Monday, July 19, 2010

Remember "Houston, we have a problem"?

The BP oil disaster had what could turn out to be just such a moment on Sunday. The Coast Guard's Admiral Thad Allen refers to some of the issues in a formal letter he sent Sunday to BP:

Given the current observations from the test, including the detected seep a distance from the well and undetermined anomalies at the well head, monitoring of the seabed is of paramount importance during the test period.
Yes, that is a new oil "seep" detected at some distance from the Deepwater Horizon well, capped at the moment. Plus, new potential problems of some sort at the main well/oil geyser site.

As a continued condition of the test, you are required to provide as a top priority access and coordination for the monitoring systems, which include seismic and sonar surface ships and subsea ROV and acoustic systems. When seeps are detected, you are directed to marshal resources, quickly investigate, and report findings to the government in no more than four hours. I direct you to provide me a written procedure for opening the choke valve as quickly as possible without damaging the well should hydrocarbon seepage near the well head be confirmed.
I actually don't know if we should be reading anything into this or not, e.g., frustration on the Coast Guard's part over inadequate reporting on the oil flow. But if the new "seep" is verified, the feds are likely to insist that BP open the cap to relieve pressure in the well. If speculated from the reporting over the last week that BP was insistent on just capping off the well, while the Coast Guard wanted them to continue pumping oil to the surface to minimize chances of creating a new oil flow into the Gulf from a break in the well shaft.

Mark Seibel reports for McClatchy in Oil seep near BP well could mean trouble for relief well plans 07/18/2010:

No details were given on the size or exact location of the seep, or what it was made of — crude oil, methane, natural gases or hydrocarbons. But the prospect is ominous. If oil is entering from areas distant from the well bore, it suggests that areas of the seafloor and substrata are allowing oil to escape.

If this scenario is accurate, the well cap will likely be reopened to prevent the existing environmental disaster from becoming even worse and even harder to fix. Once the valves are open, oil would gush once again into the ocean, cutting the pressure on the well system for the first time in three days.
I don't know if this part of Allen's letter is some kind of legal formality or a message to get their act together better on the response and on keeping the feds informed:

As the National Incident Commander, I must remain abreast of the status of your source control efforts. Now that source control has evolved into a period beyond the expected 48 hour interval of the Well Integrity Test, I am requiring that you provide me a written update within 24 hours of your intentions going forward. I remain concerned that all potential options to eliminate the discharge of oil be pursued with utmost speed until I can be assured that no additional oil will spill from the Macondo Well.
The same question applies to this passage, as well:

As you develop the plans above, note that the primary method of securing the source is the relief well and this effort takes precedence. Therefore, I direct you to provide a detailed plan for the final stages of the relief well that specifically addresses the interaction of this schedule and any other activity that may potentially delay relief well completion. [my emphasis]
I try to be cautious about too much speculation. But neither BP nor the Obama administration has been a model of transparency on this disaster these last three months. I wonder if this might eventually prove to be an indication that BP is dragging their feet on the relief wells for some reason, e.g., being too cheap to pay for them.

Seibel's report creates a bit of confusion in his report when he says, "It is possible, too, that monitors have sensed naturally occurring seeps, which are a common phenomenon in the Gulf." If there is a confirmed seep in the vicinity of the Deepwater Horizon well, I would imagine the feds would order BP to open the cap and go back to siphoning oil out of it. Especially since the pressure levels inside the cap as of Sunday haven't convinced the Coast Guard that there are no leaks in the well walls:

Oil seeping from the well into the rocks and up through the seafloor, however, would pose a new problem because it would be difficult to locate the many paths it might be taking to the surface. BP currently hopes to seal the well permanently by intercepting it with a relief well. Heavy drilling mud would then be pumped into the Deepwater Horizon well, filling the well bore and drill pipe and stopping the oil from flowing by its sheer weight. A leak from the well bore through rock and to the seafloor, however, might defy such efforts.

Scientists have been concerned that such leaks could be one reason pressure in the new containment cap has not reached the levels they had expected. A pressure reading of over 7,500 psi, or pounds per square inch, would indicate the well casing is intact. A lower reading could suggest a leak. On Sunday, pressure had reached 6,775 psi, BP said. Officials have said the low pressures might be caused either by a leak in the well or depletion of the oil reservoir during the past three months. [my emphasis]
A depletion of the oil reservoir?! That's a surprising thing for anyone to say, given that this well taps into the second-largest known oil reserve in the world.

It's worth mentioning here an observation from Bmaz at Emptywheel, The Wishing Well: Is Macondo the Mouth of Hell Silenced? 07/15/2010:

I have a nagging question on the integrity of the well that has neither been answered to date nor put to rest by the seemingly joyous news today [of the oil flow being capped]. Namely, it is a given from the way it occurred, not to mention subsequently admitted by Thad Allen and BP, that the "Top Kill" process was cut quite short due to inexplicable loss of mud in process indicating a lack of well integrity at some point (or multiple points) in the bore length. There is no reason to believe whatever caused said leakage, and fear leading to the termination of Top Kill, has magically corrected or repaired itself. [my emphasis]

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