Secret Memo: Gulf Oil Spill Could Get a Whole Lot Worse

by Sean Brodrick on May 1, 2010

We know that the oil from the rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico is pumping out at a rate of 5,000 barrels a day. That’s up from the initial estimate of 1,000 barrels per day. However, there are secret worst-case scenario estimates that put the potential flow from the damaged well much higher – as high as 50,000 barrels per day. From (hat-tip Skytruth blog) …



A confidential government report on the unfolding spill disaster in the Gulf makes clear the Coast Guard now fears the well could become an unchecked gusher shooting millions of gallons of oil per day into the Gulf.


“The following is not public,” reads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Emergency Response document dated April 28. “Two additional release points were found today in the tangled riser. If the riser pipe deteriorates further, the flow could become unchecked resulting in a release volume an order of magnitude higher than previously thought.”

Asked Friday to comment on the document, NOAA spokesman Scott Smullen said that the additional leaks described were reported to the public late Wednesday night. Regarding the possibility of the spill becoming an order of magnitude larger, Smullen said, “I’m letting the document you have speak for itself.”

In scientific circles, an order of magnitude means something is 10 times larger. In this case, an order of magnitude higher would mean the volume of oil coming from the well could be 10 times higher than the 5,000 barrels a day coming out now. That would mean 50,000 barrels a day, or 2.1 million gallons a day. It appears the new leaks mentioned in the Wednesday release are the leaks reported to the public late Wednesday night. has its own worst-case estimate of 150,000 barrels a day, but that seems based on some kind of nightmarish guesswork.


Here’s a visual reminder of what emergency responders are facing …




The question facing us now is how bad will this oil spill be? Can we learn anything from the past — have we seen enormous spills in the Gulf of Mexico before? Yes.


27 tankers were sunk by U-boats in Gulf of Mexico in 1942 and 1943. Interestingly, marine life prospered during WW2 because fishing was so much reduced, and the oil spillage from sunken ships turned out to be of less consequence than overfishing. There were also 52 tankers sunk on the east coast of the U.S.during that time.


Marine life may have prospered, but the beaches were messed up for years and years.


In 1979, on June 3rd, a deep-water well blew out off the coast of Texas. The IXTOC I well then spilled out oil at a rate of 10,000 to 30,000 barrels per day until it was finally capped on March 23, 1980. That’s 274 days, which means a total between 2.74 million and 8.22 million barrels in total.


President Obama has already banned offshore drilling until we can figure out what went wrong. And then he hopped on Airforce 1 to fly somewhere, and hundreds of millions of people around the world got in their cars and drove somewhere. And that’s my black-as-oil humor way of pointing out that if we restrict oil drilling and keep using oil, there is one way for oil prices to go – barring another severe global recession – and that is up.


Are you prepared in your life for much higher oil prices?


This spill in the Gulf is a terrible disaster. But unless we put a moon-shot effort into changing how we use oil, we still need more oil.


Halliburton Now Added to List of Suspects


Here’s an interesting note from the L.A. Times


Investigators delving into the possible cause of the massive gulf oil spill are focusing on the role of Houston-based Halliburton Co., the giant energy services company, which was responsible for cementing the drill into place below the water. The company acknowledged Friday that it had completed the final cementing of the oil well and pipe just 20 hours before the blowout last week.


And then further down in the story …


Cementing a deep-water drilling operation is a process fraught with danger. A 2007 study by the U.S. Minerals Management Service found that cementing was the single most important factor in 18 of 39 well blowouts in the Gulf of Mexico over a 14-year period — more than equipment malfunction. Halliburton has been accused of a poor cement job in the case of a major blowout in the Timor Sea off Australia last August. An investigation is underway.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Matt May 1, 2010 at 9:34 pm

That’s not the only disaster this weekend…

2 million people in the Boston area on boil-only water due to a major pipe burst…this is not a joke. I’m heading out at 6AM to get the best shot at buying drinking water at a grocery store 40 minutes from home…


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