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Health & Science

Oil And Gas Historian Offers Long View On Recent Spill

It will be days before BP learns if the “top kill” procedure it started today has stopped the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Here in Houston, a local oil and gas historian is not very optimistic. Tyler priest has studied the history of offshore drilling, including the accidents. Carrie Feibel spoke with the University of Houston professor and got his perspective.


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Unfortunately, the Deepwater Horizon blowout looks like it could surpass what was, until now, the most notorious oil accident in the Gulf of Mexico. That was the Ixtoc spill, which sent tarballs as far north as the beaches of South Padre Island.

“I mean the only thing that compares is the Ixtoc blowout in the bay of Campeche, in Mexico’s bay of Campeche in 1979. And that was flowing at somewhere in the vicinity of 30,000 barrels a day for many months.”

After the Ixtoc blew, engineers tried many of the solutions we’ve already learned about. They tried a top kill. They tried to lower a containment device over the leak, except back then they called it the “sombrero solution” instead of a top-hat. They tried to re-activate the blowout preventer. Nothing worked except drilling two relief wells. And that took ten months, with oil spewing oil the whole time.

Although the technology has improved, this blowout is much deeper than the Ixtoc, which was only under 150 feet of under. Professor and Director of Global Studies Tyler Priest still isn’t betting on the top kill.

“It may slow the well a little bit. It will be miraculous if it works and they are able to cement the well and shut it down.”

Priest says that the larger historical trend seems to be that it takes a big spill or explosion to force a big advance in safety rules and regulations.

“It takes an accident like this to focus the attention of the public and the government, focus the attention of the companies themselves.”

The problem is that new regulations are then oriented toward preventing re-occurrences of past disasters, not future ones.

“It doesn’t mean they were unprepared. I mean the industry and the government did a lot in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez and the Oil Pollution Control Act of 1990 to improve oil spill technology, you know the booms and the dispersants and the skimmers and the monitoring. Those were all at the ready. They were prepared for that, but they weren’t prepared for an uncontrolled blowout in 5,000 feet of water. If their first response was to build a containment chamber, if this was plan A, why weren’t they built already? And it’s not to say that BP should have built them, the industry should have built them. The companies should have been talking together and it seems to me BP is approaching this in a very post-hoc way.”

New regulations are coming, and Priest says they’ll focus, yet again, on what happened with this accident.

“They’re gonna learn a lot from this, and everything they learn will be incorporated into a new regulatory program and new operating practices but that’s of little comfort to the people in Louisiana right now.”

Carrie Feibel KUHF NEWS.