Understanding the Deepwater Horizon Disaster

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The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20 has ballooned into an environmental and economic issue of extreme importance. What was at first reported as one of the worst oil drilling accidents of the last 50 years has evolved into an economic and environmental disaster that may dwarf the Exxon Valdez spill. An oil slick, currently larger than the state of Rhode Island, amoebas towards the United States coast, along the way wreaking havoc on the sea life in its path, releasing toxic chemicals into the air, and changing the political debate on offshore drilling. At risk are wetlands that serve as a buffer against storms, sea creatures that fishermen depend on for their livelihoods, energy prices that were softening in the current market, and tourism along the Gulf Coast.

Here's a quick five-point primer on understanding what happened based on an aggregation of news reports. Please click on the individual links included below from The New York Times, LA Times, NPR, Bloomberg, Business Insurance, Politico, the AP, and others for in-depth explanations.

5. What Happened? On April 20th, a drilling rig contracted to oil giant BP blew up while exploratory drilling in 5,000-feet of water in the Macondo prospect, 50 miles off the Lousiana coast. Eleven of the 126 workers on the rig went missing and are presumed dead. It was unclear what caused the explosion, but experts think there was an accidental ignition of natural gas or oil. BP's chairman recently said the explosion occurred because of faulty equipment, after accusations the company's safety record suggested negligence. Initial reports a day after the explosion indicated environmental damage appeared minimal. Then, the rig went from leaning at a 10-degree angle to sinking two days after the explosion.

4. The Immediate Economics: The slick grew as experts discovered three leaks spewing an estimated 5,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf a day. The coming economic and environmental cost morphed into something frightening. Economic estimates put the current damage over $1 billion. Much of the money to address that damage may come from the $1.6 billion government reserve meant to clean up oil spills. The government taxes oil companies 8 cents a barrel, and that money helps build up the reserve. The offshore oil rig company is responsible for up to $75 million in liability. The government can go after BP for cleanup costs. As of May 1, 36 lawsuits were filed by beachfront property owners, fishermen, and others who will be directly affected by the spill. Consumers across the country may see a spike in seafood prices in local supermarkets.

3. Can It Be Stopped? As more data was gathered about the spill, officials and engineers struggled with how to stop the flow. This article by Henry Fountain in the New York Times describes how the leak occurred, and addresses possible solutions. The summary? A fail-safe process to cap the leaking structure after the explosion failed. Researchers now have a bunch of ideas about how to stop the flow, but none that are certain to work immediately.

From Fountain's article:
Like Apollo-program engineers, who 40 years ago (and also in Houston) cobbled together a long-distance fix to save the crippled spacecraft and its crew, these experts are trying something far beyond routine: shutting down an underwater out-of-control well by remote control. And at a mile below the surface, the work site might as well be halfway to the moon.

2. Preventing Damage: As officials and engineers try to figure out how to stop the flow, a rag-tag community of fishermen, Coast Guard, NOAA, USFWS, state biologists, tour operators, and volunteers work to prevent damages. Fishermen trained in deploying booms took off in their own boats to prevent the spread of surface oil. They hope to help buffer the spread of oil to the Gulf's fertile crescent, the inland waters where 90 percent of the region's seafood is produced. Clean-up crews closer to the spill tried to corral huge swaths of the oil in order to burn it, but rough weather made such efforts difficult. Wetlands in the Mississippi Delta, already losing one football field of land a day, are vulnerable to permanent damage from the encroaching oil. The loss of such buffer zones could diminish storm protection for cities like New Orleans and harm wildlife communities that provide unique natural services.

1. The Politics: Recently, the political call for new safeguards and investigations has started to grow almost as rapidly as the slick. Though President Obama called roughly a month ago for more drilling in areas of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, he recently said no new leases would be issued in these areas without additional safeguards. On Meet the Press this morning, former energy secretary and current governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson called for a National Ocean Policy. As of right now, confusion still exists about who—BP or the government—is in control of the clean-up, a definite end date for the spill, and what definitive policy changes should occur for offshore drilling. Obama will fly over the damaged area today and talk to the locals.

For a recently published timeline of the disaster, go to The Times-Picayune.

–Joe Spring

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