Intelligent Energy

Deep trouble for deep sea drilling?

Posting in Energy

Transocean oil rig, Deepwater Horizon, sinks into the Gulf of Mexico. A fluke accident or ominous warning?

Tuesday night's oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico has left 11 people missing. Yesterday, the Deepwater Horizon sank almost 5,000 feet to the bottom of the Gulf, extinguishing the flames but hopefully not the answers as to what happened.

Such answers are important to decipher in any tragedy, but the timing of the disaster is especially troubling. Just last month Obama lifted a ban on drilling for oil off Alaska and most of the East Coast (see: Obama opens seas to oil drilling). The offshore industry was already growing, and according to a Wall Street Journal article yesterday, facing a dearth in experienced workers.

WSJ reports:

Some industry analysts said they feared the accident might temporarily damp the pace of oil development in the deepest reaches of the Gulf, which has become a significant exploration hotspot for international oil companies seeking new sources of petroleum. The industry is booming, and has been challenged by a tight supply of rigs and skilled workers.

While oil is shimmering on the surface up to 5 miles from where Deepwater Horizon sank, there has been no reports of oil leaking from the well. To determine this, the U.S. Coast Guard is remotely controlling an apparatus with sonar and cameras, explains today's New York Times.

Transocean, the rig's owner and the world's largest offshore contractor, suspects the incident resulted from a "blow out," a sudden, unanticipated burst of oil or gas from a well. Luckily (sort of), the $600 million rig was an exploratory rig, constructing the well not actively drawing oil from it.

Deep water drilling takes place in waters more than 1,000 feet deep. Oil extraction in shallower seas is easier. Many such wells in the Gulf, however, have already been tapped, forcing companies to head to greater depths. The Deepwater Horizon now lies almost 50 miles from Louisiana's shoreline.

BP, the oil company contracting the rig, has sent 32 spill response vessels with the skimming capacity of more than 171,000 barrels a day. Hopefully, we won't need them.

I wish the best for the families and friends of those who are missing, now presumed dead, that they are coping as well as can be expected.

UPDATE: Looks like we need those clean-up boats after all.

Image 1: U.S. Coast Guard
Image 2: NASA

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Melissa Mahony

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Melissa Mahony has written for Scientific American Mind, Audubon Magazine, Plenty Magazine and LiveScience. Formerly, she was an editor at Wildlife Conservation magazine. She holds degrees from Boston College and New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure