A "small" spray of crude gushes into the Gulf after a boat crashed into a wellhead
A “small” spray of crude gushes into the Gulf after a boat crashed into a wellhead.
U.S. Coast Guard

BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill was notable because of the huge number of barrels leaked, the economic and environmental devastation wrought, and the number of people directly affected. But oil spills are not an aberration. Spills are a constant and poisonous cost of the world’s dependence upon fossil fuels.

Little attention is paid to this steady stream of spills. That’s in part because company and government officials often labor to convince us that each single spill is minor, unimportant, and environmentally benign.

This week, while BP was defending itself in court against claims and potential fines stemming from the 2010 disaster, emergency responders were kept busy dealing with new oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and around the world.

Louisiana

A 42-foot offshore oil service boat crashed Tuesday evening into a retired oil and gas wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico near Port Sulphur, La., causing a geyser of crude to spray into the air.

The wellhead, owned by Swift Energy, was recapped two days after the crash and a cleanup crew of more than 40 people has so far recovered about 40 barrels of watery oil from the Gulf. As usual, officials are downplaying the incident as “small.” See this Reuters report:

Swift said the collision had damaged the wellhead but that it “appears to be primarily releasing water and a small amount of oil.”

The company said containment booms and skimming equipment had been deployed around the well to protect nearby shorelines.

A Coast Guard spokesman, Ensign Tanner Stiehl, said a small sheen had developed around the accident site.

But nobody knows for sure how much oil was spilled. (Such an assessment misses a more important point anyway: The spill of any oil is bad — it suffocates microscopic organisms, smothers larger wildlife, and poisons the air and water with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. The idea that an oil spill could be dismissed as “small” shows how desensitized we have become.) Houston-based Swift Energy claims that the last time the well was tested it was capable of releasing 18 barrels of oil a day. The Coast Guard, which scrambled to respond to the “small” spill with a flotilla of 12 vessels, says the ruptured well might have released as much of 40 barrels of crude oil every day, plus 36 more barrels daily of “oily water.”

UpStream, an oil and gas trade publication, went so far as to put quotation marks around the words “oil spill” in its headline, as if to suggest that the spill was so small that the normal definition of the term might not even apply here. Judging by the picture that accompanied the article — which you can also see at the top of this post — perhaps “oil explosion” would have been more appropriate.

Louisiana, meanwhile, considers the “small” spill to be so serious that it has banned harvesting of oysters in the area while health officials conduct tests.

Texas

After a resident of Tyler County, Texas, noticed a disgusting smell last Saturday, oil was discovered leaking from a pipeline and into a creek a couple of miles away. The oil had likely been leaking for at least several days before it was noticed. The pipeline was shut down, but not before an estimated 550 barrels seeped into the environment. Crews are working to mop up the oil and officials are downplaying the incident as, yes, small. Move along folks, nothing to see here. From KLTV:

“The pipeline company here is taking care of the situation. They have a full blown incident command set up. We have approximately 160 workers on the ground in the creek bed. They’re mopping up the oil and getting every bit of it that they can,” [Tyler County Emergency Management Coordinator Dale] Freeman said.

Absorbent pads and fresh water from Russell Creek are being used to clean the spill.

Many miles down the stream the water runs into Neches River but no oil has been found there according to Freeman. He said the leak has no affect on drinking water in Tyler County, and no wildlife or residents have been harmed by the oil spill.

“There’s no dead fish in the creek. The affects to the environment is minimal at this point,” Freeman said.

The Philippines

From the Philippine Information Agency:

Personnel from the Office of the Civil Defense (OCD) and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) have been deployed since Tuesday (February 26) to conduct clean-up operations following reports that oil traces were spotted along the shorelines of La Union, Ilocos Sur, including Ilocos Norte.

Melchito Castro, chief of the OCD in the Ilocos, said on Thursday that the joint team began removing oil sludge from the shorelines mostly in the coastal towns of La Union and Ilocos Sur where the slick began to spread.

Castro said that authorities have yet to determine where the oil seepage originated. Initial reports show that the spill might have come from the M/V Arita Bauxite, a Myanmar vessel that sank off the coast of Bolinao town on February 17.

Nigeria

A pipeline ruptured recently in Izom, Nigeria, coating nearby rivers and farms in crude oil. The pipeline, which had been laid in 1977, was repaired last weekend and put back into service by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. From Daily Trust:

Notwithstanding the spillage, the villagers were still seen fetching water from the polluted river which is the only source of drinking water for the villagers, their animals and crops.

A villager who spoke with reporters, Yelo Sariki said their lives were in danger following the spillage.

He described the situation as a serious one which could consume the whole area.

Between Alberta and Texas, in the near future?

But don’t you worry about the Keystone XL pipeline. TransCanada assures us it will be safe:

Each year, billions of gallons of crude oil and petroleum products are safely transported on pipelines. If they do occur, pipeline leaks are small; most pipeline leaks involve less than three barrels, 80% of spills involve less than 50 barrels, and less than 0.5 percent of spills total more than 10,000 barrels.

Safety of the public and the environment is a top priority for TransCanada.

Phew!