Dimensions and Disruptions
The magnificent Gulf of Mexico was the ninth largest body of water on the planet, covering about 600,000 miles in area. While there were scientific disputes about the origin of the Gulf, the most thought provoking theory was that it was caused by the massive cataclysmic asteroid strike that changed the environment of the Earth and doomed the dinosaurs. The crater left in the Gulf sea floor was presumed to be the reason that the Southwest of the United States, once a sea floor itself, was now dry land.
The Gulf was mainly surrounded by United States of America and Mexico. The American states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida all bordered Gulf waters and used those waters for commerce and recreation. The Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Tabasco, Campeche, and Yucatan also touched the Gulf and used that access for similar purposes. The Straits of Florida and the Yucatan Channel to the North and South of the island of Cuba linked the Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean and its Caribbean Sea.
One great concern after the spill was what would happen to the Gulf’s Loop Current, a circling “river” of water within the Gulf. Some oceanographers theorized that it could pick up oil from the spill and dump it into the Atlantic Ocean’s Gulf Stream. If that happened, the East Coast of the United States would clearly be at risk from oil and tar.
There was also some speculation that the oil spill had directly damaged the functioning of the Loop Current. If this proved to be true, the global conveyor belt of deep and shallow ocean currents could be disrupted. Resulting major climatic shifts could plunge the Earth’s continents into an Ice Age.
The scientific debates concerning the Loop Current and the spill raged on and on for years. Frankly, the many scientific studies and data collection efforts were based on ever moving, hopefully diluting, and difficult to characterize deep gulf oil pools. Joe thought “Garbage in, Garbage out” as the problem was much too complex for even supercomputer analysis.
Economic and Societal Impact
The states and countries surrounding the Gulf of Mexico were among the most fortunate in the world. The Gulf had abundant fisheries, substantial oil and natural gas reserves, and beautiful beaches that were complemented by generally warm and gentle waters.
Summer tropical storms and autumn hurricanes disturbed the otherwise benign Gulf, but atmospheric warning systems allowed people to hunker down or leave the areas of greatest danger.
The Gulf’s annual harvest of shellfish and other commercial fish was in the billions of pounds. This catch represented between 20% and 25% of the domestic fishing revenue in the United States or over $1 billion in value. The Gulf also supported recreational fishing and accounted for slightly less than half of the finfish catch in the United States.
When the oil spill occurred, it was obvious that the fisheries would be affected. Fish swimming, breeding and feeding would be contaminated by oil. Affected fish could not be safely consumed. To prevent human illnesses, the federal government closed a large portion of the Gulf fisheries.
Sister Savannah was kept busy ministering to those involved with the fishing industry. Although many had found work cleaning up the spill, their frustration and anger was an ever-present problem to their families and society at large. To the folks who lived on the water, fishing wasn’t just a way to earn a living; it was a way of life that had been severely damaged.
Joe was not much of a fisherman, but during his childhood he had built a small wood hull boat with a friend who just happened to be the cousin of a famous racecar driver. Joe and his buddy had also managed to repair a small outboard motor.
On the weekends, they would lather up with sun tan lotion and zinc oxide, and head down to the local boat launch just around sunrise. If you wanted to catch Pompano and Drum, “early to bed and early to rise made your fishing a happy surprise”. And if you didn’t get there early you found out to your dismay that the fish, as if by signal, stopped biting about 2 hours after sunrise.
Gulf Oil and Natural Gas
The Gulf was not only a productive fishery, but below its seafloor resided a tremendous amount of oil and natural gas. Offshore wells produced 1.6 million barrels per day of crude oil and 1.9 barrels per day of natural gas. This was about 10% of the total liquid fuels consumed by the United States.
At its peak, the offshore oil and gas industry employed about 60,000 workers working some 4000 rigs of all types.
From left to right – (1, 2) conventional fixed platforms; (3) compliant tower; (4, 5) vertically moored tension leg and mini-tension leg platform; (6) Spar; (7,8) Semi-submersibles; (9) Floating production, storage, and offloading facility; (10) sub-sea completion and tie-back to host facility.
In the early 1900s, the first well was drilled in the Gulf just off the Louisiana coast. This was followed within a decade by wells drilled in the tidal areas of Texas and Louisiana. In another decade, both barge based and fixed platforms for oil drilling appeared, the latter being a mile off shore in 14 feet of water. In the mid-1940s, drilling was pushed well out into the Gulf but still on the continental shelf. As drilling technology improved and oil discoveries in the Gulf multiplied, production was pushed beyond the continental shelf and into deep water.
The Transylvanian Oil Company had drilled in Gulf water over 5000 feet deep because the Gulf’s shallow and near shore continental shelf had been placed off limits for oil drilling. The Company had been fortunate that they were not forced to drill in the Gulf’s Sigsbee Deep at a depth of up to 14,000 feet.
The Gulf fisheries, as well as oil and natural gas production, were not the only things affected by the spill. Many recreational beaches were damaged, and even those that weren’t suffered from bad publicity. After all, who would want to spend their vacation at a beach that smelled of oil and couldn’t be used for swimming or strolling without encountering tar that stuck to everything?
Joe suddenly remembered the good ole days when the bikini first hit the Florida beaches. He was in high school, and the bikini changed the social dynamics between teenage boys and girls. The most obvious result was that the pregnancy rate jumped followed by an increase in the number of “shotgun” weddings. Notably, the birth control pill had not yet been invented.
There were the Twins. Probably the prettiest girls in Joe’s high school. Both dated the same muscular red-haired Harley biker. The competition for his attention was fast and furious, and both of the Twins became pregnant. Since the father of the future children was well known, the only question was which girl would he marry. To settle the question, he skipped town in the dead of night and headed rapidly west to find sanctuary with the West Coast branch of the Hell’s Angels. The Twins were eventually married to a couple of mom’s and dad’s selected friends. There would be no illegitimate children and no abortions to stain the reputation of that Catholic family.
Prior to the Spill, the Gulf coast was an environmentalist paradise. Kor worked there regularly, and took most of his vacations along the Gulf. One year it would be the Everglades. The next the white sand beaches of the Florida panhandle. Then the mysteries of the bayous, or the shell beaches of the Lee Island coast.
No one was surprised when Kor exploded in a meeting of environmental activists and key “Green” politicians, including Newman. All agreed that something had to be done about the “oil problem”. And all understood that without significant action the shadowy Earth Liberation Front would respond violently to this insult to the Earth.
Eventually, the visible remnants of oil and tar were cleaned up. However, what lurked out of sight of the average tourist was an ecological nightmare of unknown impact. Science, not “out of sight, out of mind” thinking, would have to provide answers.
Cleaning up the Mess
For all practical purposes, clean up was a defense in depth problem. The first line of defense was at sea. The second was near or on the beach. Thousands of “defenders” were hired or volunteered in what was reminiscent of a build-up to war. Initially, coordination was poor, but good people working together quickly came up with solutions that expedited the clean up process.
Danger, however, lurked in the oil and dispersants. Those most directly involved with large masses of either had to be protected from the combination of toxic odors and summer heat. Sometimes protective suits and masks were used; however, they restricted movement and quickly became claustrophobic. Fortunately, the worst immediate health problems were difficulty with breathing and nausea.
The long-term impact of working day after day in the toxic fumes was unknown. Medical officials reasoned that future illnesses would be similar to those associated with Hurricane Katrina or possibly the aftermath of the Islamic terrorist attacks that brought down the Twin Towers in New York City.
First Line of Defense
Ships, barges and boats were positioned to “surround” oil slicks. Of particular value were skimmers that worked by funneling oil towards water-oil separation barges or concentrating it for burning on the water. Large orders for skimmers flowed into shipyards, – with one shipyard reporting a jump in annual production from less than 5 to nearly 50.
Shipyards rapidly increased their hiring to meet the demands of around the clock work schedules for new construction skimmers. Retrofit of shrimp boats, or for that matter any potentially useful boat, was also done.
There was considerable uncertainty about large pools of subsurface oil. What was known was what could be seen on the surface, and that was about it when it came to the immediate aftermath of the spill.
However, in relatively short order, Transylvanian Oil obtained and deployed remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to get lighted video of the accident site some 5000 feet below the surface of the Gulf. To news hungry reporters and television audiences, the ROVs provided insight into the damage. The ROVs were instrumental in sealing the massive leak and in the subsequent exploration of the subsurface oil pools. The ROVs were the stars of a rather ugly scene.
As an engineering apprentice, Joe had worked on the design of the Navy’s first class of nuclear submarines. These were the successors to the diesel submarines used in WW-II and predecessors to the ROVs.
Most people didn’t realize it, but submarines were “tight quarters” and “head knockers”. Joe would get back from a design inspection dirty and sweating profusely. He constantly wore a cumbersome hard hat to keep his head from getting bruised or cut as he moved about the sub. Hard hats were also advisable for other reasons. Shipyard workers were known to hide “up top” in the covered lattice structure that sheltered submarine construction – and “bomb” engineers below with tools or garbage.
When Joe analyzed the rig explosion and the destruction of the well, he realized that an old historic problem had once again reared its ugly head. Drilling rigs were ships when moving around and structures when fixed in place and drilling. Therefore, if the rig is moving, a licensed sea captain is in charge. If the rig is fixed in place, an oil company rig manager leads the chain of command.
Just prior to the explosion that led to the spill, there was a rapid build up in gas pressure. However, the captain did not activate the emergency shutdown because he was waiting for permission from the oil company manager. After the explosion, confusion utterly disrupted the chain of command. The result was an “every man for himself” situation and the lifeboats were lowered without any orders.
Second Line of Defense
Protection of the beaches or near shore areas ranged from the mundane to the wonderfully creative.
The mundane was obvious. People walked along tar-affected beaches with pooper-scooper and plastic bag in hand. Find an oily tar ball, pick it up, stick it in a bag and then do it all over again. Not exactly the most challenging of tasks but an absolutely necessary one.
The image reminded Joe of the award winning definition of political correctness which was “ a doctrine fostered by a delusional, illogical, liberal minority and rabidly promoted by an unscrupulous mainstream media, which holds forth the proposition that it is entirely possible to pick up a turd by the clean end”.
Joe wondered who had the plastic bag concession. Someone was making a ton of money. And, once you had thousands of bags of sticky and sandy tar balls, what next?
The EPA and State government agencies designed and activated a waste management scheme. As the first step, waste collection companies were hired and directed to place specially labeled bins on numerous beaches. These bins were then filled based on a variety of debris classifications. The various materials were ultimately sent to preapproved landfills by predefined routes.
Under the best of circumstances, oil approached by did not immediately reach the beaches. Inflatable booms by the hundreds if not thousands of miles were deployed to keep the oil at bay. Wave action could wash oil over the booms; however, as a stopgap measure, the booms worked. Some near coastal areas experienced minimal oil overflow and other locations, not subject to significant waves, escaped damage altogether.
Barges were strung together to prevent oil from entering ecologically and economically sensitive water passages. A towboat would position the barges across the mouth of a passage, and then move a barge to allow boats to move back and forth between a sheltered harbor area and Gulf waters. Barge blockades were also used to protect smaller oil skimmers from the action of waves or currents.
Many wildly creative ideas were proposed. Human hair collected from barbershops was suggested. It could be compressed and used to absorb oil. Polymers adapted from space exploration and advances in nanowires were suggested. Transylvanian Oil tried a lot of different things, but eventually settled on what was practical and doable. Sexy or interesting was the enemy of good and timely enough for the job.
One intractable problem remained. There was no reasonably useful solution for cleaning up the coastal marshes. Proposals to burn oil-coated plants, flush oil out of the marshes, mow the marshes and leave the plant roots intact, or fertilize the marshes to speed oil degradation simply weren’t practical on the scale needed.
Pierre Cheasequah de Soto
As his name suggests, Pierre was pretty much the classic American mutt. French, Cherokee, Spanish, and a little Irish snuck into his genetic mix. Pierre had bright red hair and an unusual American Indian face. He was compact and sinewy with a muscular body that was perfect for a lightweight wrestler or boxer.
As a kid, his genetic confusion manifested itself in quirky and aggressive behavior. If anyone looked crossways at him, the fight was almost certainly on. And fight he did from the Kindergarten on where he had bitten the arm of an older girl and then punched the teacher who tried to separate them. A short suspension from school and a spanking had little affect. Eventually, people left Pierre, or “Cheese” as he was called by some of very few buddies, alone.
Being alone was no big deal. Cheese liked it. However, being alone meant that there was nobody with enough influence to provide him with a sense of the rules of society. After a scrape with the law, he was removed from his birth family and placed in foster care. From there he went to a juvenile detention center where he refined his fighting skills and learned to drink people under the table. To say that the guards weren’t paying attention was an understatement.
About the only thing that saved him from an early death or life in prison was a Mexican “tough guy” from the streets of Juarez who had gained enough experience to know that life was tough enough without the constant interference of bad decisions and actions. Between the “tough guy” and then a truly sweet young gal, Cheese was turned into the Pierre he was destined to be. A hardworking, not quite clean living, but solid American.
Pierre at Work
Pierre started his work life as an apprentice in one of the Houston boatyards that serviced the Clear Lake boating community. As a young teenager, he had always liked to fish and tinker with outboard motors. And, he was more than a little familiar with using boats as a way of escaping the local law.
The owners of the yard took a liking to Pierre and he quickly moved up to become manager as well as chief mechanic. Everything appeared to be “going good” and he was “ace high” within the boatyard and boat building community.
Unfortunately, the boating industry was not the most stable business in the world. When a recession hit the general economy, the boating industry was thrown into a depression. The boatyard closed and Pierre was out of a job.
Joe met Pierre when both were called to consult on a boating accident. Joe was the engineer and Pierre, between jobs at the time, was the mechanic with the instrumentation and “know how”. They took a liking to each other and their skills complemented each other’s work. A productive and lucrative, albeit spotty, consulting tandem was born.
Pierre’s next “permanent” job was quite a leap. He became a trawler engineer. The pay was excellent if the catch was good, – and Pierre lucked into working for the best of the fishing fleet’s Captains. The problem was that the long days and weeks at sea put a tremendous strain on his growing family, and he nearly ended up in divorce when his wife briefly walked out over the frustration of trying to raise three really little kids herself.
From Joe’s observation, life on a fishing trawler involved not only long periods at sea, but also danger that lurked just about everywhere and at any time. Even the most benign of sea conditions involved getting heavy machinery and equipment ready. If the conditions at sea suddenly changed as a result of a squall or the maelstrom of a severe thunderstorm, the loss of the trawler and death were a real possibility.
Joe noted that the movie “The Perfect Storm” was a relatively simple interpretation of what could happen at sea. Frankly, a hellish mix of foam, spray, and sudden shifts in the peaks and troughs of waves would create an unmanageable situation. No captain could see where he needed to go, and survival would depend on the “amazing grace” of God.
The trawler business was uncertain in both time at sea and size of catch. Pierre knew that he needed something far more stable to keep peace in the family and food on the table. Thanks to a second good word from his old boatyard boss and a recommendation from the well-respected trawler Captain, he landed a job as an oil worker on one of the Gulf rigs. Employed by Transylvanian Oil and tied to a regular 14-day on and 21 day off work schedule, Pierre thrived and added a couple more kids to the family.
When the rig exploded and the oil spread, Pierre was initially unaffected. The spill had occurred hundreds of miles away from his work rig and involved a Louisiana crew. What he didn’t realize at the time was that the politics of the environment would eventually shut down every working rig in the Gulf and put his job at risk.
When it became obvious that layoffs would occur, and that he was one of the more junior guys, Pierre’s frustration surfaced by way of a fight at a local seaman’s bar. Joe chuckled that Kor wouldn’t last long in a “knock down, drag out” fight and that Newman had better stay well away from the Texas Gulf region. Joe also knew that Pierre would not be at all happy with anyone in an executive capacity at Transylvanian Oil.
Was Pierre behind it? Joe doubted it, but oil workers are not known for their easy ways. Therefore, when the wife of a Transylvanian Oil executive was injured by a “candy” box full of nails that exploded in her face, it was assumed that a message was being sent either by a disgruntled oil worker or an environmental nut case. Joe’s bet was on the Earth Liberation Front.
The Spill and the Working Man
The great losers from the oil spill were the working men and women of the Gulf. Unaware and ignorant of the background that led to the disaster, these folks and the rest of the American citizenry blamed the most obvious target – the oil companies. Over time, however, the realization that the issue was much more complex began to seep through. The politician and the environmental community were next to take the blame.
However, blame and recriminations were not solutions. People around the Gulf and the nation lost their jobs. They suffered waiting for compensation from the government managed, oil company paid relief funds. The final indignity was when the price of oil and gas jumped substantially.
The ultimate question was when would the Gulf of Mexico and the local economies recover? The oil that could be cleaned up by man or dissipated by natural forces was long gone. The oil that lurked thousands of feet below the surface, in and amongst the marshes, and in an infinite number of hidden places along beaches and inlets was a different story. As was the case after the Exxon Valdez spill, oil and tar remained for decades. Nature took its time to repair man’s damage.