The Ixtoc I oil well after the 1979 accident. Stephen Macko

As a graduate student working on Padre Island during the summer of 1979, I was among the first to witness the oil from the Ixtoc I spill coming ashore on the coast of Texas.

In 1979 the idea of an accident of any consequence on a drill rig was unthinkable. Perhaps it was overconfidence based on experience, or simply naiveté. It was a time of rising prices in energy and lines at gas stations; the demand for oil was great. Few had interest in where the oil was coming from as long as there was sufficient supply.

At a rig in the Bay of Campeche in the southern Gulf of Mexico the unthinkable happened. Searching for the reservoir in an excellent prospect, nearly two miles below the sediment surface, the Ixtoc I well was in about 150 feet of water. Successful searches for oil rely on years of experience and sophisticated technologies to find the elusive pockets of “black gold.” It requires thousands of hours of ship surveys followed by exploratory drilling for an indication of a new reservoir. Oil exploration combines the best scientific understanding and engineering skills with a measure of luck and opportunity. The success rate is low, but the rewards are great.

On June 3, 1979, at Ixtoc I, the drilling muds—a very dense concoction used to keep pressure on the oil and gas in the well during drilling—were being lost into fractures and cavities in the Earth’s crust. A gas overpressure bubbled to the surface, came in contact with surface equipment and ignited. Then came a mariner’s nightmare—an explosion and fire at sea. The blowout preventers had failed to sever the pipe in the drill hole as the fire quickly spread across the rig. As the rig sank, oil erupted from the uncontrolled drill hole, sending crude oil directly into the Gulf.

For nearly 10 months the flow continued at a rate of 10,000 to 30,000 barrels a day. A temporary cap—a “sombrero” to capture the fluids and direct it to a tanker—failed. Divers were killed in efforts to contain the flow. Red Adair, a hero for extinguishing a 450-foot-tall pillar of flame from a gas well blowout in the Sahara—the Devil’s Cigarette Lighter—and for stopping the massive North Sea Ekofisk Bravo platform blowout in the North Sea, was called in, but failed. Two pressure relief wells were drilled and, finally, after an estimated 3 million barrels of oil entered the Gulf, the flow rates were brought under control and eventually stopped.

This was before the era of CNN, intense satellite coverage and cell phones. There was no Internet with live videos of the oil coming out of the seafloor. Few in the U.S. noticed. The spill was in Mexico, and people assumed it would have no real impact on the U.S. For two months the oil crept along the western Gulf, paving Mexican beaches with a chocolate-colored ribbon—an emulsion of crude oil and seawater—that was 15 feet wide and up to a foot thick. The blemish of the oil on the surface of the ocean was being combated with dispersants—such as Corexit (pronounced “corrects it”)—that were more toxic to marine life than the crude itself.

Little was known about the currents that were driving the oil into U.S. waters. The U.S. Coast Guard needed to ascertain the speed of the approach along the coast; it dropped tracking devices in the coastal currents, sonobuoys that required constant monitoring in remote locations. Stationed on the northern tip of the Padre Island National Seashore, we listened for the pinging of the buoys every two hours as they drifted northeast, and, using triangulation, established the exact location of each buoy. Thus we measured the speed of the slick.

Some days the slick would move and others it would not. The currents in the western Gulf vary between about 0.5 and 2 nautical miles per hour, so it took two months for the oil to arrive on the shores of Texas from where it had begun in the Bay of Campeche.

Why haven’t more Americans heard about one of the largest accidental oil spills in history? A hurricane and a reversal of the currents off Texas drove the slick into open water and back toward Mexico. In the U.S., only 165 miles of Texas coastline were affected. In the end, a few thousand seabirds were reported dead in U.S. waters. Much of the oil settled in the bottom of the Gulf or evaporated. Hotels placed temporary walkways over the tar-covered beaches. Oiled sand was scraped from beaches. Booms were placed across inlets to prevent the oil from getting into the fragile nursery areas of the Laguna Madre behind the barrier islands. The Mexican government—which owned Ixtoc I through the oil company PEMEX—claimed sovereign immunity and did not compensate the U.S. for its cleanup efforts.

More crucially, what made us forget? Why can oil companies explore with so little regard for risk and consequences? Why were we not better prepared for the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster southeast of New Orleans? I tell my oceanography students that in some ways we are all a bit responsible for oil spills because we are over-consumers of this fossil liquid. Maybe forgetting is what we really wanted to do.