Saturday, July 17, 2010

Perplexing Saturday: July 17 BP Oil Spill Update

1. Oilcast.

There is a new normal on Pensacola Beach. "It's been fairly nice" means, in Kimberly Blair's paraphrasing of a local county official, "Most of the tar balls on the beach are weathered and appear to be left over from the major impact in mid-June, though fresher, oily tar balls have begun dotting the high-tide line on Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key... ."

That official, director Keith Wikins of Escambia County's Community Service Bureau, reads the forecast as keeping "the oil plume hanging offshore south of us" for the next few days. That's also consistent with what Louisiana State University's WAVCIS projections by the Coastal Studies Department show (above).

L.S.U.'s Coastal Studies Department has another useful animation showing the 120-hour "Surface Current Forecast." CLICK HERE to see it.

2. Well Test.

Osha Gray Davidson explains what's "really been happening" at BP's leaking well site. Looks like we're not the only ones frustrated by National Public Radio's lousy coverage:
[T]he BP well has not been plugged. It hasn’t been stopped, capped, or extinguished.

It has been “controlled,” just like the cockroaches that are guaranteed to return once the poison wears off.

The press has been getting this wrong from the git-go and they are still screwing up. Yesterday, I heard the usually reliable NPR repeat the false notion that BP is testing the cap. No, they’re testing the well by using the cap.

This isn’t just word-play. Once the distinction between testing the cap and testing the well was lost, people were certain to celebrate victory when the cap worked, even though we knew it would.

Here is what’s actually happening.

To make sure that the well bore — the part below the seafloor — is not damaged and leaking oil into cracks or holes in the rock, the cap is tricked out with pressure gauges. Now in place, the cap is controlling the oil flow. But time is the key. More time = greater pressure = well integrity.
2. Puzzling Pressure.

What are the results to this hour? Perplexing:
Pressure readings in the well rose significantly in the 24 hours after the valves were closed on a cap at the top of the well, an indication that the well was in good shape. But officials voiced caution, saying that they had expected that the pressure might rise even higher, and that the possibility of damage from the April 20 blowout could not yet be ruled out.
On PBS' News Hour Thursday, the night before the new blow out preventer on the stack cap was closed, Washington Post reporter Joel Achenbach was asked about the possible outcome of this experimental reality show in the Gulf. Here's his answer:
Lots of possibilities.

Now, the worst-case scenario is kablooey, OK, that, when you close the well, the pressure builds. And you can just imagine that the casing of this well down below the Gulf floor may be damaged. And so you could have a further kind of a lateral blowout into the rock formation.

Then you could have a situation of sort of cratering, of erosion, of gas and oil surging up in multiple leaks around the blowout preventer. Now, that, however, is not the most likely scenario. And there is no sign that that has happened.

The other possibility is -- and The Washington Post today is reporting -- I talked to one of the top scientists -- the other possibility is the pressure readings could be ambiguous. It is not what you want to see. It's not terrible. You have to sit there and figure out, well, what's going on here?

So far, that's where it seems BP is at the moment -- scratching its oily corporate head while wondering where did the pressure go?

Is it lower than expected because over the past three months BP's well already released an abundance of poisonous gas and crude oil into the human habit? Is some of it escaping out a hole in the well casing BP hasn't found? Is the oil and gas perhaps being squeezed into subsurface cracks in the rock formations, like toothpaste escaping through holes in the bottom of the tube?

The BBC reports "the company will soon run another seismic survey to check for any evidence of ruptures." A second seismic survey wouldn't have been of much use if President Obama's energy secretary, Steve Chu, hadn't insisted on a baseline survey before closing the stack cap. Thanks to Chu, BP will have something with which to compare the latest seismic imagery.

3. Chu Knew.

What a difference brains in an office-holder make, eh? The last two U.S. Secretaries of Energy were (1) a middling-level pol whose chief claim to fame was he introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate to abolish the department of energy; and (2) a complete non-entity who previously headed the fourth-worst air polluting company in Texas.

Secretary Chu, by contrast, is a "board-certified genius" and Nobel Prize winning physicist who "has stepped in repeatedly to take command of the effort to contain BP’s runaway well, often ordering company officials to take steps they might not have taken on their own."
In early May, he suggested using gamma ray imaging to determine the condition of the well’s blowout preventer, a move no one at the company had considered.

A few weeks later, he overruled some BP officials and ordered the company to stop the “top kill” effort, citing “very, very grave concerns” that it could backfire.

He insisted in late June that a tighter cap be installed on the leaking riser. And on Tuesday, over the strenuous objections of top BP officials, he ordered a 24-hour delay in plans to conduct a pressure test on the well, saying that more safety precautions and analysis were necessary.

If there's a bright spot anywhere to be seen as we look back over the past three months, it's that Steven Chu has probably saved us from the absolute worst of which BP is capable.

4. Pensacola Beach Cleanup Continues.

Salon reported yesterday that "on Pensacola Beach... dozens of BP workers in neon vests operated heavy equipment up and down the beach throughout the night and early morning."
Workers used shovels and rakes to comb through the sands for pieces of tar. Other workers then collect the clumps of tar in bags, which are carried by the front-end loaders to dump trucks and hauled away down the beach.
We saw a lot of that as we took a tour down the road to Ft. Pickens. A dozen or more white vans stuffed with workers were coming back toward the central core even as two huge buses filled with more BP workers was heading in the opposite direction toward the fort. Heavy equipment was scattered all along the seven miles stretch of beach -- road graders, dump trucks, and oversized dune buggies predominated.

Two large boats were just offshore (above). We couldn't be sure if they were looking for oil slicks or skimming it.

A helicopter flew low above the beach (below left). It appeared to be a spotter, looking for tar mats.

In the midst of all this, here and there small knots of scantily-clad sunbathers were stretched out on the sand, clean-up workers in hazmat suits combed the beach for conspicuous tarballs and trash, and the occasional tourist could be seen wading thigh-deep in the surf as if nothing had changed.

As we say, it's the new "normal."

5. Can't Fool Mother Nature.

Welcome as all the hour-by-hour and day-and-night clean-up activity may be, as Rene Shoof writes for McClatchy newspapers, the truth is "nature will have to do most of it."
While BP has hired thousands of people to boom, skim and burn large amounts of crude, the bulk of an estimated 200 million gallons of oil that spewed into the water is actually beyond human reach. As a result, the ultimate cleanup will be left to nature and to colonies of oil-chomping microbes.

Capturing most of the spill is now all but impossible to do.
* * *
"I think the bottom line is that once the oil gets into the water column — not just the surface — the genie is out of the bottle (and) that we do not have any effective ways to get the genie back into the bottle," said Robert Bea, a University of California engineering professor and an expert on offshore drilling.

Bea worked for Shell Oil on the Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969 and the Bay Marchand, La., spill in 1970 and for the Mexican oil company Pemex on the huge Ixtoc spill in 1979. In the years since those spills, the technology of cleanup hasn't changed, he said.
What's worse, no one knows what the consequences of all this oil in the Gulf will be.
Bea said that two of the newer approaches used by BP to combat the blowout didn't work very well. The unprecedented use of chemical dispersants — more than 1.8 million gallons — helped keep oil off beaches, where people notice it, but the dispersants were ineffective and environmentally destructive, he said.
6. Is the plural of oil mousse "meece?"

A beach friend called out attention to this lexicon of oil spills. Study it. Pop quiz tomorrow.


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