Sunday, May 30, 2010

Top Kill Fails; What's Next?

NASA image acquired May 24, 2010

Yesterday, I was unsure whether the "top kill" was making progress. As it turns out, the "top kill" failed because of the extreme pressure at the bottom of the Gulf. The remaining options are not very reassuring.
In its next effort to halt what its officials have called an "environmental catastrophe," BP will cut off the leaking riser at the top of the five-story blowout preventer atop the wellhead to get an even surface on the broken pipe.

Then the company will install what's called a lower marine riser package, a cap containment system that would be connected to a new riser from the drillship Discoverer Enterprise 5,000 feet above on the surface. The aim is to minimize the amount of oil reaching the shore until BP can drill relief wells, Suttles said.

He estimated that the procedure would take about four days to complete, but if it also fails, it could be several months before BP can finish drilling two relief wells to intersect the runaway well so concrete can be poured into it.

As much as 73 million more gallons of oil could contaminate the Gulf of Mexico if the flow continues unabated until August — the soonest that officials estimate the relief wells can be drilled — poisoning wildlife, destroying fragile marshlands, closing more fishing grounds and depriving fisherman, resort workers and many others of their livelihoods.
 In the process of attempting the "top kill," BP pumped over 30,000 gallons of drilling mud into the wellhead, but most of that escaped through the riser. Adding junk like golf balls to the mix did not solve the problem. The idea of this spill continuing throughout the storm is particularly disturbing in light of the coming hurricane season, due to begin on Tuesday. This year is predicted to be more active than average, and any storms that pass through the Gulf could push the oil towards land. How severely this would affect the coastline remains to be seen, but it would be much better if we did not have to find out.

Missteps by BP prior to the drilling rig's explosion likely contributed to the spill.
BP, for instance, cut short a procedure involving drilling fluid that is designed to detect gas in the well and remove it before it becomes a problem, according to documents belonging to BP and to the drilling rig's owner and operator, Transocean Ltd.

BP also skipped a quality test of the cement around the pipe—another buffer against gas—despite what BP now says were signs of problems with the cement job and despite a warning from cement contractor Halliburton Co.

Once gas was rising, the design and procedures BP had chosen for the well likely gave this perilous gas an easier path up and out, say well-control experts. There was little keeping the gas from rushing up to the surface after workers, pushing to finish the job, removed a critical safeguard, the heavy drilling fluid known as "mud." BP has admitted a possible "fundamental mistake" in concluding that it was safe to proceed with mud removal, according to a memo from two Congressmen released Tuesday night.

Finally, a BP manager overseeing final well tests apparently had scant experience in deep-water drilling. He told investigators he was on the rig to "learn about deep water," according to notes of an interview with him seen by the Journal.
At least one of their choices was apt in hindsight:
BP was drilling to tap an oil reservoir it had identified called Macondo, the same name as the cursed town in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude."
Meanwhile, it is worth remembering that terrible oil spills are chronic problems elsewhere on the planet.