email a friend iconprinter friendly iconGulf Oil Spill
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Fifty miles offshore, a mile underwater on the seafloor, BP's Macondo well was spewing something like an Exxon Valdez every four days. In late April an explosive blowout of the well had turned the Deepwater Horizon, one of the world's most advanced drill rigs, into a pile of charred and twisted metal at the bottom of the sea. The industry had acted as if such a catastrophe would never occur. So had its regulators. Nothing like it had happened in the Gulf of Mexico since 1979, when a Mexican well called Ixtoc I blew out in the shallow waters of the Bay of Campeche. Drilling technology had become so good since then, and the demand for oil so irresistible, that oil companies had sailed right off the continental shelf into ever deeper waters.

To many people in industry and government, spills from tankers like the Exxon Valdez seemed a much larger threat. The Minerals Management Service (MMS), the federal agency that regulated offshore drilling, had claimed that the chances of a blowout were less than one percent, and that even if one did happen, it wouldn't release much oil. Big spills had become a rarity, said Ploen. "Until this one."

In the Houma building, more than a thousand people were trying to organize a cleanup unlike any the world had seen. Tens of thousands more were outside, walking beaches in white Tyvek suits, scanning the waters from planes and helicopters, and fighting the expanding slick with skimmers, repurposed fishing boats, and a deluge of chemical dispersants. Around the spot Ploen called simply "the source," a small armada bobbed in a sea of oil. A deafening roar came from the drill ship Discoverer Enterprise as it flared off methane gas captured from the runaway well. Flames also shot from another rig, the Q4000, which was burning oil and gas collected from a separate line attached to the busted blowout preventer. Nearby, two shrimp boats pulling fire boom were burning oil skimmed from the surface, creating a curving wall of flame and a towering plume of greasy, black smoke. Billions of dollars had already been spent. But millions of barrels of light, sweet crude were still snaking toward the barrier islands, marshes, and beaches of the Gulf of Mexico.

The waters of the Gulf below a thousand feet are a relatively new frontier for oilmen—and one of the toughest places on the planet to drill. The seafloor falls off the gently sloping continental shelf into jumbled basin-and-range-like terrain, with deep canyons, ocean ridges, and active mud volcanoes 500 feet high. More than 2,000 barrels of oil a day seep from scattered natural vents. But the commercial deposits lie deeply buried, often beneath layers of shifting salt that are prone to undersea earthquakes. Temperatures at the seafloor are near freezing, while the oil reservoirs can hit 400 degrees Fahrenheit; they're like hot, shaken soda bottles just waiting for someone to pop the top. Pockets of explosive methane gas and methane hydrates, frozen but unstable, lurk in the sediment, increasing the risk of a blowout.

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