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Underwater Mudslides Heighten Risks of Oil Catastrophes

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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, “much 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 owned by Taylor Energy and located off the coast of Louisiana 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 of the 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 PostCNN, and Newsweek—have covered the Taylor Energy disaster off the coast of Louisiana. However, MacDonald’s report for The Conversation is distinctive for its detailed explanation of how underwater mudslides pose systemic threats for drilling operations throughout the Gulf of Mexico, not just at the Taylor Energy site.

Source: 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.

Student Researcher: Thanh Nguyen (College of Western Idaho)

Faculty Evaluator: Michelle Mahoney (College of Western Idaho)

Daniel Christof

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