From what I can glean, not being an expert on these matters, the cause of the explosion on the oil rig was the drill hitting a pocket of gas under high pressure. BP is digging the deepest wells in the Gulf, a possible reason they were surprised by the gas explosion event.
The regulatory strengthening which I mentioned in the first article, which the oil giants, including BP, fought successfully against, had to do with having the fail-safe mechanism, the blowout protector, operable by remote control. This is common practice in Europe. The ability to shut off the well in a few seconds rather than the time, maybe hours, it would take to get an unmanned submersible to the site, might have made all the difference. It’s also possible that the valve was damaged as a result of the explosion so that nothing would’ve gotten it to close.
If the lack of a remote operated valve was the difference then the Gulf of Mexico was sacrificed to save $500,000, the cost of the device. Latest estimates are that the oil is flowing at the rate of 25,000 barrels per day, which translates to about 1 million gallons per day. If by some miracle it is possible to shut off the flow of oil in the next couple of weeks then it will only be a major environmental disaster. The latest idea is a heavy steel dome that will be placed over the worst leak which will, in theory, allow the gushing oil to be contained and brought to the surface in a safe manner. Time will tell if it actually works.
If it goes on for months the cost will be almost incalculable. It will be an endless Sisyphean nightmare of futility in which no matter how hard you work, your efforts are quickly overwhelmed by more oil. Fisheries gone, wetlands destroyed, beaches tarnished.
While this particular spill is one of epic proportions, environmental disaster is going on in many facets of fossil fuel production on a daily basis. Extracting oil from the Alberta tar sands is an energy intensive, climate destructive and extremely dirty process. Producing gas through the process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracting, is destroying ground water in the Rocky Mountain states as well as upstate New York. The process involves injecting chemicals and water into the well under high pressure which forces the gas out.
A couple of years back when I did a nostalgia hitchhike from Portland to Denver I got picked up by people in Utah whose friends had experience with the impacts of fracting. Before gas extraction began they had high-quality ground water. After fracting their water was smelly and turned into a murky brown color. Their animals wouldn’t drink it, their crops died when they used it to irrigate. Their well had been permanently poisoned. The gas well wasn’t on their property so they enjoyed no monetary benefit that might’ve compensated a bit for their loss.
The price of crude oil is back up to around $85 per barrel. It is predicted to rise to $100 by the end of the year. After that the sky’s the limit, and with very high prices, companies and countries will take increasing chances drilling and extracting in more and more difficult places, with the inevitable consequences of occasional catastrophic failure. It doesn’t need to happen very often to make the entire process too dangerous to attempt.