Oil Rig Archipelagos: Planning for Catastrophe

As you’re probably aware, the explosion and sinking of the offshore oil platform Deepwater Horizon let loose a stream of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, not too far off from vital waters for fishing and biodiversity.  While the leak spurts out 5,000 barrels of oil a day, attempts to curb the flow of crude have been unsuccessful thus far.  Wells drilled on land can be blown out with explosives or capped with machinery but operating at the frozen, high-pressure depths changes the game significantly.

What I found most distressing was that the blowout preventer failed. These offshore wells are required to have such an emergency shutoff valve as a fail-safe. By all accounts, it appears this valve got blown out with the same surge that wrecked the rest of the rig.  Not much of a fail-safe.

Suddenly, it’s hard to hear the enthusiastic chanting of “Drill, baby, drill!” Not surprisingly, Slate reports that “a Rasmussen poll found support for offshore drilling fell from 72 percent in March to 58 percent in early May.” 

It’s pipedream time here, people. What if we built these offshore wells with a cleanup effort half-launched? What I propose is an artificial ecosystem that can react to imbalances and automatically take the first steps towards mitigating the disaster, a designed landscape of active ecolological defense.

Imagine artificial floating island chains moored in formation around each rig, turning rigs into mini-Atlantises. In the event of a spill, barrier islands could corral the tar balls and loose crude, alternately sopping and channeling, collecting what wasn’t absorbed for recycling or safe disposal.  Dynamos powered by the movements of the waves could power small electric motors to maneuver the islands to adjust to conditions and keep the islands in place.

Made of reused materials, like plastic bottles, nylons and salvaged hair from barbershops and dog groomers, the basics of flotation and oil absorption could be assembled easily by workers of any skill level, while the more innovative components would be a great boost to the renewable energy and environmental sensor industries.  Better still, with careful planning this safety infrastructure could actually be carbon negative, especially if deployed in a sunny area like the Gulf of Mexico where island-mounted solar panels for electricity and solar stills for desalination could help sustain the drilling rig’s crew.

Newer versions could house crude-eating nanobots or bacteria, laying dormant until a spill is detected. Upon detection, they’d be launched by unmanned skiffs to the target area to begin their feasting or be remotely operated from the rig or further away.

With new safety regulations likely in the wake of this environmental disaster, it would be wise to account for what to do when the fail-safe fails.

photo by Flickr user mark_i_geo

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