As soon as the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig sank in the Gulf of Mexico on April 22, information about the accident began to flow across the world’s computer screens.
You could find a description of response efforts on Facebook, at
/DeepwaterHorizonResponse, or through Twitter by following oil_spill_2010.
Dozens of industry sites were devoted to updates, including the official webpage at www.deepwaterhorizonresponse.com.
The world had its first cyberspill.
AAPG member Clint Moore of Houston, a longtime Gulf of Mexico geoscientist, joined thousands of others in the industry in searching for facts online.
“There’s a huge thirst for information out here,” Moore noted. “We keep having to hunt around to find good, detailed information.”
BP, the well’s operator, had learned from previous crises in the industry. It made top executives available to the media and put out as much information as it could gather.
But the force of social networking outlets and new media coverage showed how difficult it is now to track a flood of online information.
“The new media definitely makes for a different information environment,” Moore said.
“Upstream Online seems to have good blow-by-blow reporting. That’s been an important source of information for those of us in the industry,” he added.
Moore also found helpful information and coverage on the website of Offshore Magazine – PennWell publishes the magazine and produces the site. And he cited a source that for him was unexpected:
“There’s been some interesting articles on the New York Times website,” he said.
A challenge for Moore and other offshore professionals was to find sites with both accurate and technically meaningful content.
“This is a technical language that most people in the world don’t have any reason to understand,” Moore noted.
“The problem with the Deepwater Response website is that it’s just a website that puts out what can be officially approved,” he added.
Opponents of offshore drilling were just as quick to draw on new media resources.
Moore heard of an environmental group’s plans to ask its members to photograph effects of the oil leak with their cell phones, and to post the pictures online.
Reactions to the accident inside the industry included as much concern as curiosity.
“Everybody I know who’s connected to the offshore industry is just devastated by the accident. Just everybody is devastated by the loss of the men and the damage that’s likely to happen to the environment,” Moore said.
By its nature, the Gulf of Mexico leak posed special challenges for the offshore industry. A spill from a breached tanker might make headlines for three or four days. The relatively smaller but daily and persistent leak from the BP well appeared in headlines for weeks.
And the complexity of the offshore operation was not a good fit with the nearly instantaneous, general information flow on the Web.
Moore noted that the National Transportation Safety Board typically takes a year to issue a report on an airline accident, after lengthy and detailed fact-finding studies.
Industry experts were pushed to answer questions about the rig disaster and leak response almost immediately, when a full understanding of events would be months away, at the least.
For Moore, putting the 2010 leak in perspective was an important step that also involved gathering information.
He recalled the blowout of the Pemex exploratory well Ixtoc I well in the Gulf of Mexico, about 500 miles south of the Texas coast, on June 3, 1979.
That began a nine-month effort to stem the resulting leak, which discharged 10,000 to 30,000 barrels of oil a day into Gulf waters. World War II also brought a significant discharge of oil and refined fuel into the Gulf.
“There was a book called ‘Torpedoes in the Gulf,” which covers in great detail the many tankers that were blown apart in the Gulf of Mexico,” Moore recalled.
Taken together, the sinking of so many U-boats and other ships – including American fuel tankers – constituted a major spill into Gulf waters, just as the Ixtoc blowout did more than 35 years later.
“The good news is, the Gulf came back,” Moore said.