The Ixtoc Blowout – 31 Years Ago Today

by Melanie Duchin

June 3, 2010

Much of the press coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout and oil spill in the Gulf describes the disaster as "unprecedented" when, in fact, it is not. Thirty one years ago today — June 3, 1979 — Pemex’s Ixtoc I exploratory well suffered a blowout resulting in the largest peace-time oil spill in history. Some 3.3 million barrels (138,600,000 gallons) of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico over a period of almost 11 months until the well was finally capped on March 23, 1980.

Greenpeace image: BP Deepwater Disaster and oil spill0
Greenpeace has been bearing witness to the BP Deepwater Disaster and oil spill for the past month. Click here to read more blogs, view videos and more images.

The Ixtoc exploratory well blowout occurred in 160 feet of water. Yet much is being made of the fact that the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout that killed 11 people and is still gushing oil into the Gulf occurred in 5,000 feet of water. Indeed, the Obama Administration is putting the brakes on new exploratory drilling in deep water, but is issuing permits for new drilling in shallow waters. This policy move misses some important points.  

First, the Minerals Management Service issued a report in 2007 that shows blowouts are relatively common. As this report shows, from 1992 to 2006, there were 5,671 wells drilled in the federal waters of the Outer Continental Shelf, and 39 blowouts occurred, or one blowout per every 387 wells drilled.  

Second, the report shows that 19 of the 39 blowouts in this period occurred in water depths of zero to 200 feet.  

Of course the depth of the Deepwater Horizon blowout makes any response challenging. But stopping the flow of oil in shallow waters may not be any less challenging, as the Ixtoc blowout shows. The Timor Sea blowout in 2009 occurred in 250 feet of water, and oil spilled for more than ten weeks until the fifth attempt to drill a relief well was successful.  

The bottom line is that if we continue to drill off our coasts blowouts will happen, failsafe technologies and redundancies will fail, and oil will spill into the ocean. As conventional oil supplies are exhausted and oil companies turn to ultra-deep drilling and drilling in Alaska’s arctic and other non-conventional areas, the dangers and threats posed by oil drilling will increase by orders of magnitude. The issue is not deep water oil drilling versus shallow water oil drilling. The issue is oil drilling, period.  

Without a full ban on all new exploratory drilling in US waters, blowouts, death and large oil spills still threaten America’s coastlines.

President Obama pledged last week that under his administration all oil drilling will be safe. Greenpeace challenges the notion of  “safe oil drilling” based on this fact: At every stage of the oil lifecycle — from exploration to production and transportation — spills and leaks are commonplace occurrences. Even if not a drop of oil spilled, the oil is eventually burned, which contributes to global warming. From cradle to grave, oil brings with it enormous health, safety and environmental consequences. There’s just no such thing as “safe oil drilling.”

Luckily, we can get off oil. Greenpeace will be releasing its Advanced Energy [R]evolution report next week, showing how the US can reduce its oil consumption 80 percent by 2050 without turning to coal or nuclear power, but by relying on conservation and renewable forms of energy.

Pemex’s Ixtoc, BP’s Deepwater Horizon, and the Montara blowout in the Timor Sea are just three in a long list of tragic oil disasters that could have been avoided if the world had weaned itself from oil. The 31st anniversary of the Ixtoc blowout — while oil is still spilling into the Gulf of Mexico from BP’s Deepwater Horizon — should be impetus enough to start an energy revolution here at home.

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