Saturday, May 1, 2010

Deep Water Horizon Oil Rig Disaster

The photo on the left shows the ill-fated Deep Water Horizon oil rig prior to the recent disaster. On the right, you can see what the lower part of a deep water rig looks like. In this case is it a sister rig, the Nautilus, being transported by a heavy-lift ship. [Click on photo for larger image.]

See more photos and information at WattsUpWithThat.

There has been lots of information and quite a bit of mis-information about the April 20th explosion and the release of millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Prior to reading the linked source above, I had the impression these rigs are tethered to the bottom and that the Horizon had safety features that were inferior to more modern offshore rigs. Both of these impressions appear to be false.

"The rig represents the cutting edge of drilling technology. It is a floating rig, capable of working in up to 10,000 ft water depth. The rig is not moored; It does not use anchors because it would be too costly and too heavy to suspend this mooring load from the floating structure. Rather, a triply-redundant computer system uses satellite positioning to control powerful thrusters that keep the rig on station within a few feet of its intended location, at all times. This is called Dynamic Positioning."

Someone told me this rig did not have an automatic shut-off in case of an accident. That is also incorrect.

"With a floating drilling rig setup, because it moves with the waves, currents, and winds, all of the main pressure control equipment sits on the seabed – the uppermost unmoving point in the well. This pressure control equipment – the Blowout Preventers, or ‘BOP’s' as they’re called, are controlled with redundant systems from the rig. In the event of a serious emergency, there are multiple Panic Buttons to hit, and even fail-safe Deadman systems that should be automatically engaged when something of this proportion breaks out. None of them were aparently activated, suggesting that the blowout was especially swift to escalate at the surface."

Far from reassuring me that this accident was preventable with better safety equipment -or at least that the resultant large spill could have been avoided- , it now seems to me that even the best offshore drilling technology is likely to result in occasional disasters. When human beings are involved there will always be mistakes and accidents that overwhelm any supposed fail-safe system.

If I lived along the shorelines of Lousiana or Mississippi or Texas where many rigs currently operate, or along the Florida coast where President Obama recently authorized drilling (since suspended), I would be very, very worried. If I was invested in the commercial fishing industry or in beach-related tourism, or employed there, I would try to get out.

I have been on the "drill baby drill" bandwagon for some time but this disaster has me thinking about getting off.

Baring a loss of pressure or the sudden self-sealing of the leak, it will be weeks or months before the oil stops leaking.

"In the coming weeks they will move in at least one other rig to drill a fresh well that will intersect the blowing one at its pay zone. They will use technology that is capable of drilling from a floating rig, over 3 miles deep to an exact specific point in the earth – with a target radius of just a few feet plus or minus. Once they intersect their target, a heavy fluid will be pumped that exceeds the formation’s pressure, thus causing the flow to cease and rendering the well safe at last. It will take at least a couple of months to get this done, bringing all available technology to bear."

So, here I sit in Central Florida, an hour from either the Gulf or the Atlantic coastline, trying to balance higher fuel bills for myself if we don't drill vs authorizing more domestic drilling and endangering the livelihoods and investments of coastal employees and investors. An alternative would be continued dependence on foreign oil but that comes with a cost in American blood to protect that access.

Then there is nuclear power with attendant risks of terrorist attack or accidental release of radiation, plus the problem of nuclear waste. France has done quite well, so far, with nuclear, but, even if we go whole hog down that road, it will be decades before nuclear can impact our need for traditional energy sources.

Wind, solar, water, tides and other alternative clean energy sources are -at least now- inadequate to make much of an impact on our appetite for energy. Conservation is also good I tell myself as I do 40-50 miles per week on my bicycle and ride around in my electric golf cart and hybrid Prius, but it too is inadequate to save much energy.

Finally, there is coal, and the possibility of what President Obama calls "clean coal technology". The US has lots of coal. The problem is continued release of CO2 and worries about continuing global warming due to the "greenhouse" effect. Let us hope that we skeptics and lukewarmers are correct that the dangers of CO2 have been overblown and that the recent stabilization in global temperatures, and perhaps a bit of global cooling, will hang on for a while.

Ira Glickstein


joel said...

Before we let this oil spill accident to affect our oil lease policy, we'd need to understand the situation better. We need to know what happened and why it happened. We'd need to understand why the fail-safes didn't work. We had better show the world that we are ready to persist when it's a question of complex technology, just as we did in the race to the moon. When it's a question of technology, we had better accept the challenge rather than tuck our tails between our legs and run. I'm not saying that we should be unconcerned with ecological or commercial damage, only that we should have confidence in our ability to to overcome adversity. It's not as though the ocean is so delicate or unstable that we must back off in fear of a "tipping point." The ocean sustains insults from natural oil leaks all the time and has evolved its own responses to stabilize the situation. (see, for example. "There is effectively an oil spill every day at Coal Oil Point (COP), the natural seeps off Santa Barbara where 20 to 25 tons of oil have leaked from the seafloor each day for the last several hundred thousand years." I think we can do much better than our response to this particular accident. We didn't cancel the lunar program or the shuttle program when there were accidents and we bought ourselves tremendous respect all over the world when we succeeded.

joel said...

P.S. For a good summary of the situation, please see also

Ira Glickstein said...

Joel, thanks for your links, here in clickable form: Natural oil seeps and Gulf oil spill FAQ.

The first link reports on natural seeps of oil such as the one you menioned at Coal Oil Point off of Santa Barbara, CA. It is somewhat misleading of that story to claim "effectively an oil spill every day". Let's examine their claim of "eight to 80 Exxon Valdez oil spills over hundreds of thousands of years". They don't say how many hundreds of thousands or years, so let's assume just 400,000 years. Taking their high end, 80 Exxon Valdez spills, that is only one every 5000 years.

The Exxon Valdez spill occured in 1989, so to keep up with the natural seep at Coal Oil Point, we would need another Exxon Valdez 5000 years later, in 6989 (!) The Deepwater Horizon is already about a third as large as the Exxon Valdez, so we are way way WAY ahead of schedule.

Do you think we can continue deepwater drilling without any large spills for the next 5000 years? 1000 years? 100 years ?

Another factor with the natural oil seeps is that, over hundreds of thousands of years, biological life (microbes) have evolved to take advantage of this energy source, and clean it up as described in your linked source. Are there any such microbes in the Gulf? If not, could they be imported from California? And, if so, would they be able to survive in the new environment?

Your second linked source provides excellent information about the blow out preventer (BOP) that seems not to have worked and of efforts using remotely-controlled submarines to activate the BOPs, so far unsuccessfully.

I was willing to rationalize away the Exxon Valdez as due to an inebriated captain. I cannot easily dismiss the Deepwater Horizon. It supposedly had high-tech BOPs that would automatically shut the wellhead, They have a backup of remotely operated submarines to manually shut the well. So far nothing has worked as expected.

I am not yet ready to call a halt to deepwater drilling, but, for me, the bloom is off the rose of "drill, baby, drill" and "drill here, drill now."

Ira Glickstein

joel said...

Perhaps it's fortunate for the world that the Deep Water Horizon spill has occurred. We don't seem to be aware that other spills have happened around the world. It tyakes something close to home to get us to really pay attention to improving the technology. A similar incident happened last year near Australia:

"The rig has been leaking oil for 10 weeks

An oil well at the centre of a massive spill in the Timor Sea off the north-west coast of Australia is on fire.

The company which runs the well, PTTEP Australasia, said the fire broke out as it made another attempt to plug a leak deep underwater at the West Atlas rig.

Engineers have been struggling for more than 10 weeks to stop the leak which is spewing out natural gas and oil at an estimated 400 barrels a day.

All workers were reported safe and were being evacuated from the installation.

A director of the company, Jose Martins, said the only way to stop the fire was to plug the leak.

"The measures which we have been able to take so far can only mitigate the fire. They will not stop the fire.

"The best way to stop the fire is to complete the well-kill and stop the flow of gas and oil at the surface from the H-1 well, cutting off the fuel source for the fire."

Australian Resources Minister Martin Ferguson said in a statement that some of the world's leading experts were working to fix the leaking well and respond to this latest problem." (see

Ira Glickstein said...

New information today on WattsUpWithThat about the Deep Water Horizon Oil Rig blowout, including some candid remarks by an eyewitness survivor who was on the platform at the time.

According to him, the Blow Out Preventers were tested regularly and things were run carefully and properly in accordance with safety regulations.

I remain worried that, if this disaster, as it appears to be now, is not due to negligence, but rather Mother Nature belching an unusually large methane burp, we can expect this type of practically unpreventable accident every decade or so. If I lived near the affected shore, or had investments in shore-related tourism or fishing, I would protest against any further deep-water drilling.

But, most US citizens (including me), will not be directly affected by future blowouts and oil spills and so on. All of us will be affected by higher gas prices and by the costs, in American blood, to protect foreign sources. So, it makes sense to go forward with drilling to achieve some level of energy independence, despite inevitable accidents.

Please read the linked material and make up your own minds. What should we, as a country, do?

Ira Glickstein

Ira Glickstein said...

After watching 60 Minutes this evening, I've updated my opinion of the Deep Water Horizon Oil Rig Disaster.

Based on early reports that the Horizon was the latest and greatest technology, including the Blow Out Preventer (BOP), and that it and BP had an excellent safety record, I concluded that the main cause of the disaster was Mother Nature hitting them with a super-large methane burp. Based on that, I concluded that offshore drilling was inevitably going to result in spills. (My reasoning was that, while the Exxon Valdez spill was due to a human error -a drunken captain- a situation that can be corrected by proper organization and management, the Horizon blowout was simply an act of Nature and not correctable.)

Well, 60 Minutes clearly showed that the Horizon blowout was NOT an act of Nature. It was due to BP management's hurry up directions that: 1) ignored serious damage to the BOP, 2)removed the drilling "mud" that was holding pressure on the well prematurely before the cement plugs had fully set, and 3) failed to test the pressure-holding capability of both the BOP and the plugs. The combination of these human-directed errors seems to have been the cause of the disaster. Had the BOP not failed or had the cement plugs not failed, the blowout would have not occured, or would have been far less serious.

Therefore, I believe improved management (and hard for me to say, government regulation and oversight) could prevent future offshore drilling accidents.

For now, I believe BP should be required to pay far more than the legally-required $75 million cap for the cleanup, on the basis that their management actions were so outrageous as to be illegal. Indeed, the managers on the scene who saw the rubber debris from the damaged BP annular ring come out of the pipe, and who did not order that the BOP be fully re-tested to make sure it was working properly, may be guilty of manslaughter in the deaths of the 11 workers.

Ira Glickstein

Ira Glickstein said...

Here are the latest links (from WUWT) for those following the "top kill" procedure. Let us hope it works.

Live images are available here.

Here is a great video animation and the best graphic of a "top kill" I've seen here.

If the "top kill" does not work, the best idea I've seen for an alternative is described here (scroll down to "kadaka (KD Knoebel) says:
May 26, 2010 at 10:16 am"). He assumes there is at least a small section of good pipe above the BOP. The idea is to drill (or burn) relatively small holes through the good pipe section above the BOP and place steel bars through the holes, and seal the holes at both ends. Do this many times to create a "nest". Then drill a hole below the "nest" and pump in rubber debris that will catch in the "nest" and slow or stop the flow. Once the flow is stopped or reduced, cement can be pumped in to seal the pipe completely.

This is a tragedy for the fishing and tourist industries in the Gulf and has ecological and economic inplications that spread far wider. It is also clear to me that BP and their subcontractors employed short cuts that caused the blowout to go out of control and they should bear the majority of the financial burden.

If the "top kill" does not work I suggest they round up some carping politicos and news commentators calling for the government to take control of the leaking oil well. Just pump them down the well. That won't stop the leak, but it will at least slow down the posturing and empty-headed hot air.

It is clear to me the government bureaucracy is NOT (and can never be) any good at really regulating any complex industry. The only laws we need are those that assign full financial responsibility to industry (e.g., no more bailouts). Congress should require industry associations and experts and insurance companies to set standards (think Underwriters Labs that has done a great job with safety certification and standards for electrical appliances).

Ira Glickstein

Howard Pattee said...

I have a possible solution to the oil spill. It is well-known that high pressure systems use tapered valves, sometimes called needle valves, to control the flow. The taper allows the closing force to be much smaller than the head pressure.

Since the well casing is now cleared and straight, why not insert a long tapered cone into the casing? If it is pointed and long enough the oil pressure can be overcome. The taper should become cylindrical at the top of the cone making a snug fit for some distance in the casing.

So what is the chance that I could get anyone to listen to this idea?

Ira Glickstein said...

I LOVE your idea Howard! Quite unique and creative.

Perhaps if you posted a new Topic to this Blog with your idea (and I will be happy to provide an illustration if that will help) it may be picked up by someone who has the power to make it happen.

You will get an even larger audience if you posted it to the WattsUpWithThat Topic on the Oil Rig Explosion, with a link back to our TVPC Blog which would have more details plus an illustration.

There are five issues I can think of:

1) If your idea works, the full pressure of the gushing oil and gas will be felt by the blowout preventer (BOP) and that device could possibly explode since it is damaged. On the other hand, had the "top kill" and "junk shot" worked they would also have imposed maximum pressure on the BOP so your idea would be no more risky.

2) The BOP is supposedly designed to handle 10,000 PSI and was tested to 6,000 PSI. Estimating the well pressure at 5,000 PSI, and the casing at about 20", they would have to apply over 300 x 5000 = 1,500,000 pounds downward on the plug to get it in place. I do not believe the remotely-controlled submarines are that heavy or powerful, so they would have to winch it down to the BOP or some other fixed anchor.

3) The tapered cone plug would have to be long as you point out. A possible problem is that there is still a part of the drilling mechanism linkage in the center of the larger casing, so that would get in the way of the tapered plug. A potential way around that would be to have a hole in the center of the tapered plug.

4) A further problem is that the vertical riser atop the BOP (which has recently been cut off fairly close to the top of the BOP so as to remove the bent and kinky section of casing) is quite short, most likely less than 20". I do not know if the BOP internal mechanism is partly closed which would prevent a long tapered plug from dropping in very far.

5) The top cap is already in place along with a pipe to the surface. Oil and water are already flowing up and will eventually be contained to capture the oil. Currently, the top cap is leaking quite a bit but I heard this morning that it has four side flaps that will be deployed over the next day or so to close off all or most of the leaking area. If this latest "fix" works well enough, they will be prudent to stick with it until the relief well is completed in a couple months.

Nevertheless, your idea is worthy of further consideration by people who know more than we do about these things. I have been monitoring some of the live BP video feeds. The linked site has links to a dozen feeds but, at any given moment, only a few of them are active. While there is no narration, I find it facinating to monitor this engineering disaster live and be thankful it is not my job to fix it.

Ira Glickstein

Howard Pattee said...

As you suggest, I think that the problem is the blowout preventer. It has already partially worked, otherwise the flow would be greater. So the shaft is not fully open and any attempt to fool with it might make matters worse.