Shoddy Work, Shabby Excuses

Lessons from the BP debacle

The Deepwater Horizon disaster will probably be remembered as the most severe environmental catastrophe of the early twenty-first century—an accident that would have been as easy to prevent as it is now difficult to clean up.

Every oil or gas rig ought to be able to anticipate and respond to the kind of problems that led to the spill (gas “kicks,” equipment malfunctions, operator errors). These are routine problems encountered by every drilling operation, but that does not mean they should be taken lightly. BP’s deep-sea well obviously posed a big risk, and it should not have been drilled without contingency plans, proven shutoff methods, and backup equipment ready to be used. Blowouts happen even in well-developed and comparatively stable oil and gas fields, and recent years have seen several underwater blowouts off the coasts of Mexico and Australia. Deep-sea wells are often under such immense geological pressure that oil oozes out of natural seeps in the sea floor against the pressure of five thousand feet of ocean (measured in tons per square inch). Which means that this kind of drilling is like punching a hole in a pressurized propane tank.

In the case of the Deepwater Horizon, all that pressure was released straight up through the borehole, destroying the rig, killing eleven members of the crew, and pumping millions of gallons of crude oil and natural gas out into the Gulf of Mexico. The toxic slick has now spread across millions of acres of...

To read the rest of this article please login or become a subscriber.

About the Author

Tom Speight is an environmental scientist and certified hazardous materials manager who works on assessment and cleanup projects.