk disaster in the North Sea, the 1980 Hasbah 6 blowout in the Persian Gulf, the Montara platform off northeast Australia just last summer, and of course the 1969 Union Oil platform blowout off Santa Barbara. And as deepwater drilling is so new (10 years or so), the reservoir pressures so high and geology so difficult, a catastrophic blowout was inevitable. (con’td.)

That neither BP nor the federal government had a plan for responding to this eventuality is truly outrageous. And with no plans in place as to how they would respond to this scenario, BP began engineering various potential solutions after the blowout occurred. This is a bit like building a fire truck after your house is on fire. The short-term options for ending the blowout include: the 90 ton Pollution Containment Chamber, which failed due to methane hydrate ice crystals clogging the narrow outlet at top; a smaller “top hat” that sits idle on the ocean floor and has not been deployed; the Riser Insertion Tube assembly, which is a pipe inserted into the broken riser pipe collecting 1200 bbls / day; a “top kill” attempt where heavy drilling muds will be injected into the BOP; a “junk shot” where shredded tires, golf balls, etc. would be shot into the BOP; and so on. As of this writing, none of these short-term fixes have worked.

The only real solution to this uncontrolled blowout is the two relief wells being drilled to intersect the failed well stem near the top of the reservoir, in which they will then attempt a “dynamic kill” where seawater, drilling muds, and then cement are injected to kill the failed well. These relief wells are now down over half way to the reservoir, but it will take many more weeks for them to complete this process. It is interesting to note that the Canadian government requires exploration wells in the Arctic Ocean to drill a relief well simultaneously with the exploration well, so that if there is a problem, the relief well is already in place and ready to go. This adds time and cost to an exploratory well, but would add considerable safety to the process.

Spill Size:

One of the similarities in all large oil spills is this: oil companies and government officials habitually understate the size and impact of spills, and they habitually overstate the effectiveness of their response. Estimates for the outflow rate from the Deepwater Horizon blowout range from 5,000 barrels / day (210,000 gallons) up to 95,000 barrels / day (4 million gallons). The actual volume likely falls within this range. Regardless of the final estimates of total oil outflow, the size of the Deepwater Horizon spill is huge, and perhaps has already surpasses the largest accidental oil spill in history – the 1979 Ixtoc blowout in the southern Gulf of Mexico that spilled an estimated 130 million gallons in the 9 months it took to bring the blowout under control. And the simple answer to the question of how much has spilled is this: too much.

Spill Response:

Something we have learned in every large marine oil spill around the world deserves repeating here — once oil is spilled, the battle is lost, and the damage is done. Oil spill response and “cleanup” has never been effective, and a 10% recovery rate is considered a “successful” response by most experienced responders. Indeed, “oil spill cleanup” is a pretentious façade, that has never worked effectively, and it seems to serve more of a palliative and public relations role. And rehabilitating oiled wildlife and ecosystems is impossible, but must be tried. The BP OSRP for the Gulf called for the deployment within 72 hours of response equipment capable of recovering over 450,000 barrels of oil per day, but obviously this didn’t happen. The plan also called for attention to “walruses, sea otters, and sea lions” which of course do not occur in the region, indicating they simply cut-and-pasted parts of the Gulf oil spill plan from other regions, likely Alaska. And the link provided for a list of equipment from their main response contractor – the Marine Spill Response Corporation – takes you instead to a comical Japanese home shopping network.

Although mechanical recovery of oil from the sea surface is the preferred method for all spill response, as it attempts to remove oil from the marine environment, it has been largely ineffective in this spill because the oil is so emulsified with sea water that its density is approximately the same as sea water, and mostly just sinks beneath the booms when contact is made. The sorbent booms along shorelines are collecting some of the oil before it reaches the shore, but the oil is still reaching the beaches. From sand beaches, it is relatively easy cleanup task – remove the contaminated sand. But as the oil enters the sensitive muddy wetland marshes along the north Gulf coast, it will not be possible to remove without causing more damage. There may be opportunity to add fertilizers to enhance the indigenous bacteria community, to aid biodegradation of the oil in the marsh muds, but even this may be of limited help.

The chemical dispersants being used on the surface and at the blowout are a particular concern. Never has there been such heavy use of chemical dispersant in any oil spill response. The product being used – Corexit 9500 – is intended to break oil into smaller droplets in order to speed natural breakdown into harmless substances. The problem is that the dispersant is itself toxic, the oil is even more toxic, and research has shown that the combination of the oil and dispersant is even more toxic than the sum of the individual toxicities alone – there is a synergistic toxicity. Further, if the dispersant works as intended, it will simply transfer the impact from the sea surface down deeper into the water column, thereby exposing the upper water column biological community to more toxic contamination. As the dispersed oil mixture is know to be very toxic, the cardinal rule in use of dispersants is to never use them in shallow water near shore as this would contaminate the productive sea bed communities. In the Deepwater Horizon, the offshore surface waters contaminated with oil / dispersant have flowed up the continental shelf, and into shallow inshore estuaries, thereby contaminating the productive inshore habitat from surface to seabed. Plus, if the dispersant is working as designed, it will make mechanical recovery from the sea surface virtually impossible.

The dispersant use at-depth at the blowout is a novel approach, having never been attempted before. This use should only be allowed if it is conclusively shown that the oil droplet size exiting the jet plume from the blowout can be significantly reduced by the addition of the chemical dispersant. I have asked both the U.S. NOAA and EPA for any data that show this, and at the time of writing, none have been provided. In fact, to date EPA’s monitoring of dispersant and oil in water, sediment and air is all conducted near shore.

Further, when the Coast Guard and EPA ordered BP to find a less toxic dispersant on May 19, BP responded essentially “no.” Their letter responding to the government directive contained a number of factual and typographical errors, and they missed any discussion of one dispersant – JD-2000 – that is not only far less toxic than Corexit and other products, but it is also far more effective on south Louisiana crude oil. In response to BP’s “no”, the U.S. government simply said: ‘well OK, then please use less of the substandard product.’

Impacts –

Despite what some oil company executives would have us believe, oil, water, fish, and wildlife actually don’t mix. BP CEO Tony Hayward’s statement that the environmental damage from the Deepwater Horizon disaster will be “very, very modest,” is simply one of the most arrogant, ignorant, callous statements I have ever heard from any corporate CEO during a crisis such as this.

The environmental damage from the Gulf spill has already been, and will continue to be, enormous. Whenever thousands of tons of toxic hydrocarbons are spilled into a productive coastal and marine ecosystem, the damage will unavoidably be serious. The State of Louisiana lists some 600 species at risk from this spill – 445 species of fish, 45 mammals, 32 reptiles and amphibians, and 134 bird species.

And as this spill is so unique, with so much oil coming into the sea at 5000 feet deep and 50 miles from shore, the impacts will be very different than in most other surface spills with which people are more familiar.

Research on other relatively deepwater oil releases has shown that these releases behave in a very different, more complicated manner than shallow water blowouts. In the deepwater blowouts, the lighter oil tends to quickly phase-separate, some dissolves into surrounding seawater, the gas forms methane hydrates and precipitates to the seabed, and the lighter components emulsify with seawater and rise to the sea surface to form the surface slicks we are seeing in the Gulf of Mexico. But the heavier components of the oil (asphaltines etc.) from deepwater blowouts have been found to rise to a “terminal depth” at which point they lose buoyancy (called the Neutral Buoyancy Level) and then hover in the water column. With this understanding, it is probable that a significant amount of the oil from the Deepwater Horizon blowout has yet to surface, and remains entrained at depth, drifting with deepwater and midwater currents beneath the ocean surface. One of the only research vessels that has studied the Deepwater Horizon blowout – the R/V Pelican – detected evidence of these deepwater plumes trending southwest from the blowout. But so far, the federal government has conducted little biological monitoring of the impacts of the spill on the offshore pelagic ecosystem. The subsurface plumes likely remain toxic longer than at oil at the surface, as the water is colder than at the surface (40 degrees), and there is no sunlight to aid photo oxidation. And if the application of dispersant at the blowout site is working as planned, there is far more subsurface oil in the water column, and less on the surface.

What all this means is that the impacts from the Deepwater Horizon spill will largely be offshore, in the pelagic (or water column) ecosystem. There has already been significant contamination of shorelines and fragile marshes, but the greater damage will be offshore, in the water, and out of sight of traditional observations. It is perhaps a conventional chauvinism of terrestrial primates (Homo sapiens) to be more concerned about impacts we see on or near shore, but the greatest impact from this spill will almost certainly be in the pelagic offshore ecosystem.

This includes damage to what are known as “charismatic mega fauna” – dolphins, whales, sea birds, sea turtles, and so on. But significantly, the damage from this spill will be felt in the productive and critical pelagic ecosystem that to most people is out-of-sight, out-of-mind. This damage has without doubt already been enormous. The Gulf of Mexico is a critical spawning habitat for many large fish species – blue fin tuna, blue marlin, white marlin, and sailfish. The eggs and larvae from these important fish species are floating in the upper water column of the north Gulf right now, and a significant amount of these larvae have undoubtedly been exposed to the toxic underwater cloud of oil and dispersant. These larvae are known to be highly vulnerable to such hydrocarbon toxicity, and even the lightest exposure can cause death. Short of acute mortality, these fish eggs and larvae can also suffer sub-lethal, chronic injury such as respiratory, cardiovascular, nerve, organ tissue, and genetic damage that may not kill for months or years into the future. It is without question that the oil spill has caused a significant impact to these fish populations. Further, the entire pelagic zooplankton community is at risk of significant exposure and injury from the spill as well.

In the deepwater Gulf of Mexico, there are two precious seabed habitats that are at considerable risk of oil-injury as well: deepwater coral reefs and the remarkable chemosynthetic cold-seep ecosystems. There are many deepwater (cold water) coral systems across the continental shelf of the Gulf, including the well known “Pinnacles” reefs at 300-500 m deep stretching some 60 miles along the shelf edge just 25 miles inshore of the blowout. And the strange seabed ecosystems that surround natural deepwater methane seeps in the Gulf are vulnerable as well. Organisms in these cold-seep systems derive their energy directly from the methane – chemosynthesis – rather than normal plant derived energy from sunlight in surface ecosystems – photosynthesis. The cold seep systems host a variety of species new to science, and that are endemic to these isolated habitats.

The inshore and shoreline impacts of the spill will be huge as well. As the oil / dispersant mixture is scattered down throughout the water column inshore, the critical inshore habitat for the two most important commercial fisheries in the area – menhaden and shrimp – has suffered significant contamination. Oil in the marshes has already begun to kill coastal vegetation that stabilizes the ever-shifting sediment substrate, thus making coastal wetlands more vulnerable to erosion. And when the first hurricane sweeps through the coastal area this summer, any oil on the surface, in the water, or in the near shore sediment will be re-suspended and flow with the storm surge into wetlands that had not been previously contaminated.

And the oil is still on the move. It has already reached the upper lobe of the Gulf of Mexico Loop current that moves a huge volume of Gulf water southeast toward the southern tip of Florida 450 miles away. Deepwater Horizon oil will almost certainly drift around the southern tip of Florida and up part of the Atlantic coast of Florida. As well, near shore surface currents are carrying the oil west, toward Texas. And the deepwater plumes will move with deep currents, some toward the southwest as has already been detected.

We know from other oil spills that the environmental damage can be long lasting, and some of it may not be evident for years to come. The ecological injury from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska is today still evident. Twenty one years later, two thirds of the fish and wildlife populations injured by the spill have yet to fully recover, some are not recovering at all, and thousands of gallons of toxic oil remain in Alaska beaches. A warmer environment as in the Gulf will certainly aid the natural degradation of the oil there, but the environmental damage may still last for years to come.

In addition to the environmental damage from the Deepwater Horizon spill, there has been and will continue to be extraordinary social and economic damage. Human communities may turn corrosive, with higher indices of substance abuse, domestic abuse, and emotional distress. And the economic injury due to closure of fisheries and tourism businesses will be huge as well.

Litigation –

In the early days of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, I was told by oil industry insiders that “lawyers yet to be born will work on this spill.” This unfortunately turned out to come true. The same may be the case for the Deepwater Horizon spill. Regardless, it is impossible to adequately compensate people whose lives are turned upside down by these disasters. But if money is the only thing that a large multination oil company like BP understands, then money, lots of it, should be paid. While US law limits their financial liability to only response costs and $75 million, this absurdly low liability limit will be eliminated when/if gross negligence is proven. This will be the focus of private and government attorneys in coming months and years.


There are many lessons from this disaster, and we owe it to ourselves, the people and the environment that have been devastated by this event to heed and apply those lessons.

Offshore drilling safety –

As long as we continue to use oil, we must insist that it be produced and transported as safely and responsibly as possible. If we are to continue drilling for oil and gas offshore, we need to everything possible to reduce the risk of such disasters. This must include more attention to safety details in every aspect of the drilling operation, including well casing liners, cement jobs, procedures for disconnecting from wells, better Blowout Preventers, and the requirement to drill relief wells simultaneously with exploratory wells. It also must include more proficient government oversight. Breaking the Mineral Management Service into 3 separate agencies is a start, but is little more than a palliative that papers over the fundamental problem. We will still have the very same mid-level managers in the Department of Interior choosing between production and revenue on the one hand, and environmental protection and worker safety on the other. Perhaps this is a good time to rekindle serious discussion of the establishment of a cabinet-level Department of the Oceans, and prioritizing safety and environment over revenue and production.

Industry should be required to install Best Available Technology in every aspect of their offshore operations – equipment, personnel, and drilling procedures – even if this additional safety margin is far more expensive. And industry and government need to get very serious about developing options for containment of deepwater blowouts before they occur, not during the crisis. Surely we can engineer more effective blowout containment technologies, construct them, and have them at the ready for any such eventuality in the future.

No-drilling zones –

In systems theory there is a concept called “sub-optimization”: doing in the best possible way something that should never be done at all. This is the case for much offshore drilling. Even with the highest safety standards we can apply to this, there will always be a significant risk of another such catastrophic blowout. People will make mistakes, equipment will fail, and corporate executives will always look to cut corners and costs. Given this, we will have to be more cautious about what offshore areas we want to expose to this risk, and which areas are simply too extreme or precious to do so. I would suggest that the deep ocean and the sea ice covered Arctic Ocean are places where we should place off-limits to drilling, as it is perfectly clear that industry cannot respond to blowouts in these difficult and sensitive ocean environments.

Citizen oversight –

We have learned that effective citizen engagement and oversight is key to reducing the complacency and atrophy of vigilance in both industry and government that leads to disasters like the Deepwater Horizon. We established two Regional Citizens Advisory Councils in Alaska, funded by the oil industry but operating independently, to provide citizen oversight of oil industry operations that can affect local people and environments. These councils have proven effective, and are being used as models for the establishment of such citizens’ oversight councils throughout the world. All offshore oil regions and oil shipping ports and waterways should have such Citizens’ Advisory Councils. As well, the Gulf Oil Spill Commission to look in-depth at the current disaster is absolutely crucial in getting an independent analysis of what went wrong, and how to prevent such in the future.

Sustainable Energy –

Someone said recently that we should never let a disaster go to waste. Indeed, if all we fix out of the Deepwater Horizon disaster is offshore drilling safety and government oversight of such, we will have missed the crucial lesson of this tragedy – the we need to hasten our urgently needed transition to an economy based on sustainable, clean, efficient energy, rather than the wasteful, costly fossil fuel economy we now have.

For too long, “easy” energy (coal and oil) has made us lazy and wasteful, our governments corrupt, and industry greedy, arrogant, and sloppy. It is now time for all of us to grow up on this issue, and do the hard work necessary to wean ourselves from fossil fuel. The Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska in 1989 succeeded only in improving tanker safety around the world. It did not, as many of us hoped at the time, usher in a new push for energy efficiency and low-carbon alternative energy development. We absolutely must do better with the present disaster.

We know that we are entering the end of the age of oil, and we are on the cusp of a long-overdue transition to sustainable energy. This is not just possible, it is inevitable — it is essential. Oil and other fossil fuels are finite resources; we are at or beyond Peak Oil (more than half of available global oil has been used already), and there is no longer any room for the additional carbon from fossil fuels in the global atmosphere and oceans. Fossil fuel companies know this, governments know this, Wall Street knows this, science knows this, and all of us know this on some level. Yet we continue to act as though we know none of this, delaying our reckoning with our energy/climate crisis to some future time.

If we haven’t gotten the message by now that our addiction to oil is literally killing us and our home planet, then we can only hope this disaster will do so, once and for all. The Gulf spill is, or should be, a game-changer. There must be no more equivocation, no more double speak, no more excuses, no filibusters, no games, no back-room deals, no more slick corporate sophistry and pretend “corporate social responsibility.”

We must now collectively insist on a massive, urgent, concerted, well-funded transition to a sustainable energy economy. Not just in word, but in deed. We must now put a high price (tax) on carbon-intensive fossil fuels that reflect their true costs, and subsidize energy efficiency and clean, low-carbon energy alternatives. Those in government and industry who still don’t understand this simple fact should be called to task.

The Obama administration, which campaigned on a platform of transition to sustainable energy, needs to suspend entirely its recently released plan for more oil drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), and take full advantage of this wake up call to take us in a new direction.

So far, the signs are not encouraging that the Deepwater Horizon lessons have been recognized and will be heeded by government and industry. But there is still hope. The main question now is whether, after this disaster, we will simply return to business as usual, or use this to catalyze a transition to a new, sustainable reality. It is our choice, and let’s hope that we choose wisely.

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Rick Steiner

Rick Steiner