Saturday, May 01, 2010

Oil Slick Hits the Louisiana Coast

Oil slick approaching the coast on April 29 / via NASA – MODIS

Yesterday the oil slick from the sunken oil drilling rig reached coastal wetlands. National Geographic has photos from some of the affected areas. The only oiled bird recovered as of last night was a Northern Gannet (included in the photos at the link above). The International Bird Rescue and Research Center and Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research are both on hand to rehabilitate oiled waterfowl. Aside from wetlands and waterbirds, the spill is also affecting the local fishermen, who have launched lawsuits in response.

A solution is still months away since the "blowout preventer" did not work and robots could not engage it.
Industry scientists say the permanent solution is to close the entire well. To do that, they must drill another hole—through 13,000 feet of rock a mile under the ocean's floor—that will intercept the leaking well. They can then pump in cement to try to plug the leaks.

This operation will take up to three months and is highly complex; the drills must precisely hit the leaking well—which is just seven inches wide. When a well off the coast of Australia blew out last year, it took five attempts over 10 weeks to hit the old well and shut it down.

BP says it will begin drilling the new well this weekend.
Until then, the wellhead will continuing spilling at least 5,000 (and possibly 25,000) barrels of oil every day since BP did not have a contigency plan for a catastrophic accident. According to a leaked document, the spill's output could get much worse.
"The following is not public," reads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Emergency Response document dated April 28. "Two additional release points were found today in the tangled riser. If the riser pipe deteriorates further, the flow could become unchecked resulting in a release volume an order of magnitude higher than previously thought." ...

In scientific circles, an order of magnitude means something is 10 times larger. In this case, an order of magnitude higher would mean the volume of oil coming from the well could be 10 times higher than the 5,000 barrels a day coming out now. That would mean 50,000 barrels a day, or 2.1 million gallons a day. It appears the new leaks mentioned in the Wednesday release are the leaks reported to the public late Wednesday night. 

"There is no official change in the volume released but the USCG is no longer stating that the release rate is 1,000 barrels a day," continues the document, referred to as report No. 12. "Instead they are saying that they are preparing for a worst-case release and bringing all assets to bear."

The emergency document also states that the spill has grown in size so quickly that only 1 to 2 percent of it has been sprayed with dispersants.
And it would be even worse if the wellhead is lost:
The worst-case scenario for the broken and leaking well pouring oil into the Gulf of Mexico would be the loss of the wellhead and kinked piping currently restricting the flow to 5,000 barrels -- or 210,000 gallons -- per day.

If the wellhead is lost, oil could leave the well at a much greater rate.

"Typically, a very good well in the Gulf can produce 30,000 barrels a day, but that's under control. I have no idea what an uncontrolled release could be," said Stephen Sears, chairman of the petroleum engineering department at Louisiana State University.
The government is investigating an inadequate cement job as a possible cause of the explosion.
Transocean operated the drilling rig under contract for British oil giant BP Plc., the largest oil producer in the U.S. portion of the gulf and a company with a spotty safety history. Transocean has said the global construction titan Halliburton had just completed "cementing" the 18,000-foot-long well around the time of the explosion....

If "cementing" is the cause, it could spell new troubles for Halliburton, whose work was also suspected in a well explosion that took place last August in the Timor Sea near Australia. It took 71 days to fully cap and contain that spill, according to Australia's Sunday Times. The official investigation is still ongoing, but cementing was the main area of investigation, the head of the inquiry has said.

BP's safety record in the United States is spotty. Last October, it was hit with a record $87 million workplace-safety fine for failing to take corrective steps and new violations after a 2005 explosion at its Texas City refinery that killed 15 workers.
In addition to the criticism of BP, there have been some complaints about a slow federal response to the spill. Despite the mess, the Obama administration insists that it will continue to push forward with expanded offshore drilling. However, there will be a moratorium until the Interior Department can review additional safety steps to prevent spills like this one.