Technical jargon conceals by confusion. The immense scale of the problem surrounding the sinking of the Transocean drilling rig, Deepwater Horizon, requires that the public stay alert when confronted with slick lingo. So, I’d like to help readers understand from a geologist’s viewpoint the sad absurdity of the Gulf of Mexico situation – one that is much more than yet another “oil spill.”
In September 2009, British Petroleum (BP) announced their discovery of the giant Tiber oilfield and crowed that drilling a 35,055 foot deep well into the earth’s crust under 4,132 feet of water made it one of the deepest wells ever achieved by their industry. Less than one year later, BP had to alert the public to an explosion and fire onboard the semisubmersible drilling rig – a unit floating above the seafloor that when flooded causes the contraption to submerge to a desired depth and produce relative stability while drilling for oil and gas in rough waters. The rig was mining oil from the Mississippi Canyon 252 well that BP owns. And on Earth Day 2010, we learned that BP had “activated an extensive oil spill response” and was working with Transocean using remotely-operated vehicles to assess the condition of the Tiber well and the “subsea blowout preventer.”
A critical distinction here is between an oil spill and a blowout. I tried to look up the definition of “oil spill” in OilGasGlossary.com and found the following: “Sorry, but we can’t found (sic) the definition of Oil Spill in our Oil Gas Glossary.” I don’t mean to be disingenuous. I really just wanted to have confirmed my instinct that the vernacular meaning of spill, to flow from a confined space, implies a finite amount of oil. In contrast, the glossary told me that a blowout is an uncontrolled flow of oil, water, or gas from a well bored into the earth. It suggests to me a comparatively unlimited quantity of the black gold. When BP announced their discovery and termed it “giant,” they meant to convey that the Tiber oilfield contained somewhere between four billion and six billion barrels of oil; this contrasts with a “huge” oilfield usually considered to contain 250 million barrels of the stuff. Regardless of whether it’s giant or huge, this Gulf of Mexico event is more than a spill.
What we have beneath the Gulf of Mexico is a gusher, folks. Only, unlike 1859, when drillers greeted gushers with celebratory hoots, in 2010, BP confronts the Mississippi Canyon blowout with a relief well – that’s another well drilled near and into the well that is out of control. BP doesn’t use the phrase, but drillers call the continuously spewing wells “wild wells.” Forgive me, but it’s hard to feel reassured by the company’s assertion that they’ve begun to remedy the subsurface problem – oil escaping with great force from inside the earth to the planet’s watery surface – in this manner.
I’m reminded of the Centralia, Pennsylvania, underground coal seam fire that has been burning since 1962. Like other coal seam fires, it may continue to burn underground for decades or even centuries until the fuel source is exhausted. So, too, the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), banned by Congress in 1979, yet still leaking into the Hudson River three decades later from fractures in rock beneath the General Electric facilities at Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, New York, where the company utilized PCBs in the manufacture of capacitors.
The time and space scales of the Earth dwarf those of us mere humans, yet we tinker with the Earth’s resources, manipulate them for our purposes and underplay the risks we take. We scramble at the surface of the Earth to curtail the disastrous upshots of our inane technological “achievements.”
When Prometheus stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to people living on Earth, he angered Zeus. The king of the Olympians exacted revenge on humans by ordering the creation of Pandora, who would be a vehicle for bringing misery to mortals. According to the myth, Pandora’s box (jar) – a present from the Gods – loosed upon Earth all the sorrows and plagues then known to humanity. In 2010, we’ve opened Pandora’s well – Mississippi Canyon 252 – spewing oil, sowing suffering and defying control.