The Deep Blue Sea and the Devil Below
In the immediate aftermath of the spill, there was considerable chaos which was followed within a few months by the triumph of engineering. In reaching into the depths and sealing the leak, a teams of engineers and one unnamed plumber who suggested the solution were heroes. Unfortunately, things began to change. Subtly at first and then quickening in pace and magnitude.
Fishermen began to report odd surface sheens of oil and dead zones well away from the spill site. Assurances were given that natural phenomena were in play and nothing of significance was happening. Assurances, however, were not certainties.
Political pressure led Transylvanian Oil to re-deploy their growing ROV fleet although the once broken well-head showed no signs of a problem, but the ROV fleet did spot the fact that the subsurface pools of oil had shifted. The assumption was that some unknown currents were in play. The pools, however, did not respond in a manner consistent with any current. They moved randomly, – sometimes slowly and other times so rapidly as to disappear out of camera range.
The first minor earthquake caused a bit of a stir. It was a few miles from the shuttered well. Again, nothing much happened, – although oil did bubble up in a coastal marsh near New Orleans.
The scientific community noted that Gulf earthquakes, while rare, happen and some in the vicinity of the dead well. The word went out that there should be no cause for alarm. It was simply a natural phenomenon once again at work. The seismograph, however, did not remain still. It recorded an increase in activity.
Joe was concerned. From past experience and a knowledge base gained from personal study of the Gulf oil spill, he knew that shuttered wells in particular could create unpredictable problems.
The Gulf contained nearly 30,000 plugged non-producing wells. This was about eight times the number of producing wells. Most of these plugged wells were completely inactive, and most were close to the coast where access for repair was quick and straightforward.
Significantly, there was little experience with plugged deepwater wells. It was assumed that such dead wells would behave like their near shore cousins, but there was no data to back this up as deep water drilling was relatively new and untested by the passage of time.
Many in the engineering community were concerned that the plugged wells were simply an accident waiting to happen. Those with an environmental and geological background reasoned that each such well created a weakness in the sea bottom. This idea was buoyed by a disputed study that mapped the sea bottom, and linked increases in geological activity to plugged well concentrations.
From Joe’s perspective, the world’s answer to post spill anomalies was “Where there is no harm, there is no foul.” While oil seepage popped up here and there, the skimming procedures available to capture it were more than adequate. The environmental movement and their political allies had seen to that. And the oil companies wanted no bad media coverage if it could be helped.
Up until the spill, Gulf drilling activity had appeared to be in balance. Oil was being removed without major incident and with minimal environmental damage. Of course, the environmental movement wasn’t happy with “the rape of the planet”, but they could not convince enough politicians that there should be no further drilling. Frankly, America and the world needed oil and natural gas, and the Gulf was a major supplier of those commodities.
Being in balance does not mean certainty. Stability in the oil fields is a day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year and decade-to-decade issue. The Gulf Oil spill demonstrated just how tenuous the balance is and how easily it can be shifted.