Sunday, June 6, 2010

The BP Oil Spill

(Live video of the oil leak here.)

Alright, this is obviously very scary and totally ridiculous. Let's start off with a little bit of a round up / background of what exactly has taken place here.

First, a very brief BP backgrounder.

In the last three years, BP 760 "willful egregious safety violations" at their refineries alone. Compare that to Sunoco (8), ConocoPhillips (8), Citgo (2), Exxon (1).

The Minerals Management Service, directly under the supervision of the Interior Department failed to impose a full review of potential environmental impacts of the BP drilling operation because preliminary reviews of the area concluded that a massive oil spill was "unlikely."

April 22 - Deepwater Horizon goes up in flames. 11 people lose their lives.

First thing? An open request for ideas!

“I have a technology, service, or idea to provide. How can I do that?
To submit an alternative technology, service or product, please contact (281) 366-5511. Submissions will be reviewed by appropriate experts.”

Hilarious! Really?... this is what you do at this point??

Race on to contain oil slick after rig accident - 23 April
Deepwater Horizon oil leak still unplugged - 26 April

April 26th (? picture looks like the 22nd... not sure about date, but all reports say this started on the 26th) - Public attempt #1. Underwater robots try to close off valve.

"The robots will attempt to activate a blowout preventer, a 450-tonne valve on the ocean floor that offers the only timely option for stemming the flow."

April 26th - Reporters and photographers denied access to oil soaked beaches.
April 27th - BP now owns the airspace above the spill too!

Oil spill endangers fragile marshland - 27 April
Gulf of Mexico oil leak worse than thought - 29 April

Controlled burning begins. Burning should have started a week ago, says former NOAA official.

Is this really a good idea??? Apparently.

"One of the biggest such tests was undertaken off Newfoundland in 1993. Called the Newfoundland Offshore Burn Experiment, the joint Canadian and American project concluded that combustion consumed most of the more problematic compounds and the levels of harmful compounds in smoke were below danger thresholds outside 150 yards of so of the fire zone. The water beneath the burn area showed no detectable levels of harmful compounds."

I really believe that if there’s any possibility of burning the oil on the surface that should absolutely be carried out and attempted. There are huge net environmental benefits compared to letting it stay on the surface or hit the coast. There’s lots of evidence that there are no human health risks. After burning, there are fewer carcinogens and toxins than in the actual original oil. You really have a chance to remove 70, 80 or 90 percent of the oil. No other technique is going to take that much oil out of the environment.

Ecologists brace for oil spill damage - 3 May
Deepwater Horizon spill round-up - 4 May
Deepwater Horizon spill updates - 6 May
Deepwater Horizon spill updates - 7 May

About two weeks after....

Public attempt #2. BP builds a giant dome hat (May 4th-ish)

Failure admitted around May 10th due to buildup of methane hydrates. As I have discussed this in various forms I have discovered that people have simply never heard of the ice that burns, Methane Hydrate. The BP keep talking like this is water ice with methane in it. Bullshit, it is highly volatile compound that may or may not have water ice in it. Take a look at this article from 1999 discussing the "little known material" and the dangers it poses to oil drilling. METHANE HYDRATES: A Surprising Compound

Methane hydrates, also called methane clathrates, are deposits of frozen methane gas found at the bottom of the ocean. Some reports are now linking the deposits in the Gulf of Mexico with the accident that sank the Deepwater Horizon.

Here's video of the failure, which, seems ridiculous to even try...I mean, do you really think you could get a water tight seal? Was it really the methane hydrates, or was it just a stupid idea? You be the judge:

2. Try a smaller, "top hat" dome, which obviously failed. Video above shows the construction of the "top hat". More bullshit.

Public Attempt #3. The "Top Kill" and the "Junk Shot"

A "top kill" consists of pumping huge amounts of mud and cement into the leak in hopes of stopping it. The mud and cement will be pumped at high pressure from barges down 5,000 feet. BP has stockpiled 50,000 barrels of the manufactured mud, AP reported.

The challenge will be to pump the mud at sufficient downward pressure to counteract the upward pressure of the gushing oil. The tactic has been used in above-ground oil leaks, but never underwater.

The danger of the top kill is that it could make the leak worse by blowing the entire valve open. The addition of the abrasive material in the gushing oil could eventually widen the well-hole so that virtually unlimited quantities of oil and explosive methane would be released into the water and atmosphere. Here's a great article to read if you want to get pretty technical about this.

According to CNN, if the "top kill" doesn't work BP will try a "junk shot": Instead of pumping mud and cement, BP would pump "material like golf balls, pieces of tire and pieces of rope into the blowout preventer."

If neither procedure works, BP will be forced to revert to ideas like a containment dome to try to stop the leak.

In the latest try, BP engineers pumped more than 1.2 million gallons of heavy drilling mud into the well and also shot in assorted junk, including metal pieces and rubber balls.

The company determined the "top kill" had failed after it spent three days pumping heavy drilling mud into the crippled well 5,000 feet underwater.

Public Attempt #4. The "Hot Tap"

Here's a video of the process:

This video demonstrates how a new valve can be connected to a live water main without having to shut the water off, so as to avoid interrupting service to a neighborhood. Basically, the relief valve, which I'll get to in a second...

First, Public Attempt #5 - Underwater robots with diamond saws to get a clean cut, and then a top cap.

Saw the top off. If they get to this point the well is blowing out far more than it is now. They will have to put the new unit in place through that raging stream.....via remote subs...a very very difficult task to be sure. This is desperation time....

What a top cap does, as is my understanding of it, is that it doesn't close the leak, it simply directs the leak up a tube to a collecting ship at the surface. The problems with this solution are obvious. One, the thing is still leaking. Two, how much of the oil are you actually collecting from the leak. Three, what is the capacity of the ship.. I mean, it's an interesting way to collect oil, but doesn't scream efficiency to me. And four, what does the weather do to this solution (I'll get to this in a bit.. ).

As of this morning: Engineers were able to bring 6,000 barrels of oil to the surface in a 24-hour period. About a 1/3 of the leaking oil.

It was not immediately clear how significant a gain the initial capture of the roughly 6,000 barrels — the precise number was 6,077 — represented.

Since the Deepwater Horizon explosion April 20, official estimates have put the flow rate at 12,000 barrels to 19,000 barrels a day, although some scientists have said it could be substantially more. Government officials also said the volume might have increased by as much as 20 percent when engineers cut the damaged riser, which they did before lowering the containment dome.

A technician working on the operation said the engineers were also working slowly and deliberately because of a concern that the volume and velocity of the escaping oil could create so much friction on the inside walls of the new 5,000-foot pipe that it could force it entirely off the cap.

So, that is where we are right now. This is very very serious. "This thing is an almost unimaginably powerful monster that we have just stabbed with a knife and spit in the face of.... and it's in a very weak cage, it doesn't sleep, it doesn't need to eat and it only gets stronger and more fierce as time goes's going berserk and it's wrecking it's cage, tearing at it, screaming, bolts starting to pop loose and it's not going stop smashing and bashing anytime soon...oh and btw someone just handcuffed you to the bars and you cannot get away now."

Some estimates target Christmas as a possible stop date.

Ending the year with a still-gushing well would mean about 4 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf, based on the government's current estimate of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels leaking a day. That would wipe out marine life deep at sea near the leak and elsewhere in the Gulf, and along hundreds of miles of coastline, said Harry Roberts, a professor of Coastal Studies at Louisiana State University.

So much crude pouring into the ocean may alter the chemistry of the sea, with unforeseeable results, said Mak Saito, an Associate Scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

This hurricane season could be a relatively bad one as, umm, well.

Trenberth told Discovery said: "The eastern tropical Atlantic Ocean, where disturbances from Africa are transformed into hurricanes, is experiencing record high temperatures, even higher than in 2005, and that was the most hurricane-ridden season on record."

Public Attempt #6: The Relief Wells.

Relief well. In every discussion of top hats, junk shots and other ways to halt the Gulf of Mexico oil leak, industry experts cite one procedure as the ultimate, if slow, solution: relief wells.

But drilling the wells -- in this case, BP is tunneling through 3 ½ miles of rock to meet an 8 ½-inch steel pipe and plug it -- is a high-stakes, daunting task that can take months.

BP started drilling its first relief well May 2. It has reached 12,090 feet and is expected to reach the blown-out well in early August. The second was started May 16, has reached 8,576 feet and is expected to reach the well in mid-August.

The relief well drilling will continue even if the cap attached to the spewing pipe on Friday is successful.

If the first relief well is completed by early August, the total spill by then could be 72 million gallons -- using government figures for the daily spill rate -- or as much as 265 million, under scientists' estimates.

The so-called relief well being drilled to intercept and plug the damaged well by mid-August might miss -- as other emergency wells have done before -- requiring more time to make a second, third or fourth try, Dave Rensink, President Elect of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, said.

Financial impacts:

Hayward described what had happened as "perhaps a hundred thousand to one in a million occurrence" and gave an "absolute commitment" to return the Gulf coastline to how it was before the disaster.

On the controversial issue of whether the firm would pay a dividend to investors this year, he said BP was "going to take care of all of our stakeholders" but stressed the decision would be taken by the board next month.

BP CEO Tony Hayward said the company had plenty of money to meet its obligations, including $5 billion in cash and additional credit lines it could tap. It has already spent well over $1 billion on its oil spill response.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was passed after the Exxon-Valdez to hold oil companies responsible for their spills. One of the main provisions of the bill was that it held oil companies liable for funding the cleanup of their messes -- but only up to $75 million dollars worth. So some legislators want to raise that cap to hold BP properly accountable -- and the majority of Americans agree.

But a number of oil-friendly politicians, predictably, do not. Senator Lisa Murkowski, for one, has somewhat amazingly blocked a provision to raise the liability cap. She says that raising the liability cap from $75 million would "hurt smaller oil companies" (she also accepts a significant amount of funding from oil companies).

Senators Ben Nelson of Florida and Sens. Robert Menendez and Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey introduced the legislation last month, which would raise the cap from $75 million to $10 billion. The LA Times reported at the time:

"BP says it'll pay for this mess. Baloney. They're not going to want to pay any more than what the law says they have to, which is why we can't let them off the hook," Nelson said.

Cleanup of the spill is expected to run into the billions of dollars and it is too soon to estimate what will be the tab on additional losses from lost income from harmed fisheries and any environmental damage.


Gambling websites are now placing odds on what species will be first to become extinct as a result of the oil belching from BP's ruptured well in the Gulf of Mexico.


Then there's this:

Let's start with the hypocrisy: Never at any time before the BP oil spill did the "drill, baby, drill" crowd advocate stopping offshore drilling and replacing it with onshore drilling. They wanted more offshore drilling and more onshore drilling, making the likelihood of oil spills higher, not lower.

There is also a false choice implied here. As if the only choices available to us were to drill offshore or onshore (or both, which is what Palin really wants). Even if drilling was allowed in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), it would take years for that oil to start to flow, and it wouldn't make that big a difference on the supply side of things.

Another (better) option is to spend that time working on demand; by making our vehicles and industry more efficient, we can save the equivalent of all the oil contained in the Wildlife Refuge and more. Not only would that avoid damage to pristine wilderness, keep a lot of carbon in the ground, and avoid the risk of an oil spill like the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but it would also help make the U.S. more competitive on the world stage.


A few more random things.

The physics of an oil spill.

Also, those oil dispersants they're using? Yeah, they've never had any toxicological studies done on them. Corexit oil dispersant toxicity has not been tested on ecosystems, according to the Oil Spill Response Plan. "Ecotoxilogical effects: No toxicity studies have been conducted on this product."

The decision has been a controversial one. A few scientists think dispersants are mostly useful as public relations strategy, as they make the oil slick invisible, even though oil particles continue to do damage. Others consider Corexit the lesser of two evils: It’s known to be highly toxic, adding to the harm caused by oil, but at least it will concentrate damage at sea, sparing sensitive and highly productive coastal areas. Better to sacrifice the deep sea than the shorelines.

But even as these arguments continue, with 230,000 gallons of Corexit on tap and more commissioned by BP, a superior alternative could be left on the shelf.

Called Dispersit, it’s manufactured by the U.S. Polychemical Corporation and has been approved for use by the Environmental Protection Agency. Both Corexit and Dispersit were tested by the EPA, and according to those results, Corexit was 54.7 percent effective at breaking down crude oil from the Gulf, and Dispersit was 100 percent effective.

Not only did Corexit do a worse job of dispersing oil, but it was three times as lethal to silverfish – used as a benchmark organism in toxicity testing — and more than twice as lethal to shrimp, another benchmark organism and an important part of Gulf fisheries.

As for why Corexit is being used instead of Dispersit, authorities haven’t yet said.


Blame? Let's start here. More of this is going to start coming out... Here's a nice graphic of the responsibilities from top to bottom.


Alright, that's enough for now. I hope you're caught up on what's going on, as I feel I am now. There's a TEDxOilSpill conference in Washington coming up, and I've put my application in to go... hopefully I'm not too late... cross your fingers.

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Update: Good Jon Stewart episode regarding all of the above.