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No relief in sight for BP’s Deepwater oil containment operations as hurricane season arrives

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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BP, Deepwater, robotBP et al. have burned through more than five weeks and at least as many failed attempts to get control of the Mississippi Canyon 252 well spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Now the arrival of hurricane season—officially June 1 to November 30—threatens to make the difficulties worse.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is expecting a busy hurricane season, but says that this has nothing to do with the oil slicks developing in the Gulf. “The oil is not expected to appreciably affect either the intensity or the track of a fully developed tropical storm or hurricane,” according to a document NOAA posted to its Web site last week.

The real danger lies in the possibility that storm surges might carry oil into the coastline and inland or force boats aiding in the efforts to control the oil leak back to shore.

Even without the threat of a storm to disrupt delicate operations using remote-control submarines, BP was unable to achieve a “top kill” of its leaking well over the Memorial Day weekend. Despite pumping more than 30,000 barrels of heavy mud into the damaged well, BP could not overcome the flow of oil racing from the well.

The company announced Tuesday it’s moving forward with plans to use robotic subs and diamond-toothed saws to cut through and separate the well’s damaged riser pipe from a different pipe atop the blowout preventer. The riser pipe used to lead up to the Deepwater Horizon rig but was mangled when it sank. Once the riser pipe is severed, the company plans to install a cap that it hopes will capture most of the oil and gas flowing from the well and transport the crude to a drill ship on the surface.

BP’s latest plan comes with the familiar list of caveats—including a reminder that they are attempting to perform a delicate task using robots located under 15,00 meters of water, and that such a containment cap has never before been deployed at that depth and under the current conditions.BP, Deepwater

And things would get worse before they got better: if the riser pipe is cut, oil spillage will increase 20 percent until the cap can be put in place, which could take as long as three days, Admiral Thad Allen, National Incident Commander for Deepwater BP oil spill response, said Tuesday during a press briefing. Given the number of failed efforts to shut off the flow of oil into the Gulf, Allen pointed out that the mission has gone from trying to cap the damaged well to containing the flow of oil until a relief well can be used to tap into the main well and alleviate some of the pressure forcing the oil out of the seabed. The goal is to collect as much of the oil and gas spewing from the well as possible and even bring in a rig platform that could be used to refine the oil collected.

Two relief wells are currently being drilled to tap into the leaking well and alleviate much of the pressure forcing out the oil. The first well, started a month ago and not expected to be finished for another two months, is currently more than 3,600 meters below the Gulf’s surface but needs to go another 1,800 meters. The Deepwater Horizon Incident Joint Information Center claims that the well, being drilled at an angle of 35 degrees, is 10 days ahead of schedule. A second relief well was started on May 16 and has reached a depth of more than 8,500 feet.

Although the consensus among BP, the Coast Guard and a number of researchers appears to be that a relief well will help workers get control of the spill and even shut it down, the procedure is far from easy. The idea behind a relief well is to drill diagonally into the seabed to the side of the main well with the hope of tapping into the broken well and channeling some of the oil flow out to the relief well. Allen noted that, although a relief well would likely help the situation, it will not be easy intercepting the original well several thousand feet below the seabed.

Now imagine trying to do that with swelling waves and high winds.

Images courtesy of BP

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  1. 1. professor plum 11:14 pm 06/1/2010

    "… and even bring in a rig platform that could be used to refine the oil collected."

    im not an expert on this stuff, but doesn’t it seem like that’s kind of a stupid thing to waste resources on when hurricane season is potentially going to limit boat access to the site and the well has been leaking for weeks?

    like i said i really don’t know if there may be a good reason for it, but if anyone is trying to make money when the oil is still out of control i think i am going to puke.

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  2. 2. mikecimerian 11:39 pm 06/1/2010

    I think BP has enough on it’s hands with the well containment.

    It is easy to understand why people are angry but more difficult to understand why deciders do not seem to get it.

    As long as there will not be a complete organization chart with tasks, deadlines, progress and responsability, with hour by hour reports, people will get more angry.

    Anyone may readily recognize he/she doesn’t have the expertise to manage such a crisis, most people however, have good notions about how such a task should be structured.

    No one likes to be taken for a fool.

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  3. 3. mikecimerian 11:53 pm 06/1/2010

    There is probably some "multitasking" going on.
    No word was said the field itself.

    Is the site close to a distribution node and is there some fancy plumbing going on down there. Their loss reached two billions today.

    Plug the hole and loose a field? Plug the hole of course but there has to be further agenda.

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  4. 4. jtdwyer 12:37 am 06/2/2010

    mikecimerian – But the question is not plug the hole and lose the well (not an entire field, by the way). The question has been stop the leak now, or fumble around trying to save the well.

    Sorry, I can’t be more concerned about BP’s financial losses as the environmental devastation rages on. Just stop the leak now!

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  5. 5. eddiequest 1:12 am 06/2/2010

    "Swelling waves and high winds" would be no problem if they did the work ‘down there’. Sure a surface ship is cheaper. But don’t they have submarines that could do that job without worrying about the wind and waves?

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  6. 6. pablo163 3:40 am 06/2/2010

    I specifically propose inject mercury into the pipe, the downward force of gravity on the droplets will be stronger than upward drag forces due to the speed of oil (it is a liquid that has a specific gravity of 13.6), the droplets will fall to the bottom of the pipe, the idea is to form a column of mercury of 500-1000 m in height whitin the pipe that balances the reservoir pressure and prevent the loss.
    Pablo Schickendantz, EME, UBA, Argentina
    2004 Technology Trophy Award SUEZ Environnment
    More details: Tel +54 9 11 5896 5944 (spanish)

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  7. 7. namikozcan 2:13 pm 06/2/2010

    I will propose a temporary solution till we find a better way. First of all we should prevent oil spreading to sea freely. We can use a method as we would use for dust control systems. We can build a big compartment open at the bottom. Compartment could be 10*10*10 m. There should be a pipe connected to the top of compartment reaching till to the top sea level where it should be coupled to big capacity pump. There should be also a window on the side wall of the compartment to suck ocean water into the compartment. If we can provide an inward face velocity of 2 m/sec at the window we can be be sure that oily water will not go outside from this window. The pump capacity at the top should be oil discharge rate plus volume enough to provide 2 m/sec face velocity at the compartment wall window. 10*10*10 m. compartment volume will serve the oil pressure to drop to 150 bar water pressure at this depth.
    We can just built the compartment in 1 day and lower it over the leakege point in a few hours. The weight of the compartment will provide a good sealing at the bottom. No weldings-no cuttings. The pump discharge could be done in big tanker ships where they can discharge it into a non used dam.
    This would be very quick temporary solution.

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  8. 8. mikecimerian 2:18 pm 06/2/2010

    I agree, I meant that BP won’t take their losses and "go home". They have a stake in this field and I suspect they are trying to salvage this well while working on stopping the flow and that salvage gets in the way of a quicker fix to cutting the flow.

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  9. 9. Shoshin 2:23 pm 06/2/2010


    BP is not in danger of losing the field. Geologically, it is impossible. If BP could wave a magic wand and give up all of their Gulf Coast operations right now to plug that well, they would. This thing has the potential to sink the whole company. They would chew their own arms off right now to get themselves out of this mess.

    But I am glad that Obama is "enraged". I caught the Democrat commentator on CNN last night using a John Madden-esque football play highliter to show the "clenching of Obama’s jaw" and the "furrow of his eyebrows" to show that he actually really, really, was "enraged".

    To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher’s line "If you have to tell someone you are a lady, you not", in this case if the political commentators need to use a Smartboard and a highlighter to show that the President is "really enraged" ….

    Well, you know.

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  10. 10. moisturev 8:46 pm 06/2/2010

    Crimp the pipe with those vice grips they showed. It will take some distortion because it had a big dent in it that they had to saw off. Crimp it closed; then if it is pliable enough, bent it over to provide a firm seal. Just do it! Quit wasting time and wasting the Gulf! If it doesn’t work you can just saw off the crimped section and you are back where you were. You only waste 6" of pipe. Big deal!

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  11. 11. moisturev 8:51 pm 06/2/2010

    Just crimp the pipe with that tool they had down there. The pipe is somewhat pliable because they had to saw off a bend in it. Just crimp in, and then if it is pliable enough, bend it over itself for a full seal.

    Worst case it breaks. Then you just have to saw off 6" again?
    Big deal!

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  12. 12. mikecimerian 10:13 pm 06/2/2010

    @Jtdwyer. I understand they can’t loose the field but we can expect a moratorium on deep drilling untill all questions get answered.

    They can loose rights to it or worse, from their point of view, be required to get their safety on par with Norway’s safety standards for all their current operations.

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  13. 13. JoeyC 10:29 pm 06/2/2010

    A corporations bottom line is the dollar, not our environment, not the people. They figure theyre only responsible to pay a small percentage of any disaster which they could be held liable for because our politicians, whom they control enacted laws to protect the oil corporations from being liable to any degree which might hurt their bottom line, which affects their, the politicians, bottom line, which also the dollar.

    According to the lease agreement, which BP signed, they had the capability to deal with a disaster of this nature, as a matter of fact the supposedly ready to handle a disaster of even greater magnitude where-by our oceans, our environment, our citizens, would be protected from an event such as this. So no matter how you slice it they are guilty of criminal negligence in not meeting the terms of the lease agreement with the United States and its people, hence they are not protected by the laws they helped to draft for the congressmen, senators, or whatevers they have bought and paid for which allowed them to corrupt our government in such a way that allowed this even to happen.

    Concrete not up to grade, dysfunctional cheap blowout preventors, corrupting our government, bad managment and greed led to this disaster which was clearly inevitable taking into account the facts, it wasnt if, but when. So they knew they corrupted our politicians in such a way that they were protected from any financial loss. They know exactly how they corrupted our politicians. They knew they could not cope with a disaster of this nature. They knew because of their shoddy construction techniques failure was inevitable. How cant this be criminal? How cant it be a crime against humanity and the American people? They and everyone directly involved, every decision maker in BP and every politician who has helped to enact laws or who has looked the other way on account of financial or material gain from BP and who took a part in any decision, or who help to enact any law that helped lead to the creation of this disaster needs to be held accountable to the American people, not our government, but the people.

    Wake up America. Study the facts. Analyze them by way of logic and reason. Reach an intelligent conclusion. Form an opinion. Dont let anyone tell you how you should think.

    Throw every lobbyist out of Washington, they helped to create this disaster.

    Change the way politicians are financed. Corporations should not be allowed to give politicians money. They do not give them money because they love America, they give them money because it serves their bottom line! Period. We the American people need to foot the bill for the electoral process with each candidate given a set amount according to the position. This way they owe the American people and not some corporation. And those who should say we shouldnt have to foot the bill, believe me there is no other way to keep the system honest and…..believe me when I tell you that your already paying through the nose, corporate America keeps chiselin away at the American way of life, ever increasing their share of the wealth. Who do you think will pay ultimately for this oil disaster if we do nothing? We the people.

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  14. 14. jtdwyer 12:25 am 06/3/2010

    mikecimerian – Good point, explained.

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  15. 15. Iahmad 2:36 am 06/5/2010

    Whu not blame Iran or Syria for this mess also. At least that can satisfy very important constituent of America; the zionist lobby. American corporate media can be used as a cheerleader. BP may be let off the hook also for helping to generate this story and a war case on Iran.

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  16. 16. Tech Guy 5:56 pm 06/7/2010

    First, if they cut the pipe about 5-10 feet after the kink then crimp the pipe at least twice then they should have tryed cloging it with debri and mud. Then if it failed they could cut off the riser (with no stress stopping the blade) and cap it. WHO is making these calls?
    I could tell the lack of real life experience when they mounted the riser cut saw 90 degrees from the kink, just asking for trouble and they got it.

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