From June 3, 1979 straight through March 23, 1980, an oil well in the Gulf of Mexico was spewing up to 30,000 barrels per day. In just 200 feet of water, the Mexican oil company Pemex scrambled to shut down the Ictoc I exploratory well, but to no avail.
The gusher kept flowing, despite attempts to lower a “cone” or “sombrero” onto it. Officials tried to inject the gusher with drilling mud and fire metal orbs into it, but that didn’t work either. Finally, after months upon months of oil spray, relief wells succeeded in relieving the pressure, giving conventional methods the leverage to seal the gusher.
If this sounds familiar … Well, it should.
“It’s not just the disaster itself that should sound familiar to you,” said MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, appearing on a Wednesday night broadcast. “It’s also the techniques that they were using at the time to try and contain the spill.”
“If you just closed your eyes and listened to these news reports from 1979, you would be forgiven for thinking you had flipped on the news today,” she said.
Maddow added: “I am 37 years old and this happened when I was six — those haircuts are back in fashion. The stuff that didn’t work back then is the same stuff that hasn’t worked now; same busted blowout preventer, same ineffective booms, same underwater plumes, same toxic dispersant, same failed containment domes, same junk shot, same top kill. It’s all the same technology. The Ixtoc well, which couldn’t be plugged for nine months, was in 200 feet of water. Now, in 2010, we’re using the same techniques to try to plug a well that is leaking in 5,000 feet of water.”
The Ixtoc well ultimately spewed some 3.5 million barrels of crude into the Gulf, according to official estimates. It was the second worst spill in history and the worst ecological disaster to ever affect the US mainland.
Officials estimate the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig and the resulting gusher will go down as the worst environmental disaster in US history.
Those same officials, President Obama chief among them, have also called the 2010 oil gusher “unprecedented.” While they may be right on a technicality — that the Ixtoc was a problem for the Mexican government, making the Deepwater Horizon disaster a truly American disaster — the scenario is far from “unprecedented”.
“In July 1979 the pumping of mud into the well reduced the flow to 20,000 barrels per day, and early in August the pumping of nearly 100,000 steel, iron, and lead balls into the well reduced the flow to 10,000 barrels per day,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted in its official history of the disaster. “Mexican authorities also drilled two relief wells into the main well to lower the pressure of the blowout.”
Every step of the way, companies seen as responsible for the disaster predicted that success was just around the corner.
“The oil wells keep talking about how technologically advanced they are,” Maddow said. “But, what they’ve gotten technologically advanced at is drilling deeper. They haven’t gotten any more technologically advanced on how to deal with the risks attached to that. They haven’t made any technological advances in the last 30 years when it comes to stopping a leak like this when it happens.”
BP officials said they were successful in stopping the Gulf oil gusher by injecting drilling mud into the well, stemming the flow. While some public officials agreed and parroted the oil company’s claim late Thursday, the U.S. Coast Guard amended prior statements saying there’s not yet proof that the strategy has worked. More was expected to be known later in the evening.
This video is from MSNBC, broadcast May 26, 2010.