Oil and gas drilling disasters

Oil exploration sonar array

The beast below the crust

In relation to the Gulf of Mexico oil leak (17 June), I’m surprised not to have seen more coverage of another recent disaster with many similarities.  In May 2006, a gas drilling operation punctured an underground structure in East Java, Indonesia, which responded by spewing mud driven by pressurised water and gas from surrounding rocks.  Ever since then, this ‘Lusi’ mud volcano has churned out about 125,000 cubic metres of liquid mud every day, with no end in sight and no reason to expect one for decades.  The mud has steadily spread across the Sidoarjo District and is now seven square kilometres in area and up to 20 metres deep.  Beneath it lie 12 villages and their farmlands, and some 42,000 people have been displaced.  Economic damage is estimated at several billion dollars, and although the Indonesian President has ordered compensation to be paid, realistically this is not expected to be adequate or delivered any time soon.  Other politicians and the courts will see to that.

Meanwhile, in the Gulf of Mexico we have another unexpected and uncontrollable eruption of gas-powered subterranean ooze, once again from a drilling operation that penetrated poorly-known geology with inadequate safeguards.  Again, this could go on for decades for all anyone knows.  But at least the US President has forced the company that summoned this beast from the underworld to set aside compensation money in an independently-administered fund.  Here the lessons of Exxon Valdez have been learned, side-stepping what was a 20-year legal process after the 1989 oil spill, before compensation was actually delivered by the courts.  It remains to be seen whether deeper lessons will be learned from either Lusi or the Gulf of Mexico, about human technological arrogance and blithe risk-taking with the Earth’s crust, people, climate and biosphere.  Today East Java and a major ocean basin, tomorrow where?

Published in The Independent, 19 June 2010.  Here the amount of mud released each day has been corrected upwards by a factor of 50, as the text submitted for the published version referred to 50 Olympic-sized swimming pools [each of] 2,500 cubic metres.  My mistake.  Either way, it’s a lot of mud.