16. Underwater Avalanches Heighten Risks of Oil Catastrophes


As bad as the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill was, “the worst-case scenario” for an oil spill catastrophe is not losing control of a single well, as occurred in the BP disaster. Instead, “[m]uch more damage would be done if one or more of the thousand or so production platforms that now blanket the Gulf of Mexico were destroyed without warning by a deep-sea mudslide,” Ian R. MacDonald reported for The Conversation in March 2019. Underwater mudslides could leave “a tangled mess of pipes buried under a giant mass of sediments,” a scenario that oil company managers are not prepared to handle. In such a situation, the discharge could not be stopped with caps or plugs, and oil “might flow for decades.”

As MacDonald reported, one instance of this type of catastrophe has already happened. A well located off the coast of Louisiana owned by Taylor Energy has been leaking oil since 2004. Government regulators and energy companies, MacDonald wrote, “should be doing much more to prevent such catastrophes at other sites.”

Earthquakes are one trigger for deep-sea mudslides. The probability of mudslides in the Gulf of Mexico is high, due to regular seismic activity in the area. Studies to identify unstable slopes would improve our understanding of the seabed and potentially reduce the risks, MacDonald wrote.

Corporate media—including the Washington Post, CNN, and Newsweek—have covered the Taylor Energy disaster off the coast of Louisiana. However, MacDonald’s report for The Conversation, also reprinted in Pacific Standard, is distinctive for its detailed explanation of how underwater mudslides pose systemic threats for drilling operations throughout the Gulf of Mexico, and not only at the Taylor Energy site.

Ian R. MacDonald, “Underwater Mudslides are the Biggest Threat to Offshore Drilling, and Energy Companies Aren’t Ready for Them,” The Conversation, March 11, 2019, https://theconversation.com/underwater-mudslides-are-the-biggest-threat-to-offshore-drilling-and-energy-companies-arent-ready-for-them-111904.

Ian MacDonald, “Are American Oil Platforms Prepared for Underwater Avalanches?” Pacific Standard, March 11, 2019, https://psmag.com/environment/are-oil-platforms-ready-for-underwater-avalanches.

Student Researcher: Thanh Nguyen (College of Western Idaho)

Faculty Evaluator: Michelle Mahoney (College of Western Idaho)

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