Thursday, May 20, 2010

Spill 2

Deepwater Horizon

Built in South Korea, by Hyundai Heavy Industries Co. Ltd., in 1998 - 2000, the 32,688 ton Deepwater Horizon, ultra-deepwater, dynamically positioned (computer controlled), semi-submersible offshore drilling rig, was delivered to Transocean Ltd., the world's largest offshore drilling contractor, in February of 2001. It was one of approximately two hundred deepwater offshore rigs that are capable of drilling in more than 5000 feet of water (1 mile equals 5280 feet), and it held the record for drilling the deepest oil well in history at a vertical depth of 35,050. feet (6.63 miles). Its Port of registry was Majuro, in the Marshall Islands.
Since arriving in the Gulf of Mexico, Deepwater Horizon was under contract to BP Exploration, a division of the giant multi-national British Petroleum plc, the third largest energy company, and the fourth largest company, period, in the world. It cost BP $496,800 per day to lease the rig.
In April of this year, Deepwater Horizon was working BP's Mississippi Canyon Block 252, referred to as the Macondo Prospect, located approximately 51 miles off the coast of Louisiana, at a depth of 5000 feet.
On the night of April 20th a group of British Petroleum executives were aboard celebrating the project's safety record. Workers were busy attempting to convert the well from an exploration well to a working, production well, setting and testing a cement seal previously put in place by workers of the oil services company, Halliburton. Apparently what is known as a "blow out" occurred creating a methane gas bubble that shot up the drill column, expanding quickly as it burst through several seals and barriers. Sea water shot back through the column hundreds of feet into the air. Methane gas followed the sea water, then oil, which ignited, causing a massive explosion that cost the lives of nine rig crew members and two engineers. Seventeen others were injured.
The blow out created a huge oil and methane gas leak on the seabed floor dumping anywhere from 210,000 gallons (BP's worst case estimate), to much as 2,900,000 gallons of oil a day, or more (these figures of course represent estimates from different sources. The responsible party and vested interest, BP uses the lower figure, independent analysts higher figures).
The Deepwater Horizon never recovered and sank two days later, on April 22, and is now resting on the seafloor almost a mile down and a quarter of a mile northwest of the spewing well.
As we've seen earlier, the Exxon Valdez was responsible for dumping approximately 11 million gallons of oil into the Prince William Sound, with a total estimated cost upward of 7 billion dollars, and counting. In comparing the two incidents one needs to keep in mind that oil spills of this type occur on a regular basis around the world, but receive little or no public scrutiny (in the U.S. at least) due to the fact that they take place in third world countries where environmental regulations are not as strict, and where they are actively obscured by the perpetrators of the spills themselves.
Amy Westervelt in The Faster Times writes: "In Nigeria, for example, every year since 1969, oil operations in the Niger Delta have spilled as much oil as the 1989 Exxon Valdez. Let that sink in for a minute … an Exxon Valdez spill every year. There are 2,000 ongoing spills in the country. The AP reported earlier this month that last year Royal Dutch Shell alone spilled a record 14,000 tons (over 4 million gallons) of crude oil in the Niger Delta... The Niger Delta is the largest wetland in Africa, spanning 20,000 square miles and inhabited by some 150 species, all now endangered thanks to oil spills."
Even closer to home here in the Gulf of Mexico, despite the many claims of proponents of offshore drilling and Republican law makers, drilling is not completely safe, and there have been hundreds of recorded spills before, during, and since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.
The main difference between the Valdez spill and Deepwater is that the Alaskan spill was finite in volume, meaning 11 million gallons escaped into the sound while the remainder (and majority) of the ship's cargo was transfered safely to other vessels and storage facilities.
By contrast, the Deepwater spill is infinite in nature, that is until the spill sources are closed permanently (there are 3 of them), which may not be for several months as new relief wells are drilled, the oil continues to spill into the Gulf. If those who estimate the higher volume is escaping into open water are correct, that would be equal to one Exxon Valdez spill occurring every three and a half days, and the spill is nearly a month old at this point (BP has been successful in inserting a six inch in diameter tube into the leaking 21 inch pipe, and has begun siphoning approximately 2,000 to 3,000 gallons a day into a tanker, which is just a small fraction of what is leaking into open water (picture a mile long bendy straw positioned into the mouth of a running garden hose). To date, about 6.6 million gallons of an oil-water mix have been recovered. More than 1.3 million feet of containment boom and 400,000 feet of sorbent boom (absorbs oil) have been deployed to contain the spill, according to the Deepwater Horizon Response website).
In Part 3 of this post we will discuss the economic and environmental consequences of this tragedy, and who should be held responsible for the accident. For now we must keep in mind that the spill is ongoing and not limiting itself to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Last Wednesday morning the European Space Agency released photographs indicating the oil has entered a powerful current, known as the Loop Current, that will carry the oil into the Florida Keys, home to the third largest coral reef in the world, Cuba, and the Eastern Seaboard.
As far back as May 4th, David Fleshler and William E. Ginson wrote in the Sun Sentinel that Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has "extended a state of emergency south to Sarasota County. Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Dry Tortugas National Park and Biscayne National Park began disaster preparations, establishing a response team comparable to that set up for hurricanes... Florida faces the risk of oil washing up on beaches, smothering sea turtle hatchlings, ruining shorebird nests, and killing a wide range of coastal wildlife."
Tuesday the 18th, 50 or so, 3 to 8 inch in diameter tar balls were found on the beaches of the Florida Keys. The next day the Coast Guard stated conclusively that they were not from the Deepwater Spill, and their source remained unknown.
Their showing up at the same time a giant oil spill has been generated nearby, well, that's just a coincidence I guess.
We shall see.
This morning, while posting my wishes for a happy birthday to my lovely case manager, my television tuned to CNN was displaying a video of heavy oil from the BP spill fouling the sensitive marshes of Louisiana.
"The heavy oil is here," Governor Jindal said. "This was the day everybody was worried about, everybody was concerned about. That day is here, that heavy oil is in the marshes."
It has been an entire month now since the Deepwater Horizon explosion, and the oil still gushes.

To be continued.

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