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Containment Failed: America’s Worst Oil Spill to Worsen May 9, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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BP reluctantly announced that its short-term containment attempt failed on Sunday.

The 100-ton metal dome that was supposed to control the gushing oil by funneling it up to a ship above was foiled by large quantities of “methane hydrates” (aka “methane clathrate” or “methane ice”), a crystalline slurry similar to ice that forms when natural gas mixes with water at high pressures and low temperatures.   These methane hydrates both clogged the funneling mechanism and made the containment dome too buoyant to effectively sit on the ocean floor over the gusher.

Joe Romm raises an excellent point: “if BP or any other major thought 1) this type of disaster was conceivable and/or that this dome stragey was particularly plausible, then they would have pre-built and pre-positioned one in the Gulf years ago.”  This was a long shot from the beginning, but as good a PR move as any because it allowed BP to appear active while the spill continues.

BP will spend the next 48 hours determining if the dome effort can be salvaged, but even BP’s spokespeople are more subdued.  And with good reason.  If this effort remains a failure, the outlook for the Gulf is decidedly bleak.

The only remaining containment option is to drill a “relief well.” As I’ve written, this process involves drilling down to depth and then a long distance horizontally towards the original, gushing well.  The goal of this extensive drilling is to locate and bore into the original pipeline, which is less than a foot across.  So in the Gulf, crews will have to drill through 18,000 ft of sea floor beneath more than 5,000 of water.  Then they have to drill laterally to find the pipe and pierce it from miles away. During the eerily similar Montara oil spill in Australia just 8 months ago, it took crews 4 tries to successfully drill the relief well.  There is a reason this project is expected to take literally months, with thousands more barrels of oil spilling each and every day.

The exact spill rate is impossible to pinpoint.  The Coast Guard actually quit updating the official spill rate estimate days ago (which still stands at 5,000 barrels/day).  That is not a huge surprise, and it is true that their energies are better spent on clean up and remediation efforts.

However, nongovernment organizations have the time and manpower to continue to project the size of the spill.  SkyTruth, a tiny nonprofit out of West Virginia that analyzes satellite imagery with one paid staffer, has led the charge in this endeavor.  The most recent estimate calculates the spill rate at about 26,500 barrels/day (1.1 million gallons/day).

SkyTruth satellite analyses have confirmed this to be the worst oil spill in American history.

The Exxon Valdez spill is conservatively estimated to have released 11 million gallons into Alaskan waters.  As of May 8th, SkyTruth estimated that at least 18 million gallons of oil have gushed into the Gulf of Mexico. Even by May 1st, just 11 days after the spill began, they quietly announced that their projections showed at least 12.2 million gallons of oil had spilled.

It is time to start calling this what it is: the worst oil spill in American history. And it now seems that this will continue for months at the rate of at least an Exxon Valdez every two weeks.

The calm weather conditions that have aided surface containment efforts and largely spared coastal areas from oil so far are about to end:

These winds will threaten to bring oil to a large portion of the Louisiana coast, including regions of the central Louisiana coast west of the mouth of the Mississippi River. The Mississippi and Alabama coasts will also be at risk next week, but the risk to the Florida Panhandle is lower.

-Dr. Jeff Masters

Americans have been able to hold this ongoing crisis at arms length because it has largely stayed offshore so far.  This week, that will likely change.

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.

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