“In the absence of rigorous regulatory scrutiny, oil companies are tempted to take shortcuts that may not have led to disaster in the past, but could be catastrophic where the margins of safety are lower.”
When the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig caught fire and sank in the Gulf of Mexico, rupturing the riser pipe, it kick-started a chain of failures that highlighted just how susceptible oil drilling equipment can be, and how compromised it can be if companies choose to take short-cuts when drilling in areas with little margin for error.
The oil spill is of course well documented, and could still end up going down in history as the biggest oil spill catastrophe in history across the globe, not just on the boarders of the US. Early estimates put the spill at 1000 barrels a day gushing out the crippled riser pipe, which then grew to 5000 barrels after new estimates from the US Coast Guard and more recently, (and alarmingly), the estimate has risen to 70,000 barrels, after video footage was released of the engorging pipe. If the most recent estimates are to be believed, then the oil entering the Gulf of Mexico would be equivalent to the Exxon Valdez disaster every four days. If this is the case then the environmental impact could be felt for decades.
Already there are over 70 lawsuits being filed against BP, the British oil giant who rented the Deepwater Horizon and Transocean, the rig landlord. The US senate has given its ten cents worth and criticised BP and Transocean for shirking responsibility and pointing the finger of blame at each other.
Democratic Senator Ron Wyden was the most vocal to call out BP, citing a "pattern of serious safety and environmental problems." The focus is centered on the remotely controlled trigger that would supposedly cut off the supply of leaking oil. The trigger is not mandatory and therefore the US government must shoulder some of the responsibility. The trigger costs $500,000 to install and although there is no certainty it would have operated at 5000 feet below the surface, it was still overlooked by BP.
Is current oil drilling equipment good enough?
Despite all of their posturing, the issue for BP and other oil producers is this: Do we have the right equipment to do the job? And if we don't, do we have good fail-safe equipment? BP neglected to install the $500,000 trigger which may or may not have operated successfully given the dramatic events that unfolded moments before the Deepwater Horizon rig sank.
But there may be deeper issues, both figuratively and metaphorically. The fact is oil is harder to obtain now than it was ten years ago, and as a result the oil industry is undergoing a transition from easy to reach oil wells to deeper, more dangerous targets as the global demand for crude increases, not lessens.
In order for BP and other oil companies to quench the thirst of the world's oil quota they are drilling deeper underwater, and in waters on the continental slope. This technically demanding drilling requires complex equipment and reduces the room for error. And as those watching the spread of crude throughout the Gulf of Mexico can attest, it also makes repair of crippled riser pipes and underwater wells that much more challenging.
Comparisons with Lusi mud volcano in Indonesia
The catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico bares stark comparisons with the Lusi mud volcano in Indonesia, which many have suggested was triggered by deep exploratory drilling in an environment with little room for error. In the Lusi case, those drilling failed to seal the well, which eventually led to the blow-out of catastrophic proportions. Like the Gulf of Mexico spill, both deep drilling adventures have caused a catastrophic impact on the environment.
With demand increasing, and supply dwindling, simple math dictates that more catastrophic spills and blow-outs are likely on the horizon. More drilling will take place in environmental hot-spots and difficult areas, where accidents like the Gulf of Mexico spill - major, hard to stem leaks - are likely to happen with more frequency. Safety regulations should be evolving to adjust to this new reality, resulting in better legislation for equipment like blow-out valves and shut-off triggers, and the necessary equipment in place to tackle a sprung leak.
After all, in the absence of rigorous regulatory scrutiny, oil companies are tempted to take shortcuts that may not have led to disaster in the past, but could be catastrophic where the margins of safety are lower.
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