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“Energy” Bills Drop and Big Oil Plays Doctor July 27, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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Early this week, the House and Senate unveiled their minimalist energy bills.

Far from the comprehensive energy reform our country desperately needs, these bills are largely just a direct response to the oil spill (an approach with which I strongly disagree).

Both bills are amalgamations of other, smaller oil spill/energy bills that have already passed out of their various committees.  The House and Senate bills differ slightly (which was bound to happen even if the House bill wasn’t 238 pages compared to the Senate bill’s 16), but here’s a summary of the Senate bill’s provisions:

  • Lift the $75 million oil spill liability cap (retroactively, to apply to BP)
  • Increase the per-barrel tax on oil producers that feeds the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund
  • Restructure the Department of the Interior to remove conflicts of interest and increase drilling oversight
  • Lopsidedly incentivize electric and natural gas vehicles ($6 billion for natural gas, $400 million for electrification)
  • Finally enact the HomeStar home retrofit program

A full 24-page “draft” summary is available here but subject to change, especially as this bill is likely to move quickly ahead of the looming August recess.  Debate on this bill is scheduled for Friday.

TNR’s Bradford Plumer described the scope of this Senate legislation:

“All told, it’s a tiny bill—the total cost comes to around $15 billion. And it won’t do all that much for the environment: When one reporter asked committee staffers whether anyone knew how much greenhouse-gas reduction this bill would lead to, several people laughed out loud.”

Notably absent from this energy bill (aside from comprehensive energy policy) is a Renewable Energy Standard (RES): a requirement that America generate a certain amount of its electricity from renewable sources by a given date.

Could an RES pass right now?   Renewable energy advocates and former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle insist that they have 60+ votes for the popular, no-brainer policy.  Curiously, Sen. Reid says he doesn’t have the votes.  Someone is misinformed or lying.

Daschle, pictured above, and Reid disagree about whether the votes are there for an RES. Obviously, politicians are quite capable of the seemingly impossible feat of arguing about whether a given number is above or below 60, but Daschle doesn't really have a reason to lie; Reid could be saving the RES as a strong foundation for a subsequent, real energy bill, but he has not given any such explanation.

Both the House and Senate versions are weak as an energy bill, but the House bill does contain some additional commonsense solutions to protect America from the intrinsic risks of offshore drilling.

For example, the House bill would block oil companies with a “significant history” of violating worker safety of environmental laws from drilling in federal waters.  The legislative language, which already passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee, defines that “significant history” as a company having at least one of the following:

  • 5x the industry average for willful or repeat worker safety violations at its facilities;
  • More than 10 deaths at any facility; or
  • $10 million in fines under EPA laws within the preceding seven years.

The package includes further safety provisions that the Natural Resources panel approved unanimously, including new standards for blowout preventers.

It is worth noting that even in the comparatively more aggressive House bill, drilling regulations that were not direct responses to the oil spill were dropped.

So, what does the oil industry have to say about these moderate safety regulations?

The American Petroleum Institute (API) is the oil industry’s main trade association.  And they oppose almost all of these regulations, of course.  As far as Big Oil is concerned nothing needs to change.

In a call with reporters, API president Jack Gerard took particular umbrage at the blowout preventer regulations.  In his eyes, new blowout preventer regulations are premature because we don’t even know what caused the Gulf spill:

“We’re going into surgery without a diagnosis.  This is the ultimate in malpractice.” –Jack Gerard, President and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute.

Granted, I have never been pleased by anything these API lobbyists have said, but this is a remarkably bold statement.  We know fully well that current blowout preventer regulations and practices are not up to the job.

Hypocrisy is a familiar sight in Washington.  In the past, however, you usually had to wait until after an election before side-by-side comparisons of a single person arguing against himself began to show up a la the Daily Show.  But not anymore.

Just a few weeks ago, API spokesperson Bill Bush fought against the deepwater drilling moratorium because:

“The 33 now idle deepwater drilling rigs in the Gulf have passed thorough government inspections and are ready to be put back to work.”

Let’s continue the API’s medical metaphor: We can’t operate on (regulate) the deepwater rigs because we don’t know for sure what ails them.  But somehow, at the same time, we can pronounce them healthy and let them keep on drilling?  That does not compute.

API’s Gerard went on:

“We believe what comes out of the discussions on the oil spill should be directly related to the oil spill.”

That makes sense.  The patient was admitted only because of his inability to keep his oil down – why set his broken bones or cure any additional diseases you find during his checkup?

And remember, as I said before, needed but less directly spill-related drilling regulations have already been dropped from these bills in accordance with this oil industry demand.  Such is the price of attempting to overcome Republican obstructionism.

A brief New York Times article detailing the roll out of these bills summarized the likely resistance:

“The oil industry is expected to offer stiff opposition to some of the provisions…”

Maybe I’m reading into it too far, but this quote really irks me (because of the content, not the writing):

The oil industry screwed up, big time.  The damage to the Gulf of Mexico and its dependent economies is catastrophic.  In direct response, Congress is attempting to pass an anemic bill with long overdue and watered down regulations.

The ONLY opposition to this bill is from the very industry that screwed up in the first place and has long enjoyed a political free ride.

Are we really going to let them singlehandedly push back against the regulations they’ve so vividly demonstrated they require?  That’s like losing the bedtime argument with your young child.  This is pathetic.

Oil Spill Stunner: BOP had dead battery, leaking hydraulics and 260 design flaws May 13, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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As it turns out, the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing was much more interesting than its Senate counterpart.  Chairman Bart Stupak (D-MI, of abortion amendment fame) unleashed a blistering assault in his opening statement with some stunning new information.

It has been discovered that the Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer had:
  1. A dead battery;
  2. Leaks in the hydraulic system that would activate the pistons in the [“unforeseeable”] event of an accident;
  3. By design, 260 different failures that could require the BOP’s removal and replacement;
  4. A useless test component installed, and;
  5. Cutting tools that were not strong enough to shear through 10% of the joints in the piping.
To clarify #5, the BOP is installed on the wellhead and the drill/piping are all threaded through it on their way into the subsurface.  In the event of a blowout, one or more of the pistons (this BOP has 5, 4 excluding the useless test installation) are supposed to drive a cutting tool to shear through whatever piping is currently in the BOP, sealing the well.

In this well (and who knows how many more off our shores), our self-regulated oil industry decided it was an acceptable risk to use piping through which the BOP could not cut; rendering even a perfectly-functioning BOP ineffective; if an accident occurred while that piping was in the BOP, it would be guaranteed not to work.  This is one explanation for what has happened.

There is more to say, but it has already been said better than I can:

Could Be [Even] Worse: 2 Real Oil Spill Scenarios May 10, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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The failure of BP’s containment dome Sunday offers some dark certainty to an ongoing catastrophe rife with questions: at least now we now know that oil will continue to gush into the Gulf of Mexico for at least the next few months.  No more false hope that this will be short-term.  That’s something, right?

This oil spill is already worst in America’s history – 2 times over.  The latest estimate (Sunday, May 9th) put the spill, conservatively, at 21 million gallons total with 1.1 million more gallons gushing each day.  At that rate, by the end of Monday, May 10th, BP will have lapped Exxon Valdez’s 11 million gallons spilled.  And at this rate, another Exxon Valdez will be spilled approximately every 11 days until they can get this well under control.

As the multi-month relief well is drilled, there are two scenarios to watch for that could actually make this spill even more devastating:

1)   Oil reaching the Florida Keys and the East Coast via the “Loop Current”

2)   An unchecked gusher

East Coast Oil Outlook

You may have heard that the oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico could actually reach the East Coast.  Let’s call this “nightmare scenario #1” (as if the realized prospect of a multi-month oil spill wasn’t bad enough).  For what its worth, it is unlikely that oil will reach the East Coast in the next few weeks, but it becomes a very real threat now that we know this spill will continue for months.

The Gulf of Mexico’s “Loop Current” is a warm water current that flows north between the Yucatan peninsula and Cuba.  It flows up through the Gulf, down and around the Florida Keys, and then up the Eastern seaboard past Cape Hatteras, NC.  Were oil to enter the current, it could definitely flow around to the East Coast.

The Loop Current could carry oil up the East Coast if the spill gets pushed far enough south.

At the moment, the southern edge of the spill is about 100 miles northeast of the Loop Current.  It would take the spill at least 2 days of strong winds from the north to reach the current. It’s hardly a blessing, but the winds that are expected to blow the oil ashore this week are blowing the spill further from the current.  Current current forecasts (hah) suggest that this won’t happen for at least the next 10 days.

The good news is that as summer moves in, the chances of sustained winds from the north decrease.  Meteorologist Dr. Jeff Masters, whom I have to thank for my understanding of this phenomenon, says there is a 40% chance that the cold front required for those winds could move into position by the end of June.   It is probable that such a cold front will not arrive until October.  But we are not in the clear.

A tropical storm or hurricane could push the oil slick into the Loop Current: if a tropical storm hits the panhandle of Florida, this scenario will likely become reality with counter-clockwise storm winds sweeping down off the coast to the west of the storm’s eye and pushing the oil we now know will be there further south.  Long story short, Dr. Masters only predicts a 20% chance of such a storm in June, but drilling a relief well takes at least 2-3 months, so we will likely have plenty of oil around after June.

Especially if nightmare scenario #2 takes hold.

An Unchecked Gusher

A leaked confidential government report dated April 28 and referred to as “report No. 12” first raised concerns about this scenario.

Obviously, this wellhead is out of control, but even the failed blowout preventer, stuck with its valves open, is restricting the flow of escaping oil by creating a bottleneck.  Think about all the water in huge water main beneath the streets compared to how little comes out of your faucet even with it all the way open.

Additionally, there are purportedly kinks in the pipeline that are likely to be further reducing the amount of oil that is escaping.  This is not to say that projections are overestimating the amount of oil escaping (the opposite is in fact likely). Rather, the flow would be considerably greater were those restrictions not there.  And this scenario is possible.

The current flow rate is estimated to be 26,500 barrels/day (1.1 million gallons/day). Unfortunately, there is concern that if this spill continues for an extended period of time (as we now know it will), the wellhead could actually fail.

Recall that this oil and gas is under so much pressure that when the blowout preventer first failed, those hydrocarbons shot to the surface in seconds with enough force to blow through metal.  That pressure is still there.  The liquid that is moving through the pipe and blowout preventer as it gushes is moving very quickly and forcefully, and it is also carrying sand.  The sand particles shooting through the pipes are constantly wearing them down, eroding them like a sandblaster.  As the metal gets essentially sanded down, the longer this spill goes unchecked, the greater the likelihood is that some critical piping will fail altogether.

Losing a wellhead, unlike having a failed blowout preventer cause a huge oil spill, actually IS unprecedented.  However, it is thought that were this nightmare scenario to occur, the spill rate could increase to 150,000 barrels (6 million gallons) or more each day.  At that point, we would be facing 4 Exxon Valdez’s each week, again, for literally months.  If that happens, it seems to me that oil ends up on the East Coast no matter what we do.  Let’s hope it doesn’t come to this.

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.

Conceivable and Precedented May 4, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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***For newcomers: I have created a page of questions and answers about offshore drilling and this oil spill here.***

BP did not build containment devices before the disaster because it “seemed inconceivable” that the blowout preventer would fail.

– BP spokesman Steve Rinehart

“The sort of occurrence that we’ve seen on the Deepwater Horizon is clearly unprecedented.”

– BP spokesman David Nicholas

These are lies.  Both of them.  And I can prove it:

Blowouts aren’t inconceivable, they are actually fairly common.

I have already explained in detail how blowout preventers (the last line of defense against catastrophes like this) are known and even quantifiably proven to be woefully inadequate last lines of defense against this sort of disaster.  A U.S. government report found 117 blowout preventer failures in just a 2 year period!  And the oil industry knew this; each data point on that report’s survey was an actual blowout on an oil company’s offshore rig!

It is true that not every blowout leads to a catastrophic oil spill like this.  Yet it doesn’t take an imagination to plot out a disaster scenario when highly pressurized, obviously flammable fuels come hurtling out of the ground with explosive force towards an oil rig.  And  the second lie is even more damning.

This “sort of occurrence” (the euphemism of the day) is not at all unprecedented: a similar blowout, oil rig fire and massive oil spill occurred off the northern coast of Western Australia just 8 MONTHS AGO. I want to swear here so badly.

Before I get into the more recent spill, I have to say that there have been plenty of significant offshore blowouts and oil spills (list here). The worst in history started on June 3, 1979.  An exploratory well in the Bahia de Campeche (600 miles south of Texas) experienced a blow out.  The oil and gas ignited, lighting the platform and soon causing it to sink.  Unfortunately, that platform fell on top of the wellhead, severely hindering efforts to activate the failed blowout preventer (I know what you’re thinking: “failed blowout preventer?  Those are the last line of defense!  They never fail!”  If you don’t understand that sarcasm yet, please read this).

The blowout preventer was ultimately closed, but it had to actually be reopened to prevent its complete destruction when some valves began to rupture.  Between 10,000 and 30,000 barrels of oil gushed from that well every day for nearly 10 months until they finally capped the well on March 23 of the next year.  3.5 million barrels (147 million gallons) of oil were released.

As BP well knows, the precedent for this type of spill is well established. This oil well gushed for nearly 10 months from 1979-1980.

There have been many more blowouts since then, but lets jump to the most recent: a blowout on the West Atlas rig in the East Timor Sea created a gusher on August 21 just last year.  Shockingly enough, a fire sparked.  The spill continued for 74 days through November while it took crews 4 attempts to drill a relief well like they are now trying to do in the Gulf.

The “Montara” oil spill, as it was called, released an estimated 9 million gallons (Exxon Valdez = ~12 million gallons) into one of the world’s most pristine oceanic areas, but went largely unreported because of its remoteness.

The East Timor Sea was home to some of the world’s most iconic and endangered species including 15 species of whales and dolphins, at least 30 species of sea birds, and five species of sea turtles (it’s been an especially bad year for them).  Furthermore, 10,000 communities and 7,000 fishermen rely on the area for their survival. Residents of villages in the region report skin problems and diarrhea from eating contaminated seafoodFish catches have been reduced by 80%.

The Montara spill gushed for nearly 3 months. Look familiar?

The Montara spill and the current crisis have a lot in common. The rigs involved were 2- and 3-years old, state-of-the art and reportedly safe.  In both cases, early flow-rates were obviously understated.  Both occurred in areas of vital ecological and even economic importance.

Yet all indications suggest that the Gulf spill will be far, far worse.  The West Atlas rig didn’t sink.  The flow rate in the Gulf is already much higher.  And the Montara spill occurred in only 600 feet of water.  The Deepwater Horizon rig spill is under more than a mile of water, and the oil deposit is more than twice as deep underground.

Recall that is took Australian crews 4 tries to drill a relief well.  In case it hasn’t been made clear, that process involves drilling down to depth and then a long distance horizontally towards the first, leaking well.  The goal of this extensive drilling is to locate and bore into the original pipeline, which is less than a foot across (at least for the East Timor pipe).  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. There is a reason this project is expected to take literally months, with barrels and barrels of oil leaking the whole time.

The biggest similarity between the two, however, is that the causes may have been identical.  I wrote yesterday about Halliburton’s involvement in the “cementing” process for the Deepwater Horizon rig, and how experts believe that cracks in a faulty cementing job could be responsible for the current disaster in the Gulf. Interestingly enough, although the inquiry into the East Timor spill is not complete, investigators have identical suspicions about the cause of that spill.  And I bet you can guess who was working on the cementing for that rig too – Halliburton.

Halliburton is still looking into the Montara spill.  If we get the Gulf spill plugged, I would imagine they’ll start looking into this as well (although they won’t have to bother – we surely will).  As Charlie Cray put it, “It’s starting to look like the only thing Halliburton can cap tightly is its own mouth.”

To be fair, BP’s lies are consistent with their actions.  While they actively fought safety regulations that might have prevented this disaster, internal documentation suggests that their surprise at this incident is genuine.  Stultifying and much closer to the actual meaning of inconceivable, but genuine.

In their 2009 exploration plan and Environment Impact Statement (EIS) for this well, BP wrote that it was virtually impossible for a major oil spill to occur that would cause serious damage to beaches, fish and mammals.  They write repeatedly that it is unlikely that an accidental surface or subsurface oil spill would occur from the proposed activities.”  You know, because oil spills are virtually unheard of.

Even if a spill did occur, “due to the distance to shore (48 miles) and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts are expected.”  And that’s it.  Having said that, they made no plans about how they would respond if there was an “inconceivable” oil spill.  Because what are the chances, really?

"Don't worry about our back-up plan. We don't have one. The rig will be 50 mi offshore, what could go wrong?"

That such a ridiculous EIS was accepted is further proof (not that any was needed after last year’s sex and drugs story broke) that industry is way too close with government regulators.  No reasonable, independent citizen of this country would approve a drilling application that, instead of having a worst-case scenario response plan, simply said “that’s really unlikely, and we don’t think it will happen.”  Incredible.

Why BP Deserves This May 3, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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***UPDATE: I have added a new page to this site to let you more easily find the answers to your oil spill questions.  It is the new “2010 oil spill/offshore drilling answers” tab next to the “about me” at the top of each page, or you can click here.***

As BP’s stock rightfully plummeted on account of the horrendous disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, CEO Tony Hayward said to fellow executives, “What the hell did we do to deserve this?

Since I have been taking the time to answer other questions about the oil spill here, I think I can spare a few minutes to answer dear Tony’s question as well.

BP CEO Tony Hayward doesn’t understand why this is happening to him. Fortunately, it’s pretty simple to explain.

Some might call the blowout that engulfed the Horizon Deepwater rig in flames, killed 11 workers, injured 17 more, and unleashed an entire oil reservoir on the Gulf coast, an act of god.  Instead, I would counter that this is one of the real, now realized, risks of offshore drilling.  But can BP truly be blamed for this catastrophe?  In short, yes.  On account of simple, deliberate negligence.

And it could just as easy have happened, or even happen AGAIN, to any of the big oil companies operating off of our shores right now.

If you have been following the spill coverage, you have probably heard about the “blowout preventer.”  Blowout preventers (BOPs) are giant valve structures that can weigh 500,000 lbs and stand 50 feet tall.  They are bolted in position on the sea floor at the wellhead, where the “riser” pipe to the rig above penetrates the earth en route to the oil reservoir below.  They are full of redundant systems and backups because they are the ultimate failsafe to prevent disasters like the one we are now experiencing.  In the event of a high-pressure situation, they are designed to clamp shut, closing the well to prevent spills and protecting the oil rig above.  The Deepwater Horizon’s BOP failed.

As this story spreads, the oil industry will paint BOP failures as rare.  They are not. The unclassified version of a 1999 government report found that BOP failures are actually fairly common.  There were a staggering 117 BOP failures in just a 2-year period on the outer continental shelf of the U.S. alone.  Think about that: the last line of defense for American coasts failed more than 58 times per year. A 2007 paper from the Minerals Management Service said that there were 39 actual blowouts (not just BOP failures) between 1992 and 2007.  Add another one to both of those tallies.

Knowing that this final failsafe mechanism was imperfect and the multibillion dollar costs of an oil spill, you’d think that oil companies would do everything they could to prevent blowouts.  Instead, Big Oil used their millions of dollars in annual lobbying to FIGHT blowout preventer requirements.

Blowout Preventers are a flawed fail-safe. It is negligent not to employ every measure to improve their function.

BOPs operate on a type of dead-man switch.  The default position is closed.  The valve is only supposed to remain open if it receives a continuous signal from the rig above.  If that signal stops for any reason, the valves are supposed to slam shut.  Simple enough in theory, but as we now know, that doesn’t always happen.

Major oil-producing countries like Brazil and Norway responded to this concern 17 years ago in 1993.  BOPs on offshore wells there are required to have acoustic triggers, which can be used to remotely activate the BOP if everything else has failed.   The U.S. considered requiring remote-controlled shut-off mechanisms several years ago, but the oil industry successfully lobbied against the restriction, citing excessive costs.

Let’s examine their math, shall we?  Acoustic triggers cost an additional $500,000 per rig.  That’s the cost.  Now let’s look at the benefits: the Deepwater Horizon rig will cost $560 million to replace.  On top of that, BP is spending $6 million each day to try to contain spill.  When the oil really reaches the shore, those costs will multiply.  Then there’s the cleanup operation.

Finally, there are the legal battles.  Suits have already been filed and many more will follow.  Overall, Exxon paid $4.3 billion for the Valdez spill, and it should have been much more: the Prince William Sound still has oil on its beaches, and conservatives on the Supreme Court slashed the punitive fines that Exxon ultimately had to pay by 90% in 2008.

It is this last point that explains why oil companies can and do continue with their reckless behavior at the rest of the country’s expense.  Exxon was able to defer payment for its egregious actions for literally decades, and ultimately owed just four days’ profit in damages. That’s not even a slap on the wrist.

If that pisses you off as much as it does me, you will be similarly thrilled to hear this: while BP is obligated to pay for all of the cleanup effort, our nation’s powerful oil lobby succeeded in shielding oil companies from any real legal liability for spills decades ago.

The first jury (before the lengthy appeals process that well-oiled industry lawyers were able to win) awarded Exxon’s victims $287 million in actual damages and $5 billion in punitive damages.  As I said, they ended up paying only about 10% of that and not until decades later.  So what about BP?  Their actual legal liability for damages is capped at $75 million.  That’s right, $75 million.  God bless America.

More on Exxon Valdez and a similarly twisted cost-benefit analysis for single- vs. double- hulled tankers here.

So, in conclusion, BP/Tony: you deserve this because you skimped on safety precautions you knew to be inadequate.  It is an unmitigated tragedy that so many millions of people and countless innocent animal lives will bear the TRUE costs of your failures.  The same way mining safety caught up to Massey Coal last month, drilling safety just caught up to you.  These events shouldn’t be called “accidents.” The term “inevitables” would be far more appropriate.  As long as we continue to allow these industries to determine their own safety standards, the public (and their employees) will continue to pay the price for their reckless gluttony.

This would segue nicely into a diatribe against…erm, discussion of the absurd Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, but there are more pressing concerns at the moment.

2010 Oil Spill Answers (Pt. 1) May 3, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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Since the explosion on the Transocean Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico, many people are trying to understand what happened.  Traffic to this page has spiked significantly because I recently wrote about the dangers and strong cases against offshore drilling in general.  But I have not yet addressed the current crisis.

This post and those to follow shortly will explain what has happened and is happening.  Below, you will find basic questions about this disaster and answers to them.  I will add additional questions and answers later today, but I want to get this out as soon as possible.  If any of you have additional questions, please add them as comments and I will try to address them.

These are the questions answered below:

  • What was the oil rig doing?
  • What caused the explosion?
  • How much oil is spilling?
  • Where is the oil spilling from?
  • Can we stop the spill?  How?
  • Could the spill get any worse?

What was the rig doing?

The oil rig in question was drilling an exploratory well called “Macondo” to see if that site could be used for large, commercial-scale production.  Signs were promising, and the attempt was soon to be labeled a success.  That has changed, but the site will definitely still make it into the history books.

This was a deepwater operation, even riskier than shallower “normal” offshore drilling, but at this point, the world’s oil companies have tapped all the easily accessible resources.  At that site, the ocean floor was nearly a mile beneath the surface.  The oil formation was another 3 miles underground.

What caused the explosion?

The exact causes have yet to be determined, but educated guesses can and have been made.  You may recall old time footage or photos of oil geysers shooting into the air after big oil finds in Texas.  Many oil formations are pressurized such that if a drill pierces the geological formation, the oil escapes under its own power.  This is a cheap way to get oil out of the ground since it comes up on its own.  Rigs like the iconic grasshopper oil derricks you may have seen around the country must be used if the pressure is not high enough.  For offshore drilling, the pressure is always high enough.

Anything that lies 4 miles beneath the surface of our planet exists at very high pressures.  To visualize this, imagine a huge, full water balloon encased in a block of cement.  Imagine that cement casing fits so tightly, that the balloon is squeezed beyond the bursting point but is unable to release its water because the cement is solid and there’s nowhere for the water to go.  Now imagine somebody drilled into the cement block.  When that drill pierced the chamber with the water balloon, that water would shoot back up through the tunnel the drill bored.  Depending on the pressure involved, it might do so explosively.

In the case of this oil rig, we are dealing with pressures that are hard to visualize.  What is less difficult to visualize is that instead of water, this rig had pierced a balloon full of highly combustible oil.  Furthermore, the company had been warned that this reservoir likely held pockets of volatile natural gas.

The exact cause is unknown, but we do know that in a matter of seconds, a huge blast of oil and gas shot up through the 4 miles of pipe and shot clear through the floor of the rig.  One spark lit all that fuel and suddenly the Deepwater Horizon was engulfed in a massive fireball. Drilling Ahead has a well informed and richly presented explanation of the ordeal those workers went through.

The state-of-the-art Deepwater Horizon rig goes up - and then down - in flames.

How much oil is spilling?

The ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is worsening at an exponential rate.  BP’s initial lowball figure (and likely lie) pegged the spill rate at 1000 barrels/day. 1 barrel = 42, gallons, so 1000 barrels/day = 42,000 gallons/day.  Government officials examined the data and quickly realized that the rate was more like 5,000 barrels/day (210,000 gallons).  Since then, the spill pattern suggests that the rate is increasing rapidly.  On May 1st, experts determined that the oil could be spilling at a rate of 25,000 barrels per day (1.05 million gal/day). Unfortunately, this is only the beginning and this catastrophe stands to get far, far worse (See “Could the spill get any worse?” below).

Where is the oil spilling from?

It appears that there are three leaks: 2 from the crumpled remains of the pipe that ran from the ocean floor to the rig at the surface, and one from the point on the ocean floor where the subsurface pipe connected to that pipe that rose through the water.  It is this third site that presents the greatest problem.

Where the pipe meets the ocean floor, there is a giant valve called a “blowout preventer.”  In the event of a gusher or other dangerous, high-pressure event, the valve clamps shut, protecting the rig.  It is built with many redundancies as the last line of defense against this very kind of event.  Somehow, that valve failed, and is still leaking a high volume of oil from the reservoir.

There are 2 efforts underway to stop the spill. One has failed; the other will take months. Image Credit: Times/Picayune

Can we stop the spill?  How?

This is the question that makes this situation so dire.  A crashed oil tanker like the Exxon Valdez has a limited amount of oil that can spill.  A tapped reservoir like this has massive amounts of oil to release – it is estimated that this block could contain as much as 100 million barrels (3.1 billion gallons).  As the diagram above demonstrates, there are 2 efforts underway to stop this spill.

1)   Remotely operated submarines are attempting to engage the blowout preventer.  So far, they have been unable to do so.

2)   Another rig has moved into place to build a “relief well.”  To do this, it must drill down to the ocean floor, through the 18,000 feet of sea floor, and then they will attempt to drill into the subsurface pipe laid by the original rig.  If they succeed in doing that, they can stop the oil flow.  But this could take 2-3 MONTHS.

3) A final approach is to build a kind of dome to place over the spill site to funnel the oil up where it can be collected.  This has only been tested in shallow water.  As oil companies and the rest of the world now know, deep water is a whole different ball game.

If the current estimates are correct (and don’t get worse), within 2 months this spill will dump 6 times as much oil as was spilled by the Exxon Valdez.  In 3 months, there would be nearly 100,000,000 gallons of oil floating in the Gulf of Mexico, if not beyond.  And that’s assuming this spill rate doesn’t get continue to increase.

Could the spill get any worse?

Yes.  The blowout preventer isn’t closing like it is supposed to, but it is creating an artificial bottleneck and reducing the amount of oil that can escape at a time.  However, there is concern that behind that valve, the high pressure is circulating a mixture of water, hydrocarbons, and sand.  That sand is moving with considerable force and may be scouring the area behind the valve.  If a part of the valve or the support structure were to give way, the rate of the spill could increase by several orders of magnitude, experts say as much as 150,000 barrels/day (6.3 million gallons).  That would be an Exxon Valdez EVERY TWO DAYS.

More answers to come.  Check back later today and as this crisis develops.