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How Bad Is the Gulf Coast Oil Spill? 913

Posted by Soulskill
from the exxon-who dept.
Dasher42 writes "Claims are circulating on the Internet that the Coast Guard fears the Deepwater Horizon well has sprung two extra leaks, raising fears that all control over the release of oil at the site will be lost. The oil field, one of the largest ever discovered, could release 50,000 barrels a day into the ocean, with implications for marine life around the globe that are difficult to comprehend. So, considering that losing our oceanic life, with subsequent unraveling of our land-based ecosystems, is a far more possible apocalyptic scenario than a killer asteroid — what do we do about it?" Other readers have sent some interesting pictures of the spill. One set shows the Deepwater Horizon rig as it collapsed into the ocean. Others, from NASA, indicate that the spill's surface area now rivals that of Florida. The US government has indicated that it intends to require BP to foot the bill for the cleanup. And the Governator has just withdrawn support for drilling off the California coast.
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How Bad Is the Gulf Coast Oil Spill?

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 03, 2010 @05:59PM (#32077976)

    The spill's smell now rivals that of New Jersey.

  • Don't worry BP ... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by macaulay805 (823467) on Monday May 03, 2010 @05:59PM (#32077982) Homepage Journal
    We will be footing the bill, not you. With higher gas prices that is.
    • by SydShamino (547793) on Monday May 03, 2010 @06:08PM (#32078086)

      And how are they going to raise rates when none of their competitors face a multi-billion dollar charge?

      I think they take a charge and their shareholders eat much of the cost this time. No way around it.

      Then if anything comes out regarding culpability for the disaster, the shareholders can sue the executives for breach of fiduciary duty.

  • by zero_out (1705074) on Monday May 03, 2010 @06:04PM (#32078044)

    We worry about nuclear plants going Chernobyl, but how much do we worry about that chemical refinery 20 miles away? If it had an uncontrolled fire, it could spew toxic chemicals into the air that would be about as disastrous as fallout. It's like worrying about a plane crash when you drive like a maniac.

    Yet we still need oil, so we'll keep pumping. Greeks protest and riot when they realize they are going to have to start paying for their entitlement programs, and we complain when we need to pay more for gas. Well, we can't have it both ways. If we want to live 25 miles from where we work, we're going to have to pay for it. If we don't pay for it at the pump, then we'll have to pay for it when a shared resource, like the ocean, is destroyed.

    I'm still a supporter of offshore drilling. Ask me again in a year, when this whole episode has concluded (or not), and I may change my mind.

    • by jdastrup (1075795) on Monday May 03, 2010 @06:10PM (#32078116)
      Agreed. And unfortunate how most anti-nuclear arguments use Chernobyl as an example - we can build them so much safer today. Looks like the oil drilling technology hasn't come as far, while still capable of producing devastating effects for years to come.
      • by CityZen (464761) on Monday May 03, 2010 @06:25PM (#32078318) Homepage

        Chernobyl could have been built much more safely than Chernobyl (was built). But it cost less to build it as they did.

        This particular oil rig could very likely have been built/operated more safely than it was. But who'll make BP do that?

        Similarly, oil pipelines can be very safe, but they have been operated very unsafely, with maintenance neglected until accidents happen. It turns out that it's cheaper that way, lawsuits and all.

        It's not a matter of what "we" can do. It's a matter of what government will actively regulate business to do. Business doesn't like regulation, and they often have more influence on lawmaking than "we" do. As long as no one pays much attention, they get their way.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Alioth (221270)

          BP was one of the oil companies that lobbied against legislation to make this sort of operation safer. To save millions then, they are going to pay billions now. And people on the Gulf Coast of course will be paying with polluted coast lines.

        • by roystgnr (4015) <.roystgnr. .at. .ticam.utexas.edu.> on Monday May 03, 2010 @08:42PM (#32080018) Homepage

          Business doesn't like regulation, and

          this is false because:

          they often have more influence on lawmaking than "we" do.

          It's called Regulatory capture [wikipedia.org]. You don't have the time to study every effect of every regulation proposed by someone who was appointed by someone who was elected within a district where you can vote. But business-paid lobbyists do have that time. So you demand that something must be done, and when a new thousand pages of laws and regulations are created you're appeased, because what voter has time to hunt through those laws for corporate giveaways like $75 million liability limits [yahoo.com]?

          Yeah, businesses hate regulation. "We'll write a bunch of lawyerese that acts as a barrier to entry for would-be new competitors, and we'll promise to bail you out at the expense of your victims if your risk-taking backfires - but watch out if it does backfire, because then the furious voters will demand that we do the same thing again!"

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Burning1 (204959)

        Agreed. And unfortunate how most anti-nuclear arguments use Chernobyl as an example - we can build them so much safer today.

        We could build Nuclear Reactors much safer back then, as well. The Russians simply chose to build a reactor based on an inherently unsafe design.

    • by Falconhell (1289630) on Monday May 03, 2010 @06:44PM (#32078602) Journal

      Already happened;

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhopal_disaster [wikipedia.org]

  • Oil Gusher (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fyoder (857358) on Monday May 03, 2010 @06:05PM (#32078050) Homepage Journal

    It really seems like an understatement to call this a 'spill', as though it were a limited quantity from an oil freighter or something. It's an underwater gusher. I knew it was a huge disaster when it was reported as such with the addendum of at least 30 days to fix. At least. How would they even fix something like that? Has anything like this been attempted before?

    • Re:Oil Gusher (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 03, 2010 @06:14PM (#32078164)

      It is very similar to the Ixtoc pemex 'spill' of 1980. It flowed for almost a year before they got it closed. It ruined the Texas coast for years, You couldn't even walk on the beach without taking a can of kerosene to wash the tar off your feet. That leak was at less than 200 feet. This one is at 5000.

    • Re:Oil Gusher (Score:5, Insightful)

      by MightyMartian (840721) on Monday May 03, 2010 @06:16PM (#32078202) Journal

      Not on the seafloor I don't think. In Kuwait they used explosives, as I recall. That had its own special challenges as the Iraqis had lit the wells on fire, and the temperatures were tremendous. But it was still above water at normal atmospheric pressure for sea level. Doing any kind of complex operation 5,000 feet below the surface is damned tricky, and pretty much every plan has the disclaimer "We've never tried this before", which sort of translates into each plan being a trial balloon with no guarantee of any degree of success.

      It's pretty much a worst case scenario, but BP, and I suspect a whole lot of politicians, went out of their way to minimize the potential. But even if it is unlikely, the law of averages pretty much guarantees that the longer you do something, even if it has a relatively low risk, will eventually lead to a major disaster.

      I don't think anyone is quite sure why the explosion happened, but what's very clear is the fail safes failed. It may be a while before we know why, of course, but it does signal at least the possibility that insufficient precautions were put into play. It seems elementary to me that when you're designing such a drilling system, and realizing the vast pressure these oil deposits are under, that when operating in conditions that make fixing a gusher or blow out of some kind extremely difficult, you make damned good and sure your capping system is going to bloody well work.

  • by rrohbeck (944847) on Monday May 03, 2010 @06:07PM (#32078078)

    How about Bobby Jindal [wikipedia.org]?
    Or is crying for the feds "You're not doing enough!" all he can do?

  • by StefanJ (88986) on Monday May 03, 2010 @06:09PM (#32078100) Homepage Journal

    Oh, we're far from facing the death of the oceans. Even acidification and warming and ocean current changes won't do that.

    What the added oil is is another stressor to the system.

    Instead we'll see a slow collapse of traditional fisheries, meaning lots of people going poor and hungry, and Red Lobster offering all-you-can-eat Giant Squid and tilapia dinners.

    That said, it's good this happened in the Gulf, which is relatively contained. Good for the oceans as a whole, bad for the Gulf sea and shoreline ecosystems.

    * * *

    One of cool things folks forget about the movie Soylent Green: The green stuff is supposed to be made from krill. Edward G. Robinson's character goes to the euthenasia parlor after reading a Soylent Corporation research study taken from a murdered executive's home. The reason that the Soylent corporation is making the crackers from corpses is an ocean ecosystem collapse. I don't remember if they made the connection, but the movie also invokes the greenhouse effect. In 1973.

    • by Monkeedude1212 (1560403) on Monday May 03, 2010 @06:19PM (#32078234) Journal

      It's not really over-reacting, things ARE pretty bad. I'm no marine biologist, but the last time I checked, most creatures have some variable level of tolerance when it comes to acidification and warming. That being said, we've still managed to kill a lot of creatures by affecting those changes. Ecosystems still have trouble recovering after a regular oil tanker spill.

      And I am not aware of any creature that was able to survive an oil spill without human aid. Now, normally aiding creatures is in the process of cleaning it up, but we haven't even hit that part yet, its still uncontained.

      How many creatures would normally migrate through the gulf but won't be able to this year? This is going to unbalance a lot more than just the gulf.

    • by MightyMartian (840721) on Monday May 03, 2010 @06:20PM (#32078258) Journal

      That said, it's good this happened in the Gulf, which is relatively contained. Good for the oceans as a whole, bad for the Gulf sea and shoreline ecosystems.

      That's providing it stays contained. There seems to be a growing consensus that the Gulf Stream may pick some of this up, so anyone sitting on the Atlantic coast whistling with relief may not be happy in a few days.

  • Alexander Higgins? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ZeBam.com (1790466) on Monday May 03, 2010 @06:17PM (#32078206) Homepage
    Why do we have to go through the slashdotted blog.alexanderhiggins.com to see images hosted at NASA? This is the dumbest thing so far this month.
  • by PSandusky (740962) <psandusky@gma i l . com> on Monday May 03, 2010 @06:18PM (#32078222)

    There are two ways of looking at what to do -- proximate and ultimate.

    In the proximate sense, one thing to do is volunteer time or supplies if you're in an affected area. I'm in Florida -- in my area, I know right now of Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary ( http://www.seabirdsanctuary.com/uploads/oil.pdf [seabirdsanctuary.com] ) and Audubon Florida ( http://audubonoffloridanews.org/ [audubonoffloridanews.org] ), which are each asking for volunteers, money, and/or supplies. Other organizations may be looking for help -- help if you can, spread the word even if you can't.

    In the ultimate sense, it's hard not to become reactionary to things like this. Clearly there's a need for some serious prevention, and however that comes about, it must. There are boycotts, letter writing campaigns, and the like, and while they may seem awfully pedestrian, the first step in each is something that's been needed for an exquisitely long time -- awareness. People don't tend to realize that the oceans are just downstream from everyone -- for example, just how many people do you think recognize the oil spill that dribbles into the Gulf every year from runoff into the Mississippi watershed? It's once people start to realize what's happening, what's important, and where changes need to happen that movement toward change occurs. Oil being the trigger word that it is these days, it's hard to say whether or not ocean health is foremost in people's minds. Building awareness -- even inland! -- is about getting it there.

    I don't know what the key is. Maybe it's kids asking whether the animals they love seeing at the aquarium are going to be lost because of the oil spill. Maybe it's fishermen who lose their livelihoods because their fisheries are either contaminated or outright destroyed. Maybe it's people who worked in tourism and sports industries that previously thrived on healthy beaches and coastal waters. Whatever that key is, some catalysis needs to happen soon, and it needs to start with people simply caring enough to understand and do something, wherever they are, however they can. Too much is at stake.

  • Do people really think offshore drilling should be stopped because of this?

    Transitions should be made to other forms of power, but my Lord, what else is there to substitute for oil for transportation in the short-mid term? Nothing. We need to get more oil. The WSJ reported that the Department of the Interior knew about failings of shear rams in deepwater conditions (the mechanism that should have shut this well down) since 2004 but didn't do anything about it.

    Thanks, Uncle Sam. BP holds blame, the US government holds blame, and Transocean holds blame. But we should increase safety mechanism reliability and oversight without going Greenpeace on this.

    Note of credibility: I love LA and am from the Gulf Coast. I grasp what this can do to the local economy and my oyster appetite. I can see rigs from 1/4 mile from my old back yard. Without proper safeguards, this shit happens. But it's unavoidable that we drill. Let's manage risk better.

    • by SydShamino (547793) on Monday May 03, 2010 @07:14PM (#32079066)

      Do you really think more regulation of the oil industry was going to pass in 2004-2008?

    • by El_Oscuro (1022477) on Monday May 03, 2010 @09:03PM (#32080190) Homepage

      Thing I don't get is why every car today is still running on oil based fuels.

      30 years ago, the LA times truck that pulled up each week to offload the "Calendar" sections we put in the Sunday papers. On the back, it had a sign which said "this truck is running on clean natural gas". I thought, "cool, no more smog!" If they are already using on LA times trucks, it can't too long before some cars have it too. No more Arab oil embargoes, etc.

      In about 2004 or 2005, the Washington area metro converted its entire fleet of buses to natural gas in about a year. I work near a major Metro station and could see the first few buses and was excited. Within a year, it was rare to see an old diesel bus. No more smelly diesel fumes!. If an agency as incompetent as Washington Metro can convert its entire bus fleet in a year, how hard can it be?

      We have been able to do this easily for at least 30 years. Apparently to convert a regular gas engine to natural gas requires only a few modifications, to the gas tank (obviousely), fuel lines and injectors. As anyone who has been to a Home Depot or most grocery stores knows, the distribution system is also already in place.

      Imagine the marketplace if we had 3 different fuel systems for transporation: Oil, Natural Gas, and Electricity. Then as a bad computer analogy, imagine if Windows, Linux, and OS/X each had about a 33% market share.

  • by Sponge Bath (413667) on Monday May 03, 2010 @06:21PM (#32078266)

    An NPR interview this morning with a BP executive asked two simple questions:
    1. Are you responsible for the leak?
    2. Will you pay for the results of the leak?

    The response was along the lines of "We will cooperate with cleanup and containment efforts, and will pay any legitimate claims."
    I think this will be a long (decades?), dirty fight to hold BP accountable.

    • by pdabbadabba (720526) on Monday May 03, 2010 @06:54PM (#32078776) Homepage

      The liability fight will probably not be quite what most expect. By statute, a rig owner's out-of-pocket liability for a spill is capped at around $75 million. In exchange, they pay a tax of about $0.08/barrel into a common fund which will be used to pay for claims beyond the cap. At the moment, the fund stands at about $1.6 billion. (Though the per incident payout from this fund is capped at $1 billion.)

      The benefit of this system is, of course, that oil companies aren't exposed to devastating liability; instead, the liability is spread across he entire oil industry. This is also the problem: no individual oil company has an adequate economic incentive to avoid risky behavior.

  • by John Hasler (414242) on Monday May 03, 2010 @06:23PM (#32078284) Homepage

    We all die, of course. It's the end of the world. This is utterly catastrophic and utterly unprecedented. No such thing could ever happen naturally, At no time in the entire history of the planet has erosion or tectonic activity ever ruptured a large oil reservoir. There are no bacteria that metabolize oil and it does not oxidize or decay naturally in any way, and it kills everything it touches. It will float on the surface of the ocean forever, bringing an end to all life.

    • by Odonian (730378) on Monday May 03, 2010 @06:42PM (#32078576)
      there is truth in your sarcasm, the earth will be just fine. It has endured worse. It has it's own systems to correct ecological imbalances, even ones like this. The problem is, for the earth, a few thousand years is considered instant healing.

      So no it's not the end of the world. But on our time scale, it could still be a disaster of unprecedented proportions that we will have to deal with through our lifetimes.

  • by MpVpRb (1423381) on Monday May 03, 2010 @06:25PM (#32078332)
    to finally convince people to support alternative energy.
  • by uncadonna (85026) <mtobis AT gmail DOT com> on Monday May 03, 2010 @06:28PM (#32078366) Homepage Journal

    The Gulf of Mexico is huge compared to a sailboat, but tiny compared to the whole ocean. The volume of the ocean is 1.5 x 10^18 tons. Even if a ton of oil contaminates a million tons of water, 50,000 barrels a day would take over half a million years to do the job by my calculations.

    It may be a decent sized oil reservoir (it is far from "one of the largest ever" per the article) but it isn't THAT big. Sometime in the next half million years it will stop gushing on its own. Probably before that.

    This is a very serious event on the scale of the Gulf, but it is nowhere near as serious as ocean acidification from atmospheric CO2, which affects the entire ocean.

    • by SmallFurryCreature (593017) on Monday May 03, 2010 @06:58PM (#32078828) Journal

      You seem to be thinking that the ocean needs to be saturated with oil for it to have an effect. Most of the ocean is already dead, always has been. The whole eco-system depends on a few rich spots to feed it. Why do you think so many sea live hold such epic migrations? Because they like it?

      How can a tiny bit of metal possibly kill a human being? Fine, let me stick a needle in your brain, see how long you last. Maybe a long time, maybe not long at all.

      Killing the eco-system doesn't have to be whole-sale slaughter. All you have to do is knock over one part of the food-chain. It doens't even have to mean the end of life in the ocean. The wrong algea start to grow out of control, and you have plenty of life, and also death at the same time.

      Will this be it? Well we better just bloody hope it isn't because else we are screwed. But the right wingers seem determined to keep trying to screw up until they finally really manage to screw us all.

      Gosh, off-shore drilling isn't safe. Irak doesn't have weapons of mass destruction. Banks do need goverment control. Are republicans even capable of saying "we were wrong"?

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by uncadonna (85026)

        Geez, calm down. I'm just trying to get some perspective.

        Yes, that much oil is enough to cause the extinction of humanity, if it finds its way into our bloodstreams.

        Ocean currents are, fortunately, not that selective.

        This botched well is shaping up to be a terrible mess but it will, if anything, destroy America's best beaches, and its most valuable wetlands. It won't destroy the ocean. I am just advocating for directing your concerns in the right direction, not for shrugging them off.

      • by Solandri (704621) on Tuesday May 04, 2010 @01:49AM (#32081996)
        You seem to think that the environment can't cope with oil. Natural oil seepage [sciencedaily.com] in the Gulf of Mexico [sciencedaily.com] amounts to about 500,000 barrels/yr. (You didn't think those oil fields we're tapping were static, did you? They leak oil by themselves all the time.)

        The big difference in this case is that the oil is concentrated to the point where it can gum up birds' feathers and kill off shellfish. With natural seeps, the oil is spread out where microbes can break it down before it adversely affects larger life forms. Over time the same microbes will deal with this spill. A lot of damage will happen before then, but they will deal with it. It happened before in 1979 [wikipedia.org] (estimated 10k-30k barrels/day for 10 months) and it didn't kill off the ecosystem in the Gulf then. This one won't kill off the ecosystem in the Gulf either. It will be bad for a time, but it's not the end of the Gulf as you seem to think it will be.
    • by T Murphy (1054674) on Monday May 03, 2010 @07:20PM (#32079166) Journal
      If it takes 1:1,000,000 oil to water to destroy the ecosystem, it doesn't take that concentration everywhere at once. Once the oil has destroyed an area, it can drift somewhere else to wreak havoc. It will take years (dozens? hundreds?) for any one area to recover, and that time span will only increase the larger the area that gets destroyed. Life can recover fairly readily if neighboring populations can move in quickly, but if those neighboring populations were also killed, who knows what it will take to recover.

      That said, of course we still won't see all the oceans get destroyed, but worst-case the ecosystem of the gulf may be decimated for the rest of our lives and then some.
  • Bad hell! (Score:4, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 03, 2010 @06:28PM (#32078380)

    I just got me a row boat and a bucket. Free oil! Woo Hoo!!! The arabs can kiss my oily ass!

  • by Bureaucromancer (1303477) on Monday May 03, 2010 @06:31PM (#32078420)
    The thing that's been on my mind a lot over the last couple of days is that I've heard numerous accusations over the years that the whole Gulf offshore industry is a health and safety nightmare compared to European (notably North Sea) operations... While we don't know the cause of the explosion yet (and, obviously, North Sea rigs have had explosive accidents) does anyone have any real commentary about Euro vs NA safety, and/or the likelihood of an equivalent type of accident in Europe?
  • by ls671 (1122017) * on Monday May 03, 2010 @07:19PM (#32079132) Homepage

    With more than 150 replies so far, only one poster mentions the Transocean drilling contractor.

    Drilling contractors drill wells for oil companies like a house building contractor will build your house.

    Mass media almost exclusively talk about BP but the drilling contractor is the real specialist is oil well drilling. So, it is just like the media were mentioning exclusively yourself because the house you had a contractor building blew up and killed people.

    Of course the client (BP) might very well have some part of responsibility, especially if they pressured the contractor to cut costs in a way impacting security. I wander how this thing will settle in courts, how the responsibilities will be split.

    Anyway, I though that it was good to mention the above in contrast to the over simplistic view usually depicted in mass media.

  • by IonOtter (629215) on Monday May 03, 2010 @09:32PM (#32080434) Homepage

    I was in the US Navy for nine years, five of those at sea. And while you are on a ship, you train for fire-fighting several times a week, with dozens of different scenarios. And in ALL of them, de-watering is one of the most crucial aspects of fire-fighting.

    If you don't take out the water you're pumping into the space that's on fire, your ship will sink. So we train, train and train some more on how to use electric pumps, diesel pumps, installed pumps, peri-jet eductors [derbyshiremachine.com], s-type eductors [wikipedia.org] and just plain mops and buckets.

    I've been maintaining that this rig should NOT have gone down. They should have got fire-fighters onboard to establish fire boundaries, and more importantly, flooding boundaries. Bulkheads should have been sealed off, pumps should have been installed and fire-fighting water should have been pumped out.

    But Mother of God...looking at those pictures, I don't think anything would have saved it.

    The fire appears to involve the entire center of the rig. I was thinking, get someone inside the pontoons to keep them pumped out, but there doesn't look like there was any way to get someone inside them.

    Based on what I could see in the pictures, my guess is that the overall superstructure simply melted. The tops of the pontoons probably burned through, losing watertight integrity. Fire would have poured inside, killing any pumps that might have been running, and then the fire-fighting water simply filled them up.

    This thing went *BOOM* in a way it's not supposed to go boom.

  • Drill, baby drill (Score:4, Insightful)

    by drolli (522659) on Monday May 03, 2010 @10:13PM (#32080708) Journal
    Let not forget which party made this their slogan.
  • by Animats (122034) on Monday May 03, 2010 @11:15PM (#32081072) Homepage

    It's not clear that an acoustic data link to the blowout protector would have helped. The model installed was supposed to close if the connection to the surface was lost. If it didn't close on that, a secondary data link probably wouldn't help.

    As for things that go wrong, here's a marlin with its spear caught in a blowout preventer. [youtube.com] An underwater ROV with robot arms is brought into position, grabs onto the tail of the marlin, pulls it out, and releases the tail. The marlin then charges forward, and jams itself into the same place. The ROV moves back into position, grabs the dumb fish, pulls it out again, and drags it a short distance away before releasing it. The fish again tries to attack the blowout preventer, but finally gives up.

  • by feepness (543479) on Tuesday May 04, 2010 @02:25AM (#32082124) Homepage
    In a few million years when the cockroach archaeologists are poking around, they are going to have a hell of a time figuring out what actually killed us off.

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