oil spill

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Alaska

On my blog yesterday regarding Mitigating Petroleum Hazards - Part 1, I mentioned a great book to read about the many activities of the oil and gas industry written by Steve Coll, Private Empire: Exxon-Mobil and American Power published in 2013.

The book begins discussing the Exxon Valdez oil spill ten years after the event. In 1989, the oil tanker ran into a reef along the coast of Alaska and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil. There were many causes for the accident, including the crew, company and even the U.S. Coast Guard was found to be negligent.

Here is what NOAA learned from mitigating the oil spill based on a twenty-five year review:

“In the case of the Exxon Valdez spill, after two years we understood that aggressive shoreline treatment caused more harm than the oil itself; after three to four years, we saw those differences diminish as biological productivity at the most impacted places compensated; after four to six years, shoreline communities had mostly recovered from spill activities; and over five to ten years, we discerned that changes occurring on the shoreline appeared to be linked to subtle, much larger-scale processes that we would not have noted had we not had the long-term record.”

While natural processes may be more effective than human intervention in cleaning up oil spills, the death toll on wildlife can be devastating as reported by NOAA: “How many animals died outright from the oil spill? No one knows. The carcasses of more than 35,000 birds and 1,000 sea otters were found after the spill, but since most carcasses sink, this is considered to be a small fraction of the actual death toll. The best estimates are: 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales, and billions of salmon and herring eggs.”

The ‘Private Empire’ book describes NOAA and other government scientists try to do their job conducting investigations of the oil spill assessment but running into confrontations with industry officials. Feds got fed up with the company’s intimidation tactics to suppress their work and many quit their jobs. I had no idea how powerful Exxon Mobil Corporation became until reading this book that mentions U.S. President George W. Bush, a former oil man himself, saying “no one tells them what to do!”

Another book I look forward to reading is Rachel Maddow’s Blowout, available on October 1st. Here’s a summary:

“Rachel Maddow’s Blowout offers a dark, serpentine, riveting tour of the unimaginably lucrative and corrupt oil-and-gas industry. With her trademark black humor, Maddow takes us on a switchback journey around the globe—from Oklahoma City to Siberia to Equatorial Guinea—exposing the greed and incompetence of Big Oil and Gas. She shows how Russia’s rich reserves of crude have, paradoxically, stunted its growth, forcing Putin to maintain his power by spreading Russia's rot into its rivals, its neighbors, the United States, and the West’s most important alliances. Chevron, BP, and a host of other industry players get their star turn, but ExxonMobil and the deceptively well-behaved Rex Tillerson emerge as two of the past century's most consequential corporate villains. The oil-and-gas industry has weakened democracies in developed and developing countries, fouled oceans and rivers, and propped up authoritarian thieves and killers. But being outraged at it is, according to Maddow, “like being indignant when a lion takes down and eats a gazelle. You can't really blame the lion. It's in her nature.”

This book is a clarion call to contain the lion: to stop subsidizing the wealthiest industry on earth, to fight for transparency, and to check the influence of predatory oil executives and their enablers. The stakes have never been higher. As Maddow writes, “Democracy either wins this one or disappears.”

Oil Spills and Mudlogging

In 1974, during a high school summer vacation, my parents took me on a cross-country drive from D.C. area to California. I fell in love with driving the car and scenery, especially when we visited Grand Tetons -Yellowstone National Parks. I got an early interest in geology by reading Geology of the National Park System. But my joy turned to sorrow when we visited Santa Barbara, California by finding the beaches were still covered by the black tar oil spill that occurred five years earlier.

Here are some specifics on the Pacific Ocean oil spill:

  • A blowout on a Union Oil Co. well happened on Jan. 28, 1969.

  • The well was under under Platform A, roughly 5 1/12 miles off the coast.

  • An estimated 3.3 million gallons of oil spilled.

  • The well was capped on Feb. 7, but oil continued to vent from cracks in the sea floor for months.

  • On Jan. 31, the oil slick was reported to be 30 square miles.

  • Oil was spotted onshore from Pismo Beach to the U.S.-Mexico border.

This event contributed to public outrage that resulted in the EPA begin created in 1970 and several new laws including the National Environmental Policy Act, Coastal Zone Management Act, Clean Water Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act, all within a three year period.

My interest in college focused on environmental science issues but there were few prospects for jobs. After graduating with a geology bachelor’s degree in 1980, I found a job from a newspaper advertisement in Denver to work for an oil service company as a “mud logger.” The first day on the job we meet at the office at 8 am and spent the day gathering supplies. It was January, got dark early, and we didn’t leave town until late in the afternoon. I recall driving on Interstate 70 West, up past Eisenhower tunnel, and then heading north to the oil drilling rig site. We arrived around midnight and my “mud logging boss” said I must collect samples in bags off the shaker every 30 minutes and he would show me the next day what to do. He went to bed and I kept working along with the drilling crew that kept going 24/7. So my first day on the job I worked 24 hours straight. But I also learned that first night to drink lots of coffee to stay warm causing me to became wired. I learned the drilling site was an exploratory well to see if economical oil or gas existed by drilling over one mile deep at a cost of over $1 million.

We examined the samples making a descriptive log and checking for natural gas under an ultraviolet light. The primary environmental impacts included road construction and drilling pads, drilling solutions added in the well, diesel exhaust, noise, salt water disposal wells and mud pit wastes, This job lasted about two weeks and then we moved on to the next site. I worked in several Rocky Mountain states, eventually becoming the boss so I could work daytime and sleep nights. Working in the Rangely Basin in northwestern Colorado, I learned that the well field became highly fractured so many new wells would be needed to recovery oil. I also heard stories that earthquakes were caused by oil companies injecting water which USGS confirmed that close to 1000 minor earthquakes occurred in the 1960’s.

I worked “mud logging” for seven months before returning to graduate school at the University of Wyoming and knew that I wanted a career involving water quality more than working in the oil fields.

A great book to read about the many hazards of the oil and gas industry is by Steve Coll, Private Empire: Exxon-Mobil and American Power published in 2013.

I will write more about my direct and indirect experiences in coming blog posts.