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In 1979, a Gulf of Mexico oil spill went on for 10 months at about the BP rate. (wikipedia.org)
88 points by gruseom on May 28, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 41 comments

Makes me think that increasingly the problems in this world aren't information investigation problems, but information management/digest/presentation problems.

Obama, for instance, said today that we'd never had an oil spill of this kind in the gulf before (but that 'it just takes one...'). I'm not blaming him. Nor am I necessarily blaming reporters for connecting this earlier.

But pretty much all of our modern problems can be solved much faster if the information is managed and presented to people more efficiently. I know, in that sense, I may be preachin' to the choir.

It just makes me think that a lot of these problems go away with better management, presentation (and ultimately understanding) of historical data.

Context is a killer. You would think with 24-hour news networks, the history of similar events would get reported so some context could be given for the current event. It hasn't happened. Heck, take a look at the time devoted to "cute girl kidnapped"-stories versus the deliberations of the Supreme Court. I wonder which one will affect my life more.

Given all the information, the killer app will be something that allows us to see the history and put an event in context. I think it will pay, just look at how people start clicking links at TV Tropes or Wikipedia and don't stop.

They were talking about this spill on NPR the week the spill came out. There are plenty of news outlets doing good journalism and it would seem that you yourself are not paying any attention to them. So stop blaming the media.

In any case, this disaster isn't over yet, and we don't have good enough figures to say with any certainty that this is smaller than the Ixtoc spill.

I was specifically referring to the 24-hour news networks, and NPR is not a 24-hour news service (heck, there is no local NPR station). So, I will continue to believe those networks don't provide history / context or for that matter, know what will have the largest effect on the listener.

May 7th: How big is Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill?


This was linked from the breaking-news story.

Pretty ironic when this happens a few weeks after Obama criticized the internet for giving too much information to digest.

It's not so much that the information isn't there, it is that it still isn't there in a way that you can get at the relevant data quickly enough.

Keyword searches are bad for stuff like this, they'll turn up tons of irrelevant information. The needles are there but they'll be buried in a haystack of lesser size than the original one, but still formidable enough to make sifting through it a non-trivial task.

It's so hard to learn about oil spills. You'd have to go to wikipedia or google and type in "oil spill". Then you need to engage in the arduous process of scrolling down:


Thank you, I never ever thought of doing that.

Wikipedia never ceases to amaze with respect to the content you can find in it, I should learn to simply always check it no matter what the subject.

You're assuming that Wikipedia is entirely correct, perhaps a risky assumption to second guess the president on.

How about this US Bureau of Land management report from 1982 which cites the size of the Ixtoc I spill as 3-5 million barrels (linked as a reference on the wiki entry): http://www.gomr.mms.gov/PI/PDFImages/ESPIS/3/3930.pdf

Or a NOAA incident report which provides duration and flow rate estimates for the spill which translate to the same total spill size estimates as other sources (3+ million barrels): http://www.incidentnews.gov/incident/6250

Or Fortune magazine: http://money.cnn.com/galleries/2010/fortune/1005/gallery.exp...

Or a 1981 case study by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, by way of JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/pss/4312725

Good enough for you?

Well, one cannot be sure whether it was really at about the BP rate, mostly because BP is being really cagey about what the rate of their spill is.

BP is not letting independent scientists send instruments to measure the spill rate, although they did let scientists look at a live feed from one of their underwater cameras. Estimates vary, but some scientists are saying the spill can be several times larger than that of the Ixtoc I.

I agree, but found it hard to make the title precise and less than 80 characters.

BP's figure of 5000 (which I think they've finally dropped) hasn't even been in the range of any independent estimate I've seen.

Note that the range for the "barrels per day" number is entirely contained within the range for the BP spill, so it isn't really reasonable to say that they released at the same rate. This spill was 10 - 30 thousand. The BP spill is 5 - 100 thousand. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deepwater_Horizon_oil_spill)

We should perhaps be careful to maintain a distinction between the size of the oil spill and its severity. Knowing that the Ixtoc I spill possibly involved a greater volume of oil doesn't necessarily tell us that the spill's effects were more serious. Perhaps somebody more knowledgeable than me can comment on the comparative repercussions of each spill.

(I can say from personal experience that everyone who grew up on the Texas coast during the 80s has memories of cleaning tar from his or her feet after every visit to the beach.)

I think it's probably too soon to say with certainty. But Ixtoc I was in relatively shallow water and was closer to shore. Deepwater Horizon was in (duh) deep water and much further from shore.

Ixtoc probably released more oil that ended up on coastlines as such; my understanding is that due to the depth, a lot of the products coming out of the Deepwater Horizon hole are getting "cracked" by the water pressure so there is less crude making it to the surface. Whether that is better or worse, I can't say -- it seems like probably better, but it could be worse for fishing and deepwater marine life, perhaps.

The thing that's most disturbing to me about Ixtoc I is how Pemex asserted sovereign immunity to avoid paying anything but the most minimal cleanup costs. BP may be a corrupt bunch of motherfuckers, but at least they don't have that to hide behind.

That was at just 160 feet below the water whereas the current oil spill is 5000 feet below water which means it is much harder to cap the current oil leak or accurately predict the spill rate for comparison.

It appears it might be heavier oil also, which breaks down more slowly and sticks to more things. But nobody has very accurate models of effects of oil spills, so it's hard to say if it'll actually be worse.

Even BP is no longer claiming 5,000/day, which was apparently farcical from the start. The analysis by the Purdue scientist (cited on Wiki) says 95,000/day, latest figure.

That's much more farcical, given that a normal "good" productive well produces 20-30,000/day and the really good ones 50,000/day. The oil from this well has get past various obstacles and the latest serious estimate I've heard is between 12,000 and 19,000/day.

On 3 June 1979, the well suffered a blowout and is recognized as the second largest oil spill and the largest accidental spill in history.

So was the largest spill on purpose if it wasn't accidental?

Yes. Saddam Hussein unleashed the world's largest ever oil spill during the first Persian Gulf War in 1991.


Note that that spill was about 3x larger than even the Ixtoc I spill. The scale is nearly incomprehensible.

It would have been a lot worse if not for some very creative thinking.

Sounds interesting, got a link?


"American airstrikes on January 26 destroyed pipelines to prevent further spillage into the Persian Gulf"

In response to the "Citation needed", a little Lexis searching returned a March 22 article from the Washington Times that lists the airstrike as January 27: "Jan. 27: U.S. aircraft fire at oil facilities in Kuwait to end the pumping of crude into the Persian Gulf."

Wow. I had no idea Saddam Hussein was responsible for 2 of the top 5 worst oil spills.

At the time of the accident Sedco 135F was drilling at a depth of about 3,600 metres (11,800 ft) below the seafloor.

Every time I hear the depths from which oil is extracted it makes me think the Russians might be right in with their abiogenic theory of oil formation.


The reason that deep drilling is done is not because there is an abiogenic origin for that oil. There has never been evidence of oil wells replenishing themselves in human time scales. Instead, oil production from any given well always follows a relatively predictable depletion profile.

The real reason for deep drilling is that the alternative easier sources are either already mostly gone or more expensive/slower to extract.

There is still plenty of "difficult" oil left. Unfortunately there are signs that most of it is not economic to extract at prices which the global economy can support. I think this is what caused the current recession and volatile oil prices, and it is only going to get worse.

See also http://www.theoildrum.com/node/6517

By the way, Obama mentioned this in his recent speech on the spill. Quote:

"After all, oil is a finite resource. We consume more than 20 percent of the world's oil, but have less than 2 percent of the world's oil reserves. And that's part of the reason oil companies are drilling a mile beneath the surface of the ocean: because we're running out of places to drill on land and in shallow water."

(see http://www.istockanalyst.com/article/viewnewspaged/articleid... for full transcript.)

I never have made the connection b/w oil wells replenishing themselves and an abiogenic petroleum origin. Abiogenic formation could take a very long time. It's my understanding that Russians, when extracting oil from under deep rock, formulated the theory that it was more likely that the petroleum came from within the earth, that from above.

I have it from a pretty quality source, i.e. my girl friends father who is high up in a rival oil company that none of the things they are doing right now have any real shot at working. They are just stall tactics until they get relief wells setup with new rigs which take about 6 months to setup. So, expect this to go on for a while!

Interesting how BP hasn't pointed at this yet in their press releases, if anybody has this sort of information it should be them.

From the talk page:


I think it's probably a clever PR strategy to lie down flat until the leak is plugged and the damage is assessed, before trying to smooth public opinion. If they're caught spinning this, they'll never recover.

So that's why the Gulf has been so brown my whole life...

I don't understand why everyone is up voting this? Is the fact that something similar happened before supposed to alleviate our concerns about the fact that it's happening now? There have been world wars, but if one was happening now I wouldn't up vote the wikipedia entry for WWII.

Because having historical context allows us to judge attempts to over or under play the current situation. Considering how many people have been freaking out about this "unprecedented" event, I think this is highly useful information.

but it's wrong to believe BP estimates when comparing:

"the amount of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico may be 20 times the size of BP's earlier claims of 5000 barrels per day (2.4 million gallons spilled as of May 24, 2010), according to an exclusive analysis conducted for NPR.[37]"

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1268095... Gulf Spill May Far Exceed Official Estimates by Richard Harris

If that is true the speed of leakage this time was immense compared to other events, so prompt action is justified.

We're upvoting it because everybody including Obama act like this is the first time oil spill is happening and there was no way to prevent it because it was so improbable, and also because once again we failed to learn from history.

500 feet of water vs. 5,000 is a BIG difference.

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