The exploratory oil well two miles below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico exploded in a ball of fire, spurting millions of gallons of crude into the sea. As weeks turned to months, oil executives grappled with capping the well. The growing slick turned into an immediate ecological nightmare.
The year was 1979. The blowout of the Ixtoc I, drilled by the Mexican-run Pemex, retains the dubious record of causing the world’s largest accidental oil spill, dumping an estimated 138 million gallons over nine months. Eventually, Pemex cut off Ixtoc I with two relief wells and a cement seal.
With top BP executives, scientists and Obama administration officials searching for a solution to capping the Deepwater Horizon blowout off the Louisiana coast, perhaps they could find a blueprint in the Ixtoc I experience, observers say. They also may find lessons from the Montara oil spill last August off the northern coast of Australia, where it took five tries and nearly three months to stop the flow of as many as 84,000 gallons a day into the Timor Sea.
If some scientists, who say BP and the U.S. Coast Guard are underestimating how much oil is leaking now, are right, the current gusher could easily eclipse the demise of Ixtoc I in the Bay of Campeche. By their count, instead of the 210,000 gallons leaking per day, it’s more like 4 million“Everybody keeps saying the spill in the Gulf is unprecedented,’ said geologist John Amos, president and founder of SkyTruth, a nonprofit that investigates environmental issues using satellite images. “That is such bull—-t. We had perfect precedence.’