Saturday, July 17, 2010

BP oil disaster: good news or not?


It's hard to know what to make of today's news on the BP oil disaster. Froms of the reports I'm seeing as of this writing, the cap is still containing oil. But it's uncertain whether that's good news or not, beyond the fact that the cap itself isn't leaking.

Given the lack of adequate transparency from both BP and the Obama administration, following this story has some aspects of "Kremlinology," i.e., you find yourself reading between the lines to make sense of varying and sometimes contradictory reports. Earlier this week, I got the impression that 9,000 pounds per square inch (psi) was the magic number for the pressure inside the cap. If it reached 9,000 psi and held, it showed there were no lower breaks in the well shaft itself. If it only reached 6,000 psi, that meant there were breaks farther down and that was really bad news.

So what do we make of this Los Angeles Times report from Richard Fausset, Gulf oil spill: BP oil cap appears to be working; 48-hour testing period may be extended 07/17/2010, which says:

In a telephone briefing with reporters Saturday morning, BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells said the pressure inside the well remained in a range that gave him some confidence that the underground pipes haven't been leaking. ...

Low pressure readings could indicate the existence of leaks. If they do exist, BP and government officials say that a full seal of the well at the top could force more oil out of the pipes, eventually up to the seabed, creating new leaks, and a much more complicated problem.
Wells said there had always been a possibility that the test would be extended beyond 48 hours, and that an extension may help experts learn more about the well.

The pressure readings inside the well Saturday morning were at 6,745 pounds per square inch and rising slowly. Though relatively good news, that number does not give the clearest answer about what is going on underground. Wells said that a reading of 7,500 psi "would really say to us that we do have integrity under essentially any scenario."

A measurement between 6,000 and 7,500 psi is more of a gray area. On Friday, Wells said the current pressure buildup seemed to indicate that the well hasn't been leaking, but that the underground oil reservoir had released so much oil since the beginning of the gusher in April that its pressure had diminished.

Wells said the federal government would make the final decision about whether to keep the well sealed at the top or to open it again. If it is opened, some oil would again spill into the Gulf of Mexico, and some would be collected by a series of riser pipes and containment ships. [my emphasis]
My reading between the lines of this and other recent reports is that there has been some difference on how to use the new cap, BP wanting to fully choke off the oil geyser for now, the feds wanting them to keep pumping as much oil as they can out of it. Also, BP (in my reading) is taking a distinctly more optimistic position on well integrity than the feds.

Beyond that, it's hard for me to even guess what the changing story of what oil pressure inside the cap measures whether there are breaks in the well shaft lower down.

This is another report, from Kristen Hays of Reuters, BP more upbeat well capped, but could extend tests 07/17/2010.

Despite the seemingly upbeat title, this article from McClatchy's Renee Schoof,
Despite BP efforts to clean Gulf, nature will do most of it Biloxi Sun-Herald 07/16/2010, gives a general survey of the far-reaching effects of this catastrophe:

Even the consequences are hard to gauge. Scientists can’t predict how quickly the microbes will work or how much damage the oil will do first. However, livelihoods already have been wrecked and wildlife is endangered.

"I think the bottom line is that once the oil gets into the water column — not just the surface — the genie is out of the bottle (and) that we do not have any effective ways to get the genie back into the bottle," said Robert Bea, a University of California engineering professor and an expert on offshore drilling. ...

Bea said two of the newer approaches used by BP to combat the blowout didn't work very well.

The unprecedented use of chemical dispersants — more than 1.8 million gallons — helped keep oil off beaches, where people notice it, but the dispersants were ineffective and environmentally destructive, he said.
And the other apporach that "didn't work very well"? That would be the whiz-bang miracle ship called A Whale:

And the "A Whale," a converted tanker made into a skimmer more than three football fields in length, won’t be effective in the turbulent water of the open ocean, Bea said.

The company that owns the vessel, TMT Offshore Group of Taiwan, concluded Friday after several days of tests the oil was too dispersed in deep water for the skimmer to work effectively. [my emphasis]
It doesn't say whether the other two open questions about the hastily-configured vessel were answered: whether it could actually separate out the oil the way it claimed, and whether it could stay seaworthy while doing it.

Oh, and those relief wells? The may not be magic, either: Marian Wang,
Interior: Blowout Preventers on BP's Relief Wells Also Had Problems ProPublica 07/15/2010. Lovely.

Marian Wang at ProPublica also took a look at the stories and urban legends about foreign assistance, Foreign Help in the Gulf: The Facts Are Murky 07/13/2010:

The issue of a few wonder-working foreign vessels aside, the better question still seems to be why the more than 570 skimmers already deployed in the Gulf have fallen short of BP's promises about how well they would work.

Or, for that matter, how the government and BP plan to clean up crude oil that we all know has penetrated into the deep waters of the Gulf. [my emphasis]
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