Thursday, May 13, 2010

Comparing the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the Exxon Valdez spill

by Peter Stern

In comparing the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the Exxon Valdez there seem to be more differences than similarities. After all, the Valdez was an oil tanker carrying a load of crude that ran aground due to the poor judgment of one person, while the recent Gulf oil spill occurred under an offshore drilling rig that points directly to faulty safety equipment as the cause of an explosion and subsequent spill. These are two very different scenarios with one obvious outcome: the pollution of our environment. We are told by oil companies that the process of drilling for oil and transporting it are very safe for humans, sea life and the environment. However, it seems that within every decade oil proponents are proven wrong.

In the case of the spill in 1989 from the 984-foot Exxon Valdez the tanker was transporting more than 53 million gallons of crude oil from the Alyeska Pipeline Terminal on its way to Long Beach, California. History shows that 1,870 trips were made safely during the previous 12 years without any major incident. According to the Final Report of the Alaska Oil Spill Commission the captain of the vessel, Joseph Hazelwood, was proven to be under the influence of alcohol and caused the damage of the ship by running hard into the Bligh Reef shortly after midnight on March 24. The incident led to the oil spill into Prince William Sound. Fortunately, no human lives were lost directly during this accident. Ironically, the previous decade's safe record of transporting oil may have contributed to the lax enforcement of rules leading to the incident. The massive oil spill created havoc for the sea and wild life in the Arctic region and took years to clean up.

In the case of the recent Gulf of Mexico oil rig incident, similarly it seems that lax oversight and lethargic enforcement of regulations and readiness of safety equipment could have contributed to the explosion and oil spill. In addition, British Petroleum has not had a clean safety record, which includes the death of 14 rig workers in another incident 20 years ago. The first safety measure during an explosion and/or spill is to use the Blowout Preventer (BOP) that is a failsafe mechanism found on all modern drilling rigs that uses a series of valves and tanks to relieve the pressure below the drilling rig; thereby, shutting down the leak or spill. Crews are trained to perform the shut off process but during the current Gulf of Mexico spill, the crew could not do it. Eleven crew members were killed by the explosion, but there also is a dead man’s safety switch and another emergency option that activates the BOP via acoustic signals that are supposed to work remotely; however, for whatever reason, the BOP did not work as it should have.

British Petroleum is trying other options to contain the offshore oil spill. One method is to use chemical dispersants that are released in water and close to the breaks, used along with floating booms to contain the surface slick that block the surface spill from spreading. In addition, since the BOP did not function properly to shut down the pipes, British Petroleum then unsuccessfully tried to use remote controlled robotic submarines at the source of the spill in an effort to shut-off the BOP’s valves via robotic arms. There is another option that actually places “a lid” or cap over the pipes and stops the spill from spreading into the sea. In addition, the housing of the lid unit holds the diverted oil and/or transfers the oil to a tanker for transport. In the Gulf of Mexico Louisiana workers are currently building a 125 ton 40 foot high chamber that will be lowered down on top of the largest [pipe] source of the spill. They hope to use a 5,000 pipe line to divert the spill to a tanker that will carry the oil collected to a safe storage place. A last option is to use another rig to drill at an angle into the oil-bearing fissure that was originally tapped by the leaking well. If the relief well can hit the fissure in the correct place, they can pump down mud and concrete to plug the lead. However, it could take 2 or 3 months for the relief well to work.

In comparing the Exxon Valdez and the Gulf of Mexico British Petroleum leased oil rig spills, there are similarities and differences. With the Valdez, it was one mostly one man's poor judgment and vice along with Exxon's lack of proper oversight enforcing regulations that led to the tanker running aground. In the case of BP's oil rig, the incident killed 11 members of the crew and was caused by lax enforcement of safety regulations and failure of the safety mechanisms that could have been prevented the oil spill. In each case scenario the environment has taken a huge hit and it will take years before the ecosystem may again be in balance. The lesson and urgency should be that we find alternative cleaner and safer sources of energy and that the oil industry must take appropriate steps and enforcement of safety regulations to ensure the safety of humans, sea and wild life and to keep the environment safe for future generations.

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