How long will it take the Gulf of Mexico to recover from the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill?

Posted: June 3rd, 2010 by: h2

While disaster looms large, and everyone is following this on TV, it’s useful to remember that in 1979 there was another oil rig blowout, in the Mexican waters of the Gulf, the Ixtoc blowout. Everyone was certain that the Gulf would be dead for decades, but what actually happened, due primarily to the heat and relatively shallow waters of that area, was that the microbes that exist already in the Gulf and which feed on oil (because oil seeps into the Gulf constantly from natural seeps) ate the oil really fast and the area largely recovered, though of course Texas got tar balls on the beach for a long time.

So people are looking back at that blowout now to see what the analogies are, and what we can learn from it.

In terms of blowouts, Ixtoc 1 was a monster — until the ongoing BP leak, the largest accidental spill in history. Some 3.3 million barrels of oil gushed over nearly 10 months, spreading an oil slick as far north as Texas, where gooey tar balls washed up on beaches.

Surprisingly, Mexican scientists say that Campeche Sound itself recovered rather quickly, and a sizable shrimp industry returned to normal within two years.

Soto and other Mexican marine scientists feared the worst when they examined sea life in the sound once oil workers finally capped the blowout in March 1980.

“To be honest, because of our ignorance, we thought everything was going to die,” Soto said.

The scientists didn’t know what effects the warm temperatures of gulf waters, intense solar radiation, and other factors from the tropical ecosystem would have on the crude oil polluting the sound.

There were political implications as well; the spill pitted a furious shrimping industry, reliant on the nutrient-rich Campeche Sound, against a powerful state oil company betting its future in offshore drilling, particularly the continental shelf in the Gulf of Mexico it began developing in the late 1970s.

In the months after Ixtoc 1 was capped, scientists trawled the waters of the sound for signs of biological distress.

“I found shrimp with tumor formations in the tissue, and crabs without the pincers. These were very serious effects,” Soto said.

As the studies extended into a second year, scientists noticed how fast the marine environment recovered, helped by naturally occurring microbes that feasted on the oil and degraded it.
Gulf recovered from last big oil spill, but is this one different?

This doesn’t mean, oh great, well, we just made a huge banquet for the microbes down there so no worries. Each spill is going to be very different, and given that this one is going into ultra deep waters, which are much colder, and thus will have different bacterial reactions, the overall impact on the environment is going to be discovered as we watch what the Gulf does after receiving this much damage.

I’m just posting this so you get some awareness of previous incidents and their outcomes, not to suggest this is ok, or that you can create these types of blowouts by encouraging de-regulation, and voting in political parties who encourage and support deregulation, and what’s worse, industry self-regulation of key parts of the drilling and licensing process. BP, for example, told the MMS (Mineral Management Service) that there was no chance at all of a blowout, so no advanced planning or preparation was required.

Apparently, BP made a slight miscalculation there, and the MMS was corrupt enough to just pass that along.

From what is known so far, it is clear that offshore drilling came to be seriously under-regulated in recent years with few inspections and little or no penalties for violations. Deepwater offshore drilling has become so expensive – the Deepwater Horizon costs on the order of $1 million a day to operate – that site managers are under heavy pressure to complete projects as quickly as possible and move to the next job.

The oil industry is said to have largely written the regulations and the government simply ratified what was presented. The Obama administration has already moved to split the regulation function from the Mineral Management Service and place it in a separate agency dedicated to safety and the prevention of further accidents. Although there will be much raucous discussion, It seems likely that heavier regulation, with higher, more expensive, standards, is on the way and that could delay future deepwater drilling projects by months or years.
The Peak Oil Crisis: The Deepwater Horizon

I’m sure government run deepwater drilling areas, or heavily government regulated areas like the North Sea, are taking very careful notes as they watch with some amusement the results of allowing critical regulations to be degraded and often removed. Well, not amusement, but it’s a learning experience, I doubt the American model is going to sell to anyone with a functioning brain out there in the rest of the world after this last one. Especially given that Wall Street just blew up for pretty much the same reasons, industry de-regulation and alleged self-regulation.

Remember that next time you vote, maybe that anti-government stuff people spout off far too often here in the USA is really anti-you? Unless you happen to be some really big corporation or financial firm, I guess. Walk along the bayous, the islands, the wet lands, watch as the oil starts to kill them. That’s what de-regulation does.

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