Stories tagged oil spill

Sep
20
2010

A stretched metaphor: Original image altered, of course.
A stretched metaphor: Original image altered, of course.Courtesy Lucas Vieira Moreina
Five months after the deadly accident that spilled five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the Macondo well of the Deepwater oil spill has been declared “dead.”

It’s like when that rabid dog got into your house, and, after a tense struggle, your dad finally pinned its neck under his foot, and, with an Arnold-esque quip like “Bad dog,” sent a 9 mm bullet into the still-thrashing animal’s brain. And then one more, for good measure.

It’s like that, except your house would have to be like a large, deep body of water. And the rabid dog would also have been uncontrollably vomiting flammable poison everywhere. And your dad wouldn’t really have shot it so much as drilled a couple of holes beneath its head, and then pumped it full of cement. And it was your dad’s fault that it started puking like crazy in the first place, because he was really excited to sell more rabid dog vomit to you. (Because who doesn’t love that stuff?)

In any case, the dog/well has been put down with extreme prejudice. Cement has been injected into the oil well through the intersecting relief wells, and the hardened cap has been pressure tested. The well seems to present “no continuing threat to the Gulf of Mexico.”

That’s a good thing, obviously, but unfortunately it’s not the end of this human and environmental tragedy. Before the leaking well was finally capped, about 210 million gallons of oil leaked into the Gulf, some of it floating into slicks on the surface, some of it lurking in thick plumes deep in the Gulf. How the unrecovered oil will affect the Gulf’s ecosystems and its human population remains to be seen, and determining the extent of BP’s financial responsibility to the region’s inhabitants will likely be a lengthy and difficult process.

Still, though: Bad dog. Blam. That’s something, right?

Just when you thought it couldn't get worse, now there's an oil spill in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Enbridge, the company responsible, is trying to keep the spill from reaching Lake Michigan.

Estimates of the amount of oil that spilled from the ruined Deepwater Horizon wellhead vary greatly, so it's tough to pin down a total amount. (The short answer is, "a LOT.") But that difficulty hasn't stopped a bunch of different sources from trying...

The official estimate is that some 50 million to 140 million gallons spilled.

Boston.com has a nice gallery of images to help visualize just how much oil has spilled in the Gulf of Mexico. (Unfortunately, the numbers and comparisons only reflect the amount spilled as of June 11, so it's a month out of date. But still fascinating.)

The Alaska Dispatch has a counter that estimates the total amount of oil spilled. (They figure some 92,240,117 gallons, or about 2,196,193 barrels, over 87 days.)

And, last, here's a map of the world's largest oil spills.

The new cap BP has placed on the leaking oil well a mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico seems like it might actually be working. That means that for the for the first time in almost three months, oil has stopped flowing from the well.

I'm hesitant to let out a cheer for this, if only because we've already had quite a few gotcha-moments with "solutions" in the response to the oil leak. Right now the pressure from the well is being monitored to determine if the cap should stay tightly sealed onto the well or not—if the pressure stays high, that's good, but if the pressure drops, it could mean that the pipe has ruptured underground, which would be bad. Leaks beneath the sea floor would be much more difficult to manage, because the oil would seep up through the sediment in many places, instead of gushing from one broken pipe.

Anyway, here's hoping that the cap holds, leak free, until relief wells are completed and the leaking well can be shut off entirely. Stay tuned...

Jul
12
2010

The Top Hat at work: As you can see, the device is currently unable to capture all of the oil.
The Top Hat at work: As you can see, the device is currently unable to capture all of the oil.Courtesy Library of Congress
BP: Do you know... is that oil well thing still leaking?
Someone else: Hmm. Probably? I haven't heard much about it lately. Let me check.
BP: Sweet. Thanks a mil.
Someone else: Yeah, it's totally leaking still.
BP: Oh, nuts. Ok... like, is it leaking a lot?
Someone else: Yeah.
BP: But didn't we do something about that? Like, we... dressed it up or something?
Someone else: The "Top Hat." You put a cap on it. But the cap is only capturing about 25,000 barrels a day.
BP: "Only" 25,000? Sounds like someone has unreasonably high standards...
Someone else: Could be. But the well is probably leaking about 60,000 barrels a day. Maybe more.
BP: Hmm... Well, we ought to do something about that. What about... what about...
Someone else: Yes?!
BP: What about some sort of cap to suck off the leaking oil. A big metal cap. Like... a giant top hat. Have we tried that?
Someone else: Yes, you've tried it a couple times.
BP: All right then! Operation Top Hat is go!

Bless their little hearts, BP is at it again. While national news overage of the Gulf oil leak seems to have slowed to a somewhat less frantic pace, the oil itself continues to flow. BP had placed a cap over the severed end of the drill riser, but, so far, was capturing only 25,000 barrels (about a million gallons) of oil a day. That number is nothing to sneeze at, of course, but official estimates place the daily flow of oil at about 60,000 barrels, possibly more.

Taking advantage of calmer seas this weekend, BP has been fitting a new cap on the leaking well. While they're reluctant to make any promises, BP claims that the new cap could potentially capture the entire flow of leaking oil. Also, the new cap has a device that could measure the overall flow rate, and it should be able to more easily disconnect and reconnect with the leak. Why would we ever want to disconnect the cap if it's capturing all the oil? Hurricane season is starting, disconnecting the cap in a bad storm could help prevent more damage to well and the oil-recovery equipment.

We'll see, eh?

Meanwhile, the first relief well is slightly ahead of schedule, and it could intersect with the blown well by the end of the month, at which point BP could begin to pump mud and cement into the well to shut it down entirely.

Found on the NYTimes Dot Earth blog, this little video uses

"...software tools from the gaming world to illustrate what a low-end estimate of the volume of oil gushing from the Gulf of Mexico seabed looks like if displayed as stacked barrels."

(25,000 barrels is now the low estimate of how much oil is spilling into the Gulf of Mexico from the ruined Deepwater Horizon wellhead every day.)

I was intrigued, but the lack of scale bugs me. 25,000 barrels obviously makes a big pile, but just how big is big?

Jun
17
2010

NCED researchers studying delta dynamics in coastal Louisiana
NCED researchers studying delta dynamics in coastal LouisianaCourtesy National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics
The Mississippi River has turned out to be a big, muddy, silent hero in the fight to save Louisiana's wetlands from the oil spill.

It turns out that many scientists believe that the flow of fresh water from the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico has thus far kept the oil slick offshore and out of wetlands.

Guerry Holm, a researcher with the National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics (NCED) tells me that the flow of the Mississippi River has been at a relatively high stage for the past two months and that the river's high volume of freshwater has acted as a hydrologic barrier, keeping oil from moving into the Mississippi Delta wetlands from the sea. Holms is now studying how two river characteristics—the slope of the water surface from the river delta to the sea and the time it takes water to move through a wetland to the sea—help mitigate oil contamination of the wetlands.

Holm is collaborating on the research with NCED Principal Investigator Robert Twilley, who is also busy addressing an immediate concern: the flow of the Mississippi tends to drop seasonally, starting in June. If that happens and Mississippi water flow into the delta decreases, Twilley, Holm, and others worry that oil will reach more of the wetlands sooner.

To address these concerns, some area scientists are proposing to shift the flow of water between the Mississippi and a river in Louisiana it feeds called the Atchafalaya. Twilley supports the idea: "We've been in conversation with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state [of Louisiana] about how to manage the river as a protection system," Twilley reports.

Unfortunately, the river flow adjustments may be difficult to accomplish for political reasons. The diversion structure used to control flow between the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers is controlled by Congress. Earlier proposals to send more water down the Mississippi have been met with resistance.

Jun
15
2010

Internal BP documents were released today that seem to highlight decisions by the company to forgo safety precautions in favor of saving money and cutting time in drilling the now-leaking oil well. One of the documents, an email message from an engineer working on the project, refers to it as a "nightmare well," language that the press has really picked up on.

I'm hesitant to fixate too much on a phrase like "nightmare well," because the hyperbolic language used in informal emails isn't always super helpful if taken literally (e.g., "It smells like someone microwaved a goat in the break room. I'm gonna die. If I find out who did that, I will challenge them to a knife duel, ala Steven Seagal and Tommy Lee Jones in Under Siege. The first Under Siege, I mean.") But it does seem like the drilling of that well wasn't the best run operation, to say the least. Hopefully the investigation will determine the extent of BP's responsibility for the accident that caused the leak (or, possibly, the lack thereof).

The documents will very probably be brought up during Tony Hayward's (the CEO of BP) testimony to congress later this week. Should be interesting.

Jun
10
2010

The Guardian: sticking it to The Company Men!
The Guardian: sticking it to The Company Men!Courtesy USAF
Rumor Has It that the Prince of Thieves, Kevin Costner, is now The Bodyguard to the Waterworld we call the Gulf of Mexico, where Shadows Run Black... and so does the oil! He'll be putting The Big Chill on BP's oil spill, cleaning up that Untouchable crude oil with centrifugal machines developed by his company. He's sending a Message in a Bottle to the ocean (but not through The Postman): "I don't hate you for destroying the set of Waterworld! I don't want Revenge!"

But does the machine really work, or is it just a Field of Dreams? In his Testament to congress, Costner argued that it does, and that congress should require oil companies to all buy these machines. Will they? It may depend on a Swing Vote! Only time will tell if this modern-day marine Wyatt Earp can help create A Perfect World with his fancy Tin Cups!

I'm Not Funny, and should maybe Never Write on Buzz Again!

Dances with Wolves!

Jun
03
2010

After the failure of the "top kill" plan, BP stated that it would remove the broken riser from the blowout preventer on the leaking oil well—that is, they would cut off the long bent pipe from the machine that was supposed to stop an oil leak in the first place.

BP has now done just that, but, as usual, things didn't go quite as planned. Initially, BP engineers attempted to use a diamond-bladed saw to cleanly remove the riser, but the blade became stuck in the 21-inch steel pipe. Unable to free the blade and continue the operation, BP used a giant pair of shears to scissor off the riser. The shears worked, but the cut is not as clean as it would have been from the saw.

So what happens now? Well, the good news is that BP can move onto the next step of their containment plan. The bad new is that it doesn't seem like they're going to be using the original containment cap that was meant for this operation. (I take it this is because the riser was sheared instead of sawed?) Instead, they'll be using the "top hat." Remember the top hat? That was the plan after the huge containment dome plan failed, but apparently the top hat was sort of shoved aside while the tube-insertion plan was tried out. But now they're using it again.

I wonder how effective the top hat will be? When it was going to be deployed before, it was acknowledged that it would only capture a fraction of the oil from the leak it was placed over—just one of several leaks on the riser. Now that the riser has been cut, all the leaks have been consolidated... Anyway, BP isn't making any predictions about the effectiveness of the top hat here.

The other bad news is that the rate at which oil is leaking has probably increased now that the riser has been removed—perhaps by as much as 20%. The government's estimate prior to the removal of the riser was that perhaps 800,000 gallons of oil were leaking each day. That number could increase to almost a million gallons a day until the top hat is placed over the leak. (Considering that independent estimates have placed amount of oil leaking at over a million gallons a day even before the riser was cut, the flow rate could be much more than that, even.)

Hmm. Stay tuned.