Saturday, July 10, 2010

Thinking the Unthinkable

The time has come to candidly confront the terrifying possibility that the BP oil leak may never be stopped.

The oil industry has acknowledged that the only known, previously proven way to staunch a gushing well is to kill it with a "relief well." This is forty-year old technology. While it has been used, with mixed success, on shallow water wells, it has never before been tried on a deepwater well. And, as we've been warned many times, there's no guarantee the relief well will work, either.

We've been collecting the information suggesting such a possibility -- that BP's oil gusher simply cannot be stopped -- for some time. The information at hand is hardly conclusive, and on the face of it no one suggests it's the most likely outcome. But as we wait and wait and wait for something to stop the oil gusher, it is a possibility that must be considered.

1. First Relief Well.

We start with the frequent acknowledgment that the "relief" well being drilled at the Deepwater Horizon site might miss its mark. This is one of the reasons why the Obama administration back in early May "suggested" that BP drill a second backup "relief" well.

It's also been widely reported that it would take "about 90 days" to complete the first relief well. Back in the Springtime, when August seemed a long way off, the Washington Post carried an article dated May 31 and headlined "Oil Could Spew Until August, Officials Say."

Early or mid-August, so we have been told many times, was when BP expected to finish drilling the first relief well to stop the oil leak. From time to time, a BP spokesman says it might be as early "late July" -- but you know what BP's word is worth.

Many Americans, and certainly all of the tourists and residents we've spoken with on and near Pensacola Beach, realize at some level that there is a possibility the first relief well will not succeed. They know, in the miserable sports metaphors so often used in wars, that it's no "slam dunk."

As Texas A & M petroleum professor Gene Beck put it to the AP recently, the odds are "80 percent that the relief well will in short order kill the gushing well." Read the other way, there is a one in five chance it won't work.

2. Second Relief Well.

Those who know that there is a second relief well being drilled alongside the first probably assume that it will succeed if the other fails. That might mean another month or more, depending on the fickle hurricane season. Some speak of "Christmas" as a realistic target date.

It is surprising how many people know about the two relief wells. Last week, we found ourselves engaged in random conversation with a beach resident. We were both standing outside the Margaritaville beach hotel, waiting for a rain squall to pass. We had seen one another before, but had never met. He is a big, rough-looking guy with tattoos on his arms and a buzz hair cut. Ex-con or engineer? We couldn't tell.

But when we uttered something nasty under our breath about BP defecating on the beach, he responded knowledgeably and we saw our opportunity.

"What do you think will happen if both relief wells fail? we asked.

"That's the worse case scenario," he quickly replied. "I guess they'll just have to dig a third one."

"But what if
no relief well can work? What if this works like flipping a coin, or the lottery, where the mathematical odds of winning are the same for every single ticket, whether you buy one or a hundred?"

"I don't play the lottery," he said.

"What if it doesn't matter how many relief wells you drill, that the chances of "winning" remain the same or even get worse?"

"Ain't possible," was his answer. "Practice makes perfect."

That's something of a comforting thought; until, that is, you consider that with each "practice" run there is an increasing risk BP could permanently screw the pooch.

3. Well Casing Damage.

Deep inside that same WaPo article of May 31 was this blockbuster information (bold italics added for emphasis):
Sources at two companies involved with the well said that BP also discovered new damage inside the well below the seafloor and that, as a result, some of the drilling mud that was successfully forced into the well was going off to the side into rock formations.

"We discovered things that were broken in the sub-surface," said a BP official who spoke on th
e condition of anonymity. He said that mud was making it "out to the side, into the formation." The official said he could not describe what was damaged in the well.
Four days earlier, the New York Times had reported "BP Officials Took a Riskier Option for Well Casing."

Several days before the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, BP officials chose, partly for financial reasons, to use a type of casing for the well that the company knew was the riskier of two options, according to a BP document.
* * *
BP records explain, the casing chosen by the company may also cause problems if drilling mud
or cement is lost or pushed away from the well into porous rocks as it is pumped.

Federal and company records indicate that that is just what happened, on more than one occasion. The rig lost all of its drilling mud in an incident in March, and in the days immediately before the explosion, records show. The well experienced several other instances of minor losses of drilling fluid and gas kicks, according to interviews with workers from the rig.

4. Seeping Seabed.

One week later, on June 7, Florida Senator Bill Nelson uttered a shocker in the middle of an otherwise routine midday interview with Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC. It was almost certainly based on expert analysis of new information made available to Nelson. He said:
We’re looking into something new right now: that there’s reports of oil seeping up from the seabed - which would indicate, if that’s true, that the well casing itself is actually pierced underneath the seabed. If so, the problems we're facing could be just enormous.
Take a look at the interview. The shocker starts about 2:30, but Ms. Mitchell quickly smothers it with typical political trivia:

The Times followed up a week later, on June 14, with related news ["Documents Show Risky Decisions Before BP Blowout"] Internal BP Corp. documents just had been released by Rep. Henry Waxman's Committee on Energy and Commerce:

Sources at two companies involved with the well said that BP also discovered new damage inside the well below the seafloor and that, as a result, some of the drilling mud that was successfully forced into the well was going off to the side into rock formations.

Time and money were both concerns, the two representatives wrote, because the well was behind schedule. A problem in March had forced the company to apply for a “bypass,” in which a well is drilled around a problem area. By the day of the blowout, the Deepwater Horizon, leased by BP from Transocean for about half a million dollars a day plus contractors’ fees, was 43 days late for its next drilling location, the committee leaders wrote.

The choice of a tapered string meant that the well had only two barriers to upward gas flow that could cause a blowout: cement near the bottom of the well and a seal assembly near the top. The congressmen described three flawed decisions relating to the cement, and said the company also decided not to use a device called a “lockdown sleeve” to ensure that the top seal would hold.

Two weeks after that, on July 2, U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen at the end of a press briefing seemed to have all this mind when he added, almost as an afterthought:

If you’ll remember, I’ve stated earlier that we don’t know the status of the well bore right below the wellhead itself down about 1 or 2,000 feet. We don’t know if there are integrity problems with that.
What's the vague antecedent for the "that" which Allen mentions? The wellhead or the well bore ... or the seabed?

5. The Single-Point "Target."

A few days ago, science reporter Henry Fountain of the New York Times explored the ongoing "relief well" effort in some detail ["Hitting a Tiny Bull’s-Eye Miles Under the Gulf"]. There, we learn that the relief well consists of a "a string of drill pipe" that is "more like a wet noodle" than a rigid assembly.

A helpful graphic accompanied the article (click on graphic, left). It shows, among other things, that the expectation is the relief wells are 'targeting' a single "point of interception" just above the wellhead.

In order to be effective, Fountain writes, the first (or second backup) relief well "must hit the target -- the existing well’s steel casing pipe, only seven inches in diameter, more than 3 miles below the surface of the gulf."

That's a tough enough task by itself. Putting all of this together, however, one must wonder what happens if it's discovered when a relief well reaches its "point of interception" only to discover that the well bore is irreparably damaged and there are now large multiple gashes exposing the oil deposit directly to Gulf waters?

"Then, you drill deeper," an engineering friend who has spent most of his life in the oil and gas business reasoned.

6. The Ultimate Worse Case.

Another answer is suggested by one expert contacted by Bloomberg News late last week:
The ultimate worst-case scenario is that the well is never successfully plugged, said Fred Aminzadeh, a research professor at the University of Southern California’s Center for Integrated Smart Oil Fields who previously worked for Unocal Corp. That would leave the well to flow for probably more than a decade, he said in a telephone interview.
Other oil drilling experts have expressed similar doubts. In an on-line Q & A at WaPo last month, Shell Oil's recently retired president, John Hoffmesiter, said the well casing belown the seafloor may have been compromised:
[Question] What are the chances that the well casing below the sea floor has been compromised, and that gas and oil are coming up the outside of the well casing, eroding the surrounding soft rock. Could this lead to a catastrophic geological failure, unstoppable even by the relief wells?

John Hoffmeister: This is what some people fear has occurred. It is also why the “top kill” process was halted. If the casing is compromised the well is that much more difficult to shut down, including the risk that the relief wells may not be enough. If the relief wells do not result in stopping the flow, the next and drastic step is to implode the well on top of itself, which carries other risks as well.
If the well casing or seafloor essentially has been blown apart, relief wells cannot physically stop the leaking. They can only hasten the day when enough gas has escaped that the oil no longer is being forced out of the sea floor.

Over the course of nearly three months, the BP oil leak has poisoned so much of the Gulf that NOAA recently expanded the federal no-fishing zone to encompass one-third of the entire Gulf of Mexico. If relief wells cannot staunch the oil gusher the Gulf of Mexico, it seems inevitable that The Gulf of Mexico will become uninhabitable for all sea life. Considering that no one particularly cares to live next to a dead sea, wide swaths of the Gulf Coast soon would empty of all humans, too.

We aren't 'expecting' such a catastrophic result. We certainly don't wish for it. Yet, the possibility must be kept in mind. BP has unleashed on the world a disaster of cataclysmic proportions. As bad as this is, it's only prudent to bear in mind, as our dear old father often counseled, that things are never so bad that they can't get worse.

No comments: