Oil rig relief crews on Friday successfully plugged a deepwater well that was pumping 7,400 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico's 5,000-foot-deep Mississippi Canyon. But some US lawmakers are now posing tough questions about the violent three-day deep-sea drama that played out on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig 41 miles off Louisiana.
Indeed, the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon and the ensuing spill remains troubling for a nation getting ready to expand deepwater oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico and off the Eastern seaboard. Global oil exploration by companies like Transocean and BP, which operated the exploded rig, is focused on advanced rigs like the Deepwater Horizon, which are called upon to tap reserves of gas and oil situated ever deeper and farther out to sea.
“Big Oil has perpetuated a dangerous myth that coastline drilling is a completely safe endeavor, but accidents like this are a sober reminder just how far that is from the truth,” said Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg in a statement.
After warning about a wellhead flow of 7,400 barrels a day beneath the Deepwater Horizon, the Coast Guard on Friday said there is now no evidence of leaking oil. An industry source suggested to the oil and gas industry newspaper Upstream that a remote-controlled submarine may have been able to activate an emergency shearing ram that stopped the flow.
The $600 million fifth-generation Deepwater Horizon rig had been in the process of capping an exploratory well above the Macondo deposit when an abnormal buildup of pressure probably caused a "blowout" – the oil from which fueled a violent fire that raged for 36 hours before the rig finally exploded again and sank Thursday morning. Eleven crew members are missing and are now believed to have perished in the immediate blast.
To be sure, the orderly actions of crew members in getting off the blown rig, the immediate and dogged rescue efforts for the 11 missing crew, and a small armada of federal and private spill response teams evidenced a well-coordinated relief effort. Yet the disaster will undoubtedly provide political fuel for opponents of more oil exploration.
"This could present a bump in the road to Obama's plan to open up more of the US coastline, but I can't believe that it would derail it permanently," says Tyler Priest, an oil exploration historian at the University of Houston. "My view is that this would be an aberration to a very long record of environmentally safe and human safe operations that the industry has established since 1970" in response to the kinds of accidents that helped spawn the US environmental movement.
Still, the US Minerals Management Service says that, since 2001, 858 fires and explosions have broken out on oil and gas industry facilities in the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in the loss of 55 lives.
"This underscores that this remains a hazardous occupation and that as oil gets harder to find and we move to more remote regions, the degree of difficulty rises," says Mark Zupan, an energy expert at the University of Rochester's Simon Graduate School of Business in New York. "But we also have to stay focused on the bigger picture and how many lives don't get fulfilled if we restrict energy production."
On Friday, the Coast Guard and BP contractors worked to cordon off and neutralize a spill that's been described as four times the size of Manhattan Island. It's a coagulated mix of crude oil and diesel that could threaten the Louisiana coastline if winds shift.
"It's going to be a ... mess for a while," Louisiana State University environmental sciences professor Ed Overton told the Associated Press. "I'm not crying doomsday or saying the sky is falling, but that is the potential."
Sen. Bill Nelson (D) of Florida notes in a statement: "As a part of the effort to expand drilling, the oil industry as recently as Tuesday was pressing the government agency responsible for leasing offshore lands to quickly proceed with a study of the effects of surveying for oil off the Atlantic coast. That came just hours before the Tuesday night explosion."