Recent Gulf of Mexico Oil Well Leak Shows that Even Small Accidents Can Cause Severe Environmental Damage

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Oil spillOil is an integral part of our daily lives, serving as fuel for important machinery including cars, boats, cruise ships and cargo vessels. Unfortunately, the only way to obtain oil is to drill into the earth’s core. Even more unfortunate is the fact that an increasing amount of drilling is being done at sea miles beneath the surface of the ocean.  Worldwide, drilling for oil and oil wells are highly regulated endeavors, even more so when the drilling and the wells are in maritime settings. However, as our maritime lawyers know all too well, the highest safety standards in the maritime industry cannot prevent accidents from happening.

So long as human error and money are factors in the equation, which they almost always are, accidents will continue to happen.  The question then is how much are we as a people willing to risk in order to continue to fuel our lives?

Throughout the years, there have been countless accidents at oil rigs, wells and with cargo tanks and barges that have caused injuries to seafarers as well as serious damage to the environment and marine life. When oil is spilled into the ocean, it expands to cover a vast area, making it much more difficult to clear up than when it happens on land.

A recent natural gas leak at a non-operating oil and gas well in the Gulf of Mexico  serves to remind us just how dangerous these wells are even when not in operation. Although no one was injured in this incident, damage to marine life and surrounding ecosystems did occur.

The accident occurred Monday at Ship Shoal Block 225 Platform B, an old natural gas and crude oil well roughly 75 miles off the Louisiana coast. Crew members were ironically in the process of sealing the well shut when a small amount of condensate, a mixture of natural gas and oil, began to leak out.

According to Timothy S. Duncan, the president of Talos Energy LLC which owns the platform, emergency crews were immediately dispatched to contain the situation, evacuate crews and prevent further damage.  Duncan announced that spill response crews from Wild Well Control Inc. are working to seal the leak and are expected to complete the job by today.

Duncan believes the leak may have been caused by old tubing that ruptured. The well was developed back in the 1970s and the company decided to have it plugged because it did not produce a significant amount of natural gas or oil and would have required an artificial lift in order to get greater use out of it.

The base of the well is 144 feet below the surface and while the leak was described as relatively small, aerial views of the scene showed oil sheens expanding for miles along the Gulf’s surface, the level of harm to marine life in the area, including fish, plants and aquatic birds, is yet to be determined.

When accidents occur at oil and gas platforms, they are often accompanied by explosions and/or fires which usually result in personal injuries and even fatalities among those crew members on the scene and sometimes those called upon to perform the rescue and clean up efforts. Let’s take a look back at some of the worst oil spills documented and see how they compare with this recent leak.

 

Largest Oil Spill in History: BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill (2010)

Nothing could have prepared well crew members and the oil companies for the disaster that occurred on April 22, 2010 at the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. About a mile below the water surface, an oil well blew out, causing an explosion on the rig that lead to dozens of injuries and the deaths of 11 crew members.  Considered the largest oil spill in history, emergency crews continually failed to cap the well, leaving oil to flow at a destructive rate – sometimes as high as 2.5 gallons per day. The rig itself sank following the explosion, but not before costing the petroleum industry billions in reparations, clean up and personal injury lawsuits.

After a horrendous 85 days of oil leaking into the Gulf’s fragile ecosystem, crews finally managed to plug the well on July 15, 2010, following several unsuccessful attempts. The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill caused an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil (210 million gallons) to leak into the waters, leaving 572 miles of Gulf waters to become polluted and destroying hundreds of marine wildlife and plants. To this day, the effects of the spill are still being felt along the Gulf’s coasts, with experts saying it may take several years for the ecosystem to recover.

 

Worst Oil Spill in History: Persian Gulf Oil Spill in Kuwait (1991)

On January 23 1991, the world was devastated as the worst oil spill in history unfolded in the Persian Gulf near Kuwait. While the BP oil spill was tragic, it’s important to note that the spill was accidental. What makes this particular oil spill stand out in history is the fact that it was completely deliberate.

The incident took place amidst the Gulf War, when Iraqi forces tried to stop U.S. Marine soldiers from reaching their territory by opening several valves at the Sea Island oil terminal in Kuwait and setting fire to numerous other wells and pipelines, dumping a horrendous amount of oil into the Persian Gulf and causing irreparable damage to the surrounding marine ecosystems in Kuwait and Iraq.

It is estimated that as many as 10 million barrels of oil were released into the Gulf, creating a 5-inch thick oil slick that expanded across 4,000 square miles. Over 20 years later, large amounts of oil in areas off the coast of Saudi Arabia are still being discovered, affecting marshlands and mudflats and causing harm to wildlife.

 

Because oil expands quickly in the water, even the smallest spill can cause miles of water to be affected, leaving marine wildlife vulnerable to becoming sick or death from the oil’s toxic effects. Although no one was hurt in the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill, our maritime lawyers recognize the need for more rigorous inspections and safety protocols to be put into effect for all existing wells, whether operating or not. Because once an “accident” happens it is too late, the damage is done. When it comes to offshore wells, the cleanup and the spill’s effects on the overall environment are always more costly than it would have been to timely deal with the underlying problem that ultimately resulted in the spill.