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The Devil Went Down to Louisiana: Disaster in the Gulf

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Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave somewhere with your girlfriend, you’ve probably heard about the enormous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and you’ve likely seen video the Deepwater Horizon engulfed in the fireball that survivors described as “the face of the devil.”

But you still might not understand what really happened or what it’s means to you, both today and in the years to come. We’ve asked environmentalist and green living writer Jacob Anderson-Minshall to break it down for us and tell us what we can do to help. Here is a comprehensive look at what happened, why, the impact and what you can do to help.


What Happened that Night

The Gulf of Mexico is littered with nearly 4,000 drilling platforms, each one a potential ecological disaster. Each time we drill a new well—especially those started thousands of feet below water—odds of a catastrophic accident increase dramatically.

For the life that depends on the Gulf‘s water, including much of the human population of he Gulf coast, luck ran out the night of April 20, 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon, a drilling rig 50 miles off Louisiana’s Gulf coast, suddenly exploded.

It took less than 30 minutes for the giant metal platform to become engulfed in flames. The ensuing inferno killed 11 people, critically injured 17 and—despite heroic efforts to douse the flames—burned for 36 hours and literally melted the rig’s steel frame. Even after the twisted wreck sank below the waves, the fire continued to rage, before finally running out of fuel. Then the hellfire disappeared into the dark waters from which it sprang.

There was a moment of silence; a brief period of calm when the people in charge thought maybe, just maybe, they’d gotten lucky and the worst was behind them. They were wrong.

When a growing oil slick appeared on the surface of the Gulf, and they started to realize that the well was leaking, even then, they had no idea just how bad it would be nor what had caused the problem.

Over the next three months information would seep out, slower than but just as steadily as the oil pouring from the broken pipe below them on the ocean floor. It would reveal how a series of missteps, a blatant disregard for safety precautions and a corporate culture that believed it was too smart to fail would combine to bring down the rig and threaten the fourth largest corporation in the world; the multinational energy giant BP. (Despite President Obama’s reliance on the moniker British Petroleum, in 2000 the company began using their initials instead and adopted the tagline “Beyond Petroleum,” in an effort to improve their corporate image.

Before the Deepwater explosion, few people outside the oil and gas industry had ever heard the words blowout preventer. But it soon became the main focus of those investigating the accident. Although a surge of methane gas sparked the explosion, it was the utter failure of the blowout preventer that turned this from a deadly accident to a catastrophic disaster.


What’s a Blowout Preventer Anyway?

The blowout preventer is a high-pressure safety valve, which controls the liquid in the bore hole. Standing up to 53 feet tall and weighing 650,000 pounds, a blowout preventer is actually a collection separate components.

There is a hole through the center of the blowout preventer and once it is dropped to the seafloor a drilling pipe and liquids travel through it.

In drilling for oil or gas, whether on land or in the ocean, the biggest issue is controlling the enormous pressures involved. Open a bottle of soda after it’s been shaken and you get a tiny example of the kind of pressure being described. When a drill breaks into a formation of gas or oil that is being compressed under 6,000 feet of ocean and earth the pressure can send the material spurting up through the bore hole. It’s just those types of dangerous circumstances in which the blowout preventer is supposed to engage, utilizing an elaborate hydraulic system to block the rising material.

The blowout preventer can utilize water pressure to balance the pressure of the rising gas and oil or it can activate several massive rams to seal off the area or even engage pinchers that crumple the pipe in on itself.

If something breaks down once the blowout preventer (BOP) is on the seafloor, mechanics can’t go down there and fix the problem themselves. Instead, deepwater blowout preventers have a number of safeguards and backup systems including a “deadman switch” which operates on batteries so it won’t shut down if the rig loses power. Every deepwater BOP is also supposed to be built with shut off valves that can be activated by robotic submersibles.

So, Why Didn’t it Work?

Although an in depth investigation is still underway, on May 12, the U.S. House Committee on Commerce and Energy, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations issued an initial statement revealing critical issues with the Deepwater Horizon blowout preventer:

  1. There was a significant leak in a key hydraulic system.
  2. The Deepwater blowout preventer apparently had been modified by drilling contractor TransOcean. The alterations were reportedly so dramatic that BP wasted hours before discovering that blueprints didn’t match the actual device.
  3. Although blowout preventers must be able to slice through the drill pipe, apparently they haven’t been designed with the strength to cut through the pipe’s reinforced joints.
  4. The explosions that rocked the rig also destroyed communications between the drill operators and the blowout preventer. The deadman switch still should have engaged; but it didn’t. The subcommittee discovered that the deadman’s batteries were dead.
  5. BP maintains the BOP was tested 10 days prior to the explosion. But investigators determined that it was common practice to stop testing the device once it was placed on the ocean floor.

Others have criticized BP for not having a remote-control shut-off switch on the Deepwater rig. This device, called an acoustic switch would have allowed a signal to be sent from the ocean surface to the seabed to close the blowout preventer.

As most experts on disasters will tell you, it’s not one thing that starts a catastrophe. It’s a series of small failures that add up to a perfect storm. While mechanical failures certainly played a critical role in the Gulf tragedy, in many ways the disaster can be traced to BP’s long-term indifference to the safety of its employees and the environment at large.