Thursday, May 06, 2010

An End in Sight to the Oil Leakage?

Gulf oil spill as of May 4 / NASA MODIS Rapid Response Team

Yesterday, BP announced that they had plugged the smallest of the three oil leaks in the broken riser pipe. Unfortunately, that will not reduce the amount of oil spilling from the well, but it eliminates one exit point. More importantly, one of the coffer dams has been completed and should be in place by Monday.
On Wednesday, the dome began its journey to the site of the ruptured well, where it will be lowered by cable 5,000 feet beneath the sea to sit atop the larger of the two remaining leaks.

The dome will not shut off the gushing well, which is still spilling an estimated 210,000 gallons of oil a day; the goal is just to keep some of the oil out of the water by capturing it and then funneling it to a drill ship, called the Discoverer Enterprise, waiting on the surface.

Think of the dome as an inverted cup gathering the gushing oil, and the drill pipe as a straw carrying it to the surface. If it sounds simple, it is not. Containment domes have been used in shallow water, but never at this depth.
The extreme depth of the well creates some challenges:
Despite the hopes placed on the big box, questions remain: Can it withstand the conditions nearly a mile beneath the sea? Will ice plug up the pipe? Will bad weather interrupt the work? Will the combination of gas, oil and water mix uneasily — or explosively — on the ship above? Add global scrutiny to the mix, and you have some anxious engineers....

BP engineers in Houston have sketched out models to account for what they expect to happen in this novel approach, along with several contingency plans. To combat the ice, which is likely to form as gas bubbles out of the oil, engineers will inject warm water along the pipe, and methanol into the oil.
If that sounds unclear, I would suggest checking this graphic, which shows how the containment chamber will work. The chamber should collect about 85% of the leaking oil if everything works as expected. It is unclear how soon the other 15% will be contained or how soon the well can be shut off.

I would like to suggest three other links on the spill that are worth checking out. The first is a description of flying over the spill area.
So that's it. The ocean is a rich emulsion blue here - different from the muddy brown closer to the mouth of the Mississippi - but suddenly we are seeing what this crisis in the Gulf of Mexico is all about. What we see first are like blemishes on the sea surface, slivers of an oily sheen that might almost be burn scars on skin.

But there are shades of catastrophe out here, obvious from our breezy, chilly perch (the doors of the chopper have been taken off). The "scars", some with the rainbow colours of peacock feathers, slowly give way to something more shocking.

Vast swathes of rust that at times turn almost Martian red.

The slick here looks like the deep cuts of the Grand Canyon, but painted on water. Striations of earth tones from vivid to dull. If the streaks of sheen pretend a certain beauty, this thicker, ruder stuff does not. It is vile; a terrible ruddy intrusion on a landscape that, but for us, should be virgin.
Here is a photo of a sea turtle struggling in that rusty mess. It was photographed by NWF activists who reported it to wildlife rescuers. When animals like that are rescued, they are taken to one of the rehabilitation centers for cleaning and feeding. Audubon has a description of how oiled birds are cleaned.