by JIM ASH, Gannett
Published: Friday, May 14, 2010 at 12:43 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A rig explodes and sinks, a blowout preventer fails, and Gulf Coast states wait weeks with containment booms and crossed fingers for the devastation to wash ashore.
Substitute “Ixtoc 1” for “Deepwater Horizon” and “PEMEX” for “BP,” and the world’s largest peacetime oil spill sounds eerily similar to the 2,500 square miles of oil now threatening Florida’s shores.
Ixtoc I was an exploratory rig leased by the Mexican national oil company from a firm tied to a then-sitting Texas governor. After it blew out on June 3, 1979, it took nine months to drill a relief well to cap it. By then, 140 million gallons of crude were sloshing around the Bay of Campeche and beyond.
The spill eventually coated 200 miles of Texas beaches.
“We had a good idea of the prevailing winds and we predicted that it would hit us in two months,” said Wes Tunnell, associate director of Texas A&M University’s Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies in Corpus Christi. “Sure enough, it showed up 60 days later, almost to the day.”
Tunnell, a marine biologist who was earning his doctorate at the time, was a scientific coordinator for the Ixtoc event.
Deepwater Horizon may stir a collective memory of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, but there’s no comparison, Tunnell said. The Exxon Valdez was a tanker and had a finite amount of cargo, eventually releasing 10.8 million gallons.
No one can predict how much oil Deepwater Horizon will spew before BP is able to shut it down. Company officials say a relief well could be completed in two months.
The good news is that the Gulf of Mexico has more natural protections than the frigid Alaskan waters, Tunnell said.
The sun and warm water will help evaporate and break up the spill, he said.
A long history of naturally occurring oil seeps in the western Gulf of Mexico will act like a giant vaccine, promoting the growth of marine organisms that break down the oil, Tunnell said.
“Studies have shown that the natural seeps are equivalent to the release of about two supertankers a year,” he said. “What that does is establish a huge population of bio-organisms.”
The Texas response strategy for Ixtoc was to use barrier islands as a first line of defense, and booms and skimmers for the bays and estuaries behind them, Tunnell said. Estuaries are critical, he said, because that’s where 90 percent of all marine species in the Gulf of Mexico spend a portion of their lives.
“It’s a lot easier to clean it up off the sand,” Tunnell said.
Tunnell claims the cleanup was a success, although tourism on South Padre Island was wiped out for months. Residents and businesses sued, claiming $300 million in damages.
Six to seven years after the spill, researchers had trouble finding evidence of it, Tunnell said. Practically no telltale signs exist two decades later although island residents say submerged tar mats the consistency of asphalt are occasionally exposed in heavy storms.
Quenton Dokken, executive director of the Texas-based Gulf of Mexico Foundation, is careful not to minimize the potential devastation from the Deepwater Horizon spill. But he urged Floridians not to lose perspective. Natural seeps have been occurring for thousands of years in the gulf and the body of water survives.
“This is going to have impact, there is no question about it,” he said. “But in the grand scheme of things, both geographically and across time, this is a relatively small spill,” he said.
The Gulf of Mexico Foundation is supported by some of the world’s largest oil companies. Dokken describes the foundation as a vehicle for giving environmental scientists a seat at the table to push for safer offshore drilling.
Much of the blame for Ixtoc, Dokken said, belonged to platform operators who didn’t shut down after they lost the circulation of vital drilling muds that cool and lubricate the drill.
Still, Dokken acknowledged that the industry needs to come up with better technology for automatic shutoff valves.
“You have to stop this stuff before it gets to the beach,” he said.
Paul Johnson, policy director for the Florida-based environmental group Reef Relief, isn’t as optimistic.
Johnson was a senior adviser to former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez when the Exxon Valdez ran aground, and he was part of a team that Martinez sent to inspect the damage.
Johnson remembers conditions so primitive immediately after the spill that local fishing captains were felling giant trees to serve as temporary booms.
If the Deepwater Horizon spill hits Florida shores, gets swept by the loop current across the already stressed corals in the Florida Keys, or into the estuaries around the Ten Thousand Islands in southwest Florida, the disaster will be long remembered, Johnson said.
“Our way of life on the coast will change,” Johnson said. “It will be one of those events by which most people mark their lives, like major hurricanes.”