How bad could the BP spill get?

I have asked myself this question repeatedly over the last month or so, as things in the Gulf of Mexico seem to be going from bad to worse. For me it has always been about how long it will take to drill the relief wells, meaning we have 40,000 b/d leaking until sometime in August. Now I think differently. I have just read this post/comment on The Oil Drum, with someone else’s concept of the ‘worst case scenario’.

As you have probably seen and maybe feel yourselves, there are several things that do not appear to make sense regarding the actions of attack against the well.

In fact actually opening up the well at the subsea source and allowing it to gush more is not only exactly what has happened, it was probably necessary, or so they think anyway.

So you have to ask WHY? Why make it worse? It’s really an inescapable conclusion at this point, unless you want to believe that every Oil and Gas professional involved suddenly just forgot everything they know or woke up one morning and drank a few big cups of stupid and got assigned to directing the response to this catastrophe.

The well bore structure is compromised “Down hole”.

In fact if you note their actions, that should become clear. They have shifted from stopping or restricting the gusher to opening it up and catching it. This only makes sense if they want to relieve pressure at the leak hidden down below the seabed…..and that sort of leak is one of the most dangerous and potentially damaging kind of leak there could be.

This down hole leak will undermine the foundation of the seabed in and around the well area. It also weakens the only thing holding up the massive Blow Out Preventer’s immense bulk of 450 tons. In fact?…we are beginning to the results of the well’s total integrity beginning to fail due to the undermining being caused by the leaking well bore.

All of these things lead to only one place, a fully wide open well bore directly to the oil deposit…after that, it goes into the realm of “the worst things you can think of” The well may come completely apart as the inner liners fail.

All the worst things you can think of are a possibility, but the very least damaging outcome as bad as it is, is that we are stuck with a wide open gusher blowing out 150,000 barrels a day of raw oil or more. There isn’t any “cap dome” or any other suck fixer device on earth that exists or could be built that will stop it from gushing out and doing more and more damage to the gulf.

It’s a race now…a race to drill the relief wells and take our last chance at killing this monster before the whole weakened, wore out, blown out, leaking and failing system gives up it’s last gasp in a horrific crescendo.

Thanks DougR, for that uplifting vision. If you want all the gory details, instead of my cut and paste, there are many more – plus numerous links to official documents and press stories that support some of these assertions.

Why would we want to risk this sort of mess in our own waters?

29 Comments Posted

  1. Although the immediate concern should be trying to stop this leak somehow (note the word somehow begins to sound desperate) after all of this is over, however long it takes, should we not be turning our attention to other forms of energy to power our civilized world?
    Even if there is enough oil in the world for another 50 years, or 100 years, eventually we are finally going to have to admit defeat and embrace those who are trying to forge ahead with green technology.
    This may have come at a terrible price, but it may finally be the wake up call the whole world needed to change our energy sources.

  2. insider,

    Lord Cullen’s report of the Piper Alpha disaster made very clear how the failsafe’s operated from on-platform control.. just as well.. about the only thing that did operate properly.. pipe rupture/s, flange failures consequent clear negligence otherwise attendent..

    thanks for your comment. i’m not sure, however, whether it is instructive or instrumental, since doubt in the absence of knowledge does not inspire me to consider remarks independent enough (fairminded..?) on such matters..

    to explain my view on this honestly I would add that testimony to US legislators yesterday had the US oil industry executives (insiders, one could accept) deliberately fingerpoint a competitor as little more than their excuse for this disaster not happening on their watch. They were different, riight.. They were, in fact, reliant and working (I might otherwise term it playing) the US public’s consciousness, memory et cetera. Thereby to diminish their own, or several, or collective responsibilities.

    Exxon Valdez still within that public’s memory – drilling, no, not so far as I know – yet to be recalled for its negligence, oilco executive indulgence/s and likely today already complacence upon and toward the very environment upon which folk take a living..

    Piper Alpha 1988, likely gone from the broad public mind – drilling no, as you correctly say – yet not to be recalled for its negligence etc. Just 22 years ago. And gone! Yet, it appears so manifest, no learning whatsoever by people clearly either beyond or self-asserted above that learning.

    Allow me to suggest that you take in a little diversion. I’m not being prescriptive you understand because this thing is now above the specific of drilling.. there’s a dvd entitled The Reader. Produced by the Weinstein Bros and performing in effect a most famous German book about postwar(WWII) Germany. It is an excellent movie, well-scripted and acted.. to very large awards in Kate Winslet’s case. She plays the character Hannah whose job career had embraced the security of people. A role we watch her taking very responsibly in the court scenes. And despite everything, more particularly her co-defendants who accuse her of being their leader.. [ wasn’t and incapable of it ] and her carrying the Court’s severest decision.. we are faced with a question earlier posed by Bruno Ganz playing the law-school professor. Society is not run by morals, he says, but by laws. Bringing on the question of whether ignorance(not knowing, incapable of knowing) can be judged by a deliberately prejudiced legal process..?

    Not to burden you.. or distract you.. unduly.. but this movie more than most are willing to admit already frames the real issues arising from the Mexican Gulf Spill. And I happen to feel that we all owe it to ourselves to face up and deal to these.

  3. tomfarmer

    the Piper Alpha was nothing to do with drilling or the well. It was pure and simply a platform operation issue. Yes you’d expect a number of wells to route through a single platform and each would have its own failsafes probably at the wellhead and at the platform. I doubt the risk of multiple cascade failure is that high.

  4. Russel,

    I really do think we should hold back from any new deep sea drilling while this is sorted out!

    Not only “while” but, surely, for ever? If it can be sorted out (perhaps by a nuclear blast), how could we ever be sure that something like it would not happen again, particularly if there are many years of incident free production, allowing the oil companies and regulators to get complacent?

    The Greens need to be arguing for no such drilling, ever, not a half-hearted appeal to wait for a while. And this oil spill is not the only reason.

  5. marty mars mentioned something like 4000 active oil& gas platforms in the northern Gulf..

    today, relating to the whole Gulf I presume, Big Oil’s spokesperson set down 14,000 platforms in total..

    The Mexican Gulf subsea bed might thus resemble a pin cushion.. aero-bar etc.. why important..?

    Well, and to my knowledge unmentioned so far is Occidental Petroleum’s Piper Alpha platform in the North Sea which infernoed July 6th 1988 with loss 167 lives. Oxy, as known in the industry, are the 4th largest according to wikipedia and a search will relate how they took on the Love Canal from Hooker. It reads like a blind faith acquisition, yet who knows…? Sure cost them plenty when that issue blew up.

    Evidenced in reports consequent that North Sea disaster was that the Alpha was extracting some 10 percent of North Sea output. And through the inferno other platforms were pumping their extractions into the rig..

    my point being that drilling in an area enabling interconnectivity – 14,000 would surely suggest such possibilities in the Gulf – of this sort would more rapidly compromise adjacent wells.. with likely much worsened environmental and economic disasters bringing communities into harm’s way.

    which until recently has shown all the signs of collaborative corporate irresponsibility to their consumers and larger communities..

    we really do need to have the oil industry come clean to and for everyone… and for everywhere..

    ps: who knew about the Alpha..? Come on now, be honest, because we can all guess just who would not want to tell folks about it..

  6. arr fly

    ‘i picked them up, and put them all in my arms,
    and stumbled
    banged with terror
    through a hundred billion trillion stars’

    ee cummings

  7. “a single EXPLORATION ONLY permit”

    Petrobras discovers significant oil reserves but the industry is still as risky as has been shown recently, our Government says no to extractive drilling and Petrobras say, that’s okay chaps, it was only an exploratory permit after all!
    *Black-plumaged bird trills, white throat-feathers bobbling

  8. @photonz

    I don’t disagree with you re panic and permits. But while each individual permit usually only has one hole multiple permits mean multiple holes.

    The reason is these aer actually bids by oil explorers and usually you need to bid one hole to be seen as serious. But NZ has limited competition for permits so there is no incentive to bid more holes. In other more competitive markets getting the permit could be down to how many holes you bid.

    FYI The Deepwater Horizon well was an exploration not a production well…

  9. insider – the Petrobras permit we’re talking about explicitly states a single exploratory hole.

    Reports have stated that IF that goes ahead, it would be towards the end of the five year permit.

    And it’s not a permit for full scale wells to take oil – only for exploration.

    Again – why the panic about an exploration permit now, when other wells have been up and running in NZ for years.

  10. @photonz

    I disagree. The recent Petrobras permit and other recent deepwater exploration permits include a right to drill exploratory holes.

    @stephen I was only referring to exploratory wells too, not prodcution

    @jc I can’t answer that

  11. Ok, here’s my unanswerable question for the day:

    At the point where they decided to continue drilling, despite a defective pneumatic donut in the BOP (source: National Radio weeks ago), did they know that the drill hole was broken below the surface?

    If not, and if they’d closed the pneumatic donut (which would have been the default response), they might have lifted the BOP already and we’d have the worse case scenario already.

    I recognise that this is a very small mercy.

    Next unanswerable question:

    When did they find out that the hole was broken below the surface? Before or after they broke into the reservoir? If before, whose pay would have been docked for abandoning the well?

  12. Zedd says “And now the Nats are offering permits to drill, deep water oil wells off the east coast of Aotearoa !! BRILLIANT”

    Wrong. They are not “permits to drill, deep water oil”.

    No oil well permits have been applied for, or “offered”

    What has been approved is a single permit for EXPLORATION for five years.
    At most, it will culminate towards the end of the time frame in a single exploratory well.

    No actual drilling for oil has been approved, and if it ever was aproved (90% never go ahead), that would be many years away.

    In the meantime we’ve been drilling for oil and gas for years at other places around our coast, without the protestation that a single EXPLORATION ONLY permit has brought.

  13. @insider

    It isn’t stopping all oil rigs from working…that’d put the world into a massive crisis, its merely the fact we should wait if we are going ahead with any drilling because the fact is any benefit of Knowledge we can get from this catastrophe is better so when we do go ahead with drilling exploration we can have a far better understanding of what to not do…such as demand the station to work over capacity…skimp out on resources for the construction of derricks etc…

  14. Stoppiing all drilling is a huge overreaction unless there is a fundamental flaw in the method. There have been much much deeper wells drilled successfully. The same rig drilled Tiber for BP only a few months before and that was a much deeper well, which says to me the method is sound and it was something specific to this case that was the problem.

  15. Considering that there are over 4000 active oil and gas platforms in the northern gulf of mexico and that they only drill where they think they will get a result – doesn’t it really say that this disaster will go on and on and on until that resource runs out and it will run out in a decade or so. I have no faith that the oil companies have a clue how to stop this – relief wells notwithstanding.

  16. I think it might be a good plan to step back from any offshore plans here for a few months…until this has passed and the inquiry is completed…generally it is better to be safe than sorry now I think…

  17. And now the Nats are offering permits to drill, deep water oil wells off the east coast of Aotearoa !! BRILLIANT
    Talk about ‘learn from your mistakes’.. NOT..
    The modern world needs to take a step back & consider what the impact of another one or two of these ‘leaks’, will do to the oceans.


  18. Sounds a bit “day after tommorrowy” Russel. Initial reservoir pressure can push oil down a narrow well but that declines naturally, like the fizz in a bottle. And surely if the fissure widens there is a going to be a consequent reduction in pressure? It seems a bit far fetched for the whole reservoir to suddenly spill its guts.

    My understanding of the way fields work is not that there is a big pool of oil, but it tends to inhabit the microspaces between sand particles in a sedimentary layer, usually over a large area. That’s why you pump it out. The permeability of the reservoir plays a role as well as the gas content.

    The resource itself is about 50mbbl – about the size of Tui, Maari, Pohokura. If there is no physical connection with other reserves then there should be no risk.

  19. It’s a black hole that we’re dissapearing down, a gulf, a mexican wave tsunami.
    At this rate, major changes will have taken place well before any deep sea drilling can be started here in NZ.

  20. That is my reading of it too, Russel. The potential for a major erosion and subsea subsidence is definitely what is at stake, according to this article.

    As for the total volume, if I recall correctly, there are about 2 billion barrels in the neighbourhood, but it’s across four geological formations, and no one is sure how much is in this formation or whether any geological collapse might bring one of the other pockets into the mess.

  21. I have heard talk of a mini nuke detonation…> ? maybe it’s the best alternative then the whole thing filling up the Gulf… 🙁

  22. If this post is correct, and I have undestood it correctly, then the hole could erode outwards larger and larger as the oil gushes up from a leak in the pipe located somewhere between the sea floor and the end of the pipe sitting in the oil reserve. Ths would continue until the diameter of the hole is so big that it can’t be plugged by anything, and the entire oil reserve gushes out.

    I really do think we should hold back from any new deep sea drilling while this is sorted out!

  23. Why should we take this risk in our back yard, when we can pay someone else to do it in theirs?

  24. a more prosaic explanation could be that they didn’t mean to make it worse but did anyway, through incompetence. There’s not many people who can truthfully claim to be experts at plugging wells 5,000 ft below the surface…

  25. 150k bpd is a big resource. Any evidence it is that big a field?

    A few things:

    Oil quality is important. If it is a lighter oil it is going to break up and evaporate more quickly than a heavy oil. That will influence the environmental impact over time.

    Weather: warm water helps natural remediation and rough weather can break up the oil into droplets which break down more easily. It;s also an oil province so there are natural bacteria that will help.

    Clean up: There is really nothing that we can do to stop the slick. Skimmers and booms are cosmetic. We can get rid of some of the worst. Only nature will finally resolve it.

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