Oil Spill: Here's the Inside Scoop → Washingtons Blog
Oil Spill: Here's the Inside Scoop - Washingtons Blog

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Oil Spill: Here's the Inside Scoop

The Gulf oil spill is much worse than originally believed.

As the Christian Science Monitor writes:

It's now likely that the actual amount of the oil spill dwarfs the Coast Guard's figure of 5,000 barrels, or 210,000 gallons, a day.

Independent scientists estimate that the renegade wellhead at the bottom of the Gulf could be spewing up to 25,000 barrels a day. If chokeholds on the riser pipe break down further, up to 50,000 barrels a day could be released, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration memo obtained by the Mobile, Ala., Press-Register.

CNN quotes the lead government official responding to the spill - the commandant of the Coast Guard, Admiral Thad Allen - as stating:

If we lost a total well head, it could be 100,000 barrels or more a day.
Indeed, an environmental document filed by the company running the oil drilling rig - BP - estimates the maximum as 162,000 barrels a day:
In an exploration plan and environmental impact analysis filed with the federal government in February 2009, BP said it had the capability to handle a “worst-case scenario” at the Deepwater Horizon site, which the document described as a leak of 162,000 barrels per day from an uncontrolled blowout — 6.8 million gallons each day.
Best-Case Scenario

BP is trying to perform a difficult task of capping the leak by using robotic submarines to trigger a "blowout preventer" 5,000 feet below the surface of the ocean. Here's a photo of the robot trying to activate the switch on April 22nd:

If successful, the leak could be stopped any day. Everyone is rooting for the engineers, so that they may successfully cap the leak.

Already, however, the spill is worse than the Exxon Valdez, and will cause enormous and very costly destruction to the shrimping, fishing and tourism industries along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Florida. It will be years before good estimates on the number of dead fish, turtles, birds and other animals can be made.

The Backup Plan

If the blowout preventer can't be triggered, the backup plan is to drill another well to relieve pressure from the leaking well.

Here's a drawing prepared by BP showing the plan (the drilling rig on the left will take months to drill down and relieve pressure from the leaking rig):

Here's a graphic from the Times-Picayune showing the same thing (and accurately showing that there are currently 3 leaking oil plumes):

BP will also attempt to drop concrete and metal "cages" over the leak sites, to try to buy time by collecting oil in the cages, and then draining oil away in a safer manner. As AP writes:

BP PLC was preparing a system never tried before at such depths to siphon away the geyser of crude from a blown-out well a mile under Gulf of Mexico waters. However, the plan to lower 74-ton, concrete-and-metal boxes being built to capture the oil and siphon it to a barge waiting at the surface will need at least another six to eight days to get it in place.
In addition, BP is using chemical disperents to try to break up the oil plumes as they arise (the dispersants are highly toxic).

Worst-Case Scenario

As the Associated Press notes:

Experts warned that an uncontrolled gusher could create a nightmare scenario if the Gulf Stream carries it toward the Atlantic.
This would, in fact, be very bad, as it would carry oil far up the Eastern seaboard.

Specifically, as the red arrows at the left of the following drawing show, the Gulf Stream runs from Florida up the Eastern Coast of the United States:

[Click here for full image.]

How could the oil get all the way from Louisiana to Florida, where the Gulf Stream flows?

As Discovery explains:

Many ocean scientists are now raising concerns that a powerful current could spread the still-bubbling slick from the Florida Keys all the way to Cape Hatteras off North Carolina.

These oceanographers are carefully watching the Gulf Loop Current, a clockwise swirl of warm water that sets up in the Gulf of Mexico each spring and summer. If the spill meets the loop -- the disaster becomes a runaway.

"It could make it from Louisiana all the way to Miami in a week, maybe less." said Eric Chassignet, director of the Center for Ocean Atmospheric Prediction Studies at Florida State University. "It is pretty fast."

Right now, some computer models show the spill 30 to 50 miles north of the loop current. If the onshore winds turn around and push the oil further south: "That would be a nightmare," said Yonggang Liu, research associate at the University of South Florida who models the current. "Hopefully we are lucky, but who knows. The winds are changing and difficult to predict."

Imagine the loop current as an ocean-going highway, transporting tiny plankton, fish and other marine life along a watery conveyor belt. Sometimes it even picks up a slug of freshwater from the Mississippi River -- sending it on a wandering journey up to North Carolina.

The Gulf Loop Current acts like a jet of warm water that squirts in from the Caribbean basin and sloshes around the Gulf of Mexico before being squeezed out the Florida Strait, where it joins the larger and more powerful Gulf Stream current.


Oceanographer George Maul worries that the current could push the oil slick right through the Florida Keys and its 6,000 coral reefs.

"I looked at some recent satellite imagery and it looks like some of the oil may be shifted to the south," said Maul, a professor at Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Fla. "If it gets entrained in the loop, it could spread throughout much of the Atlantic."

In fact, new animation from a consortium of Florida institutions and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, predicts a slight southward shift in the oil over the next few days.

A graphic from the Discovery article shows what the Gulf loop current looks like:

loop current
The Gulf Loop Current enters from the Caribbean basin,
moves around the Gulf of Mexico and
exits out the Florida Strait, where it joins
the more powerful Gulf Stream current.

Naval Oceanographic Office

According to ROFFS, the oil spill is getting close to the loop current:

In a worst-case scenario - if the oil leak continued for a very long period of time - the oil could conceivably be carried from the Gulf Stream into world-wide ocean currents (see drawing above).

I do not believe this will happen. Even with the staggering quantity of oil being released, I don't think it's enough to make its way into other ocean currents. I think that either engineers will figure out how to cap the leak, or the oil deposits will simply run out. It might get into the Gulf loop current, and some might get into the Gulf Stream. But I don't believe the apocalyptic scenarios where oil is carried world-wide by teh Gulf Stream or other ocean currents.

Changing the Climate

There is an even more dramatic - but even less likely - scenario.

Specifically, global warming activists have warned for years that warming could cause the "great conveyor belt" of warm ocean water to shut down. They say that such a shut down could - in turn - cause the climate to abruptly change, and a new ice age to begin. (This essay neither tries to endorse or refute global warming or global cooling in general: I am focusing solely on the oil spill.)

The drawing above shows the worldwide "great conveyer belt" of ocean currents, which are largely driven by the interaction of normal ocean water with colder and saltier ocean currents.

Conceivably - if the oil spill continued for years - the greater thickness or "viscosity" of the oil in comparison to ocean water, or the different ability of oil and seawater to hold warmth (called "specific heat"), could interfere with the normal temperature and salinity processes which drive the ocean currents, and thus shut down the ocean currents and change the world's climate.

However, while this is an interesting theory (and could make for a good novel or movie), it simply will not happen.

Why not?

Because there simply is not enough oil in the leaking oil pocket to interfere with global ocean currents. And even if this turns out to be a much bigger oil pocket than geologists predict, some smart engineer will figure out how to cap the leak well before any doomsday scenario could possibly happen.


  1. Let us not forget the use of chemical dispersants that have their own studied affects on humans, let alone aquatic life. The relationship of the dispersants to the tripling of the oil spillings' size has been danced around in the media.

    So, they really are certain this thing did not collapse on it's footprint? No pancake theories involved, still waiting for popsci's take on this.

    Seriously though, I could imagine this thing landing on it's own footprint, making the shut off impossible. In the same scenario, no concrete dome large enough to fit around a crumpled rig. What do these rig's legs look like? Can't picture nearly a mile of steel framing, hard as I might try.

  2. What a horrible catastrophe.
    I'm not emotional,but knowing how much sea life is at risk makes me want to weep.

  3. I am deeply saddened at the marine life and bird death that is yet to come..BP and the federal government should be held accountable..for one they go hand in hand..for another congress let them start that drilling insanity..BP.said it was prepared for a large crisis..So much for oil companies looking out for their carbon foot print..Hey Al Gore..how about you put that superman cape on and come fix this mess..Far better if we all rode a horse than to kill off the marine life and the jobs of some very hard working Americans..Not to mention the loss of seafood..the price of gas..Once again im very disappointed in man and America..

  4. nader paul kucinich gravel mckinneyMay 3, 2010 at 3:13 PM

    Does the Government & Propaganda Media lie to you?
    the truth about the gulf oil catastrophe
    future of a nation with no trust
    the official 9/11 pack of lies
    banker bodyguards
    lying to the public
    government liars
    corporate liars
    financial theft
    media liars
    pure greed

  5. GW, excellent work in this post. The best & most concise I've seen. Thank you.

  6. The answer to oil is solar energy. No oil spills with solar energy. As simple as that.

  7. The USA & the UK really are 'F-ing Up' the world now, at a very rapid pace. Economically the world is shot & now the global environment may likely be too. The beast is really galloping along.

  8. and SUV sales are up this month...
    Perhaps we should look in the mirror and see where the demand for oil really comes from.

  9. This is such an accurate report. Without an agenda and science down to the core. It's refreshing to read some factual reporting. Thank you to the author, please never stop writing.

  10. "Drill, baby, drill". I don't thinks so...

  11. Please, does anyone else think it's strange how Obama announced more drilling in the Gulf and then this happens?

  12. Great job to the writer , You've help me to learn more about the oil spill. So a I write my Senior essay about the oil spill I will be honored to use your helpful correct informatin God bless you & keep up the good work

  13. A a long time diving indtructor and participant of ecological isues of the Florida Keys I am concerned that if this abomination hits the coral reef systems there will be unprecedented damage both to marine life and the society that lives from the million or so divers that visit the Keys annually.

    As far as BP is concerned, people should desist to use their products and orgs in US should should unite to take BP to court for utter irresponsibility and willful destruction of the environment.

    As if we do no not have enough problems on the environment by the psychos at the helm of rampant business "ships"

  14. It is too bad that those who have charge of this event have apparently no knowledge of the uses of fabric structures which could contain the fuels and channel them to fabric tanks on the surface for retrieval.
    see figures #2, #3, & #8 for suitable, off-the-shelf products.
    Placed on the bottom, over the leaking pipe, the collected fuel could be channeled into a 20 foot diameter fabric tube 5000 feet to the surface to the floating fabric tanks. The frozen gas/water slush would melt.

  15. Everybody freaking out about the oil poisoning the ocean and aquatic life can just relax because as the writer mentioned there just isn't enough oil in there to do any even slightly significant damage to ocean life as a whole. In fact if you look up how much oil was spilled by exxon valdez (for example) in comparison to how much water is in the ocean it's a stupidly low percentage of oil to water, something like o.000000000000074% .. one part per quadrillion or something like it? Hardly a threat.

    People love to freak out about things, and yes a lot of money is going down the drain because of this but rest assured the ocean will be here long after we're not.

  16. i think it will play havoc .every thing is going to be affected.but it is predicted that 1 3erd of the ocean will die.and i think that this is the time for that prediction to come true .this is scary stuff.and it is all happening because of greedy people.


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