A number of people I’ve talked to recently about the Deepwater Horizon blowout have been surprised to hear that there was a very similar accident in the Gulf of Mexico 30 years ago. The Ixtoc 1 spill was off the coast of Mexico near the Yucatan.
Just like Deepwater Horizon, the drilling mud failed, oil and gas surged to the surface, caught fire, sank the drilling rig, and then the blowout preventer failed. The spill continued for about 9 months, releasing a total of some 3 million barrels and ruining hundreds of miles of coastline. Here’s an article about the similarities between the two accidents. The biggest difference is that the Deepwater Horizon blowout is in much deeper water. That makes all of the attempts to fix the problem much harder than the equivalent attempts on Ixtoc 1.
I don’t know if our amnesia about Ixtoc 1 is symptomatic of the classic American blindspot to news from outside our borders, or if 1979 is now considered ancient history, but it does seem important to realize that Deepwater Horizon is not a unique incident. It is simply an expected part of the price we pay for our hydrocarbon addiction.
Brian Hayes has a great analysis of how to deal with risks like this on his blog. Also be sure to check out his book of photos of industrial equipment. Chapter 4 is a good intro to all of that equipment that’s been on the news lately.