We all know the scenario by now: On a simmering spring day in the Gulf of Mexico, workers on an offshore platform are overwhelmed by a blowout -- oil and gas escaping at high pressure from the well they were drilling. The rig burns and collapses into the sea, and millions of gallons of crude foul the Gulf while oil company and government managers argue. President Carter is blamed for --
President Carter? Yes, this happened in 1979. The only past accident remotely comparable to the BP disaster in the Gulf was the blowout of the Mexican-owned Ixtoc 1 well, 31 years ago. It was estimated to have spilled 140 million gallons of oil into the Gulf off the Mexican and Texas coasts, and wasn't capped for nine months.
Are there lessons to be learned from it that apply to the BP accident? Wes Tunnell, a biologist at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, says maybe yes -- that the Gulf ecosystem may be more resilient than most Americans think.
"On the shoreline near the Ixtoc blowout there were fine-grained sandy beaches," said Tunnell in an interview with ABC News. "They recovered biologically in two to three years, and in four to five years there were no remnants of tar in areas that they didn't clean up."
The workers trying to clean up the Gulf have several natural allies. The hot southern sun helps -- it causes some of the most toxic components of the oil slick, such as benzene and toluene, to evaporate. Wave action breaks the oil down as well. And microorganisms in the water slowly consume oil.
Tunnell said he is "cautiously optimistic that there will be a good recovery" from the BP disaster as there was from Ixtoc 1.
But other scientists caution that the Ixtoc accident is not necessarily much like the BP spill, which is in a different place, threatens different shorelines, and is being fought differently.
"The BP spill is at such a monstrous scale that some precedents don't apply," said Douglas Rader, chief ocean scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, one of the country's most influential conservation groups.
Depending on whose estimate you use, the Deepwater Horizon blowout may have already released more crude than Ixtoc 1 (there was one larger spill -- the one caused on purpose by Iraq in the Persian Gulf War) and many engineers say the BP spill will likely keep going until relief wells are finished in August.
Rader said he, like other scientists and advocates, has doubts about BP's use of dispersant chemicals at the site of the blowout, 5,000 feet beneath the surface of the Gulf. It may have broken the oil into smaller globs -- but also kept it from rising to the surface where it can break down more readily.
"It just spreads it out, slows the ascent rate, expands the total toxicity, and potentially contributes to more rapid dissolution of toxicants and easier transport in midwater and bottom plumes of toxicants," he said.
"I'm actually convinced that the impacts are likely to be profound and long-lasting, perhaps generational," Rader said.