One Historic Gulf Spill May Shed Light On Another

Thirty-one years ago, a drilling platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, and the wellhead began spewing thousands of barrels of crude each day into the sea. It took 10 months to cap the well, and the oil tainted more than 150 miles of Texas coastline. Robert Siegel talks to University of Houston oil and gas historian Tyler Priest about this historic spill, and its parallels with the current situation in the Gulf.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

An oil platform explodes in the Gulf of Mexico. The wellhead begins spewing thousands of barrels of oil a day. Months go by and every effort to cap the flow fails. Meanwhile, beaches along the Gulf are painted in broad, sticky strokes of tar. This is not the story of the Deepwater Horizon and the ongoing spill of the coast of Louisiana. It's the story of another well, the Ixtoc 1, which burst into flames on June 3rd, 1979, 31 years ago tomorrow.

And here to help us understand the parallels between the two and lessons learned or ignored is Professor Tyler Priest, an oil and gas historian at the University of Houston. Welcome to the program.

Professor TYLER PRIEST (Professor and Director of Global Studies, University of Houston): Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: And first, where in the Gulf was the Ixtoc spill?

Prof. PRIEST: It was in the Bay of Campeche in the southern portion of the Gulf of Mexico, about 50 miles from shore.

SIEGEL: And am I correct that this disaster, like the Deepwater Horizon spill, began when the blowout preventer failed?

Prof. PRIEST: Well, they had actually lost circulation in the well, and they pulled the drill pipe up. They ended up getting an oil and gas blowout similar to what happened with the Deepwater Horizon.

SIEGEL: A big difference between what happened at the Deepwater Horizon and what happened to Ixtoc was how deep in the water all this was happening. This was much shallower water, the Ixtoc drill.

Prof. PRIEST: Yeah, it was shallow water, 160 feet. They were drilling with a semisubmersible. It caught on fire. They did manage to evacuate the 70 or so people onboard. There were no deaths.

SIEGEL: And along the way, there were attempts to use containment vessels, junk shots, things that the lay public is hearing about nowadays.

Prof. PRIEST: The very first thing they tried was to hook up some hoses to the blowout preventer and pump in water and mud, similar to what BP tried last week with the top kill. And they almost succeeded.

The divers managed to find their way to the blowout preventer. There was drill pipe all over the place. One diver likened it to a plate of spaghetti. And it appeared that the operation was a success until a large rupture occurred in the well underneath the blowout preventer, and oil began escaping around the well on the seafloor. And at that point, Pemex realized that they needed to start drilling two relief wells.

SIEGEL: Pemex being the Mexican oil company.

Prof. PRIEST: That's right. Yeah.

SIEGEL: I've just assumed for the past several weeks that it's the depth of the water that makes dealing with the current spill so difficult. All this was happening in much shallower water, so obviously that's not the only problem here. Why was it so hard to stop this well from gushing back in 1979?

Prof. PRIEST: Well, the blowout was flowing at 30,000 barrels a day initially. One of the divers said that the sound was like about 20 or 30 locomotives. They did manage to slow the flow a little bit, but ultimately, they were not going to kill this well until the relief wells got there.

SIEGEL: All told, how long did the Ixtoc spill last?

Prof. PRIEST: June 3rd, 1979, and then the well was officially capped on March 25th, 1980.

SIEGEL: Wow. Let's assume that the current spill continues through August, which is the dire prediction we've heard. Based on the numbers you've heard and whatever you believe, how would this spill compare to the Ixtoc spill in terms of the amount of oil spewed into the Gulf?

Prof. PRIEST: Well, it's going to have to blow a lot longer to equal the 3.3 million barrels that Ixtoc eventually blew, according to official estimates. But I think that the damage is going to be a lot worse.

SIEGEL: Why? Why would this spill be so much different?

Prof. PRIEST: Well, it had to do with the currents and the weather. And the currents really took a lot of the oil into the central deep Gulf. Not to say that it didn't find its way onto Mexican beaches and Texas beaches. It did, and it affected the shrimping industry in Mexico.

But this Deepwater Horizon blowout, the oil is coming right into the estuaries and onshore in Louisiana and possibly will sweep around Florida. And the fishing industry is much bigger. You know, it's a pathway for migratory birds. It's a very sensitive marshland environment, so I expect the environmental damage to be much bigger at this one.

SIEGEL: That's Professor Tyler Priest, oil and gas historian at the University of Houston. Professor Priest, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Prof. PRIEST: Thank you, my pleasure.

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