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Expert Lends Perspective on Gulf Oil DisasterQ&A with Oil and Gas Industry Historian, UH Professor Tyler Priest
Tyler Priest, Ph.D., is the Director of Global Studies in the Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston. A specialist in the history of U.S. foreign relations and modern business, he is an expert on offshore oil and gas development in the Gulf of Mexico.
Q: AS AN OIL AND GAS HISTORIAN, CAN YOU PUT THIS DISASTER INTO HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE?
A: This disaster calls to mind three historical analogies for me. The first is the Piper Alpha disaster in the North Sea in 1988. It was an Occidental Petroleum production platform where 167 people died. Upon first hearing about the Transocean disaster, that's where my thoughts immediately went. Fortunately, for the 100-plus people that were able to be evacuated, it's not as bad as the Piper Alpha, but you still had 11 people die and 17 people injured, and it affects a lot of people. That's what comes to mind first.
What comes to mind second is the Ixtoc blowout in the Mexico's Bay of Campeche in 1979, which was the worst blowout in the history of the industry. Pemex was the operator and it was a semi-submersible from an earlier generation than the Transocean semi-submersible. The Ixtoc well blew out for nine months. Estimates range from 7,500 barrels a day to close to 30,000 barrels a day, and it was finally killed by two relief wells.
The third is Exxon Valdez, and that was not an offshore platform, it was a tanker that ran aground on Bligh Reef, but if this well blows at a rate of 5,000 barrels a day for 50 days, it will equal the spill at Exxon Valdez.
Q: WHAT'S BEING DONE RIGHT NOW TO PLUG THE WELL?
A: There are desperate efforts to contain the spill in deploying booms, skimmers, dispersions and igniting the oil on the surface to burn off the light fractions, so that maybe the heavier stuff can be recovered or maybe even sink. It's a desperate situation right now. There is going to be a lot of pollution and contamination in the marshes and along the coast, without a doubt.
Q: HOW LONG COULD THIS GO ON?
A: The emergency will continue until they bring this well under control and it's not blowing out anymore. BP has estimated three months to drill the relief wells, unless they can manage to find some other solution - whether it be the domes they are talking about, or if they can be successful with these remotely operated vehicles in activating a blowout preventer, which they haven't been so far. That's about all they can do, or maybe hope the well will breach itself and sand up and stop.
Q: WHAT IS THE SAFETY RECORD OF THE OFFSHORE OIL AND GAS INDUSTRY?
A: It's had a very good record over the last 40 years. People don't know much about this industry because blowouts and other incidents have been rare, and so offshore oil has not been under the media spotlight for its safety and environmental record. Offshore oil is therefore out of sight, out of mind. But what people don't appreciate is that the industry has brought in over 30 percent of our domestic oil production from the Gulf of Mexico now and 20 percent of our natural gas. This event is a freak disaster, an aberration, but it's going to cause people to rethink this whole endeavor. It's going to be bad for the entire industry. There are already lawsuits filed over this. There are going to be calls for new and tougher regulations. This is a major change for the Gulf of Mexico.
Q: WHAT ARE THE IMPACTS OF DISASTERS LIKE THIS?
A: It's wildlife - the birds in this region, the sea life, the shrimp, it's the oysters, pelicans, the whales possibly, and all the people who depend on this wildlife, sea life and ecosystem for their livelihoods.
Q: RIGHT NOW THE FOCUS IS ON LOUISIANA, DOES THIS SPILL STILL POSE A THREAT TO OTHER AREAS OF THE GULF COASTLINE?
A: That all depends on the weather, the winds, the tides, the currents and if storms come through, especially hurricanes. If it takes three months to drill these relief wells, that places us right in the middle of hurricane season. That's the worst case scenario, and that's what really concerns me. The fear is, you are trying to drill these relief wells and a hurricane comes though. They are going to have to stop work and then the well will continue to blow.
Q: HOW IS THIS EXPECTED TO IMPACT PUBLIC OPINION OF OIL AND GAS EXPLORATION AND PRODUCTION IN THE GULF?
A: It's important to place things in perspective. We shouldn't overreact and propose shutting down this industry. We can't shutdown this industry in the gulf. It's too important. We have so much invested in it - not just in terms of capital but jobs and our energy security. This is going to be terrible, and I don't know how it's all going to play out, but I think it's important you have to keep that perspective. This industry is an engine of the entire Gulf Coast regional economy: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. This is the dominant industry, along with refining.
Q: ARE THERE ANY MAJOR MISCONCEPTIONS YOU'VE SEEN IN THE COVERAGE OR REACTION TO THIS DISASTER?
A: I did a series of studies for the Mineral Management Service (MMS), governed by the U.S. Department of Interior, which is the agency that leases the land and regulates this industry. They have an environmental studies program I have been involved with. Some people are trying to hold up the MMS as the institution at fault for not regulating this industry harder. We have to wait and see the results of the investigations to determine if regulations were inadequate, or if there were equipment and procedural failures that greater regulation may not have been able to prevent. What I do know is that the offshore regulatory program is a very good one at the MMS, and the people who work in that part of the agency are highly dedicated and competent. I respect and admire the work they have done in managing production of oil and gas from federal lands, especially during the last 25 to 20 years when the dominant political ideology in this country has been dedicated to shrinking the size of government.
Q: HOW WOULD YOU CATEGORIZE THE RESPONSE TO THIS DISASTER?
A: Quick, massive and focused. People draw comparisons to Exxon Valdez, and Exxon and the government took a lot of heat for their complacency in preparing contingency plans and spill response for that sensitive region. I know in the gulf, there are oil spill drills, there are massive contingency plans, they were ready for this- but even so, they are overwhelmed by the magnitude of this problem.
Q: IS THIS JUST A TRAGIC ACCIDENT? WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON HOW THIS WILL PLAY OUT?
A: There are going to be a lot of people hurt. The environment is going to be destroyed, there are people that are dead, there are people whose livelihoods are impacted- the long-term damage from this is going to be immense. There is going to be fighting over who is responsible, who should compensate, and who should bear the risk- that is what is going to happen.
Q: WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE DEPTH OF DEEPWATER HORIZON AND HOW THAT MAY BE AFFECTING THIS EFFORT?
A: To my knowledge there has not been a blowout like this at that kind of depth, in the entire industry. The depth of this well is at the boundary of deepwater and ultra-deepwater. Every company has their own definition. Deepwater is 1500 to 4500/5000 feet, and beyond that you are talking about ultra-deepwater and it is a different environment. The Transocean drilling vessel was designed for 10,000 feet of water, I believe, and it was an ultra-modern state of the art semi-submersible drilling vessel.