Clean Up the Gulf: Can You Do It Better?

As the spill in the Gulf of Mexico continues to grow, BP is faced with one bad option after another. Once the oil hits the water, those in charge of cleaning the spill often have to choose between bad, worse, and the unproven. Would you handle it any better? Choose your own adventure—and the fate of our hypothetical, oil-slicked gulf—in this interactive guide to the solutions available to clean up a big spill.

Choose Your Own Adventure: Oil-Spill Edition!

It’s your first day on the job as an international oil tycoon and you’ve got a choice to make: to drill or not to drill? Well, OK, obviously you’re going to drill. You’re an oil tycoon! The real question is, are you going to drill offshore, deep in the Gulf of Mexico? Much of the offshore drilling in the gulf occurs on the “shelf,” where the water is often less than 200 feet deep. This kind of shallow-water drilling is considered pretty safe, but geologists say the shelf has been largely picked over and you’re not likely to find any huge oil reserves to harvest there. For that, you’ll have to go deeper. The benefit of deep-water drilling is, of course, increased profits and oil flow, not to mention helping your country decrease its dependence on foreign oil. Then again, the risk of a large oil spill dramatically increases when you’re drilling in water almost a mile deep. Looks like you’ve got a decision to make. Do you choose to drill deep in the gulf? Yes (turn to page 3). No (turn to page 4).

Page 3

Spill!

An accident leads to a large crack in one of your underwater oil wells, and now it’s leaking into the ocean at a rate of 5,000 barrels a day. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. In an average year, 1.3 million gallons of oil are spilled into U.S. waters alone, and that’s without the kind of massive oil spill your company just caused. If you drill long enough, you’re bound to make a mistake.

Images of the ever-growing oil slick are garnering wall-to-wall news coverage, and politicians are already calling for a special investigation into your company’s drilling practices. The oil is doing major damage to aquatic life and, if unfavorable weather patterns prevail, the slick could threaten the nearby fishing harbors. Time to make a decision (turn to page 5 for your options).

Page 4

You stick to land-based drilling. The diminished oil flow initially leads to lower profits, but to compensate, you invest heavily in developing alternative-energy technology. When your engineers make a breakthrough, you make zillions of dollars, retire at 50, and live happily ever as the subject of a CNBC documentary. The end.

Of course, that’s the best-case scenario. The worst case: you stick to land-based drilling and alternative energy. Not exactly money in the bank—well, not in the oil world at least. You watch all your tycoon buddies get filthy rich drilling in the gulf while you’re scraping by with your wind farm which, by the way, has killed a ++couple hundred birds ++[[http://www.awea.org/pubs/factsheets/avianfs.pdf]] in the last three years.

Page 5

First priority: try to plug the leak. The current spill is leaking an estimated 5,000 barrels per day, but that number could be much higher since estimating oil flow based on the size of the slick is an inexact science. Many experts say it’s leaking a lot more. The bigger the oil slick gets, the more damage it will do, especially once it washes ashore. There are several techniques available to block the continued flow of oil, but none of them are a sure bet and pretty much all of them are extremely expensive, so you could just let the well run dry and deal with it later. (To try to stop the leak, turn to page 6. To let the well empty into the ocean, turn to page 7.)

Page 6

Try to Plug the Leak

You decide to try and stop the leak. Seems like the responsible thing to do, right? Well, it won’t be easy. There are a variety of strategies to stop the underwater well from gushing oil, but they’re all complicated procedures, and many of them will further damage the environment. Pick your poison:

a. Drill a relief well. The idea here is to drill a new well that intersects the leaking one so that mud and concrete can be pumped in to seal the well and permanently stop the leak. Unlike other options, this is a proven technique with a good track record. Unfortunately, it takes weeks or even months to complete. (To drill a relief well, turn to page 8.)

b. Shoot a bunch of garbage into the blowout preventer. No, you did not misread that. Golf balls, tire pieces, and knotted ropes may clog the blowout preventer, giving engineers a chance to pump mud and concrete into the well and seal the leak once and for all. It carries a small risk of actually increasing the oil flow, but experts think it could work. On the other hand, you’re using a bunch of garbage to stop the leak. It doesn’t really sounds good, does it? (To take the “junk shot,” turn to page 9.)

c. Send robots to tap into the riser. You could send remote-operated vehicles underwater to tap into the riser and pump oil from the broken pipe to a ship on the surface. If it works, the leaking oil will be diverted, but if it doesn’t, well, you just punched another hole in the pipe. (To go with the ROVs, turn to page 10.)

d. Suck the leaking oil up with a containment dome. Channel the spilled oil to a ship on the surface of the gulf with this massive contraption. This wouldn’t exactly stop the leak, per se, but it could eliminate up to 85 percent of the oil. On the other hand, it’s completely untested in water as deep as the gulf so there’s no guarantee it would work. (To use the containment dome, turn to page 11.)

Page 7

Really? Well, OK …

All the strategies that have been proposed to stop the leak are complicated, expensive, and uncertain bets. And as an oil tycoon, you like sure bets. You decide to let the oil leak continue until there’s no oil left to leak.

Bad call.

The well continues to gush 5,000 barrels of oil a day for months. It becomes the worst environmental disaster in recorded history: Exxon Valdez times 100. Aquatic life throughout the Gulf of Mexico is poisoned, the Gulf Coast seafood industry crumbles, and much of the water in the region remains toxic for years. Clean-up will cost you billions of dollars and eventually bankrupt your company, but despite your efforts, much of the damage is irreversible. Probably should have looked into plugging that leak. The end.

Total spillage: Undetermined, but it’s pretty much a total catastrophe.

Page 8

Congratulations! You successfully plugged the leak—after almost two months. It turns out that relief wells, though highly effective once they’re completed, are extremely difficult to execute. When a similarly massive oil spill took place in Australia last year, it took weeks before the relief well was underway, and it didn’t work immediately. The first four attempts to drill—on Oct. 6, 13, 17, and 24—were unsuccessful and the maneuver didn’t stop the leak until ++Nov. 3.++ [[http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/03/us/03montara.html]]

Your efforts to intersect with the leaking well were unsuccessful at first, but eventually it happened. The slick won’t get any bigger, but it’s plenty big now, and you’ve still got to figure out what to do about that (turn to page 13 for your options).

Total spillage: At least 245,000 barrels of oil in the water in seven weeks.

Page 9

It sounds like the decision of a desperate oil tycoon (that’s you), but you decide to pursue it anyway: you’re going to shoot a bunch of carefully selected garbage at the leak. You may be desperate, but you’re also a captain of industry, and recognize that ++big problems often need bold solutions++ [[http://blog.newsweek.com/blogs/thehumancondition/archive/2010/05/10/bp-s-plans-to-stop-the-leak-so-crazy-they-just-might-work.aspx]]. After assembling the necessary materials, you shoot the garbage into the blowout preventer and … it works! You stop the leak after two weeks. Unfortunately, there’s still a massive oil slick doing severe damage to the environment, and you’ve got to figure out what to do about that (turn to page 13 for your options).

Total spillage: At least 20,000 barrels of oil in the water in four days

Page 10

The ROV taps into the leaking riser—the cracked pipe that is designed to channel oil to a rig on the water’s surface—and succeeds in slowing the spill. The leak persists, however, and this isn’t a permanent solution. You’ll have to find another way to completely stop the leak. (To try a different technique to plug the leak, go back to page 6.)

Total spillage: At least 20,000 barrels of oil in the water in four days, but the slick is still growing (albeit more slowly) and it needs to be taken care of.

Page 11

Nice try. Apparently you weren’t following the news during the BP oil spill. The containment dome gets clogged with hydrate crystals, making it impossible to pump oil to the surface of the water and turning the contraption into a giant, expensive floating piece of junk. In the meantime, thousands more barrels of oil have leaked into the ocean. Looks like you’ll have to explore other options:

a. Try a much smaller version of the containment dome. The miniature version of this contraption, known as the “top hat,” will contain less seawater, thus lowering the chances of hydrate crystals forming. But it will also have less capacity to remove oil. (To try containment dome 2.0, turn to page 12.)

b. Revisit the original options you were given (turn back to page 6).

Page 12

Containment dome 2.0, known as the “top hat,” doesn’t have the same problems as the original apparatus. It manages to channel some of the leaking oil, but nowhere close to the 85 percent the first dome was supposed to take care of.

Total spillage: More than half the oil leaking from the well ends up in the ocean, and you’ve got one huge oil slick to take care of. How are you going to approach the clean-up? (Turn to page 13 for your options.)

Page 13

You’ve plugged the leak. Nice work. Now you’ve got to do something about this oil slick. If your spill is anything like BP’s, most of these options are going to cost a lot. About three weeks after the explosion that sunk BP’s rig and triggered the devastating leak, the oil giant estimated it was spending $33 million a day on personnel, boats, airplanes, and other costs. That may seem like a drop in the bucket to a company that had more than $246 billion in revenue last year, but the costs add up. Here are your options:

a. Spray thousands of gallons of chemical dispersants into the water. Dispersants are designed to break up the oil into tiny droplets, making it susceptible to evaporation or oil-eating bacteria. It will likely prevent huge sheets of gooey black oil from washing ashore on the beaches, but it could also do ++serious damage++ [[http://www.tampabay.com/news/environment/water/article1094257.ece]] to the aquatic life in the gulf, thus harming the seafood industry and angering local fishermen. And given the circumstances, do you really want to be making more enemies? (To spray chemical dispersants, turn to page 14.)

b. Burn the oil off the surface of the water. Many experts believe it’s highly effective in reducing the amount of oil in the ocean, and it could buy you time before the oil slick reaches shore. But it results in terrible air pollution and it won’t ultimately solve the problem. (To burn the oil off the surface, turn to page 15.)

c. Ignore it altogether. This whole oil-slick thing can’t be that bad, can it? Containing the oil, doing the clean-up—all this stuff costs money! You already did your part by stopping the leak; let someone else deal with the rest. The downside, of course, is that you’ll have a PR nightmare on your hands, and you’ll definitely be required to testify before Congress. (To ignore the oil, turn to page 16.)

Page 14

Chemical Dispersants

You send airplanes over the gulf and to spray hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemical dispersants into the water. Environmentalists’ heads explode. The media continually question the wisdom of your decision, but the shots on the 10 o’clock news speak for themselves. Instead of watching oil-drenched ducks fight for their lives, all viewers see are tiny black blobs of oil bobbing in the ocean.

But while the dispersant may have prevented much of the oil from washing ashore, saving your company from the damning pictures that plagued Exxon, the chemicals have actually poisoned much of the aquatic life in the gulf, seriously diminishing the larval fish and shellfish population. The seafood industry will feel the effects for a while. The end.

Burn the Oil on the Surface

After isolating sections of the oil slick with fire booms, you light a match and toss it in the ocean (well, it’s more complicated than that, but you get the idea). The efforts succeed in eliminating about half the oil in the water. And as for the other half? It washes ashore a few days later. Analysts estimate the beach clean-up will cost your company hundreds of millions. It’s not the ideal happy ending, but it could have been worse. The end.

You decide stopping the leak was enough. The tree-hugging environmentalists can handle the clean-up, right? Wrong. As soon as news breaks that you’re refusing to clean up after yourself, customers worldwide start boycotting your retail locations, you’re called to testify before Congress, and the gulf states sue your company for billions. And obviously, you lose. Eventually, you end up paying for the clean-up anyway, which is much more costly since you didn’t even try to contain or eliminate the oil in the ocean. Beaches are ruined, the aquatic life will take years to get back to normal, and your company becomes the textbook example of corporate corruption. The end.

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