Rachel's segment on the 1979 Ixtoc I oil spill was instructive. It follows the same conclusions I've seen in my research; namely, solutions for stopping undersea oil leaks haven't changed much over the years. Not only haven't they changed, they're as destructive to the environment as the spill itself.
Even though the Ixtoc spill occurred in 200 feet of water, it is on record as the second worst oil spill in history. The worst in history was the intentional destruction and dumping of oil resources in the Persian gulf by Saddam Hussein at the end of the first Iraq war. Despite studies and simulators, there is very little new technology to fight an out-of-control oil leak. Here are the options:
- Isolate the well - This is the "top hat" method that didn't work on the Deepwater Horizon spill, where a cement dome was to be lowered onto the leaking pipe.
- Plug the hole - This is the "top kill" method BP is using now to stanch the flow of oil until they can encase the opening in cement and finish drilling relief wells to pull the pressure away from this one. This method failed in the Ixtoc spill effort.
- Drill relief wells - This is the best and most effective measure to stop the flow. It's also the longest-term solution. It took months for the Ixtoc relief wells to take effect and stop the flow from the blown well. In the best case, the "top kill" method will buy enough time for relief wells to come online and control the leakage.
I've been struggling to understand all the nuances of the debate in front of us with regard to offshore drilling. It's easy to frame it as Big Oil versus the Environment, but there's more to it than that. Jobs, state economies, and even our national economy can rise or fall based upon oil prices and availability. If we were to stop drilling in the Gulf tomorrow, the economic impact would likely devastate an already-fragile economic truce.
And yet, there is an unmistakable arrogance to the studies I read about the relative safety of drilling offshore. Many of these studies refer to "better safety measures" and "environmental protection". I don't see it. The same methods and technology are being used to drill wells today as were used 30 years ago. Go no further than the video at the top of the page for evidence.
If we have to accept offshore drilling, it seems to me it should be on our terms, not theirs, for a finite period of time, and with a goal of making a scheduled shift with defined benchmarks to alternative energy sources.