Additional Risks of Deep Water Exploration

It is important to remember that we are talking about prospecting in areas with depths that compare with that of the BP Deepwater Horizon platform, the accident in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 which proved catastrophic. In this case, the well was drilled under a head of water at 1500 metres. The collapse and explosion of the exploration rig caused the worst accident in the history of the oil industry in marine waters, with 11 deaths, 16 injured and discharge of 5 million barrels of crude oil contaminating coasts 250km from the well.

Timeline of the Deepwater Horizon accident (pdf)

Operating at high depths adds a very high risk factor in the phases of exploratory drilling and extraction due to the extremely high pressures, low visibility and the inability for humans to access to the mouth of the wells.

The National Commission on the disaster of the Deepwater Horizon said: “Deepwater drilling brings new risks that are not yet fully resolved by studies that clarify where it is safe to drill, what problems might arise, and how to react if something goes wrong. Rigs include potentially dangerous machinery. The environment in deep water is cold, dark, remote and subject to high pressures. Oil or gas reserves, when found, are at even higher pressures (tens of atmospheres), aggravating the risks if well control is lost. The [catastrophes of] Deepwater Horizon and Macondo clearly illustrate that all these risks are real. When a fault occurs at such a depth, regaining control of the well is a formidable engineering challenge and the costs of failure, we now know, can be catastrophically high”.

Oil on the surface of the ocean due to the Deepwater Horizon accident © <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/flseagrant/7782493270/">Florida Sea Grant</a>

Oil on the surface of the ocean due to the Deepwater Horizon accident © Florida Sea Grant

In December 2011, the National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council published a report on the safety of drilling operations at sea. The conclusion reached by the study is clear: deepwater drilling is not safe. This report outlines a particularly bleak picture of the dangers that accompany drilling in open sea and especially in deepwater sea. The conclusion, as has been previously concluded in other studies, is that the safety valves (blowout preventers or BOPs), ie, the last line of defense against loss of well control and against spills, are not designed to run correctly in deepwater drilling and, therefore, cannot be trusted.

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