Wednesday, June 16, 2010
It has bungled everything it has done since. Indeed - as discussed below - it has made things worse.
And BP has tried to cover up its blunders by lowballing spill estimates, keeping reporters out of areas hardest hit by the oil (and see this, this, this and this) and threatening to arrest them if they try to take pictures, hiding dead birds and other sealife, telling cleanup workers they'll be fired if they use respirators, and using dispersants to hide the amount of spilled oil (the dispersants are only worsening the damage caused by the spill).
Given the enormous stakes (don't forget that we are starting a potentially "extremely active" hurricane season), why are we letting BP continue to be in charge of containment operations?
Drilling Relief Wells is Tricky
Drilling relief wells is extremely difficult.
As I wrote on June 5th:
Many technical experts have said that the first attempts to complete the relief well in August could miss entirely on the first try, as it is difficult to intersect the blown-out well at the precise location and angle needed.
As PBS notes:Several experts have compared [intersecting the leaking well with the relief well] to hitting a target the size of a dinner plate two miles underground.
The ... challenge is to exactly intercept the original well bore, which is only about a foot across. If they miss on the first attempt, they'll need to back up slightly, plug the hole they just made, and try again. Each attempt could take several days. [David Rensink, the incoming president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists] says that the chances that they'll hit the well bore correctly on the first try are "virtually nil."
"If they're within 20 feet of it, that would be pretty good," he says. However, each attempt will reduce the uncertainty and get them closer, and Rensink says that he's "very certain" that the relief well will work eventually.
"The reason is that they're going to keep at it until they make it work," he says.
If the current relief wells fail, it could be until December or early next year until a correctly-positioned relief well can be completed.
Indeed, ABC News implies that even after the relief well is completed, the Gulf oil may keep on flowing for months. Specifically, ABC points out:Past experience in the Gulf of Mexico has been sobering. In 1979, a Mexican-owned rig called Ixtoc-1 suffered a blowout and collapsed, and 140 million gallons of oil escaped into the water. Pemex, the Mexican oil company, drilled two relief wells -- and even then oil kept escaping for three months after the first one was finished.Similarly, MSNBC writes:If the [Ixtoc] disaster serves as a precedent, the BP spill could continue even after the two relief wells are expected to be finished in August.
Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich writes:
A petroleum engineer who’s worked in the oil industry tells me [that] a recent blow-out off the coast of Australia required five pressure relief wells to successfully shut it down.
And Spiegel reports today that there are many dangers with completing the relief wells:
An oil industry geologist adds:
Independent experts warn that relief wells, like any well, are not without risk. "More oil could leak than before, because the field is being drilled into again," says Fred Aminzadeh, a geophysicist at the University of Southern California. Ira Leifer, a geochemist at the University of California in Santa Barbara, voices similar concerns: "In the worst case, we would suddenly be dealing with two spills, and we'd have twice the problem."
Leifer is a member of a team of experts deployed by US President Barack Obama to estimate the volume of oil currently flowing in the Gulf of Mexico.
BP's most recent efforts to stop the flow of oil have only made the situation worse, says Leifer. The engineers' attempt to seal off the well from above, using a method known as "top kill," failed and only enlarged the borehole, according to Leifer. Now, he adds, there is almost nothing stopping the oil from flowing out of the well.
As straightforward as it sounds, this approach [i.e. killing a spill by drilling relief wells] has not always been easy to implement in the past. The disaster in the Timor Sea, for example, ended in a debacle. It took engineer five tries to even find the borehole under the sea floor. Shortly before the end, the West Atlas oilrig went up in flames, after all.
Repeat of History?
Another case is also a warning sign for BP. In June 1979, engineers with the Mexican oil company Pemex lost control of the Ixtox I, an exploratory well in the Gulf of Mexico. Just as BP is now attempting to do, engineers at the time drilled two relief wells.
Is history repeating itself? The spill in the Macondo oil field could also continue to gush uncontrollably well beyond BP's August deadline. Pemex Director Carlos Morales, currently providing BP with technical advice, expects the spill to continue for another "four to five months." Leifer also believes that the disaster on the sea floor could drag on "until late fall."
Although the BP engineers have already completed two-thirds of the first relief well, it is extremely difficult to find the out-of-control well in the middle of the bedrock, says David Rensink, incoming president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.
"You're trying to intersect the well bore, which is about a foot wide, with another well bore, which is about a foot wide," Rensink said recently. Hitting it with the first attempt, he adds, "would truly be like winning the lottery."
Instead, the engineers will presumably have to repeatedly pull back the drill head to adjust the direction, Rensink predicts. "If they get it on the first three or four shots, they'd be very lucky."
Rensink is particularly concerned that BP, in drilling the relief wells, will penetrate into precisely those rock formations in which extreme pressure and temperature conditions facilitated the April blowout in the first place. Gas bubbles and gushing oil from the depths are real possibilities. "Any relief or kill well needs to be drilled with more caution than the first well," Donal Van Nieuwenhuise, a geologist at the University of Houston, told the New Orleans daily Times-Picayune. "You don't want a repeat performance."
Indeed, the engineers aren't only facing a formidable technical challenge. Weather will also play a significant role. Forecasters have already predicted that this hurricane season, which began this month, could be one of the most active on record. Drilling would have to be ceased for the duration of each strong storm.
[There are] lots of potential complications [in drilling relief wells]. A big one would be using too high a mud weight/pump pressure and fracturing thwe rock around the [relief well] and losing it. Also instead of the mud building a tall colume inside the well bore and stoping the flow it might escape out of ruptured [casing] or failed [cement] shoes. Then they might not ever be able to build enough back pressure to stop the flow. I suspect many of these possible problems won't reveal themselves until the actual kill process begins.BP is Not the Only One with Expertise
Government spokesmen have said that BP's technical knowledge and equipment are superior to the government's. But that is misleading.
The U.S. government might not have expertise, but many private companies do. For example, Norway's Statoil is the largest offshore operator in the world, with enormous experience in deepwater drilling. Chevron, Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell and other companies also have substantial experience in such operations.
These companies are not without their own - although smaller - history of spills. But BP's safety record is the worst. See this, this, this and this.
And because other companies don't have a huge, direct legal and financial interest in trying to underplay this spill (BP could be fined between $1,100 and $4,300 per barrel of oil released, and oil industry expert Matt Simmons believes that BP will be driven into bankruptcy), they will likely be somewhat more motivated to protect the Gulf and less motivated to try to cover their backs by hiding the evidence and pretending everything is fine. Moreover, group-think will likely be less if a diverse team drawn from different companies is involved, instead of a bunch of guys within the same company - BP.
Numerous countries have also offered to help. See this, this, this and this, but BP and the U.S. government have rejected their offers.
And the offers from many private citizens - many with relevant expertise - to help clean up the oil pollution have been rejected by BP as well.
Indeed, it is no longer just the U.S. threatened by this catastrophe, but also Mexico, Cuba, and possibly many other countries as well.
The government shouldn't let the knuckleheads who caused the blowout and have made everything worse drill the relief wells and control the mitigation and cleanup efforts.
The White House should, instead, remove BP from the scene of the crime and appoint an international team of experts to drill relief wells, kill the spill, and clean up this mess on BP's dime.