Gulf oil spill: Be prepared for the worst


Climate Progress makes a point that I've been thinking a lot about lately...

...history has taught that no amount of clean up effort will ever be able to fully reverse the spill of many millions of gallons of oil into the ocean. The legacy of Exxon Valdez still lingers today; Dr. Jeffrey Short of Oceana testified in a 2009 hearing that:

"Despite heroic efforts involving more than 11,000 people, 2 billion dollars, and aggressive application of the most advanced technology available, only about 8 percent of the oil was ever recovered. This recovery rate is fairly typical rate for a large oil spill. About 20 percent evaporated, 50 percent contaminated beaches, and the rest floated out to the North Pacific Ocean where it formed tarballs that eventually stranded elsewhere or sank to the seafloor."

This is yet more evidence that 20-year Coast Guard veteran Dr. Robert Brulle is right: "With a spill of this magnitude and complexity, there is no such thing as an effective response."

Even best-case scenario, only a small percentage of the oil could be cleaned up—and we're long past best case. I'm on to wondering about what happens if we can't cap the well at all. National Geographic offers a partial answer: The well could pump out oil for years, and the Gulf of Mexico would be left with the kind of devastation still seen in the Persian Gulf where the Iraqi army intentionally dumped some 336 million gallons during the 1991 Gulf War.

Up to 89 percent of the Saudi marshes and 71 percent of the mud flats had not bounced back after 12 years, the team discovered. "It was amazing to stand there and look across what used to be a salt marsh and it was all dead—not even a live crab," Hayes said.

There is no easy fix. The problem isn't that BP should have run their business without any accidents, the problem is that they seem to have had no backup plan for how to stop an accident that went beyond "normal". There is no technology that's proven to cap or even mostly clean up spills of this magnitude. That's the reality we're facing, and it isn't pretty.


  1. Absolutely. Cleaning it up will be unscrambling an omellete. Additionally, we may lose species we never knew existed, and will now never be known.

  2. If terrorists caused something like this intentionally we’d be at war with about 3 new countries by now.

  3. I saw Phillipe Cousteau talking about this last night on CNN (I think) and it just made me terribly depressed. I want to write my Congresscritters and tell them “no new wells off American shores”. As much as our country still depends on oil, this should be the smelling salts that wakes us up to the true cost of oil. If BP and other ‘oil’ companies want to continue to make money, make them diversify. Michigan was in the same boat with the auto industry (all our eggs in one basket) and look where that got us.

    1. “no new wells off American shores” <- a bit selfish. "no new wells anywhere" would be a better statement.

  4. Heard a story on NPR today that reported that in 1969 there was an oil spill that reached Massachusetts’ Buzzard Bay which, according to experts, is still showing signs of damage 40 years later. Drill, baby, drill, indeed!

  5. The USSR used nuclear weapons 4 times to close off oil and gas leaks. The impact of doing this would have been far better than what we have now. Our countries inability to put aside profit and do the right thing is killing us and spoiling the ocean. I’m fuming mad. Why didn’t we blow this thing up weeks ago!?

      1. That’s really going to depend on how much radiation and how much oil. A little radiation would be better than a lot of oil. I have no idea what the actual numbers would look like in this scenario – how much radiation and where it would go. I’m not sure if anyone really knows, although it stands to reason that at the present time, Russia is probably better informed than anyone else, having tried it four times.

        Really though, even if it was a good option (and I have no idea if it is or not) I think it would be pretty politically difficult to use a nuke in this scenario.

        1. In terms of health, a little radiation is better than a lot of oil, in terms of perceived risk, nuclear scares people. Likely more harm living next to a gas station vs. a nuclear power plant, but NIMBY goes off the scale for anything nuclear.

      2. I would assume a small bomb miles under the ocean would cause less harm than oil covering most of the gulf coast, reefs and surface.

        1. ARMY corp of engineers saying:
          Assumption is the Mother of Fuck-up.

          I’m not saying nuclear would be worse, but there’s still a lot of unknowns. Part of the economic damage is people’s perspective, and people are not rational about radioactivity. Even in science. I worked in a lab that used tritium, P32 and S35. For staining, I was also using uranium salts. The uranium was more radioactive/had greater penetration than any of the others, but since it was considered “natural radiation”, was not nearly as regulated. My lab wasn’t full of crazy people, this was the state/national regulations of the time on it.

          I always love your name by the way.

      3. In the 40’s we blew nuclear bombs up in the Sea of Japan and got Gozilla for our troubles…..Just sayin’…. maybe the next mistake will make Godzilla look like Maru the cat!

      1. Is it still a weapon in this case, or does the designation of weapon depend on usage? I mean, I have kitchen knives that could be used as weapons, but I tend to think of them as tools.

        but, yeah, regardless of whether we call them weapons or nuclear tools or just bombs, I wouldn’t want to rush into nuking america’s coast.

        1. Is it still a weapon in this case, or does the designation of weapon depend on usage? I mean, I have kitchen knives that could be used as weapons, but I tend to think of them as tools.

          Fair distinction, but your kitchen knives weren’t designed to be used as weapons. As far as I know (and I may be wrong on this) we don’t have any nuclear explosives designed for non-military applications.

          @Biedny: I’m sure somebody in the DoD has considered the possibility of terrorists attacking our oil rigs, but that’s not the same thing as saying they’ve come up with an adequate defense against such attacks. A computer simulation doesn’t do you much good unless you have the physical means to plug a giant hole under a mile of water.

    1. Oil is the devil we know vs. the unknowns of the radioactive devil we don’t. Even though you could use a scintillation counter to rule out low level radiation in catches, it would be devestating to the image of commercial fishing. Conventional munitions might be used to do the same thing, don’t know why nukes would be required. It’s unlikely that it’s not being considered, don’t think it would be procedurely implemented faster than the things they’re trying now. Don’t know if an explosion in the area has the potential to open other leaks in the region, but that’s the sort of question to explore.

    2. If they could spend just ten billion dollars and blow it up safely, they’d have done so. It’d be cheaper for them than letting it continue to leak, which will lose them $30Bn at least.

      But if they set off explosives and all they accomplished was to increase the flow tenfold… well, that wouldn’t be a win for anyone.

      Do YOU know how to cap a well-head explosively at 1500 metres under the sea, without risking making it worse? I doubt anyone does.

      If they did it with a nuke (because we all know the US army just keeps a stash of nukes designed to work at 150 atmospheres, so they can just get one off the shelf), then they’d have increased flow of *irradiated* oil!

      That’d be so great! Let’s do that now!

      No. Green fuels good, but glowing green fuels on beaches not so good, thanks.

  6. It seems a little beneath boingboing’s standards to report scary numbers using the phrase “up to”.

  7. The really enraging thing is that BP’s true top priority is to save that well. Above everything else.

  8. Brainspore, you’ve hit upon an issue I explored on a radio show last night – are we to believe that the US military has not modeled the possibility that a terrorist group might do a multiple-rig hit to create this kind of situation on purpose? Really? So many of us have been wondering why there hasn’t been a military intervention in this situation, and yeah, I’ve heard all about how the oil companies are the only ones with know-how on the procedures and technologies one would deploy, but the idea that this hasn’t been played out on a DOD supercomputer, it just weird to me.

  9. If those marshes are going to be dead anyway, why NOT set all the oil on fire? It’ll be easier to bounce back after a fire than live with all that oil contamination.

  10. It isn’t pretty, but we don’t give a shit. As long as we drive our cars, the economic pressure to give us our beloved oil will continue to trump any moral or ethical bounds. Want this shit to stop? Boycott the internal combustion engine.

    1. I won’t argue that we rely too much on our cards, but is that the whole story? Of all the oil that is refined, how much ends up as plastic crap (or better, plastic crap that’s quickly thrown in the garbage) versus how much goes into our gas tanks?

      1. That’s “cars,” not “cards,” though we probably rely too much on those, as well (20%, my eye!)

  11. I’m reminded of Herzog’s ‘lessons of darkness’:

    radiohead instead of wagner, but you get the point.

  12. This disaster should be all that’s needed to FORCE (i.e. – legislate) big oil into spending a MASSIVE percentage of their profits into the development of clean renewables. Consider that two years of BP profit could make solar orbital power a reality.

    1. Given their recent track record I’m not sure I would want BP in charge of a massive space-based energy beam.

      1. Yeah, but if these assholes are going to fuck things up then I’d prefer if we lost just a city instead an ecosystem.

  13. “Even best-case scenario, only a small percentage of the oil could be cleaned up”
    From SFgate:
    “In 1993, a massive 800 million gallon oil spill happened in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Aramco successfully cleaned up that spill. The lead engineer that cleaned that spill was an American engineer who worked for Aramco.
    His name is Nick Pozzi and is based currently based in Houston. Apparently Pozzi offered his solution to BP and Coast Guard and they promptly dismissed his solution.
    Was it too expensive?
    What’s the Pozzi solution?
    It’s a lot simpler to understand than the top kill. It simply requires oil tankers equipped with giant vacuums (think a massive wet/dry shop vac) to suck the oil and water into oil tankers. Using a centrifuge, the tankers have the capability to separate the oil and water. The water is filtered and sent back to the ocean. The oil is recovered and processed as usual.
    In the Saudi disaster, Pozzi claimed 85% of the oil was recovered and was still usable.
    Last night, President Obama was in my home town and I was listening to him. He said, “…We’re trying everything.”
    Categorically not true, Mr. President.”

  14. There’s very little talk about this being an ELE (extinction level event) and it’s probably unlikely but the fact that’s it’s even possible should wake us up. People, if we can’t plug this up our little happy planet, yes I said planet, will be dead within a couple of years. If this leak can be stopped we need to make sure every human being knows how close we came to extinction. No more off shore oil drilling ever! Put anyone who can be held liable for such a catastrophe in jail, BP execs, regulators, Dick Cheney.

    Do you think this post is hyperbole? See this link:

    1. By “dead planet” do you mean to suggest that humanity is on the brink of extinction or that LIFE is on the brink of extinction? It’s hard to imagine any earth-based event that could wipe out everything. Even this oil spill is good news for some microbial species that thrive on petroleum.

  15. On the positive side, if we manage to wipe out the oil-sensitive parts of the gulf, we can then drill for oil unimpeded by ecological concerns, no?

  16. Many beautiful fish turtle,dolphin etc…are dying ,in a few days cost of Florida also suffer ….extracting oil like that without plan A,B,C o D for rescate are unconscious ….the money… money money ….the same in France , still exist 42 Nuclear central and nobody have plan A , B, C , D , one day a big accident …….but American people are the culture of the cars … and the Big car , more bigger …better !!!!!(4X4)
    In one American family every body have his own car, father, mother, sons,etc….pets are exclusive!!!!

  17. The Valdez only caused as much damage as it did because BP, the company in charge of keeping the sound safe from oil spills, didn’t keep the emergency teams on standby that its contracts said it must and didn’t keep the boom and capture materials ready that it was required to.

    Capturing 8% of the oil is only typical because oil companies typically fail to fund the personnel, training and materials required for capture.

  18. I used to nervously laugh when I watched the Idiocracy movie because as ridiculous as the movie was… the United States was acting out key points of the plot.

    I can’t laugh anymore. It’s the reality of the United States. This country is becoming a wasteland filled with idiots. From libertarians who claim government regulation is the root of all evil to tea baggers who are ignorantly/unknowingly led by the root of all evil… we ARE becoming an Idiocracy.

    It’s time for the smart people to take over or all is lost…. if it’s not too late already.

    Conservatives in the South who cheered “Drill! Baby! Drill!”? Enjoy your black, toxic sludge that is now the Gulf.

    On the positive side, I heard from corporate america that it’s got electrolytes… so be sure and drink it and water your crops with it.

  19. Wait wait wait… Am I the only one that noticed the quote is from DR BRULLE?

    “clean up the oil, dummy… for your health”

  20. The idea of using a 30KT Russian Nuke to pinch the pipe shut sounds great but requires a parallel pipe to the blow-out. Russian nukes are cleaner than US nukes and thus produce radioactivity that fades away quickly. The use of a nuke for a purpose like this is morally equal to a knife in a surgeons hand. Russia has experience with this that we do not have.
    This disaster leads me to question if a blow-out were to happen where EXXON is exploring in the Gobi (China) would we all die from the event? It seems possible to me.
    Blow-outs are seldom well contained…especially the ones that eject the drill pipe, casing and rig as erupted junk all over the oil soaked landscape and beyond.

  21. If you think emulating Russia is a good idea in these cases, you might want to look up “the Mouth of Hell” in Uzbekistan.

    We still haven’t fixed Centralia, PA, let’s not rush to create a nuclear-triggered version.

  22. The worst? What’s going to happen when a hurricane hits and sucks up all of that oiled much and spreads it all over the Southeast, or East Coast? A rain of oil in the middle of North Carolina?

    That would be pretty bad… The worst would be if it was on fire!

    1. A giant, toxic, flaming hurricane? I’d feel bad for everyone in the South except the Drill, Baby, Drill dunces I suppose.

  23. I personally do not use oil company credit cards, but every time I pass a BP station since this all began, I wonder why people are still pumping their product. Instead, why don’t we cut up those plastic cards and send them to BP headquarters?

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