Five years after Hurricane Katrina—promptly followed by Hurricane Rita—many Gulf Coast residents are still struggling to get back on their feet. But it’s not the sky that’s threatening them this time with devastating winds, widespread destruction and billions of dollars in damage. It’s the sea.
“I’ve been through Hurricane Camille, Hurricane Frederick and Hurricane Katrina,” said one Alabama realtor. “They all pale in comparison to this.”
“This” is a silent, spreading, inky blackness penetrating, permeating and polluting the waters off the Gulf Coast: The world’s biggest oil slick.
This is merely the latest link in a lengthening chain of curses for the United States. Its magnitude is growing by the day—and just when and how it will end, nobody knows.
How Did It Happen?
On April 20, the giant Deepwater Horizon oil-drilling platform was floating in the Gulf of Mexico about 50 miles off Louisiana. Gathered on board were 126 workers and executives from BP, which leased the $500 million rig for half a million dollars per day. They were celebrating the project’s seven-year safety record.
Just a few months prior, Deepwater Horizon had made history, drilling a 6-mile well, the world’s deepest. In more recent weeks, it had lowered its drill through one mile of seawater to the ocean floor, drilling an exploration well another two miles below the seabed into the Macondo Prospect in Mississippi Canyon 252. In spite of delays and a few glitches, the crew was finally wrapping up the final stages of sealing the well for future use.
What happened next is still being investigated. But it was a disaster.
Workers set a cement seal at the well, then reduced pressure in the drill column to set a second seal below the ocean floor. As the cement set, it produced heat, which reacted with methane and, it appears, produced a gas bubble.
Rigs often encounter slushy, crystalline, potentially dangerous pockets of methane underwater. And, in an industry that rivals the space program for pioneering technology, several fail-safes are in place to prevent the oil man’s worst nightmare: a blowout.
To keep the immense pressure of undersea oil in check, well holes are blocked by piping and plugged with cement. Hydrostatic drilling “mud” fills the cavity around the drill string and leaves the oil below nowhere to go but to stay put. Finally, the space between the well walls and piping is typically filled with cement to block the last remaining path up the shaft for surging gas. In addition to the seals, at the wellhead sits a huge steel blowout preventer. If danger is detected, the preventer can apply as much as 1 million pounds of force to a rubber gasket that seals the well. If all else fails, the backup kicks in: steel rams slice through the pipes altogether, severing the rig from the well and choking off the blowout.
However, a worker had accidentally damaged the gasket four weeks earlier. And one of the blowout preventer’s two control pods was malfunctioning. It also had a weak battery and a hydraulic leak.
The slushy methane bubble began to rise, bursting seals as it went. It broke through the cement seal and the damaged rubber gasket. For some reason, the rams failed to shear the pipes. Because the drilling mud had been removed from the column, the gas bubble shot up the drill, expanding as it rose through the less-pressurized shallows toward the derrick floating above.
On the platform, crewmen saw seawater in the drill column. It rose toward them, finally shooting up hundreds of feet in the air, followed by gas, followed by oil. A cloud of gas covered the rig. Its giant engines sucked in the methane and began racing. Something exploded. The rig became engulfed in a huge, intense fireball, killing nine workers and two engineers. Under black rain, survivors fled to lifeboats and leaped from the burning deck 10 stories down into the water, which was stinking of crude oil, grease and diesel fuel—and itself on fire. The rig burned so brightly it looked like the sun on the horizon. It blazed for two days and sank.
But the disaster had just begun.
A Growing Toxic Cloud
Dump a single quart of motor oil into the ocean, and over 2 cubic miles of seawater become toxic to wildlife, according to one engineer.
The day the derrick sank into the Gulf, the U.S. Coast Guard said 8,000 barrels of crude oil and up to 700,000 gallons of diesel fuel could be leaking from the rig into the water.
But the ominous, inky, iridescent truth began to emerge soon thereafter. The wellhead was also leaking. In addition to the immediate ecological carnage of a humongous, chemical-filled platform and a mile-long drill string spewing oil and other toxic chemicals, the well itself was gushing crude into one of America’s most important, profitable and ecologically sensitive bodies of water.
Unlike a wrecked tanker, which holds a known, fixed amount of oil, this is effectively a bottomless, active underwater oil volcano.
Initial estimates using data, satellite imagery and flyovers were that 5,000 barrels of oil were flowing from the prospect each day, creating an estimated 2,000-mile black storm cloud in some of the most commercially productive seas in the world.
The well’s main leaseholders, BP and Transocean, and even the federal government dispatched to the growing slick a flotilla that has since grown to include more than 550 vessels, plus boom oil-collection barriers, helicopters, airplanes, remote submarines, drills, chemical dispersant, and 17,000 personnel. The cost: $6 million per day—and rising.
These efforts are entering uncharted waters—both in trying to stop the leaks (which are far deeper underwater than any prior oil well breakdown), and in trying to contain the noxious mess.
Repeated efforts to activate the blowout preventer via robot failed. An effort to cap it with a 125-ton funnel also failed, as did other attempts. Finally, on May 16, crews successfully inserted a 4-inch siphon into Deepwater Horizon’s broken 21-inch riser pipe, diverting about 1,000 barrels (42,000 gallons) per day to a drillship. Meanwhile, two more platforms are drilling relief wells that will eventually plug the well permanently—but will take three months to complete.
But even that thin, silver lining to the pitch-colored cloud was soon blotted out by more bad news. Scientists studying the footage of the gushing pipe and taking readings of the water found huge plumes of oil, one of which is 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and up to 300 feet thick. Although BP has denied them access to additional data, they estimated the flow was actually 5 to 16 times greater than the previous official figure. In the worse scenario, that would mean 3.4 million gallons of thick, black, poisonous, non-degradable stuff pumping into the seawater every day.
That’s almost 40 gallons going into the gulf every second you read this.
“There’s a shocking amount of oil in the deep water, relative to what you see in the surface water,” one researcher said. “There’s a tremendous amount of oil in multiple layers, three or four or five layers deep in the water column.”
On May 4, BP admitted to Congress that its worst-case estimate for the daily flow rate is actually 2.5 million gallons—roughly the equivalent of dumping the infamous Exxon Valdez into the Gulf every four days.
Worst-Case Scenario “Is Upon Us”
It is conceivable that the leaking riser pipe could be kinked. If that is true, the present oil flow is actually somewhat restricted. If the wounded infrastructure deteriorates further—not unlikely, considering the high-pressure, abrasive sand-filled contents being forced through the piping—the leakage could explode even worse.
“Worst-case scenarios almost never happen,” Prof. Bob Thomas, of New Orleans’ Loyola University, told the UK’s Times. “In this case, almost everybody I have known with technical knowledge of oil spills, people who have worked in the industry 30, 40 years, … say this is the worst-case scenario … it is upon us” (May 3).
The worst-case scenario is that the leak is as big as it seems; that it will take weeks to plug it; that there are already millions of gallons of oil below the surface; that it will take billions of dollars to partially contain; that fisheries will be contaminated, tourism poisoned, economies across five states spoiled, and special environments and beautiful wildlife covered in black.
And that doesn’t begin to include hundreds of millions of dollars in wasted resources, lost oil, and other financial damage to BP. Nor does it include the long line of lawyers and victims that began to line up while the rig was still burning to sue some of the world’s richest companies: 88 suits by mid-May, and rising. Litigants are eyeing almost every company involved, but the main target is BP, the fourth-largest company in the world. BP has accepted blame, but is also pointing at other companies. The company posted profits of more than $5.5 billion in the first quarter, but one experienced Louisiana lawyer says the company might just not have enough if the leak continues. “I don’t think they have enough money,” he said (United Press International, May 17). It could leave the former British Petroleum, owned mostly by Britons and Americans, vulnerable to a takeover.
Nor do these projected costs include the effect the accident will have on the other 90 rigs in federal Gulf waters producing almost a third of U.S. oil production (1.7 million barrels of oil per day). It doesn’t include the effect on policy for more drilling or the political fallout and witch hunt already underway. Nor does it begin to fathom the havoc that all this plus restricted energy and shipping access in the Gulf will have on an already foundering American economy. Nor does it include the greatest cost: 11 men killed.
The worst-case scenario is that this is the biggest environmental disaster in American history—many times over.
Worse Than Katrina
As damaging as the 1989 Valdez oil spill was, it occurred on the rocky, uninhabited Alaskan coast of Prince William Sound. The Gulf of Mexico offers no such consolation. It is a hive of economic activity. The surrounding coastland, aside from being densely populated, has long stretches of marshland—which would be far more difficult to clean. The Gulf Coast cleanup and ecological recovery will be measured in years—and generations.
Tar balls have already washed ashore at South Pass on Louisiana’s marshy southern tip, a prime area for fishermen, many of whom are sitting at home unemployed. Oil has washed up around the sensitive Chandeleur Islands, where some of the Gulf’s five species of endangered sea turtles make their nests, along with a species that has started to recover: the brown pelican, state bird of Louisiana.
According to an early analysis by the Louisiana governor’s office, eight estuaries, wildlife management areas, state parks, national parks and wildlife refuges lay in the path of the spill, the closest being the Breton National Wildlife Refuge. Louisiana alone has 40 percent of the coastal wetlands in the continental United States: 3.5 million acres. The Mississippi Delta is the closest shoreline to the spill, and has already been hit.
Biloxi, Mississippi; Mobile Bay, Alabama; and Pensacola, Florida, are also within 150 miles. But the mess could drift into currents that would channel it directly through the Florida Keys and even up the Atlantic coast. Trying to contain the oil completely will be impossible. “[U]npredictable currents, extreme pressure and low temperatures make such endeavors almost as difficult as a second moon landing,” reported Der Spiegel (May 4).
Louisiana alone has already spent billions of dollars on ongoing projects to protect and rebuild sensitive, endangered marshes, habitats and wildlife. Wildlife-related tourism contributes half a billion dollars to the economy each year. Commercial seafood harvesting brings in over $650 million a year; recreational fishing another $750 million and almost 8,000 jobs. Fishing has been shut down completely in many Louisiana and federal waters, and vacationers have cancelled reservations at hotels across the area. Small investors are canceling plans throughout the coast.
Further offshore, plankton, fish larvae, shellfish, sea turtles, dolphins and even sperm whales are being harmed and killed by effects from the gushing crude and the chemical dispersants used to control it.
By the time it’s all over, the devastation will dwarf that of Katrina.
Why Is This Happening?
In looking for a deeper cause, it is crucial to see this event in the broader scope of such disasters that are hammering the United States: economic woes; rising unemployment; spiraling food prices; unfavorable weather; environmental disasters; deteriorating health; loss of industry; illegal immigration and related crime and drug problems; social and racial division; political polarization; terrorist threats; intractable wars; foreign-policy failures; weakening alliances; international isolation.
These are not isolated or unrelated problems.
They are mounting evidence of a spiritual reality the Trumpet has been writing about for two decades—as its parent magazine The Plain Truth did for five decades before that. America is being cursed by God.
Why? God has given America and Britain unique, unprecedented blessings of land, resources and protection. Yet we continue to deny Him and to grossly sin against His laws. Now He is simply taking those blessings away.
Could there be a more graphic illustration of this truth than this nightmare in the Gulf? The billowing cloud of oil that is costing billions in repairs, clean-up, lost jobs and economic ripple effects should be flowing into and enriching America’s economy. The fluid that is wiping out life, land and sea should be fueling America’s industry. As the nation bemoans its energy dependence on unstable and even enemy foreign states, its domestic energy production suffers this blow.
The spreading, toxic, sticky blackness presently defying all efforts to contain it is a vivid metaphor of America’s prophesied future.
Freakish troubles will continue to intensify until people unite in realizing that the cause is essentially spiritual. America doesn’t suffer merely from bad luck, or corporate incompetence, or weak problem-solving skills. It suffers from pride, self-reliance, greed, materialism, moral bankruptcy.
“Hear the word of the Lord, oh people of Israel, the Lord has filed a lawsuit against you listing the following charges,” wrote the Prophet Hosea: “There is no faithfulness, no kindness, no knowledge of God in your land. You swear and lie and kill and steal and commit adultery. There is violence everywhere, with one murder after another. That is why your land is not producing: it is filled with sadness and all living things grow sick and die: the animals, the birds and even the fish begin to disappear” (Hosea 4:1-3; The Living Bible).