COLLEGE STATION, June 8, 2010 - With many forecasts saying the gulf oil spill could continue leaking oil well into the fall, the situation is eerily reminiscent of an incident that happened 31 years ago when a Mexican well named Ixtoc also blew out - and the resulting oil discharge lasted at least 10 months, says a Texas A&M University oceanographer who has more than 40 years of experience studying the Gulf of Mexico.
Norman Guinasso, who directs the Geochemical and Environmental Research Group (GERG) at Texas A&M, says the Deepwater Horizon well that caught fire and sank on April 20 and the Ixtoc are very similar events, especially in the failed efforts to contain the oil leaks.
The Ixtoc I well, owned by Pemex, the government-owned oil company of Mexico, exploded and eventually erupted about 50 miles off the coast of the Bay of Campeche in June 1979, sinking the drill platform named the SEDCO 135F.
"What is happening today, especially the failures to cap the well, happened in a similar way back in 1979," Guinasso says.
"When the Ixtoc well failed, there was also an explosion and fire and the entire rig sank, just like the Deepwater Horizon well did. And just like the current spill, there was a blowout preventer that was supposed to have worked, but it did not.
"There was failure after failure to cap the well, just like today. But the big difference in the 1979 Ixtoc oil spill was the depth of the water - it was only in 160 feet of water, not like the more-than-5,000-foot depth of the current oil leak."
As with the current spill, the Ixtoc created a huge oil slick that spread for hundreds of miles, with ocean currents taking much of the spill to Texas beaches. Legendary firefighter Red Adair was brought in to help contain the massive oil leak.
About 170 miles of Texas shoreline eventually were affected by the Ixtoc spill, much of it in and around the pristine beaches of Padre Island. In all, an estimated 140 million gallons of oil spilled out of Ixtoc before it was successfully capped. The current Mississippi Canyon oil spill is estimated to have discharged 25 to 45 million gallons since the leak began, but more is added to that total every day.
"The current spill is the largest in U.S. history," Guinasso adds.
"Back in 1979, and through subsequent studies of natural oil seeps in the Gulf of Mexico, we learned that a lot of the oil will be eaten and degraded by bacteria. There have always been numerous locations in the gulf where oil seeps from the ocean floor naturally - it just bubbles its way to the surface, and this has been going on for millions of years.
"So the Gulf of Mexico has always had a lot of oil in it. The problem is, it's never been in such large amounts concentrated in a small area as it is now. Natural flows from seeps in the Northern Gulf of Mexico are about 1,200 gallons per day, only 0.15 percent of what is now flowing in Mississippi Canyon 252.
"What is really a big concern, and what no one seems to know, is what effect these dispersants they are using to break up the oil will have in the years to come," Guinasso explains. "Right now, they are injecting dispersants into the flowing oil at depth, so the entire water column in that area has both oil and chemicals dispersed into it. This deep dispersion of so much oil and dispersant is unprecedented. What are the long-term effects on marine life going to be? No one has a clue right now."
While Texas beaches recovered quickly from the 1979 Ixtoc spill, it is only a matter of time before some of the oil, probably in the form of hard tar balls, from the current spill hits Texas beaches again, he says.
"After a while, the oil forms tar balls, which can eventually become like little chunks of asphalt," he notes.
"There was some concern that the loop current would take the oil around to the Florida coast, but now the northern end of the loop current has broken off and is spinning in one big circle with the result that the loop current has shed a warm core ring. If the ring does not reattach to the loop current, then any oil getting into the ring will drift with the ring slowly toward the west. This would give oil in the ring a long time to age and degrade."
He says that this time of year, the winds are from the south and the southwest, which probably means more of the oil will wind up along the Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Western Florida coasts and move onto beaches and into marshes as it is doing now - not a good scenario for those states.
"There seem to be no doubt this will be one of the worst environmental disasters in American history," he adds.
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