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Wide-Ranging Oil Spill Scenarios

After millions of gallons of oil spilled and billions of dollars spent, Mark Cohen figures the United States is ready to handle a spill like the deepwater blowout that fouled the Gulf of Mexico a year ago.

But it's probably not prepared for the one that happened in 1979.

Ixtoc was a nine-month spill off Mexico that spewed 140 million gallons into the Gulf after a drilling platform sank on top of the well.

To researchers like Cohen, vice president of research for the think tank Resources for the Future, it is a symbol of how industry and the Obama administration are racing back to deepwater drilling even though they are still unprepared for other large spills.

"I don't know what the next blowout will look like, but it won't look like the last one," said Cohen, whose environmental think tank did research reports (pdf) for the presidential commission that investigated last year's Gulf spill. "Neither" of the new spill containment outfits, he said, "is ready to handle Ixtoc."

Whether it is impatience, political pressure or financial constraints, some researchers say the country is making the classic mistake of "fighting the last war" in its spill response plans.

"When you put this picture together, we've pretty well reverted back to where we were before Macondo," said engineering professor Robert Bea from the University of California, Berkeley. Bea joined with the school's Center for Catastrophic Risk Management for a study of last year's Deepwater Horizon disaster. He says it is "premature" to start drilling new exploratory wells in the Gulf without fundamental changes.

Cohen, Bea and the presidential Oil Spill Commission raise several questions that oil companies and the Obama administration struggle to answer, such as:


  • What if there is a spill more than 10,000 feet deep? Offshore rigs already can drill deeper than that, but response companies do not have equipment to contain a blowout at those depths.
  • What if a well collapses underground and oil erupts from the sea floor far from the well? Neither of the two new spill response outfits that operators are depending on have equipment on hand that can deal with such a situation, but federal regulators are still letting them drill.
  • What if the operator, unlike BP PLC in last year's spill, does not have the resources to cover all the spill damages? A smaller company might dissolve into bankruptcy, leaving taxpayers on the hook for billions of dollars.
  • What if there were multiple spills at once? At least in the early stages, the two spill containment organizations plan to use much of the same equipment, leaving little backup if another well ruptures.

Some of those scenarios might seem remote. But, once upon a time, so did a deepwater blowout or an earthquake-and-tsunami combination crippling a nuclear plant.

Industry figures say it is impossible to plan for every possible scenario critics might devise.

"You can always paint a blue-sky scenario that you can't respond to," Owen Kratz, president and CEO of Helix Energy Solutions Group, said in an interview.

Containment options

Kratz's company helped contain the BP spill and has parlayed that experience into becoming one of two containment options for independent Gulf drillers, like Noble Energy Inc. and ATP Oil & Gas Corp. (Greenwire, April 25)

"Is it the ultimate, everything we need? Probably not," he said of his company's technology. "It has to be a living process, and we'll have to keep assessing it and adding it as technology allows."

Such a living process may also depend on research and development being done by other organizations. Kratz notes that his company has developed "a Macondo solution," and its approach is to take proven, existing technologies and find new uses for them.

That research might be expected to come from Marine Well Containment Co. a consortium of global oil majors, organized by Exxon Mobil Corp. Martin Massey, a longtime Exxon Mobil executive detailed to run the new spill response nonprofit, told a congressional committee last week that his organization is set up to adapt.

"I don't mean that we are just prepared for today," Massey said. "But that we are looking to the future. Our members have the know-how, resources and commitment to continually improve the system to meet future industry needs, especially as new technologies emerge."

The American Petroleum Institute is also setting up a "safety institute" to promote standards for spill prevention and response.

"Companies are continually assessing the risks," said Andy Radford, API's senior policy adviser for offshore drilling. "One of the main incentives is the huge investments and the cost of spill response itself."

But the follow-up to the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, as laid out in the Oil Spill Commission report, offers a cautionary tale.

Industry joined together in 1990 and created the Marine Spill Response Corp. to prepare for future spills. But industry funding stagnated and MSRC's equipment aged even as deepwater drilling technology evolved to look more and more like NASA's.

Asked what money they were spending on research and development for oil spill response, many oil companies pointed spill commission staffers to their yearly MSRC dues. But MSRC dropped its research and development program in 1995 after "its objectives had been achieved," according to an API report (pdf). After the Deepwater Horizon sank, the underfunded MSRC was "ill-prepared" to handle such a large spill, the commission found.

"What is the incentive for MWCC and Helix to spend money to figure out ways to fight a spill that's never happened?" Cohen asked. "I don't see one right now."

Who pays for 'acts of God'?

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