Excerpted from A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout Copyright @ 2011 by Carl Safina. Reprinted by Permission of Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
April 20, 2010. Though a bit imprecise, the time, approximately 9:50 p.m., marks the end of knowing much precisely. A floating machinery system roughly the size of a forty-story hotel has for months been drilling into the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico. Its creators have named the drilling rig the Deepwater Horizon.
Oil giant BP has contracted the Deepwater Horizon’s owner, Transocean, and various companies and crews to drill deep into the seafloor forty-odd miles southeast of the Louisiana coast. The target has also been named: they call it the Macondo formation. The gamble is on a volume of crude oil Believed Profitable.
Giving the target a name helps pull it into our realm of understanding. But by doing so we risk failing to understand its nature. It is a hot, highly pressurized layer of petroleum hydrocarbons—oil and methane—pent up and packed away, undisturbed, inside the earth for many millions of years.
The worker crews have struck their target. But the Big Payback will cut both ways. The target is about to strike back.
A churning drill bit sent from a world of light and warmth and living beings. More than three miles under the sea surface, more than two miles under the seafloor. Eternal darkness. Unimaginable pressure. The drill bit has met a gas pocket. That tiny pinprick. That pressure. Mere bubbles, a mild fizz from deep within. A sudden influx of gas into the well. Rushing up the pipe. Gas expanding like crazy. Through the open gates on the seafloor. One more mile to the sea surface.
The beings above are experiencing some difficulty managing it. A variety of people face a series of varied decisions. They don’t make all the right ones.
Destroyed: Eleven men. Created: Nine widows. Twenty-one fatherless kids, including one who’ll soon be born. Seventeen injured. One hundred and fifteen survive with pieces of the puzzle lodged in their heads. Only the rig rests in peace, one mile down. Only the beginning.
Blowout. Gusher. Wild well. Across the whole region, the natural systems shudder. Months to control it. Years to get over it. Human lives changed by the hundreds of thousands. Effects that ripple across the country, the hemisphere, the world. Imperfect judgment at sea and in offices in Houston, perhaps forgivable. Inadequate safeguards, perhaps unforgivable. No amount of money enough. Beyond Payable.
Deepwater exploration had already come of age when, in 2008, BP leased the mile-deep Macondo prospect No. 252 for $34 million. By 1998 only two dozen exploratory wells had been drilled in water deeper than 5,000 feet in the Gulf of Mexico. A decade later, that number was nearly three hundred.
With a platform bigger than a football field, the Deepwater Horizon was insured for over half a billion dollars. The rig cost $350 million and rose 378 feet from bottom to top. On the rig were 126 workers; 79 were Transocean employees, 6 were BP employees, and 41 were subcontractors to firms like Halliburton and M-I Swaco. None of the Deepwater Horizon’s crew had been seriously injured in seven years.
Operations began at Macondo 252 using Transocean’s drilling platform Marianas on October 6, 2009. The site was forty-eight miles southeast of the nearest Louisiana shore and due south of Mobile, Alabama. As the lessee, BP did the majority of the design work for the well, but utilized contractors for the drilling operation. Rig owner Transocean was the lead driller. Halliburton—formerly headed by Dick Cheney, before he became vice president of the United States under George W. Bush—was hired for cementing services. Other contractors performed other specialized work.
The initial cost estimate for the well was approximately $100 million. The work cost BP about $1 million per day.
They’d drilled about 4,000 feet down when, on November 8, 2009, Hurricane Ida damaged Marianas so severely that the rig had to be towed to the shipyard. Drilling resumed on February 6, 2010, with BP having switched to Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon rig.
By late April, the well would be about $58 million over budget.
Being a deepwater well driller—what’s it like? To simplify, imagine pushing a pencil into the soil. Pull out the pencil. Slide a drinking straw into that hole to keep it open. Now, a little more complex: your pencil is tipped not with a lead point but with a drilling bit. You have a set of pencils, each a little narrower than the last, each a little longer. You have a set of drinking straws, each also narrower. You use the fattest pencil first, make the hole, pull it out, then use the next fattest. And so on. This is how you make the hole deeper. At the scale of pencils-as-drills, you’re going down about 180 feet, and the work is soon out of sight. As you push and remove the pencils, you slide one straw through another, into the deepening hole. You have a deepening, tapering hole lined with sections of drinking straw, with little spaces between the hole and each straw, and between the sections of straw. You have to seal all those spaces, make it, in effect, one tapering tube, absolutely tight.
Toxic Brew: Millions of gallons of oil and dispersants have been pumped and dumped into the Gulf of Mexico, essentially creating what amounts to a science experiment. Carl Safina, a prominent ecologist and marine conservationist, explores the repercussions for sea life, and its uncertain future.
Windfall: If ever there was a time to get off of oil and plug into offshore wind power, it is now, argues Mike Tidwell, a clean-energy activist and veteran journalist with deep roots in the bayou.
Black Bayou: There are all kinds of reasons to feel outrage and fear about the worst environmental catastrophe in American history, maintains Ted Williams, Audubon’s longtime “Incite” columnist. But, he says, there are also reasons for hope.