Sunday, July 18, 2010

Survival Sunday: July 18 BP Oil Spill Update

""In ecosystems, when you wipe out large segments of them, the ecosystem responds to the absence of those things and other things come in to take their place and you don't return to the way things were."
-- Stan Senner, Ocean Conservancy (quoted by BBC News, July 13, 2010)
1. Oilcast.

2. The Hyppocratic Oilth.

In a statement by Adm. Thad Allen released yesterday, it was announced:
The federal science team has been closely overseeing BP's well integrity test with the goal of first doing no harm to the well.
We'll call that the Hyppocratic Oilth. Adm. Allen goes on:
Based on the data and pressure readings compiled to date, the test has provided us with valuable information which will inform the procedure to kill the well and a better understanding of options for temporary shut in during a hurricane.
* * *
As we continue to see success in the temporary halt of oil from the leak, the U.S. government and BP have agreed to allow the well integrity test to continue another 24 hours.

The government has ordered additional monitoring of the area while the test continues which includes doubling the seismic mapping runs over the well site. A NOAA sonar ship has also been brought to the site to assist in monitoring the entire sea floor area around the well. The ship will make regular passes around the well looking for any hydrocarbon release subsea, and both acoustic and visual monitoring of the area with ROV's will continue.
Happy days will not be here again even if the tests disclose no known leaks. The admiral's statement makes it clear that "when this test is eventually stopped, we will immediately return to containment... ." That means, opening up the well again and collecting more oil-mixed-with water.

This morning, BP announced in a statement that the "test" will be completed Sunday afternoon. And, you'll be shocked to hear that BP's spokesman says everything is going just peachy.

As always, the permanent solution still is weeks away, when and if the relief wells hit their target and heavy mud and cement seal the well for good.

3. Relief Wells.

"Can it work?" Thyrie Bland Travis Griggs asks about a relief well in the headline of today's Sunday Pensacola News Journal. Bland Griggs offers an admirably vivid and compelling word picture of the process, leaving no doubt how dicey are the prospects:
Deep beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, past where blue water fades to black, past the point where the pressure would crush a nuclear submarine, past the frigid sandy seafloor and thousands of feet of shale and stone — is where engineers must stop the Deepwater Horizon oil spill for good.

With a long string of steel and a rock-crushing bit, engineers must carve a three-mile path, weaving through pockets of explosive gas before feeling their way with high-tech sensors toward a target no wider than a telephone pole. In a delicate dance orchestrated from 18,000 feet above, the drill must brush — but not bump — alongside the steel casing of the ruptured Deepwater Horizon well.

With their eyes glued to pressure gauges, engineers will lower a tool to cut a window through the steel wall of the errant well. When they strike oil, they go in for the kill.

With massive pumps pushing fluid as fast as 100 fire hoses, engineers pump a heavy sludge into the bottom of the gushing well. At first the oil will sweep the kill fluid toward the surface, but as thousands of gallons of heavy mud fill the three-mile well bore, its weight pushes back against the pressure of the oil.

The pumps race. The pressure builds. And if everything goes right, the oil stops.
But relief wells don't always go right. Bland Griggs doesn't blanch at telling us about last year's Timor Sea disaster or the 10-month-long Pemco blow-out at the Ixtoc well in the Bay of Campeche, or a shallow-water gas well blow-up off the Louisiana coast.

He could have mentioned dozens of others, neatly cataloged here on a British web site into categories like "deadliest," "most expensive," "sunk rigs," and so on. Some took as many as five tries at a successful relief well. Another catalog of petroleum pollution, indexed by corporate identity, is provided by NOAA here.

"Everybody's confident that we'll get it," Bland Griggs quotes BP drilling advisor Terry Jordan as saying.

"Get it" as in eventually, someday, capping BP's runanway oil well? Yes, probably.

But "get it" as in waking up to see that this dangerous source of energy is poisoning the planet and we need to rush the development of alternatives? That remains to be seen.

4. Surviving Species.

"How much damage has the BP oil spill done?" BBC News asked this week. "And when will it be fully repaired?"

The answers are "we aren't sure" and "probably never." The warmth of the Gulf should help degrade the leaked oil much faster than in a cold climate like Prince William Sound -- where ninety percent of the Exxon Valdez oil persists in the water, under rocks, and in the soil. That doesn't mean, however, that the oil and its penetrating effects on the chain of life will totally vanish from the Gulf of Mexico anytime soon. Not even in the life time of everyone alive today.

Summarizes the BBC:
There may be oil which becomes buried on shore, and oil may end up at the bottom of the sea in anaerobic areas - places where there is no oxygen to allow the microbes to do their work.

"We have never seen these clouds or plumes of oil dispersed in tiny droplets in the water," says [Stan] Senner. "We don't know how much is ending up on the bottom. Onshore, we don't know how much is being buried."
Habitats where the oil has sufficiently penetrated the several thousand known species of sea grasses, marine algae, fungi, and other "submerged aquatic vegetation" will die -- as will the more complex forms of sea life that depend upon them. If the oil penetrates the roots of coastal sea oats, succulents, ferns, shrubs, and trees, these plants also are unlikely to survive.

Where such plants are stabilizing islands, wetlands or estuaries, "then you are going to lose those areas altogether. [Wetlands] will go to open water and will never recover," Senner says.

As for fish, bird, and animal species, experts interviewed by the BBC suggest that the shorter the life span, the quicker a specie may recover if there are sufficient unaffected like-kind organisms to breed in their place; but longer-lived animals like "dolphins, whale sharks and sea turtles... might not fully recover for 10-20 years."

And that's the optimistic view. Endangered species, like Kemp's Ridley sea turtle and the Bluefin Tuna, which have the misfortune to breed near where the Deepwater Horizon platform was, may disappear altogether.

The largest changes may be undetected for some time. Senner warns:
In ecosystems, when you wipe out large segments of them, the ecosystem responds to the absence of those things and other things come in to take their place and you don't return to the way things were. * * * Ecosystems are always dynamic.
As Charles Darwin taught us, all living things may become displaced by other organisms when habitats change by natural causes or the hand of man. An asteroid collision with Earth renders dinosaurs extinct and clears the way for small nocturnal mammals to evolve, some of them eventually evolving into homo sapiens. Humankind's coal-fired furnaces almost wipe out light-colored pepper moths by making them easy prey to spot against the coal-dust darkened lichen of trees, resulting in 98% of the moths being darker colored.

As Stephen Jay Gould also argued compellingly, "contingency, or shaping of present results by long chains of unpredictable antecedent states" inevitably influence how the "timeless laws of nature" work.

Relief wells or no, the Gulf will never be the same. What that means for shrimp, fish, dolphins, sea turtles, and the humans who live here may not be known for a very, very long time. But it will never be the same.
correction to substitute
Travis Griggs as author 7-20 pm


Anonymous said...

This is the most insulting thing I have ever read. Some of the statements were udderly ridiculous. Target audience must be Pavlov trained Americans.

Anonymous said...

Insulting? What an odd response.

"udderly ridiculous"
now THAT is ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

Find out why the hell we don't require relief wells in the first place.


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