Tuesday, July 20, 2010

What Next For BP Well Disaster

Killing the well that has spewed anywhere from 100 to 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico is still a few weeks away if the relief wells are progressing as indicated. The cap that was installed last week is apparently showing signs of a small leak, but that isn't worrying BP too much.

The tests to determine the well's integrity are showing a pressure that isn't where the engineers had hoped, indicating that there may be a leak somewhere else in the system or that the well itself has expelled such volumes of oil and gas that it isn't showing the pressures it had previously.

There are seeps of oil and gas in the vicinity of the damaged well, but BP says that they're unrelated. They may be right - one of the reasons that oil companies were drilling in the area was that geologists had seen signs of oil and gas deep underground and that some of it was making its way through the seafloor.
Thad Allen, the official appointed by Barack Obama to lead the government's response to the disaster, said leaks detected over the weekend did not threaten the well.

He said the seepage of gas from the seabed probably had nothing to do with the well. Oil and gas are known to ooze naturally from fissures in the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

Speaking at a news conference last night, he said: "The small seepages we're seeing do not indicate at this point a threat to the well bore."

Yesterday he gave BP another 24 hours to keep the containment cap on the ruptured well closed, during a terse exchange of words between the company and the government over the handling of the crisis. Today, Allen said BP could keep the cap closed for at least another 24 hours, provided the company remained on alert for leaks.

Allen sent a stiff letter to BP on Sunday night ordering the oil giant to continue seismic and sonar monitoring around the well to try to get a better picture of what was happening now that the flow of oil had ostensibly stopped.

He said the company had an obligation to inform him of any problems within four hours of any seepage being detected.
AP has a summary of events and issues from around the region relating to the oil spill and its devastating consequences along the Gulf Coast.

Meanwhile, BP is contemplating something called a static kill, which is suspiciously similar to the failed top kill and junk shots that didn't stop the well a few weeks back. BP seems to think that the lower pressures now seen on the well would enable the static kill to work.

The sooner those relief wells get done and can then pump in the concrete to kill the well, the better.

Once again this disaster points out the folly of being pennywise and pound foolish. By saving a few bucks by cutting corners to get this well done in the way it was, BP was hoping to save money and time. Instead, it will cost them tens of billions before it's over.

Many engineering and technological breakthroughs have come through disasters - whether it's things like building and bridge collapses, oil tanker disasters (requiring double hulls, better containment, etc.), and we can only hope that the engineers figure out better ways to shut down wells that blow out like this one other than praying and wishful thinking. It means prepositioning equipment that can deal with these kinds of disasters. It means better BOPs and a whole raft of technologies that can skim oil from waters that aren't completely still (aka everywhere other than in the safe environment of a lab).

While the water in many parts of the Gulf Coast appears to be fine to the naked eye, it may not be nearly as safe as you would hope.

The petroleum counts showed higher than normal levels, but the sample from near a marina could not be measured because the sample exploded for unknown reasons. The chemist doing the tests speculated that it could have been the result of methanol, methane, or the oil dispersant used to break up the oil slicks. However, another possibility for high counts could be that oil could have been leaking from the vicinity of the marina itself. Either way, this is a situation that bears continued scrutiny.

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