Saturday, June 19, 2010

And All The King's Men... (Part 1)

posted by Armadillo Joe


NOTE -- OK, if you're arriving here from the Political Carnival link, I apologize if you tried earlier today with no success. Your author had knocked together a post for the readers here that was imprecise and sloppy in presentation. Not ever really having had much in the way of traffic, I figured I had a few hours (days?) to clarify and hone the content of the original post, not expecting anything like a larger audience to materialize. As the linking and tweeting heated up, I feared the spread of inaccuracies could tar my friend's blog as a source of bad info. I didn't want that and I panicked. Please accept my sincere apologies.

Hey, Blog-O-Maniacs. Back again to depress the lot of you.

I've been immersed in learning absolutely everything I can about the Gulf Gusher from the Web, from knowledgeable friends, from the news, so I haven't had much time to blog. But I was talking with Broadway Carl this afternoon, this topic came up, and he encouraged me to start posting all that I've learned and concluded.

So, I am. In installments. I think we are watching the greatest disaster to befall the human race in centuries, perhaps ever, and it is a little hard to take in the enormity of this disaster all at once.

Thus, I want to first describe what has happened, what I understand about what went wrong and how, then I want to describe how and why fixing this gusher very likely isn't possible now or perhaps ever because of the complexity of what is happening at the sea bed under the Gulf. And finally I will talk about what I think we will see happen in the coming weeks and months and years and how we can live with what is to come, because what is to come is very, very, very unpleasant.

The Gulf gusher hasn't been stopped or even slowed. It very likely can't be stopped and will probably go on gushing like it is right now, only ever more voluminously, for years. Perhaps decades. BP may very well have triggered environmental armageddon and we will see, for the first time since the Dust Bowl era, environmental refugees as the Gulf states empty of people.

How bad is it? Worse than you could possibly imagine. The criminal conduct begins (not surprisingly) with management.

As most of you know, I am from Texas, so it shouldn't surprise you that my best friend's two brothers are both employed in the petroleum industry. He wrote the following on his Facebook page:
I just had a long talk with my brothers, one of whom works for a company that researches heat transfer inside oil wells, and the other spent a decade mixing concrete and drilling fluids that create the casings for oil wells.

They explained, in detail, what happened, and how, and why the devices designed to prevent what happened failed.

And it is my considered opinion that the person who told the rig operator to keep drilling after they hit a gas pocket three weeks before the explosion should stand before a firing squad.

1) When BP spec'd the well, the purchased a Blow-Off-Preventer with standard shears. There is an option for Super Shears. This becomes important later.

2) BP set a drilling schedule that mimicked a land-based well schedule. The whole purpose of deep-water drilling is to skip over 5,000 feet of rock and be that much closer to the oil at the first cut of the drill.

3) Three weeks before the explosion, Deepwater Horizon hit a gas pocket. Conservative prospectors would have capped the well then and moved on. The order came to keep drilling.

4) Once they were into seabed but not yet into a harder substrate, and with the gas kicks already on record, the decision was made to set a well casing before proceeding into the oil-bearing substrate. This should be considered a bare-minimum precaution. This is the procedure done on land wells that keeps oil from seeping out as it comes to the surface and contaminating groundwater.

5) The casing got fucked up. I'll try to explain. You have a hole dug that's bigger than the pipe you have in it. You lift the pipe a little bit up from the bottom and then you fill the pipe with wet cement. You then pour some other substance into the pipe to push the cement out and make it fill up the gap between the outside of the pipe and the inside of the bore. When this cement sets, it bonds the pipeline to the rock and will keep oil from seeping into the substrates. Only the cement never set. And the fluid they were trying to push it around with was sea-water instead of an appropriately-mixed drilling fluid called kill-mud.

6) RATHER THAN STOP DRILLING TO FIX THE CASING, a BP manager ordered drilling to continue...with known gas pockets in play, with a known failure in the correct casing procedure...they made the choice to continue drilling into paydirt.

7) 6 hours before the explosion, the well took on the pressure of oil being released. The blow-off-preventer was fired. The pipe used to set the casing had been forced up the well under pressure and was now passing through the BOP. Casing pipe is significantly harder than regular oil pipeline. Remember that BP saved themselves $150K by using the cheaper BOP....which failed to cut through the casing pipe.

8) since the cement lining never set, the line from the oil pocket to the surface cannot be trusted. It is essentially a lubricated straw stuck in a high-pressure flow. That's why we can't just drop a big rock on it and call it a day.

In fact, if the BOP had worked correctly, oil would immediately have begun to flow into the sea-bed and could conceivably have ejected the remainder of the line stuck in it, leaving absolutely no control over the oil spilling out.

So...the guy who said "this is how it's going to be" indicating that Deepwater Horizon would keep drilling without successfully securing the liner is, as far as I'm concerned, personally responsible for 11 murders. The corporation that put him in a position to make that decision is equally guilty and oh, yeah, there's the matter of an oil slick that will literally have crossed the Atlantic Ocean by the time they get relief wells drilled and get the flow stopped.

All manner of criminal conduct on the part of BP, certainly, but at the moment it appears to many knowledgeable observers (especially this commenter at the indisposable that the window for even so much as a plausible solution, much less possible, is either closing rapidly or has already closed.

The Oil Drum commenter's online handle is Doug R. He makes many points and seems a knowledgeable petroleum industry professional, but the most salient point he makes is that the public doesn't really understand that we're not talking about one leak from the top of a failed well, but many, many leaks from:

1.) breaks throughout the failed machinery of the collapsed oil rig (the failed attempt to cut the top of the Blow Out Preventer (BOP) was to halt the flow into that long line of breaks and leaks, akin to a flat, perforated garden hose six-inches wide and a mile long)

but also from

2.) seams and cracks opening around the wellhead from the blow out damage, which are eroding ever larger from the sand that is suspended in the gushing oil, making the whole spewing mess one gi-normous sand-blaster that will only continue to degrade the condition of the machinery currently restricting the flow from being much, much worse and to degrade the rock that currently holds all that equipment

and also from

3.) leaks and cracks all over the seabed surrounding the BOP from substrate infused with oil leaked under pressure from around the failed well casing and made worse by the appearance that the ceiling of the reservoir around the BOP may be weakening from erosion, eventually leading to the collapse of the seabed under it, at which point the entire BOP (at 450 tons, not a small piece of machinery) would punch an enormous hole in the ocean floor and the current gusher would go from a 150,000 barrel per day "leak" to a "torrent" of unimaginable force and volume as it drops into the cavern of oil below and pulls all the attached machinery with it. We don't have a word for the amount of oil that would be unleashed.

which puts the whole thing at a very real risk for

4.) the entire reservoir ceiling eventually giving way as the reservoir empties and the internal pressure drops, giving rise to the possibility that the entire top of the reservoir cavern could crater under the pressure of a column of water a mile high above it, pushing down. The remaining oil would rush out all at once in one catastrophic tsunami

I have more where that came from. It only gets worse from there. This article at Mother Jonesgives an overview of the whole comment thread. It will scare the shit out of you. It should.

Back soon...

Anonymous said...

First off -- great post! Just one issue...

Your last paragraphs (#3 and #4) makes it sound like you have an incorrect view of oil reserves. You make it sound like there is a cavern of oil in the ground -- and if all the oil was sucked out of it, there would just be this empty space. I do not believe that is correct.

Oil that is in the ground exists in the pores of rocks. So imagine just miles and miles of rock that are soaked with oil. Since it is under so much earth (and in this case water as well), the oil will escape whenever it finds an opening because of the pressure. Thus when a well is drilled, oil will escape. At times, these wells will clog up, and require a procedure called a "Frac" (fracturing) where they force fluid down the pipe with hydraulic pumps and fracture the surrounding rocks to allow more oil to permeate it.

You may have heard of the "Oil Sands" or "Tar Sands" up north as new oil reserves. In these fields, there is sand instead of porous rock.

But all of this is to say that I don't believe #3 and #4 can happen as you explain it -- as there is no cavern -- it's just rock.

Armadillo Hussein Joe said...

Thank you for the compliment.

This whole event has been making me sick to even think about and the more I read, the more worried I get. Thank you again for your input, too. I was imprecise in my language in my speed to publish the post.

so, well, yes and no about the cavern. You are correct that I left the wrong impression about the nature of a reservoir by calling it a "cavern." I shouldn't have used that word.

I understand what you mean that oil exists in the pores of rocks, it does, and a reservoir is not a hollow pocket full of liquid that gets sucked out, per se, leaving an empty space behind when drained. It is actually interlocking rock strata and the oil usually exists in the seams between rock layers or infused in the lighter, more porous rock layers themselves. Thus, the rock that contains the oil is of a different density than the rock above it; that's why the oil is contained in the first place and has to be drilled down to.

If the oil isn't replaced by a liquid of comparable density as it is removed from the reservoir, the heavier, more dense rock above it can collapse the pocket. A collapse doesn't look necessarily like the implosion of sinking submarine - it's more like the pancaking of a collapsed parking garage; afterall, the weight of the higher layers of rock (along with natural gas deposits) was enough to put the whole reservoir under pressure in the first place.

So, as for the point load of the BOP causing a collapse of the bore-hole into the reservoir below and opening a much larger hole, I still think it likely. So do others:

The whole layer giving way into the reservoir below is less likely, certainly, and I am heartily glad for it. I can't find the link right now, but I followed a comment thread at The Oil Drum a few weeks ago where that was discussed as a possibility and no would rule it out categorically, mostly because we are in uncharted territory for reservoir behavior.

Thank you again for the input and for keeping me honest. More tomorrow

chris said...

Excellent piece, Joe. And scary as hell.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the quick response to my comment. I kinda liked it more when I had talked myself out of believing 3 & 4...

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