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Underwater mudslides are the biggest threat to offshore drilling, and energy companies aren’t ready for them

Mar 20 2019 | 04:04:48
Like generals planning for the last war, oil company managers and government inspectors tend to believe that because they survived the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, they are ready for all contingencies. Today they are expanding drilling into deeper and deeper waters, and the Trump administration is opening more offshore areas to production.In fact, however, the worst-case scenario for an oil spill catastrophe is not losing control of a single well, as occurred in the BP disaster. Much more damage would be done if one or more of the thousand or so production platforms that now blanket the Gulf of Mexico were destroyed without warning by a deep-sea mudslide.Instead of one damaged wellhead, a mudslide would leave a tangled mess of pipes buried under a giant mass of sediments. It would be impossible to stop the discharge with caps or plugs, and there would be little hope of completing dozens of relief wells to stop discharge from damaged wells. Oil might flow for decades.This scenario has already occurred, and we are seeing the results at a well off Louisiana, owned by Taylor Energy, that has been leaking oil since 2004. Based on this disaster and my 30 years of experience studying deep-sea oil and gas seeps, I believe that regulators and energy companies should be doing much more to prevent such catastrophes at other sites.