Worst Case Scenario of the Gulf Oil Leak

Referencing many posts from The Oil Drum, a blog often frequented by petroleum engineers and other oil-industry specialists, David Phillips lays out a worst case scenario for the Deepwater Horizon Oil Well. Hopefully this has been proven false by the successful static kill procedure completed in mid August.

Phillips contends the well’s casings beneath the ocean floor have been irreversibly damaged, possibly to such an extent that it may be impossible to cap the well.

He adds:

We know little about the underlying geology of the spill site since BP has held that information close, claiming that it’s “proprietary” data. Scientists are clamoring for BP to publicly release geological survey data on the underlying “Lower Teriary” formations (rock layer formed 65 million to 250 million years ago). Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) are streaming video feeds of high pressure columns of oil and gas bubbling up from fissures in the sea floor — flowing from likely stress fractures in the underground piping.

Evidence cited by Phillips include the tilting BOP at 12-15% from vertical after the riser was removed, the fact that particulates have sand blasted the wells and well-liners for over 70 days while the well spewed oil into the gulf, and other anecdotes from The Oil Drum blog.

Larry Flak, an engineer recognized the world over for his acumen in containing deepwater well blowouts, presciently warned back in 1997 (before drilling at depths of 30,000+ feet was feasible) of the dangers ultra-deepwater blowouts might pose:

Underground blowout risk is substantial in ultra deepwater wells…. Blowout control options in ultra-deepwater are very limited. Blowout prevention is of paramount importance.

Read the full article here

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Great Article on the Deepwater Horizon’s Last Day

The Wall Street Journal compiled a great article on the doomed rig’s last day and the divisive change of plans to use less drilling mud. Definitely worth the read. Read the full article here

According to the investigation by the Journal many of the senior rig managers of BP and Transocean were focused on a tour of VIP executives. This distraction and the confusing pressure readings from the well led to the situation rapidly deteriorating out of control.

Again, the BP’s decision to remove the heavy drilling mud is brought into question:

Normally, workers on the rig remove about 300 feet of mud below the blowout preventer and replace it with seawater. Mud holds down any gas that leaks into the well. So companies usually test a well fully to make sure it is sealed against any influx of gas before removing too much of the mud.

But BP engineers in Houston, including Mr. Morel and his colleague Mark Hafle, had decided to set the cement plug much deeper than usual and remove 10 times as much mud as is normal before running the test. It was unusual, but BP says it changed the procedure in order to avoid damage to a key seal.

Ronald Sepulvado, the top BP manager who was on shore that day with his phone switched off, was asked under oath by the Interior Department-Coast Guard panel in July if he had ever run a negative test where so much mud had been removed.

“No, ma’am,” replied Mr. Sepulvado. Had he ever heard of BP doing so anywhere? “No, ma’am.”

BP had asked federal regulators for permission to use a deeper plug on April 16, and received approval after only 20 minutes. But Transocean workers and contractors aboard the rig later said that they weren’t informed of the change until the morning of April 20.

Graphic from WSJ

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Raising the Blowout Preventer for Evidence

The raising of the BOP from the Macondo Well is not just a safety precaution. The BOP is also evidence that may reveal how the Gulf oil spill happened.

Video still released by BP, oil can be seen pouring out of several spots of the BOP on June 3.

The 450 ton BOP resting a mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico is set to become Exhibit A in a Justice Department investigation into what caused the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig, killing 11 men, sinking the platform, and resulting in the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. Why the “shear ram” valve failed to slice through the drill pipe shutting off the well after the explosion on April 20th may finally be known.

Thad Allen, gave BP and Transocean, the drill rig operator, permission to replace the Deepwater Horizon’s BOP with another and to bring the failed unit to the surface. The BOP will hopefully provide clues at to whether the blowout was a result of human error, mechanical failure, bad maintenance, faulty procedures — or a combination of those.

On example that’s been raised is: “the question of whether the BOP was opened and closed multiple times in the confusion of the blowout after high-pressure gas started shooting across the deck of the Deepwater Horizon rig. That might explain why, in video images, two pieces of pipe appeared to be sticking out of the top of the BOP. If the unit makes it to the surface with the pipe still inside it, part of the mystery could be solved.”

“The BOP could have closed, once shut off at the sea floor,” he explains. “But with all the expanding oil and gas still flowing to the surface a mile above, there could have been confusion aboard the rig over whether it actually closed or not – and the operators might have tried it again.”

Dan Albers, a petroleum engineer and member of the Deepwater Horizon Study Group at UC Berkeley, says the BOP could help answer questions about a major theory concerning the device’s malfunction.

If oil and gas shot up the gap, or “annulus,” between the rock and the drill casing (a steel pipe just over nine inches wide), it could have lifted that large-diameter pipe and jammed it up into the vicinity of the BOP shear rams. BP never installed the casing hanger lockdown device, Mr. Albers says. If that happened, it would have made it impossible for the blind rams to close.

Under the plan to replace the BOP, BP has been directed to flush out the current blowout preventer and capping stack, clean it, and fill it with sea water. After that would come pressure tests. If those tests show the cement cap is holding, then the BOP could be removed and replaced by another BOP now being used by the second relief well from the Development Driller II rig.

The main reason for doing this, Allen said, is to put the best possible BOP on the well in advance of pumping heavy mud into the bottom of BP’s Macondo well through the adjacent primary relief well. It’s a safeguard just in case any weaknesses remain in the concrete cap already put in place from the top last month.

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Final Plugging of Macondo Well Scheduled for September

The U.S. government said the final plugging of BP’s blown-out Gulf well will begin sometime after Labor Day. Before then, engineers are planning a risky maneuver to replace the blowout prevent. The failed blowout preventer, a prime source of interest for investigators, will be preserved intact so it can be analyzed by the government according to BP senior vice president, Kent Wells.

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BP’s Gulf Well May Not Be Permanently Killed Until September

There’s a new Bloomberg article out there that reports that a team of federal scientists and BP engineers is looking at either attaching a pressure-control system to the top of the well or installing a new blowout preventer, an emergency device designed to stop the flow of oil and gas, National Incident Commander Thad Allen said today during a press conference.

The equipment is needed to control pressure that may be created when mud and cement are pumped from the bottom of the well for the final plug, Allen said. U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu is meeting today with the team to make a recommendation on how to proceed. Allen said he expects a decision “in the next day or two.”

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New Systems to Cap Deepwater Wells in a Hurry

The Economist has a great article on the The Price of Staying in the Game for oil companies and their collective $1 billion effort to figure out what to do should a deepwater spill happen again.

The companies involved outlined their plan in a August 4th public meeting held by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. They outlined three proposals to eliminate the devastating impact of an oil spill.

Option A: Something to latch onto.
Similar to the Collar, Cap, and Collector technique used to successfully seal the Macondo well, the main component would be a containment assembly that could fit on top of a damaged blowout preventer. In the absence of a preventer, the assembly could fit on top of various other wellhead equipment or even a bare pipe through a set of adaptors and vice-like grips. This assembly would have powerful rams that could seal off the flow and could have outlets to divert that flow, if need be, into undersea piping. The outlets prevent pressure building up in a badly damaged from springing new leaks somewhere else. There were worries for some time that something like this would happen at Macondo.

Option B: Nothing to latch onto, Suction Caissons.
Sometimes there is nothing to latch on to or the oil is gushing from a hole in the seabed. For situations like this the relief response system will have a range of watertight structures called caissons. These are based on suction-pile technology use to emplace deep-sea moorings and foundations.


The suction pile is open at one end. That end is put into the sediment where the pile is to be stuck. The air is then pumped out and water pressure pushes the pile into the seabed. To make an oil-collecting caisson, such a pile would be used as a collar around a funnel-topped tube that would sit over the leak. Various sizes of caisson will be built including one 50 feet in diameter (large enough to go over the whole blowout preventer).

Once the caisson was in position with the pile pumped out and in the seabed, the caisson would fill with oil from the leak. A containment assemble attached to the top of the caisson would divert oil to a manifold (a sort of switching yard for pipe) attached to one or more floating risers to the surface. The caisson could not simply be capped because the oil pressure would blow its suction pile out of the seabed.

Option C: Capture Vessels.
The floating risers would be held vertical by buoys and direct oil from the manifold to capture vessels kitted out with special modules to flare and pump gas to adjacent tankers. The whole system could cope with a flow of 200,000 barrels a day — more than three times the 63,000 barrels a day the government estimates was the Macondo well’s peak flow rate. The capture vessels could take other jobs around the gulf, but on contracts that allowed them to break off immediately in case of emergency.

These three procedures could have capped the Macondo well within weeks. The Economist concludes with the questions: “why did such a technologically astute industry not see fit to develop such useful equipment before it was needed, rather than after? And how might that underlying and disastrous lack of foresight be corrected?”

Interestingly, the article notes that, “Throughout the system there would be ways of warming things up and injecting antifreeze to prevent the formation of icelike methane hydrates.” I still believe the hydrates could be used as an effective solution to stopping future deepwater spills. Use of ice/hydrate forms in a caisson/suction pile could provide the expansion properties needed to block the flow and kill the spill.

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BP Must Finish Gulf of Mexico Relief Wells

National Incident Commander Thad Allen said a pressure test conducted yesterday failed to prove there is no further risk of oil leaking from the well.

As a result, BP Plc has been ordered by U.S. officials to finish the relief well it’s been drilling before the well will be declared dead.

Drilling of the relief well will resume on Sunday, with the final kill complete in about four days.

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To Proceed with the Relief Well?

National Incident Commander Thad Allen said today scientists are reviewing how to proceed after determining about 1,000 barrels of oil is trapped in the Macondo well by a cement plug poured from the top last week.

Injecting mud and cement from the bottom of the well, as originally planned, may force oil out the top and wreck the bottom seal, creating a new route to the surface for oil and gas, Allen said. Pressure tests of the static kill indicate that the cement plugged the well’s central core, or production casing, then flowed into the oil reservoir and back up to plug the annulus, a space between the production casing and the outer casing that runs all the way to the top of the well.

“How thick the cement barrier is between the annulus and the reservoir, we just don’t know,” Allen said. “It might be very thin, and we go and put pressure on that and we have a problem.”

By proceeding with the static kill and plugging the well from the top with 500 barrels of hard-set cement the relief well plug will not be as secure as originally planed. Had the mud been left in place (without cementing), then pushing it up and out with cement pumped in from the bottom through the relief well would have been a better way to proceed, experts said.

Scientists continued to look through data to see if they had already sealed the well off permanently with cement.

Allen warned that there was a small chance that cement pumped in during the static kill had travelled down to the reservoir and then back up in the outer casing, sealing the well from both ends.

Pumping more cement and mud in from the relief well could raise the pressure to dangerous levels, Allen said. But if BP and Allen do decide to go ahead, drilling on the relief wells will resume on Sunday, with the final kill complete in about four days.

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BP successfully stopped the flow of oil from the leaking Macondo Well on July 15 after the well gushed an estimated 4.9 million barrels, making it the world’s largest offshore accidental oil spill (Bloomberg).

Last week, BP pumped cement into the top of the well to effectively seal the well. The cement followed the successful pumping of drilling mud into Macondo well after the flow of the leak was stopped with the Collar, Cap, and Collector solution. The use of drilling mud and cement to seal the well is known as the Static Kill Procedure. The layer of mud was used to push the gas and oil back into the reservoir.

Plans to use the relief well to seal off the well from the bottom remain.

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Oil Conversion

Here are some handy oil conversion numbers:

one tonne of crude oil
approximately 7.3 barrels of crude oil
about 307 U.S. gallons of crude oil

one barrel of crude oil
42 U.S. gallons of crude oil
159 liters of crude oil

10,000 barrels of crude oil
420,000 U.S. gallons of crude oil
1,590,000 liters of crude oil
about 1,400 tonnes of crude oil

60,000 barrels of crude oil
2.5 million U.S. gallons of crude oil
9.5 million liters of crude oil
about 8,200 tonnes of crude oil

4.9 million barrels of crude oil (latest govt estimate of spill)
205.8 million gallons of crude oil
779.1 million liters of crude oil

Other great conversion factors for the oil industry can be found here

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Oil Pollution Act

The Oil Pollution Act “limits the liability of responsible parties for offshore facilities, such as the Deepwater Horizon facility, to all removal costs (i.e., direct cleanup cost) plus $75 million and other language places a limit of $3,200 per gross ton”.

This gross ton number tells you why BP has been so cagey about accurately quantifying just how much oil is spilling, has spilled, or will spill. Expect lawyers to argue about this for the next few decades. With an estimated spill of 4.9 million barrels BP has approximately $2.5 billion in total liability. (See here for more info and good conversion factors).

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BP Starts Cement Plugging of Gulf Well

In what is being described as a ‘milestone’ for the Macondo Well in the Gulf of Mexico, BP began pouring cement into the well. Earlier this week, BP pumped heavy drilling mud into the top of the Macondo well, pushing back the flow of oil and gas and making the cementing possible. The cement will need to cure for 24 to 36 hours and should be completed by Friday. After the cement has dried, BP will resume drilling the relief well that will permanently plug the Macondo well from below.

Filling the well from top to bottom with cement will force the oil and gas back into the reservoir and should eliminate any possibility of a leak.

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Static Kill Procedure to Begin Today

BP technicians are in final tests to determine whether to proceed with the plan to pump heavy drilling mud into the Macondo well. Tests today involved slow injections of mud into the well to make sure the pumped mud will reach the oil reservoir from the column of pipes and valves that sit on top of it. It that works out, BP will begin pumping the mud and possibly cement into the well, an operation known as static kill. Alternatively, engineers may decide to wait for a relief well to be completed before pumping cement in. There is also a chance that they will pump mud both ways, to ensure the well is fully sealed.

See the full NY Times article here.

And more here:

While the static kill may only plug the center well pipe, the relief well will penetrate both the central pipe and the portion of the well between the inner piping and the outer casing. That area — called the annulus, and akin to the space between a straw inserted in a tumbler of water and the glass itself — probably will not be reached by the mud and cement injected by the static kill.

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New Snag for Static Kill

Efforts to permanently plug the gusher hit a snag when crews found debris in the bottom of the relief well that need to be fished out before crews can pump mud into BP’s busted well in a procedure known as a static kill.

The sediment settled in the relief well last week when crews popped in a plug to keep it safe ahead of Tropical Storm Bonnie. They found it as they were preparing for the static kill and now they have to remove it. They had hoped to start the static kill as early as Sunday, but removing the debris will take 24 to 36 hours and like push the kill back to Tuesday.

“It’s not a huge problem, but it has to be removed before we can put the pipe casing down,” retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government’s point man for the spill, said Friday.

After the static kill comes the bottom kill, where the relief well will be used to pump in mud and cement from the bottom of the busted well and hopefully cut off the oil permanently.

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$1.4 Million X Prize Challenge

X Prize announced a $1.4 million prize in a year-long competition to develop new, more effective methods of cleaning up oil on ocean surfaces. The prize is funded by Wendy Schmidt and the new technology must improve by at least 50% the current methods for surface oil cleanup and will be tested beginning April 20, 2011 (the one year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion) — why is it always April 20?

Read the full press release here.

I commend the Schmidt Family Foundation and the X Prize Foundation for creating an incentive for new ideas even after the Macondo well has been sealed. They are working to remedy the “market failure” and incentivize innovators.

X Prize Foundation’s founder and chairman, Peter Diamandis, added, “The day before something is a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea. We don’t know where the leading idea will come from, but we have the utmost confidence that it will emerge from crowdsourcing.”

Schmidt hopes the competition will not only spark creative cleanup solutions, but also help to ensure people are aware of the “aftershock” of the spill long after the live video feed of the oil spill has gone dark. “It’s so easy for people to forget about it, which has a psychic consequence, both for people in the gulf and for people in the nation,” she said.


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Michigan Oil Spill

A new oil spill of more than one million gallons threatens Lake Michigan. The oil spilled from a pipeline into the Kalamazoo River earlier this week. The leak came from a 30 inch pipeline that carries millions of gallons of oil each day from Indiana to Ontario.

Click here to read the full story.

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Let’s Hope This Works

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Oil Spewing from Well Near Louisiana Marsh

Reports out that a tug boat hit an oil well off the coast of Louisiana shooting oil twenty feet into the air. The tug boat hit the well before dawn. The tug boat captain immediately notified officials, and another boat later called in the leak.

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Sealing Cap and the Latest Well Update

The latest well integrity tests on the sealing cap show the Macondo well has been successfully closed. BP continues to monitor the pressure, temperature, seafloor, seismic, sonar, and acoustics activity in the area to confirm that the well doesn’t continue to leak.

The good news is that the pressure in the well continues to rise. Each day the pressure increases slightly indicating, hopefully, that the well is intact and has been closed with the Collar and Cap procedure. See the pressure chart provided in a Kent Wells’ Technical Update on July 21, 2010:

The static containment will be used in conjunction with the relief well containment. The image below depicts the current status of the relief wells (the red line marks the Macondo well).

Finally, the latest update on the coordinated effort to stop the leaking well and all the activity taking place on the ocean surface and below. Take a look:

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New Oil Spill in China

The cost of increasingly risky means of obtaining oil is epitomized by the BP oil spill. We risk destroying our planet’s eco-system by not seriously embracing alternative forms of energy.

China recently experienced its largest oil spill ever reported along the Yellow Sea.

The thick oil is covering the beaches is a severe threat to wildlife and water quality.

Click here to read more.

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