*[name with held]* here... I have been following the oil crisis and have been writing down information from day one. I thought perhaps it is time to take all this jumble in my head and a few notes here and there and provide it to a select few to hopefully give a clearer idea about how this situation occurred but more presently give a sense of the current situation as has become clear to me through the research and also quite candid discussions with an oil company CEO who has equipment at the site. There has been lots of press on the issue but the press is not getting all the facts out, some of which should be discussed. Now, I dont do mailing lists so each person I emailed this to was hand picked because I thought it might be something of interest to the particular person. If not, sorry, it wont be a habit anyway!
As background, the work we do for the Navy, has provided us over the years with some familiarity with deepwater technologies so I wanted to sort of put it all together so to speak to provide an understandable view of the situation. Maybe it will be helpful, maybe it wont... Maybe you know all this already in which case you can let me know. [grin]
In order to do this, I attached some images I took from the live video feeds from the Remotely Operated Vehicles [ ROVs] on the ocean floor showing the latest moments of the oil crisis. The images are labeled with descriptive names that tell you what you are seeing.
Before going into the current status I wanted to just familiarize those who may not know what is actually physically down on the ocean floor for equipment. It isnt just a "pipe" sticking out of the ocean floor for instance. To see the main structure from whence this oil is coming, please look at the reference images "TheMainUglyLeak...", "OverallViewOfBlowoutPreventer...", and "WellheadAtOceanFloorGoingIntoBlowoutPreventer". These show in that order, top to bottom, the leak at the top of an underwater structure called a Blowout Preventer known as a "BOP", the overview of the BOP, and the bottom where the ocean floor wellhead meets the BOP.
Here are some more details about the BOP so you get an idea if you dont know, what it is and what it does. On top of the actual "hole" coming out of the ocean floor is a pipe called a "riser" which goes to the surface in a normal well. This pipe FIRST goes through a series of valves sitting in a stack on the ocean floor on top of the well hole. These valves are choke points meant to control and or stop oil flowing up in the riser in the event of a runaway situation ... This series of valves is incorporated into, in this case a large yellow rectangular box structure called collectively, a Blowout Preventer, or "BOP" as its abbreviated. In this well, the BOP failed and none of its several emergency shutoff valves succeeded in sealing the pipe off. The runaway situation that occurred in this well was that an unchecked pressure surge of highly flammable Methane gas [see below shortly...] ran up the riser and exploded onto the well deck at the rig on the surface. More on that shortly too. Normally, at the very top of the BOP, the riser pipe full of oil and other gases leave and head to the surface. When the drilling rig sunk, it took the 5000 feet of riser pipe down with it which kinked in several places causing several unchecked leaks. The check valve systems in the BOP could not seal the pipe off as it was supposed to and the oil ran unchecked into the water from these several kinks. The kinked and broken riser pipe was later cut off crudely at the top of the BOP using the ROVs, and the oil flowed straight up out of the top of the BOP as you see in the images. A week or two ago, a second 5000 foot long pipe was dropped down with a "cap" on the bottom that simply sits by its own weight on top of the oil plume coming up from the pipe that comes up through the BOP and some of the oil is recovered in this way. This is the system you heard in the press perhaps as the LMRP or Lower Marine Riser Platform. This cap is inefficient at best but has helped reduce the amounts of oil and natural gas entering the ocean environment. Still, as of this writing, over 70.5 MILLION gallons have leaked into the ocean from the wellhead deep below. That in short is the anatomy of the leak.
Moving on to the nuts and bolts of whats going on, I received a call the other day from Charles Moses, CEO of Oil States International. We spoke for about an hour and I learned some highly interesting, albeit disturbing facts which I will share in enumerated points below along with some other known facts about these wells... Charles' company, Oil States International has equipment prominently seen on the BOP in live video feeds at the leak site and as such he had a perspective looking from the inside of the crisis out, so I wrote what comes below to help clarify what it is you see in the press, and what it is that everyone involved, us included, are up against. This man made problem is in short, vast and it didnt have to happen but more on that later.
FIRST, the oil well exit pipe where the leak is coming out of is growing in diameter. The oil stream is so powerful, that it is literally eating away the pipe, widening it. These pipes are meant to be conduits, not EXITS. So at the exit point where the oil is rushing out, it is like a major pressure washer in a sense, so the spill volume expelled into the water is getting worse by the day. The press reports say that BP suggests that the situation is growing more manageable but the truth is that it will be manageable only if BP can succeed in getting a second "cap" in place that is under construction which will literally be epoxied to the top of the BOP. This option may or may not fly though for a host of technical reasons. One of the hurdles is that the Remotely Operated Vehicles have to unbolt the pipe that was crudely cut off at the top of the BOP and bolt on a new mount for this new cap. After watching a test of the ROVs trying unsuccessfully for several hours to unbolt a single nut from a flange of 12 or so such nuts on a test pipe, I was not feeling too confident and still dont sadly. I saw that they could get the socket onto the nut, but apparently the impact socket they were using just didnt have the punch needed to loosen long ago tightened bolts exposed to several years of seawater encrustation and oxidation. A later test that I did not see is rumored to have worked .. but there are many bolts on the flange holding the pipe in place on top of the BOP. As the ROVs with appropriate socket wrenches walk them off one at a time, the massive pressure of the oil and gas coming up will force the leaking riser pipe to yaw and twist, perhaps making it impossible to remove the final nuts from the pipe in any normal manner. IF the pipe is not twisted and contorted beyond manageable means at that point they would have to then cut off the nuts and bolts, which would impose longer delays. Right now, as of this past Wednesday, the second, more efficient cap wasnt yet on the sea floor for positioning in place of the old cap.
SECOND, this oil reservoir is 3.4 miles, yes MILES, below the ocean floor which itself is 5000 feet [4950 feet actually but whose counting] from the water surface above. So the oil spewing out comes from 3.4 miles below the ocean bottom. There are heavy ramifications to that which I will get into in a moment...
THIRD, the oil is full of very high amounts of Methane gas which is the main component of Natural Gas that most people know about. Most wells have a percentage of Methane in the oil that is much smaller than Deepwater Horizon's site. This site output is elevated, comprising 40% of the overall output from the spill. That is to say, 40% of what is coming out of this well is in the form of Methane gas. That is what caused the explosion on the rig way up on the surface. In one attached image you can see the Methane bubbles in the oil flow and the image is named "CloseupOfOilLeak-NoticeBubblesOfMethane". As the oil and Methane mixture rise out of the broken pipe from the oil reservoir deep below, the Methane comes out of solution and forms bubbles which get larger as the pressure gets lower ; in the same way that a helium balloon expands as it reaches the lower pressure the higher in the sky it goes. Originally when this highly flammable Methane rose in the pipe to surface, the pressure on it reduced so it expanded tremendously, and burst out at high speed and in a prodigious amount onto the drilling deck of the rig at the surface. What happened next of course was the explosion, fire, and eventual loss of life. The rig sunk after several days and plummeted to the ocean floor as you know.
FOURTH, remember the "heavy ramifications" I mentioned in the SECOND point? That is a pretty literal translation... Not many people truly understand the pressures that this oil/methane stream is putting out as it exits the pipe... Think of it this way: The entire volume of water above the ocean floor over that oil reservoir miles below ground is pressing down on the seafloor with its weight. The oil is 3.4 miles below the ocean floor, so the weight of the ocean floor above the oil reservoir PLUS the weight of the water above is pressing on this previously contained oil. Now we poked a (drill) hole in the reservoir to bring it up. All that weight pressing down on the oil reservoir can now easily push the oil through that little [20" diameter] hole we poked into the oil and it comes rushing up with a vengeance. Normally our systems can handle this and keep the pressures in the oil/gas column at bay but in this case we have no active valves and checkpoints any longer on this unregulated stream of oil coming up so we are at the mercy of Physics.
Here is what is happening and hopefully I wont calculate this all wrong... The other day a pressure gauge was put inside the oil column under that cap that is part of this Lower Marine Riser Platform [LMRP] system that is trying to cap and retrieve some oil from this leak. The gauge read somewhere around ".13 bar" or so. A Bar is a unit of pressure but convert that to pounds per square inch and it is approximately 2 psi. What does that mean? It means that in an ocean depth where the pressure per square INCH is about 2400 pounds, the pressure pushing back by the oil stream at the pipe exit was TWO pounds per square inch... The oil stream pressure negated the 2400 pounds per square inch pressure in a 20" diameter pipe... A 20" diameter pipe has 314 square inches... so the pressure TOTAL that presses downward on the column of oil is a whopping 942,500 pounds of pressure. And the oil column has cancelled that and gone up by TWO pounds per square inch. There are a lot of other variables including the area of the oil reservoir, the type of gauge and its relative zero point , weight of the oil in the pipe and more so the numbers can be off.. These variables make a huge difference here so this calculation can be off, but basically we are talking about an amount of pressure that can negate deep ocean pressures and push positive pressure out of the top of the BOP pipe. It is for this reason by the way in part, that the pipe opening is growing wider since this kind of pressure is like a sandblaster or high pressure washer... It will eventually eat through.. Then what? That is why BP is in a full panic and cant win either way.
FIFTH, the above facts taken together actually show that there are good reasons why this well cant be plugged outright... If the well is plugged outright, the high pressure gas that has been allowed to grow in the oil stream will build and very likely blow the valves and other systems currently in place at the wellhead on the ocean floor to smithereens, leaving a gaping hole in the ocean floor that cannot be plugged. So this well has to be capped using the relief well strategy. Two relief wells are currently being drilled side by side next to the current blowout hole, and at least one of these will intersect the blowout hole somewhere around the 2 mile mark under the ocean floor, still a full mile from the oil reservoir itself further below. At that point, the pressure at the leak site will be halved. The second relief well will be drilled into the oil reservoir, reducing the pressure at each well approximately to a third in a perfect world. At that point they can push concrete down the first relief well hole that intersects the original blowout hole, plugging the original well hole. The second relief well will then tap the oil reservoir and go back to "normal" operations retrieving the oil using what I would hope is plenty of oversight to make sure its done right this time.
SIXTH, some oil must be vented and allowed to leak out... Why? When the oil and Methane leave the damaged pipe, the pressure from inside to outside reduces greatly, causing the Methane to 'crystallize' in the deep ocean into what is known as a Methane Hydrate. This has been called "ice" in the press. Technically it isnt ice although water is involved. It is a solid compound which if you placed on a table in your dining room and LIT it, would burn while at the same time dripping water from below the flame... This property lends origin to its other name: Fire Ice. It is a very odd substance indeed. But these are physical crystals that act like a slush that can block openings. This is why the first containment attempt failed when they lowered the large cover over the entire BOP on the ocean bottom originally. These Hydrates clogged the riser which is the pipe 'rising' to the surface if you recall. So by venting oil and gas as you see in these sadly disturbing images, especially the one showing the top of the containment cap "chimneys" as labeled in image "CloseupTopOfContainmentCapShowingChimneyVents...", the hydrates dont form... but... at the expense of oil leaking out of the chimneys at the top. The oil leaking out from the BOTTOM of the cap is because the attempt at cutting the pipe off evenly failed, so you can see this cap is on the pipe at an angle [10 degrees or more actually]
SEVENTH, the oil leaving the top of the BOP doesnt all come to the surface. In fact, a great deal of it, still loaded with Methane that keeps it more neutrally buoyant , hovers in the ocean currents as massive plumes that are many miles long and in deep water. The surface slicks that hit the shore are only a piece of the overall effect. These great midwater plumes are like traveling dead zones, and COULD make their way around the tip of Florida and up the coast in the Gulf Stream. They could eventually make landfall perhaps on the East coast or perhaps even England's western shores someday. Although unlikely, this scenario is not entirely farfetched. If you look at current maps of the leaks travels you will see that a great deal is moving toward the Florida Panhandle, but there is also a pattern of oil that is trapped in a slow gyre in the Gulf and this could end up feeding the Gulf Stream. The important point to take away here is that the Methane kills marine life and can cause dead zones in the ocean. It is little publicized but there are currently quite a few dead zones in our oceans, through no fault of ours. Sometimes an abundance of life in the upper layers of the ocean known as the Photic zone, cause processes deep below in the Aphotic zones that cause oxygen to be depleted. Typically bacteria use up oxygen creating dead zones in the these Aphotic zones and the dead zones are well known. The Deepwater Horizon leak however has so far minimally released approximately 4.5 BILLION cubic feet of Natural Gas of which Methane is a large component. This gas in solution does not bubble up and float away in the atmosphere, but stays in solution in the water and in the oil plumes we are talking about here. The subsequent lack of oxygen in these area where the plumes have forced their way, are similar in some respects to the low oxygen content found in the naturally occurring dead zones in the oceans. Fish, crabs, shrimp and other similar creatures cannot survive in such environments. One fear is that the Giant Squid in the Gulf will be severely affected which could then severely affect the Sperm Whale, the squid's primary predator. This is not in any way implying that BP is killing the Sperm Whale. But it points out the far reach of this leak.
CONCLUSION AND COMMENTARY: This situation is an oil companies worst nightmare of course. A blowout of a well can usually be stopped by telling the Blowout Preventer (BOP) to shut off the flow. Further, the systems are smart enough to automatically shut down the oil flow if pressure builds to levels that could reach runaway status. As a result of the failure of the BOP, the gases made their way to the Rig deck on the surface, and led to disaster and loss of life. Currently this well is in runaway status so severe means are needed to shut it down and it is not as simple as simply "plugging the hole" as I hope this email indicates to you. By and large oil companies have been assumed to generally run their businesses quite safely considering the accident rate in the industry. But, of note, are the findings of the short cuts that BP took to get this well operational. If other companies are taking similar shortcuts .... A short summary of the many discovered shortcuts are:
1: BP applied for a waver on the environmental impact study it should have carried out at the Deepwater Horizon site and the Dept of the Interior granted it. This was based though on BP's own assessment of environmental risk suggesting that only a fraction of the barrels of oil currently leaked would actually leak in the event of a "spill". This however is a LEAK, not a spill. Semantics mean a lot in this case.
2: BP used riser pipe that utilized only 2 seals at each pipe joint. This allowed for gases to be trapped and backed up in the riser pipe.
3: BP rushed the well to production cutting a number of corners that in their own measure could have contributed to the failure of Deepwater Horizon.
Out of tragedies such as this one, new technologies emerge that can be helpful. Several new boom and skimmer ship technologies have arisen that may forever remove the threat of oil slicks from attacking marshes and destroying lives.
Well I hope that this is not too much and you are not upset with me for putting it out there. I just thought that those of you to whom I sent this will appreciate it. I appreciated *[name with held]* from *[name with held]* taking the time to discuss the issues with me and I wanted to pass on elements of our discussion with you all. Again, I attached images of the current situation taken as it happened over the last few days to weeks. I labeled them so you know whats going on in each image... Read the photo names for a description... Let me know if you have any questions or corrections. Happy to refine it! Ohhh bad pun...
Click to view image: 'CloseupOfOilLeak-NoticeBubblesOfMethane_97 Jun. 19'
Click to view image: 'CloseupTopOfContainmentCapShowingChimneyVentsLeaki'
Click to view image: 'CrookedCapOnTopOfPipe_05 Jun. 12 19.14.jpg'
Click to view image: 'OilBillowingOutFromUnderContainmentCapToday_98 Jun'
Click to view image: 'OverallViewOfBlowoutPreventerJustBelowLeak_70 Jun.'
Click to view image: 'SprayingOilDispersantIntoRisingOilColumn_80 Jun. 1'
Click to view image: 'TheMainUglyLeakAtTheTopOfTheValvesThatFailed_75 Ju'
Click to view image: 'TopOfContainmentCap_96 Jun. 19 13.31.jpg'
Click to view image: 'WellheadAtOceanFloorGoingIntoBlowoutPreventerStack'
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