Stories tagged Gulf oil spill

One (short!) year ago today, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig exploded 42 miles off the coast of Louisiana. Eleven families lost loved ones on that day, but the social, economic, and environmental damage had only begun.

Oil slick
Oil slickCourtesy U.S. Coast Gaurd

By April 22, 2010 the $560 million rig sunk, leaving oil spewing from the seabed into the Gulf of Mexico. On the 29th, the state of Louisiana declared a state of emergency due to the threat posed to natural resources, and U.S. President Barack Obama stated that BP was responsible for the cleanup.

Hopeful in those first days, remote underwater vehicles were sent to activate the blowout preventer, but the effort failed. In the following weeks that turned into months, controlled burns, booms, skimmers, and dispersants were used to cleanup oil as efforts to stop the oil flow were underway. The Justice Department launched a criminal and civil investigation, a moratorium on oil drilling was enacted and later rescinded, and the no-fishing zone grew to 37% of American Gulf waters. After 5 months, 8 days, and roughly 5 million barrels of spilled oil, a pressure test finally determined that a relief well had successfully stopped the oil flow. The spill was the world’s largest accidental release of oil into a marine environment.

The BBC wrote an article to commemorate the event and bring readers up to speed on the status of the Gulf today. National Geographic also has some neat zoomable maps.

Sep
22
2010

Last night, bkennedy, a couple other SMM staff members, and I attended the Bell Museum's Cafe Scientifique at Bryant-Lake Bowl in Minneapolis. Robert Twilley, a principal investigator with the National Center for Earth-Surface Dynamics, came to speak about the endangered environment of the Mississippi Delta and the BP Deep Horizon Oil Spill. I didn't expect to get a history lesson, but it's just this kind of broad-ranging perspective that will help us understand what is happening to our environment.

It was frustrating to hear Dr. Twilley recount how, as a result of the 1928 Flood Control Act, civil engineers literally remade the Mississippi River and its delta in response to severe flooding events. While this had the temporary effect of protecting area residents from flooding, the plan neglected an important quality of all coastlines: they're dynamic. As sea level has risen over the last century, diverted sediments no longer replenish key areas of the delta and vast stretches of wetland are drowning--the same stretches of wetland that would protect people in the event of a strong hurricane. As a result of the levees, regular floods no longer wash sediments into the area. To complicate matters, projects such as dams farther upstream have cut the overall sediment supply to the Mississippi by about 50 percent in the last couple centuries.

Dynamic Mississippi River Delta: The shaded areas of this image show how the river delta has shifted around over the last 4600 years.
Dynamic Mississippi River Delta: The shaded areas of this image show how the river delta has shifted around over the last 4600 years.Courtesy Urban

Twilley emphasized that it wasn't as if people didn't know the problems these strategies would cause; engineers who opposed flood control tried to call attention to the associated risks. But in the wake of disastrous floods, the public demanded visible public works projects and politicians wanted to please them. Engineers who supported flood control saw it as a noble enterprise to control nature and protect people. And so today we have a tricky situation in the delta area. Disasters increase in intensity, and with them, peoples' insistence on solutions grow. But Twilley cautioned that it is imprudent to act on impulse, especially due to a widespread lack of understanding about how coastal systems work, and to our tendency to favor human safety without consideration for the environment that supports our safety. In short, we undermine ourselves.

"Since 1932, the basin has lost approximately 70% of its total land area."
-lacoast.gov

When Hurricane Katrina hit, the same channel intended to give port access to ships funneled the storm surge farther inland. Twilley described how this perfect storm of civil engineering amplified the devastation brought by the Category 3 hurricane. The response to this devastation, rather than stepping back to reevaluate the situation and consider new ways to accommodate both the delta's needs and humans' needs, was to build a surge barrier that does nothing to restore the natural systems that once built and sustained that landscape over centuries. Contrary to engineers' intentions, Twilley asserted that these strategies will only exacerbate rising sea level and storm surge in the future as the wetlands drown further and the coastline moves inland.

Twilley also explained how, more recently, a lack of recognition of the complex systems in the river delta and along the Gulf Coast exacerbated BP's Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. BP's front end study on the potential impacts of a spill found no cause for concern that the oil would reach the shore. And yet, in spite of booms placed along the coast, the oil did reach the shore, infiltrating wetlands already threatened by rising sea levels and weakened by lack of sedimentation. Thanks to the use of dispersants, the oil is difficult to find and we may not know the full impact of the spill for some time.

This paints a pretty grim picture of the future, but Twilley left us with cause for hope. In one of the areas to which a significant portion of sediment was diverted, the wetlands are actually growing (Atchafalaya). Twilley and his colleagues hope that this and other examples will demonstrate the importance of these natural wetland-building systems and garner support for their plain to mitigate the wetland loss. They want to add river outlets in strategically important places throughout the delta to rebuild the wetlands and help stabilize the landscape. These outlets would only operate during flooding episodes--an approach called controlled flooding (as opposed to the current strategy of flood control), siphoning off extra water and sediment to starved wetlands AND preventing flooding into human settlements. Currently, they're also involved in a project to pipe sediment to areas that need it.

Of course, the new outlet plan won't be without some compromise on the part of humans--some may have to relocate. But given projections of the area for 2100, relocation isn't far off anyway. And the long-term protective benefits of restoring the wetlands might just be worth it.

Sep
20
2010

A stretched metaphor: Original image altered, of course.
A stretched metaphor: Original image altered, of course.Courtesy Lucas Vieira Moreina
Five months after the deadly accident that spilled five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the Macondo well of the Deepwater oil spill has been declared “dead.”

It’s like when that rabid dog got into your house, and, after a tense struggle, your dad finally pinned its neck under his foot, and, with an Arnold-esque quip like “Bad dog,” sent a 9 mm bullet into the still-thrashing animal’s brain. And then one more, for good measure.

It’s like that, except your house would have to be like a large, deep body of water. And the rabid dog would also have been uncontrollably vomiting flammable poison everywhere. And your dad wouldn’t really have shot it so much as drilled a couple of holes beneath its head, and then pumped it full of cement. And it was your dad’s fault that it started puking like crazy in the first place, because he was really excited to sell more rabid dog vomit to you. (Because who doesn’t love that stuff?)

In any case, the dog/well has been put down with extreme prejudice. Cement has been injected into the oil well through the intersecting relief wells, and the hardened cap has been pressure tested. The well seems to present “no continuing threat to the Gulf of Mexico.”

That’s a good thing, obviously, but unfortunately it’s not the end of this human and environmental tragedy. Before the leaking well was finally capped, about 210 million gallons of oil leaked into the Gulf, some of it floating into slicks on the surface, some of it lurking in thick plumes deep in the Gulf. How the unrecovered oil will affect the Gulf’s ecosystems and its human population remains to be seen, and determining the extent of BP’s financial responsibility to the region’s inhabitants will likely be a lengthy and difficult process.

Still, though: Bad dog. Blam. That’s something, right?

Sep
05
2010

Wendy Schmidt oil cleanup X challenge

Cleaning up oil spills costs big money. BP says the Gulf cleanup cost is $8 Billion. Hoping that next time we can do it better, faster, and cheaper, Wendy Schmidt has offered $1.4 Million in prizes to inspire a new generation of innovative solutions.

A $1 Million Prize will be awarded to the team that demonstrates the ability to recover oil on the sea surface at the highest oil recovery rate (ORR) and the highest Recovery Efficiency (RE).

If you are interested click here for the competition rules.

MIT robotic seaswarm vehicles

MIT may have a jump on the competition with their Seaswarm project. Last week they showed off what looked like a solar powered treadmill that lapped up spilled oil. Using GPS and wireless communication, a swarm of these devices autonomously coordinate their movements.

"We envisioned something that would move as a rolling carpet along the water and seamlessly absorb a surface spill," said MIT researcher Assaf Biderman. "This led to the design of a novel marine vehicle -- a simple and lightweight conveyor belt that rolls on the surface of the ocean, adjusting to the waves." Computerworld

They estimate that 5000 of their robotic sea-swarm vehicles could clean up a Gulf sized spill in a month.
.

Pelican-stock 2010: A flock of well-oiled pelicans need cleaning after the Gulf oil spill crisis.
Pelican-stock 2010: A flock of well-oiled pelicans need cleaning after the Gulf oil spill crisis.Courtesy IBRRC
Should you ever find yourself needing to clean a pelican (and more and more of us probably will after the Gulf oil spill) here are step-by-step instructions and the every-day household product that does the trick well. Proctor & Gamble stock will probably climb at the same rate BP stock drops these days.