Happy Fun Science Friday!
Though this post does not present such a happy story, given the recent discussion about dolphin photobombing, this week’s FSF is topically related. In the spring of 2010 the Deepwater Horizon oil rig experienced catastrophic failure resulting in the worst oil spill in human history. The Gulf of Mexico (GoM) was the unfortunate host of this catastrophe and the GoM community is still feeling the ecological, social, and economic consequences of this disaster.
Pod of bottlenose dolphins swimming underneath oily water of Chandeleur Sound, La., May 6, 2010.
Photo Credit: Alex Brandon/AP
One such impact that received little TV coverage during the spill was the uncharacteristic spike in dolphin deaths. A few months following the BP spill there was an unprecedented spike in dead dolphins washing ashore along the Gulf Coast; 67 dead dolphins by February of 2011, with more than half (35) of the dead dolphins being calves. This is in stark contrast to years preceding the spill when one or two dead dolphins per year were normally documented to wash ashore. Despite the spike in dolphin deaths, there was no definitive evidence linking the dead cetaceans to the oil spill as a number of other factors could have been responsible for the deaths, including infectious disease or the abnormally cold winter proceeding the spill.
February 2005 – A giant in the oil industry sets out to drill what is, at the time, the deepest oil well in the world, a staggering 32,000 feet below the sea bed. The oil field, just 28 miles from the Louisiana coast, is estimated to contain up to a billion barrels of oil. The success of this well could launch a new era of offshore drilling and revolutionize an industry. And then, after 18 months and $180 million dollars, just 2,000 feet from their target, ExxonMobil halts their drill, declares Blackbeard West unsafe, and walks away.
Barely 5 years later, a similar well, deep and deeply unsafe, would suffer a catastrophic blowout, pumping millions of barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico. The resulting investigation revealed a history of unacceptable risk and a blasé attitude towards safety on the part of BP. While the BP blowout at the Macondo well was a disaster on a global scale, Blackbeard West was a disaster deferred. How could these two incidents, both created by nearly the same conditions, have had such dramatically different consequences? What can we learn about the culture of oil exploration and the true cost of a crude economy from Blackbeard West?