A Dead Zone Was Already in the Gulf

By By Ed Wallace
June 2010

The environmental damage being done to the Gulf of Mexico is often described as the size of either New Jersey or Massachusetts so the layman can understand its vastness, and indeed its enormity. Most recently the damage has been estimated to cover almost 9,000 square miles, an area that includes some of our most important shrimp fishing grounds. And—certainly if President Barack Obama has his way with the current crisis—scientists believe that for decades into the future, his suggestions will only further expand the Dead Zone in the Gulf.

Yes, long before Deepwater Horizon, there already was an existing Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. And this 25-year-long environmental disaster was well-known to many scientists. The ignored crisis in the Gulf comes from the constantly increasing level of chemical nutrients, mostly nitrogen and phosphorus, that’s fed into the Gulf from the Mississippi River. It has caused continuing damage to some of America’s best fishing waters. The only difference between this long-term chemical Gulf disaster and the more recent oil-based problem is that virtually no one in America knew or even cared about it.

No Magic Fix

In many ways reminiscent of how it treated the recent Toyota (TM) acceleration news, runaway oil prices from 2005 to 2008, or even the mystery surrounding the death of Clinton aide Vince Foster, the media’s primary reporting thrust now seems to be exploring speculation or "exposing" missed predictions and forecasts. Not to mention trying to assign quick blame for the disaster, using the few facts that have been disclosed.

Never slow to take advantage of a crisis, Congress got its second chance in four months to stage a world-class show trial so the public can see that they are on the job.

Unfortunately, few elected officials have the background necessary to understand deep-sea oil exploration and drilling.

And granted, initially in stories covering major disasters, speculation is always rife. But 60 continuous days of speculation, if not outright evasion, without any resolution or honest answers to the questions being asked, simply frustrates and angers the public. Worse, it encourages the irrational belief that this disaster can be quickly or magically resolved.

Been There, Done That

In fact, from the first day that oil began spewing out of BP’s (BP) Macondo well, everyone who actually knows something about offshore drilling seemed to understand that closing off this gusher was going to take sizable amounts of time and money—if not luck.

Real oilmen can immediately rattle off the names of previous similar oil disasters at sea: the Piper Alpha’s sinking in 1988, the Ixtoc I oil spill in 1979, the Timbalier blowout in 1992, or Australia’s Montara well last year. They will also give the exact same response when asked specifically how to control the current disaster, and it is the same one T. Boone Pickens gave weeks ago: It’s going to take drilling relief wells to reduce the pressure of the oil, and only then can you cap the well.

This newest disaster most closely mirrors that of the Ixtoc I well, lost by Pemex 31 years ago, almost 12,000 feet down in the Gulf’s Bay of Campeche.

The drilling rig Sedco 135-F lost drilling mud circulation. The already abnormally high well pressure allowed oil to fill the drill column, which in turn led to a fire and the sinking of the Sedco platform. The leak was originally believed to be spilling 30,000 barrels a day into the Gulf of Mexico; mud (drilling fluid) was pumped into the open well to stabilize the pressure, reducing the flow of oil by a third. The second step, pumping steel and lead balls into the well, reduced the flow by half again. (BP took similar steps to control the current gusher, but unsuccessfully.)

Chemical dispersants were sprayed onto the Ixtoc I oil slick, and over the next nine months many experts were brought in to attempt to cap the well. In the end it was the successful drilling of the relief wells that reduced the oil pressure at the original wellhead. Only then was it successfully capped.

It took nine months to finish that operation, and oil still leaked from the well for another three. Today it is listed as the second-largest accidental oil spill in history, putting close to 1 million barrels of oil into the Gulf.

Of course, "nine months"—or that this accident could have been completely avoidable—is an answer that the American public simply does not want to hear.

Redundant Inoperative Systems

By pure engineering standards, all accidents are completely avoidable, so we are impatient to know the real root cause of the problem. But here impatience is not going to help because of a basic truth of engineering: Most often there won’t be one major problem found. Instead, most likely a series of mistakes and/or equipment failures culminated in the wellhead blowout and subsequent destruction of the Deepwater Horizon. It will probably take years for all the engineering studies to be completed and an accurate time line to the disaster produced.

According to one former head of an international offshore drilling company, who asked not to be identified, the focus of any investigation should be on why—since modern stack control equipment has redundant safety systems to disconnect the rig quickly from its cabling, blow the Ram and Super Shears in the wellhead, and close the well—seemingly none of them worked during this explosion.

That question may or may not have been answered in the testimony of Chris Pleasant, Transocean’s (RIG) Subsea Supervisor, in front of the U.S. Coast Guard and Minerals Management Service in late May. According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Pleasant asked Captain Curt Kuchta to hit the emergency disconnect system within moments of the onboard explosion but was told to "calm down" and hold off.

Pleasant then took it on himself to go through the sequence that would blow the underwater cables tethering the Deepwater Horizon to the well and simultaneously close off the wellhead. According to Pleasant, nothing happened, as "the signal never left the panel." Pleasant also stated that he had the authority to activate the emergency disconnect, since "it’s my equipment," but maritime law favors the captain’s decisions in these emergencies.

Ultimately the disaster will be tracked to a loss of control of the abnormal well pressures in the drilling of this well. But the critical study will need to focus on why Pleasant could not untether the drilling rig and shut off the wellhead.

In a Matter of Seconds

In any case, all of the speculation on whether BP cut corners or was involved in drilling a substandard well doesn’t matter. Up to that point, no matter how many mistakes may or may not have been made, when the Deepwater Horizon’s emergency disconnect system failed, at that exact moment, BP’s previous drilling problems became today’s disaster.

Here’s the bad news. Our oilman pointed out that fighting abnormal well pressures is a normal occurrence on offshore rigs around the world every day, but with highly trained individuals doing their job properly, few if any disasters happen. He also takes exception to the charge that BP’s crew was somehow less than adequate, because "when these things go wrong, they happen in a matter of seconds, and these individuals are trained for just that."

He added that since Deepwater Horizon exploded on Apr. 20, he has ignored media speculation—because he knows the real solution is simply to drill the relief wells, and that would take months to complete.

One note of caution: If the drill casing is shattered below the surface of the Gulf and is eroding, there is an extremely small possibility that the entire wellhead and drilling hole could collapse. If that happens, all bets are off. The entire contents of that oil reserve would then flood into the Gulf of Mexico.

Great Showmanship, Poor Statesmanship

There is your answer, the probable conclusion to the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. But it’s one the public is not likely to accept. As with the Toyota case a few months back, we want villains to blame and our pound of flesh, right now.

Politicians line up to point fingers at the other party’s complicity in the damage, while the President is seen as impotent in his response to the crisis. To be fair, few elected officials have stood up and simply told the truth on the matter. Instead they seem to relish the role of torchbearers, leading the crowds to their public stoning of the guilty.

Government by mob action does not a federal republic make.

Once again, a crisis has highlighted our duality and ambivalence about oil. Many leaders and environmentalists, for example, call this event further proof that we need to walk away from the Oil Age—and then jump into their SUVs and speed to their next appointments.

The media haven’t helped. We have learned the names of birds that were close to extinction and damaged by the oil spill, yet few can name even one of the 11 men killed in the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon. (To see their names or leave a condolence message, click here.) We are gratified that so many volunteers have quickly cleaned off the oil that covered the region’s wildlife, but we don’t want to face the fact that most of those animals have also ingested the crude and will likely not survive.

But the biggest thing we have not been informed of, especially considering the character of the current crisis, is that there was already a nearly 9,000-square-mile Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. We weren’t aware that it was caused in large part by the massive amount of fertilizer runoff from farms across our Midwest, fed into local rivers and tributaries, and carried by the Mississippi out into the Gulf.

Change No One Believes In

President Obama stated that this disaster has again taught us that we need to move more quickly to alternative energy. Apparently he was not aware of a study published in last October’s Environmental Science & Technology, which showed that the current mandate to increase ethanol production to 36 billion gallons a year by 2022 has the potential to increase the size of the Gulf’s Dead Zone substantially. More ethanol, the study concluded, would mean using even more fertilizers for biofuels crops such as corn, soy, switchgrass, and stover.

Then again, there’s a reason you know everything about the current BP disaster and so little about the Gulf’s quarter-century-old Dead Zone. It’s easy to film oil balls and plumes, animals covered in oil, and empty beaches for the nightly news stories, but water that’s hypoxic and devoid of oxygen just looks like water on your HDTV.

The president seems O.K. with trading one environmental disaster in the Gulf for another. The truth is that both can be corrected—in time.

Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, given by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and is a member of the American Historical Assn. He reviews new cars every Friday morning at 7:15 on Fox Four’s Good Day, contributes articles to Businessweek.com, and hosts the top-rated daytime talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: wheels570@sbcglobal.net, and read all of Ed’s work at his news site, www.insideautomotive.com.