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Letters: How can engineers contain the Gulf of Mexico oil spill?

Environment: How can engineers contain the Gulf of Mexico oil spill?

Recently floods, volcanic eruptions and the Gulf oil haemorrhage have reminded us of our inability to fully control the natural world.

I was fortunate to spend some time on Alabama’s Gulf coast last week, and I was able to swim in the ocean days before the oil began drifting ashore.

Despite the fact there was a visible sheen on the water, the experience was similar to many I’ve had over the years, the only difference being the realisation that it could have been my last for many years to come.

Since returning to the UK I am disappointed by the small amount of coverage of the catastrophe by NCE. The calculation of risk and the interpretation of consequences is first undertaken by civil engineers when trying to determine the impacts of natural events.

What do we know about how the engineers calculated risk in the Gulf? What can we learn about the assumptions and how does the industry need to react to the apparent failure in judgment?

As engineers, are we too reliant on “black boxes”, be they blow-out preventers or the never-failing Thames Barrier, in how we understand risk? These questions are at the heart of the disaster in the Gulf and deserve some effort to comprehend.

  • Chris Harman (M),

It is obviously difficult to plug a hole at the bottom of the sea to stop oil escaping. Presumably, taking all the relevant factors into account, such as depth and currents, the oil will rise to the surface within a certain radius.

It should be possible to construct a flexible, floating, bottom-weighted, curtain wall or cofferdam that will contain the oil. It should also be possible within this dam, using a similar flexible curtain wall whose radius can gradually be decreased, to concentrate the oil so that it can be pumped into tankers.

Perhaps there are some practical difficulties, rough seas for instance, that make this approach unviable. But since it may be some time before the leak is successfully plugged in the Gulf of Mexico and I haven’t heard this approach discussed, I thought I’d mention it.

  • Graham O’Neill (M), Kenilworth Road Cove, Farnborough, Hants, GU14 9SZ

It is a pity that the US government has not shown the same commitment to reinstating Louisiana after the hurricane Katrina disaster that is now expected from BP after the oil disaster.

  • Dominic Harper, 42 Regent Way, Frimley, Surrey, GU16 8NT

With regard to the Gulf of Mexico oil leak, if oil was denser than water there would hardly be a problem. The escaping oil would sit at the bottom of the sea causing relatively little problem to anyone.

What BwP must do is devise a way of making the oil behave as if it were denser than water. The answer is to mix it with sand. If you were to take a bucket of sand and bucket of oil and mix them together you would get a coagulated mass denser than water.

BP already has the means of delivering concrete and bentonite mud to the sea bottom. They may need to do one or two trials in shallow water to get the proportions of sand to oil and the means of mixing right. Inject sand into the jet of escaping oil, stirring steadily, and the problem will be mightily mitigated.

  • Edmund Sixsmith (M), 31 Rowan Road, Hammersmith, London W6 7DT

Highway robbery of fuel tax hike

Two correspondents (NCE 10 June) advocated increasing fuel tax to control traffic volumes. This would penalise people in rural areas where there is little or no public transport but where congestion is not a serious problem.

It would have relatively little effect on those in urban areas and on intercity routes where we want to persuade car drivers towards the alternatives.
Measures need to be targeted so as to bite where there is a problem. Road pricing seems to be the only approach which will achieve that. Please don’t penalise the country for an urban problem.

  • Mike Keatinge (M), Highbank, Marston Road, Sherborne, Dorset DT9 4BL

No win situation

I read NCE last week expecting to see a letter from Tom Foulkes following the negative comments about him the previous week (NCE 3 June).

It is surprising that he has nothing to say to the ICE membership in response to the letters you printed.

Personally I was pleasantly surprised to hear a voice of the industry on national news responding to the real issues facing the industry and the country. There’s definitely a debate to be had. Members often complain that we don’t make our voice heard - but then complain even more when someone speaks out. I would like to see more of it. For example, is Andrew McNaughton going to speak out like he did last week when he is ICE President? Or will he stick to the quiet approach adopted by most of his predecessors?

Somehow we need to get our voice heard if we want to help lead the country.

  • Matt Lakin

More high speed rail doubts

I am prepared to eat my hat if it can be shown that a new high speed train line from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds can divert sufficient traffic from existing tracks that a viable economic case can be made for its construction and operation.

Have the analysts examined the effect of splitting the traffic between the existing line and the new line? Surely this is a recipe for bankruptcy for both?

What sort of fare premium would be required to finance this and how many passengers would be prepared to pay such a premium?

How long will it be before we read in NCE that this preposterous scheme is to be abandoned.

  • Norman Ashford (F), professor emeritus of transport planning, Loughborough University 8 Bath Hill Court, Bath Road, Bournemouth, Dorset, BH1 2HW

Paying twice for road capacity

While agreeing with the thrust of the comments made about road pricing in all of last week’s letters, what seems to have been forgotten in this debate is that we have already paid for the roads through taxation.

It is not open to the government to charge us again for something for which we have already paid.

This would be tantamount to fraud on a huge scale. If road pricing were to be adopted it should be for additional capacity and this would also satisfy the construction industry’s objective of preserving essential skills.

There is however a strong Green argument for amalgamating all existing road charges into the fuel tax as this would directly influence the consumption of carbon and would encourage thrift in this respect.

It would also permit savings to be made in the vehicle and excise department. However, I recognise that this may be too transparent for the Treasury.

  • Tom Moss (M),

Fuel tax v road user charge

Your editorial suggests that user charging for roads should be introduced (NCE 3 June). In fact we already have user charging in the form of fuel tax. This is enough to pay for more maintenance and new roads than we can use.

We pay in the order of £25bn in fuel tax and £5bn in road taxes and yet the Highways Agency only spent £2.3bn in 2006/7.

No need for some expensive high tech extra tax. No need for more taxes, we just need to get a small portion of the money we have paid spent on roads.

  • R Hilling (M),


NCE welcomes letters from readers. We attempt to print as many as possible, which means letters longer than 200 words are likely to be condensed.

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