Good Morning Conflucians. I realize everyone else is talking about Elena Kagan’s nomination, but we’ve discussed that pretty extensively here. Today I want to focus on the oil spill down in the Gulf instead. I did quite a bit of reading on it yesterday, and I’m convinced that the mess down there is a lot worse than we are being told.
A number of experts are saying that the Coast Guard estimate that 5,000 barrels of oil a day are being released into the Gulf is wrong. On May 1, the Christian Science Monitor in reported estimates of “independent scientists” who said
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.
As estimates of the spill increase, questions about the government’s honesty in assessing the spill are emerging. At the same time, pressure is building for the US to release worst-case scenario estimates so residents of the Gulf Coast can adequately prepare.
Five thousand barrels translates to 210,000 gallons, and these anonymous scientists quoted by CSM are saying five times that much is really being released–more than a million gallons a day.
The story also quotes and NO environmental attorney who wants to know why no worse case scenario estimates have been released.
“In the environmental arena, risk modeling is done day-in and day-out for every type of pollutant, whether going in the water, earth or air,” says Stuart Smith, an environmentl attorney in New Orleans, in a statement. “Why are BP and the Environmental Protection Agency not releasing such information to the public?
The Coast Guard–getting their information from BP–originally said there was no oil leaking after the explosion, then they put the number at 1,000 barrels a day on April 21. On April 29, they changed their estimate to 5,000 barrels a day and have stuck to that figure ever since.
I’ve read some pretty frightening scenarios around the ‘net, although I’m not knowledgeable enough to separate the wheat from the chaff, so I hesitate to post them. There are suggestions that the oil could spread from the Gulf into the Atlantic and then up the east coast, destroying fishing areas. See this April 30 report of a leaked government report at al.com.
A confidential government report on the unfolding spill disaster in the Gulf makes clear the Coast Guard now fears the well could become an unchecked gusher shooting millions of gallons of oil per day into the Gulf.
“The following is not public,” reads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Emergency Response document dated April 28. “Two additional release points were found today in the tangled riser. If the riser pipe deteriorates further, the flow could become unchecked resulting in a release volume an order of magnitude higher than previously thought.”
Asked Friday to comment on the document, NOAA spokesman Scott Smullen said that the additional leaks described were reported to the public late Wednesday night. Regarding the possibility of the spill becoming an order of magnitude larger, Smullen said, “I’m letting the document you have speak for itself.”
So according this this report, the leak could become 10 times as big as the current 5,000 barrels a day estimate.
The story also quotes an expert, Stephen Sears, who heads the petroleum engineering department at Louisiana State University.
“Typically, a very good well in the Gulf can produce 30,000 barrels a day, but that’s under control. I have no idea what an uncontrolled release could be,”
This alternative energy website consulted a U.S. army consultant in Alabama named Paul Noel. He gave them a lengthy description of the situation. Here’s just a bit of it (published on May 2).
By yesterday morning, the nature of the crude had changed, indicating that the spill was collapsing the rock structures. How much I cannot say. If it is collapsing the rock structures, the least that can be said is that the rock is fragmenting and blowing up the tube with the oil. With that going on you have a high pressure abrasive sand blaster working on the kinks in the pipe eroding it causing the very real risk of increasing the leaks.
More than that is the very real risk of causing the casing to become unstable and literally blowing it up the well bringing the hole to totally open condition. Another risk arises because according to reports the crew was cementing the exterior of the casing when this happens. As a result, the well, if this was not properly completed, could begin to blow outside the casing. Another possible scenario is a sea floor collapse. If that happens Katie bar the door.
Unfortunately, I’m not knowledgeable enough to know how reliable this information is.
This BBC story is very helpful, I think. The story lists the biggest oil spills around the world, and shows that the Exxon Valdez is not even in the top ten. However, the size of the spill per se isn’t a measure of how damaging it can be. The location is also extremely relevant.
…the potential for damage caused by Deepwater Horizon is apparent when looking at the events of June 1979 in the Bay of Campeche, also in the Gulf of Mexico.
In that spill, the exploratory oil well Ixtoc 1 suffered a blowout and wasn’t capped until more than nine months later, having released 461,000 tonnes of oil in total.
The biggest leaks are not necessarily the most environmentally destructive.
The tanker Exxon Valdez, which ran aground on Bligh Reef, Alaska, in 1989, caused serious damage to the environment, killing thousands of seabirds as well as seals, sea otters, whales and fish. The remote location in sheltered waters only accentuated the problems.
The overall impact of an oil spill cannot be measured solely on size; weather conditions, the type of oil and the time it takes to stem the flow are just some of the many factors that also need to be considered.
This story in The Economist from May 6 also emphasizes the uncertainty about how much oil is being released.
Ian MacDonald, a marine biologist at Florida State University who studies oil that comes out of natural seeps on the sea floor, estimates on the basis of pictures and maps from the coastguard that the rate may be as much as five times that. The largest accidental oil spill in history, which was also in the Gulf, was due to a 1979 blowout on a Mexican rig called Ixtoc-1 (see chart). Between June 1979 and March 1980 it released around 3.3m barrels. For comparison, the Exxon Valdez fiasco in Alaska in 1989, America’s most infamous oil spill, released just 260,000 barrels. At the coastguard rate the Deepwater Horizon leak would take years to match Ixtoc-1; at Mr MacDonald’s rate, months.
There’s that five times as much estimate again!
some of the most productive and profitable shrimping and fishing grounds in the world, part of a Gulf industry that provides a quarter of the seafood in the U.S.
the authors, Peter Coy and Stanley Reed speculate on what could happen if BP’s efforts to stop the leaks are unsuccessful:
Should efforts to seal the well go awry, they could cause even larger volumes of oil to spill. In some scenarios, the Gulf of Mexico loop current could even carry the oil around Florida and up the East Coast. The unfolding environmental disaster might yet become the worst in U.S. history.
So, there is a possibility of the spill getting into the Atlantic and spreading up the coast, as I said above. What if the oil gets into the gulf stream? I wish I knew.
The Bloomberg story has a good description of what actually happened to the Deepwater Horizon rig:
The Deepwater Horizon accident occurred at the final stage of the job, as the rig crew was preparing to put a temporary seal on the well and move on to another site. The exact circumstances aren’t likely to be known for months, though it’s clear that pressurized natural gas was able to infiltrate upward, meaning the seal was imperfect. A 2007 MMS study found that cementing was a factor in 18 of 39 Gulf of Mexico blowouts over 14 years. The pressure surge from a gas bubble has a nickname: the kick.
Although there are procedures for recementing, those take time and money. Each extra day of leasing the drilling rig costs about $500,000. Halliburton Co. was in charge of cementing, under BP’s direction. Robert MacKenzie, a former cementing engineer who is now a securities analyst for FBR Capital Markets Corp., said he wants to know whether BP ordered a so-called cement bond-log test to evaluate the cementing. Such a test would have determined whether a remedial cement job was necessary. BP declined to comment.
There was a “blowout preventer” that was supposed to keep an accident like this from happening.
“We have found that there are some leaks on the hydraulic controls” of the blowout preventer, Bob Fryar, senior vice-president of BP’s exploration and production operations in Angola, in southwestern Africa, told the Houston Chronicle.
Hayward said he was mystified that the blowout preventer failed. The last-ditch shear ram is rarely tested under real conditions because of the destruction it causes. In a 2002 laboratory test for the MMS, researchers found that three of six shear rams failed. Seven other makers declined to be tested.
Isn’t that nice?
What do you guys think about all this? Maybe someone here has more knowledge than I do. But to me it sounds like BP and the U.S. government really don’t know how to stop this thing. It also sounds like if they don’t get it under control soon, it could blow again.
I’ll have another post later today about BP’s long history of accidents and the Obama administration’s role in allowing them to drill down into the the ocean floor at a a depth greater than the high of Mt. Everest.
For ongoing updates and information, here is the official Deepwater Horizon web page, and here is an information page set up by the Center for Biological Diversity. Reuters has a timeline of the spill here.
Treat this as a regular new post, and please tell us what you are reading today. Have a great Monday.