First, let’s review the facts:
- The spill has continued, unimpeded, for two months now.
- No advancement has been made on actually plugging the leak.
- Every attempt at plugging the leak thus far has failed, and failed totally. It’s not as if we’ve made progress and fallen just short. We haven’t done jack.
- Not only have we not made any progress in plugging the leak, the estimates of how much oil is actually leaking have grown steadily to the point where the official rate is now twelve times higher than initially released (from 5k bbl/day to 60k bbl/day) and the private estimates double the official rate (120k bbl/day).
- Before this, Exxon Valdez was the worst oil spill in American history. That took months for the initial cleanup and much of the oil spilled was unrecoverable (boom operations, the bread and butter of oil cleanup, only captures 20% of spilled crude) and continues to contaminate the area, years afterward. If current official estimates are to be believed (and they’re on the very low end of plausibility) we’ve got 15 Exxon Valdez’s already spilled in the Gulf. The equivalent of another Exxon Valdez is spilled every four days (every two days if private estimates of leak rates are true).
- We’re now in hurricane season. We’ve averaged 11 named storm systems per season for the past 53 years.
- Oil generally floats to the top of the water (exceptions to be explained later) which is the first liquid to be picked up by storm systems.
- One quart of oil contaminates 250,000 gallons of water.
- The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is located right off the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Just considering these facts here’s what I would consider to be the expected outcome (not the worst case): first, we wouldn’t need anything more than a tropical storm (of which we can expect 11 in the geographical vicinity this year) to pick up a massive quantity of oil and rain it all over the coast to an inland distance of several hundred miles (it isn’t uncommon for hard rain from a tropical storm to reach as far north as Tennessee). This oil will destroy all vegetation it lands on and poison any surface water and probably shallow water tables. These water sources are what all local wildlife subsists on and the source for all city water purification I know of. You obviously see the problem here. I can see some of the hardier trees surviving if we get enough pure rainfall immediately following a tropical storm or hurricane drenching, but all this would do is to rinse the oil into ponds, lakes, streams, rivers, and the water table; cleaning this up would be a multiple year nightmare; recovery for the region would be measured in decades.
But that’s not all of it; here’s where I outline my “worst case” scenario. The main reason they’re having such incredible problems capping the darn thing is not because of depth; it’s because of internal well pressure. In the pre-drilling geological surveys a massive methane pocket was discovered coinciding with the oil deposits; this pocket is sitting at a pressure of 100,000 psi. Current engineering technology doesn’t exist to contain something at 100,000 psi, meaning efforts to cap this puppy are useless. The presence of this methane pocket is becoming harder to ignore as 40-70% of the emissions from the leak are now comprised of natural gas (and we’re still blowing out 60,000-120,000 barrels of oil a day). Best estimates put the amount of methane leaking at 2,900 cubic feet for every barrel of oil spilled (with an estimated 4.5-9.0 billion cubic feet of methane leaked so far… and the dang thing is STILL in six digit psi).
The secondary concern here is the pressure and what happens if (more like when) it is discovered that the oil leak can’t actually be capped as it spews with that amount of internal force. The primary concern is what happens if/when the methane pocket ruptures; some estimates put its size at 15-20 miles wide (at 100,000 pounds of pressure per square inch).
If the methane bubble explodes, it would create a tsunami that would wipe out anything within dozens (and possibly hundreds) of miles of the Gulf Coast in all directions (view this animation of the 2009 tsunami in Samoa and how it spread). The tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004 wiped out between 150,000-300,000 people, some as far away as South Africa. This was caused by an earthquake that shifted the ocean floor by meters. An explosion of this size would shift the ocean floor for miles. The Gulf is touched by the Mississippi River and opens into the Caribbean where it is exposed to the Panama Canal.
I’ve just outlined what I think would be the worst case scenario. So, for fairness sake, let’s turn our attention to the best case scenario. To do that let’s assume a few things:
- The oil leak is capped today (a virtual impossibility, since BP’s most optimistic estimates don’t even put sufficient siphoning capability in the region until mid/late July). Or, let’s assume the oil runs out (yet another virtual impossibility seeing how it is still spewing out of the ground at 100,000 psi; this tells us there’s quite a bit more where that came from). But let’s assume one of these two possibilities.
- We’ve got the equivalent of between 15 and 30 Exxon Valdez’s that have spilled in the Gulf. One of the inherent traits of oil is that it separates from water and rises to the top; but this inherent trait can be temporarily suspended. Think back to grade school when one of your teachers brought in colored water and oil mixed in a two liter bottle; if you shook it hard enough you could get the two to mechanically mix and it would take a period of time for the two to separate. That’s with the strength of a fourth grader. One of the problems revealed in this video is that much of the oil, spewing out at 100,000 psi, is still sitting at the bottom of the Gulf and spreading outward from there. This has severe long term implications for the fishing and shipping industries across the Gulf states. As large a deal as other industries are made of in the Gulf States it is the Gulf itself that drives them; without a living Gulf fishing, shrimping, crabbing, oystering, and tourism are all gone. With them goes the economic viability of the area.
- With immediate concern I see the possibility of a large quantity of oil being dropped across the coast as virtually unavoidable, and with it goes the large scale poisoning of flora and fauna… and there too goes the long term economic viability of the coast.
Best case? Oil rains down within 300 miles of the Gulf Coast, poisoning flora and fauna and turning the major parts of the Gulf States into disaster areas. Large scale evacuations will have to be made in any contaminated areas simply due to the carcinogenic risk of the oil; this will create large refugee camps outside of the immediate disaster areas and the economic ripple effect will be felt nationwide; this will obviously impact the world economic scene in a negative fashion.
That’s the best case scenario.
Worst case? The methane bubble explodes, causing a tsunami that wipes out 80% of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Large portions of Texas are also destroyed. The Gulf islands and Mexico will be in the same boat. All of the oil platforms currently drilling in the Gulf would be torn away from their moorings, creating further oil leaks that would exacerbate the problems already there.
Does all of this sound fantastic and like I’m completely off of my rocker? I know it does to me, and I’m writing the dang article. But I just can’t get away from the fact that this is where the trail of evidence leads me. Three and a half million barrels of oil don’t just disappear. A methane bubble that size at those pressures doesn’t just quit pumping. So I’m asking someone to tell me that I’m nuts, and why. Tell me that none of my reasoning makes sense and what the real answers are.
By Joshua S. Burnett