The tragedy that modern technology had guaranteed could never happen again is taking a turn for the worse. Estimates of oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico have risen from 1,000 barrels a day to 5,000 barrels a day, with some indications that the flow may even be much greater. It may takes months to seal the rig, meaning the total spill could easily exceed the total released in the infamous Exxon Valdez incident.
The weather, which had been keeping the growing slick offshore, is reversing course as well.
Here’s the latest update from NOAA, posted just last night:
– Winds are forecast to become strong (20+ kts) and blow from the southeast starting tomorrow and continuing through the weekend, which will continue to push surface oil towards shore
– NOAA oil-spill trajectory analyses indicate that oil continues to move towards shore.
– 100,000’ of oil-containment booms (or floating barriers) have been deployed as a precaution to protect sensitive areas in the Louisiana area.
– The effects of oil on sensitive habitats and shorelines in four states (LA, MS, AL, and FL) are being evaluated should oil from the incident make landfall in appreciable quantities
– NOAA’s Assessment and Restoration Division is evaluating concerns about potential injuries of oil and dispersants to fishes, human use of fisheries, marine mammals, turtles, and sensitive resources.
And inevitably, it seems, there’s the “for want a nail” angle. Most of you may remember, at least vaguely, the old sing-song reminder. It goes like this:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
Well, here’s the same song, rewritten for this occasion by the Wall Street Journal:
The oil well spewing crude into the Gulf of Mexico didn’t have a remote-control shut-off switch used in two other major oil-producing nations as last-resort protection against underwater spills.
The lack of the device, called an acoustic switch, could amplify concerns over the environmental impact of offshore drilling after the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig, hired by oil giant BP PLC, last week…
U.S. regulators don’t mandate use of the remote-control device on offshore rigs, and the Deepwater Horizon didn’t have one. With a remote control, a crew can attempt to trigger an underwater valve that shuts down the well even if the oil rig itself is damaged or evacuated.
The efficacy of the devices is unclear. Major offshore oil-well blowouts are rare, and it remained unclear Wednesday evening whether acoustic switches have ever been put to the test in a real-world accident. When wells do surge out of control, the primary shut-off systems almost always work. Remote control systems such as the acoustic switch, which have been tested in simulations, are intended as a last resort.
Nevertheless, regulators in two major oil-producing countries, Norway and Brazil, in effect require them. Norway has had acoustic triggers on almost every offshore rig since 1993.
The U.S. considered requiring a remote-controlled shut-off mechanism several years ago, but drilling companies questioned its cost and effectiveness, according to the agency overseeing offshore drilling. The agency, the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, says it decided the remote device wasn’t needed because rigs had other back-up plans to cut off a well….
An acoustic trigger costs about $500,000, industry officials said. The Deepwater Horizon had a replacement cost of about $560 million, and BP says it is spending $6 million a day to battle the oil spill. On Wednesday, crews set fire to part of the oil spill in an attempt to limit environmental damage.
UPDATE: Here’s the latest NOAA map depicting both the size and location of the spill. It certainly looks ominous.