The Deep Horizon was the Super Star of its Drill Vessel Class until Nature tested a small blow out preventer.
I don’t know much about oil exploration, especially deep well drilling and I guess that’s the case with many people. And as so often in these cases, we won’t get interested until something hits close to home.
I know oil as the most precious resource our civilization is currently using to sustain itself. Every single other commodity is secondary to crude oil in terms of necessity for survival in our civilization.
Without crude oil, factories would come to a stand still, refineries would be unable to produce gasoline, airplanes would be grounded, heating oil would be unable to be produced and ultimately unemployment would skyrocket as productive inputs are unable to function and means of transportation become idle. It is the reason why there is literally no limit to how high the price of oil can go over the long run. Its significance as the world’s primary energy source produces wars, wreaks havoc within the economic supply chain, and has the capacity to bring entire nations to its knees. Its scarcity has controlled our economic thinking and consequently is the primary creator of imperialism of our times.
Scary isn’t it. Even scarier to realize that rather than finding creative solutions to problems that we hadn’t even thought of 150 years ago (because oil had not taken any industrial position in our civilization yet) makes us behave now as if there were no life prior to crude oil.
When the Deep Horizon disaster happened 41 miles south of the Louisiana coastline now almost 2 weeks ago, my first thoughts were “and Obama supports more drilling off our shores?”
Of course that in itself is basic ignorance fed by lack of insight and an overdose of misplaced sentiment. And I’m not alone. The first transfer of ignorance comes when the press starts using the term “spill”. Why? Because this is not a spill. This is a leak in a well and a potentially massive one at that. A spill is something that can be contained at some point since we know how big the spill can maximally be. The Exxon Valdez in 1989 created an 11 million gallon spill. Even if it could not be contained, the damage would be 11 million gallons of crude oil versus the environment.
The Macondo block reservoir, the name for this field in the Gulf of Mexico, may be as large a 100 million barrels of crude oil that has been compromised at a drilling depth of 18,000 feet.
Now we can react like we collectively did when the Three Mile Island Nuclear Reactor went bunkers in April 1979 and shut down all nuclear power plants under construction and scratched the ones on the design table and 31 years later we’re still trying to catch up from that stupidity. I thought it smarter to go and see what the guys on a drilling rig or vessel have to say about what happened, preferably in terms and words I cold understand. The following is a very interesting insight with step by step explanations for those of us who have not mastered the technology of oil catting yet.
The drilling vessel Deepwater Horizon exploded on Tuesday April 20, burned and sank on Thursday April 2, with the loss of 11 workers and injuries to many more. What happened? What’s happening now? What’s going to happen? Here are most of the facts and some options to prevent a major ecological disaster.
An Ill-fated Oil field Discovery
According to all accounts, at about 10 p.m. CDT last Tuesday, Deepwater Horizon was stable, holding an exact position in calm, dark seas about 45 miles south of the Louisiana coastline. Water depth in the area is 5,000 feet. The vessel manifest listed 126 souls on board.
Deepwater Horizon was finishing work on an exploration well named Macondo, in an area called Mississippi Canyon Block 252. After weeks of drilling, the rig had pushed a bit down over 18,000 feet, into an oil-bearing zone. The Transocean and BP personnel were installing casing in the well. BP was in the process of sealing things up, and then go off and figure out how to produce the oil — another step entirely in the oil biz.
The Macondo Block 252 reservoir may hold as much as 100 million barrels. That’s not as large as other recent oil strikes in the Gulf, but BP management was still pleased. Success is success — certainly in the risky, deep-water oil environment. The front office of BP Exploration was preparing a press release to announce a “commercial” oil discovery.
This kind of exploration success was par for the course for Deepwater Horizon. A year ago, the vessel set a record at another site in the Gulf, drilling a well just over 35,000 feet and discovering the 3 billion barrel Tiber deposit for BP. So Deepwater Horizon was a great rig, with a great crew and a superb record. You might even say that is was lucky.
But perhaps some things tempt the gods. Some actions may invite ill fate. Because suddenly, the wild and wasteful ocean struck with a bolt from the deep.
The Lights Went out and Then…
Witnesses state that the lights flickered on the Deepwater Horizon. Then a massive thud shook the vessel, followed by another strong vibration.
Transocean employee Jim Ingram, a seasoned offshore worker, told the U.K. Times that he was preparing for bed after working a 12-hour shift. “On the second thud we knew something was wrong.”
Indeed, something was very wrong. Within a moment, a gigantic blast of gas, oil and drilling mud roared up through three miles of down-hole pipe and subsea risers. The fluids burst through the rig floor and ripped up into the gigantic draw-works. Something sparked. The hydrocarbons ignited.
In a fraction of a second, the drilling deck of the Deepwater Horizon exploded into a fireball. The scene was an utter conflagration.
Evacuate and Abandon Ship
There was almost no time to react. Emergency beacons blared. Battery-powered lighting switched on throughout the vessel. Crew members ran to evacuation stations. The order came to abandon ship.
Then from the worst of circumstances came the finest, noblest elements of human behavior. Everyone on the vessel has been through extensive safety training. They knew what to do. Most crew members climbed into covered lifeboats. Other crew members quickly winched the boats, with their shipmates, down to the water. Then those who stayed behind rapidly evacuated in other designated emergency craft.
Some of the crew, however, were trapped in odd parts of the massive vessel, which measures 396 feet by 256 feet — a bit less than the size of two football fields laid side by side. They couldn’t get to the boats. So they did what they had to do, which for some meant jumping — and those jumpers did not fare so well. Several men broke bones due to the impact of their 80-foot drop to the sea. Still, it beat burning.
With searchlights providing illumination, as well as the eerie light from the flames of the raging fire, boat handlers pulled colleagues out of the water beneath the burning rig. In some instances, the plastic fittings on the lifeboats melted from the heat.
The flames intensified. Soon it was impossible for the lifeboats to function near the massive vessel. The small boats moved away from the raging fountain of fire fed by ancient oil and gas from far below the earth.
The lifeboat skippers saved as many as they could find — 115 — but couldn’t account for 11 workers who were, apparently, on or around the drill deck at the time of the first explosion. Nine of the missing are Transocean employees. Two others work for subcontractors.
Damon Bankston to the Rescue
Fate was not entirely cruel that night. Indeed, a supply boat was already en route to the Deepwater Horizon. It was the Tidewater Damon Bankston, a 260-foot long flat-deck supply vessel.
Damon Bankston heard the distress signal. Her captain did what great captains do. He aimed the bow toward the position of Deepwater Horizon. Then he tore through the water, moved along by four mighty Caterpillar engines rated at 10,200 horsepower. Soon, the Damon Bankston arrived on scene, sailed straight into the flames and joined the rescue.
Meanwhile, Coast Guard helicopters lifted off from pads in southern Louisiana, and Coast Guard rescue vessels left their moorings. “You have to go out,” is the old Coast Guard saying. “You don’t have to come back.”
The helicopters flew in the black of night toward a vista of utter disaster. Arriving on scene, the pilots watched in awe as columns of flame shot as high as a 50-story building. The helicopters were buffeted by blasts of super-heated wind coming from the flames, while chunks of soot the size of your hand blew by.
The pilots hovered in the glow of the blazing rig, while Coast Guard medics fast-roped down to the deck of Damon Bankston. The medics quickly assessed the casualties, strapped critically injured crewmen to backboards and hoisted them up to the helicopters. Then the pilots turned north and sped ashore to hospitals.
Uninjured survivors returned to land on the Damon Bankston. And others came out to fight the blistering flames.
But the Deepwater Horizon wasn’t going to make it. The situation deteriorated, to the point of complete catastrophe. The ship was lost.
At about 10 a.m. CDT on Thursday morning, 36 hours after the first explosion, the Deepwater Horizon capsized and sank in 5,000 feet of water. According to BP, the hulk is located on the seafloor, upside-down, about 1,500 feet away from the Macondo well it drilled.
On Friday, the news was that the oil well drilled by the Deepwater Horizon was sealed in. The “official” word was that the well wasn’t gushing oil into the sea.
But over that weekend it became clear that the well was leaking oil, at a rate of about 1,000 barrels per day.
The on-scene information came from remotely operated underwater robots that BP and Transocean were using to monitor the well and survey all the other wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon. There’s now a large amount of equipment and pipe and a myriad of marine debris on the seafloor near the well. It’s a mess and it turns out that the blowout preventer is not controlling the flow of oil. According to Transocean, the blowout preventer on Deepwater Horizon was manufactured by Cameron Int’l.
What happened? Nobody knows just yet. Earlier reports that underwater robots sealed the blowout preventer were wrong. The blowout preventer may be only partially closed.
According to the Coast Guard and BP, oil is leaking from two spots along what is left of the riser system.
Originally, the risers were affixed to the blowout preventer on the seafloor, and extended 5,000 feet straight up to the “moon pool” of the Deepwater Horizon. When the drilling vessel sank, it took the riser piping and bent it around like a pretzel.
The remnants of the riser system now follow a circuitous underwater route. According to BP, the risers extend from the wellhead up through the water column to about 1,500 feet above the seabed. Then the riser system buckles back down toward the seafloor. Experts are actually astonished that it all held together as well as it has.
According to the Transocean website, the riser devices on the Deepwater Horizon were manufactured by VetcoGray, a division of General Electric Oil & Gas and have a 3.5 million pound load-carrying capacity. That’s the equivalent weight of about four fully fueled Boeing 747s. These risers are super strong.
In general, the riser components compensate for heave, surge, sway, offset and torque of the drilling vessel as the ship bounces around on the sea surface. The bottom line is to maintain a tight seal — what’s called “integrity” — between the subsea blowout preventer stack and the surface during drilling operations.
Down at the bottom, at the seafloor, the risers are connected to the blowout preventer by a connector device. The GE-Vetco spec is for a device that accommodates 7 million foot-pounds of bending load capacity. That’s about eight fully fueled Boeing 747s.
What’s the idea? You want a secure connection between the high-pressure wellhead system and the subsea blowout preventer stack. That’s where mankind’s best steel meets Mother Nature’s highest pressures.
High pressures? You had better believe it. And in this case, Mother Nature won. So looking forward, there’s going to be a lot of forensic engineering on the well design and how things got monitored during drilling. Transocean drilled the well, but BP designed it. And the key question is how did the down-hole pressures get away like they did?
But What Happens Now?
While it was a good thing that the Deepwater Horizon didn’t settle right on top of the well but some 1,500 ft away, the remotely operated vehicles could not stop the flow.
It’s absolutely imperative to shut off that oil flow. With the blowout preventer shut off incapacitated, a possible defect the Obama administration will use to drill BP into the ground, integrity to the risers to control the leaks with some sort of plug is now becoming remote as new leak numbers are indicating 5,000 barrels a day. BP is preparing to drill one or more relief wells to secure the site permanently as it has mobilized the drilling rig Development Driller III, which is moving into position to drill a second well to intercept the leaking well. With the new well, the drillers will inject a specialized heavy fluid into the original well. This fluid will secure and block the flow of oil or gas and allow BP to permanently seal the first well. But it will take time. Up to three months potentially. 90 days of 5,000 barrels a day of leakage would be twice the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster.
Until then one other idea is to lower a large “hood” over the leak and capture the oil so it can be pumped up to a storage tanker ship or a drill ship. BP issued a statement that three containment chambers (giant box-shaped inverted funnels designed to cover the well and two other leaks and channel the oil to a drillship) were in the final engineering phase and expected to be deployed this coming week.
The role of the Media
As in any type of emergency, the traditional media go overboard, because they have no way to immediately correct themselves, once their message is in print. This creates stories like the oil spill could effect our beaches here on Amelia Island. Yes, if you like to spread fear and panic stories, but in reality that chance is almost zero. Will or could it effect fish and seafood prices, absolutely yes. The Gulf of Mexico has a $1.8 billion dollar fishing industry in the affected areas alone. So yes supply will hurt and prices will go up. Ecologically we’re in for a disaster, as every calamity like this will cause some effect.
Deep water drilling is a very capital intensive business. Transocean is probably the premiere company at doing this. All so we have the energy we need to function in our modern world. Sometimes, despite our absolute best efforts, shit happens. Nothing complicated and created by man is 100% foolproof. Maybe 99.99%. I personally have to believe this scenario represents that .01%.
So what do we do now? Knee jerk reaction? Stop all drilling? The stock market is selling off RIG like crazy. Never seen anything like it. If you can, buy some shares today at a deeply discounted price. Why? This business is necessary, it is not going away anytime soon. It may sound selfish in the middle of such a disaster, but it is also in a sense a vote of confidence in a fine company with seasoned and outstanding employees.
It is hard to conceive of the forces at work to cause this tragedy. My condolences to the families of the men who where lost Without their meaningful work, the world would truly be a different and less prosperous place. And having said that it should be another motive for us to speed up our search and implementation of alternative energy resources and much more energy efficiency on all levels, industrially and privately.
Meanwhile insiders say the relief well has to go down at Macondo — carefully and safely. This Macondo well is history, they say. Seal it. Mark it. Give it back to the sea. Move on. Don’t tempt fate on this one. People in this line of work consider superstition a sixth sense.
Macondo is a fictional town described in Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.
That might just be a good advice for this hell hole.