It has been over a month since the tragic Deepwater Horizon explosion, and at this writing, oil continues to pour into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and onto adjacent land and marsh areas. Although a number of investigations have begun to identify the cause of this accident, in the end, they will find that prospectors, driven by an oil rush mentality, took their quest for oil to new depths where they did not have the technology to operate safely.
Several years ago, while on active duty in the Coast Guard, I visited a large offshore oil rig to examine their operation. This rig cost over $1 billion dollars to build and was connected to multiple wells over one mile below by a complex piping system. The rig had a sophisticated dynamic positioning system that would keep it in place even in hurricane conditions, a flexible piping system to allow the rig to move within an operating circle, and an automatic shutoff system called a blowout preventer that would automatically stop the flow of oil should all of these other systems fail.
Despite the large capital investment in this rig and wells, no oil was flowing during my visit. The oil company had found that the piping system it had installed between the rig and wells in these new untried depths was inadequate to withstand the temperatures and pressures on the seafloor. Over the following year they were going to replace all of the piping to make certain it could safely operate in this new and challenging environment. The oil company was willing to have this rig sit idle and take large losses as they learned how to take oil from such great depths.
Most of the easy oil from existing lease areas in the Gulf has been exploited. The large oil reserves in the Gulf now reside in deep water areas. Plans are to have a few handfuls of large, deep water rigs collect oil from multiple deep wells on the seafloor and eventually produce nearly 80 percent of all oil taken from the Gulf. Because the Coast Guard has responsibility for the safety and security (not the drilling operation) of these rigs, our concern at that time was how we would protect these attractive terrorist targets from attack. Unfortunately, it was a tragic accident that produced the same net effect as a terrorist attack.
It is clear that the oil companies worked diligently to produce technologies that could bring oil from deep wells to the surface. It is also clear that they did not develop, on a parallel track, the multi-layered technologies needed to stop and respond to an emergency on the deep ocean sea floor. That is why we see them trying new technologies to stop the flow of oil and gas as millions of gallons of oil gush into the water column. They are learning as they go and at great expense to the environment and people of the Gulf. It is like trying to repack your parachute while in a freefall.
It is now up to the federal government to ensure this doesn’t happen again. Before deep water drilling recommences, the oil companies should demonstrate that they have reliable technologies in place to prevent well blowouts at great depths and layered fail safe systems in place that can respond should the prevention systems fail. We are learning this lesson the hard way.