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OPED: A Second, Slower Look at the Well from Hell

By The Maritime Executive 12-28-2010 02:15:44

OPED By Jeff Mudgett, Co-founder and former editor of The Maritime Executive. "There is a fifth dimension beyond which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space, and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between the pit of Man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call”….. America’s relationship with big oil and offshore drilling. Special thanks to Rod Serling for helping me to define that always nonsensical, often hypocritical, love/hate relationship. Has there ever been another more bizarre, more un-evolving one? Whether yes or no, on to the Deepwater Horizon blow-out. ************ At press time, the national news media were estimating some 5,000 barrels per day spewing from the break. That’s about 200,000 gallons. Hardly, as the rate we see bursting from the rip on video is far more immense than what this volume would look like. The actual rate is probably five times the estimate. Trying to keep up, each channel has its own team of experts, each trying as hard as they can to out ‘investigate’ the others for ratings. As a result the information we are inundated with, like the rate of spill, is highly suspect, if not downright wrong. Here is what we do know: environmentally, for perhaps the first time in our nation’s history, we suffer from an oil spill that, unless absolutely capped, has the potential to keep spewing oil into our ocean for months, years, or, as horrible as the thought is, until it plays itself out. By understanding that concept, it becomes obvious that the foremost principle is that if the spew is indeed fixed, the fix must be permanent, i.e., capable of withstanding geologic variation at pressures of astronomical intensity. Real experts disagree whether this is indeed possible. For this reason, we at The Maritime Executive believe the only viable fix is to redrill this block of oil and lift all the crude from this reserve until it is empty. There is no other viable, rational way. Concrete plugs are ludicrous concepts. Tanker spills like the Exxon Valdez can’t compare with the Deepwater Horizon spill. Those spills were finite environmental disasters, as in no matter how incompetent we were at fixing the disaster; the end was always in sight. If only we were only so lucky here. This fix involves robots tinkering in the dark playing hide and seek with thousands of tons of mangled machinery over one mile below the surface- “open heart surgery at 1500 meters in the dark with submarines,” as BP America President Lamar McKay said. Just close your eyes and think about that for a minute. As bad as Deepwater Horizon is, the first thing we need to do is to put this spill in proper perspective. By comparison, the 1980 Mexican rig disaster spilled over 3 million barrels into the ocean, with little or no effective clean-up. The Gulf, perhaps the most productive fishery in the entire world, recovered, regenerating itself in a relatively short period of time. So yes, this is terrible, but it’s not the end of the world as the ‘greenies’ continue to wail about on television and the internet. Estimates of economic damages, which are almost always as fallacious as the initial expert opinions concerning causation, place BP’s damages at close to 15 billion dollars. It will be at least twice that, especially when BP does the right thing and waives the available federal limitations of liability its lawyers are right now drafting defenses with. To use these lobbyist-generated obscene mechanisms would be a public relations disaster of biblical proportions. Instead, BP should take its lumps over this- all of them- in a demonstration of responsibility, maturity and accepted culpability. Besides, the entire industry knows BP had its ‘company man’ on that rig before the blow-out and explosion. Unless something bizarre was occurring on the rig, BP was in the loop, if not in outright control. Take your medicine, BP. When I last looked, investors had already wiped off some thirty billion of BP’s values. BP’s partners Anadarko, Transocean, Halliburton, Cameron, and many as yet unnamed others, all face very uncertain futures, if not downright extinction. Nevertheless, the economic pain British Petroleum and its partners will suffer is within the major’s capabilities, just as the Valdez was within Exxon’s. Lawsuits will continue over this accident for decades; the Supreme Court will be making its final decision regarding culpability and damages some thirty years from now. Criminal sanctions may await high ranking executives over this incident. Lawyers will flourish across our land due to the Deepwater Horizon. Law school attendance will explode. This is not idle talk. My old company was the first to be accused of spilling considerable oil in federal and state waters following the Valdez and enactment of the draconian federal and state oil spill laws that resulted. I know, as a one-time suspect, of what I speak. *********** Factually, right off the bat, fail-safes ‘failing’ had that goofy sense of national media investigatory foo-foo findings all major disasters raise their early ugly heads with. We here knew these ‘initial findings’ would soon be found incorrect—it was just a matter of time, just as the latest involving ‘dead car batteries’ being the cause will be determined to be nonsense in the weeks to come. The latest claims are that untested nitrogen impregnated cement was utilized and may have failed during a negative test of the liners. I seriously doubt that one too. Others argue the drill struck a “stray zone”, experienced a “gas kick”, or erroneously misplaced drilling mud with saltwater before the overall structure was ready to support the pressures. Who knows, or maybe may never really know? By the way, can anyone tell me how they came up with these possibly cockeyed opinions when the remains of the devastated rig is some 5000 feet below the surface of the ocean, when it takes air safety experts years to determine the exact cause of a crash and all with the aid of a blackbox, on dry land in a hermetically sealed aircraft hanger, suspect evidence being fed to a laboratory? Trust me—this latest one will soon slide by the wayside as well. Here are the established facts, not the speculation you have been immersed in everyday for the past three weeks. The massive deep water exploratory drill rig Deepwater Horizon measures approximately 400 feet by almost 260 feet. To get a handle on that, imagine two football fields side by side, almost 100 feet above the water. To be next to her was to be awestruck. She was operating about 45 miles south, south west of the Louisiana coastline in the Gulf of Mexico. The Water depth where the rig was drilling was approximately 5000 feet, almost one mile straight down. The rig was 90% finished with an exploratory well that BP had named Macondo, in an area known to the industry as Mississippi Canyon Block 252. Her crew was over 100 men. The manifest listed 126. The Horizon had an excellent record finding oil, having just one year ago located another, albeit three times larger deposit at over six miles deep. Deepwater Horizon had been drilling at this current spot for weeks, pushing through and down more than 18,000 feet to find oil. Before the explosion, Transocean and BP were in the final process of installing casing into the well. Industry insiders believe that BP was next going to seal the well in order to take time to properly figure out how to best produce the oil below that the rig had located and opened up. This step by step procedure is normal for the industry. This block of oil was estimated to contain approximately 100 million barrels of crude oil. BP had yet to announce the ‘discovery’ of this relatively small to medium find. The major believed there was enough here to cover all discovery and drilling costs, as well as produce profit for quite some time. Crewmembers first became aware of trouble after experiencing a huge thud, followed by a series of strange vibrations. Minutes later, a second unusual thud was felt. Immediately after that second thud, maybe two to three miles down, a mass of material, most likely a mixture of mud, gas and oil, roared up the drill pipe and burst through the main deck of the rig. The smell of hydrocarbons was heavy in the air on the deck. As yet by an undetermined source, the gas vapor contacted spark or flame and the rig exploded, covering itself in flame. In an instant, crewmembers went from conducting drilling operations to fighting for their very survival. The scene has been described as a hellish inferno beyond human imagination- the pictures taken from rescue and firefighting vessels, as well as aircraft verify these opinions. Temperatures reached on the Deepwater Horizon were sufficient to melt steel. Eleven crewmembers died. Many others were seriously injured. The courageous actions of the supply vessel Tidewater Damon Bankston probably saved countless lives. The firefight went on and on, as crew and firefighters attempted to save the rig. It was to no avail. Thirty six hours after the initial explosion, all surviving crewmembers having been successfully evacuated, the rig turned over, slowly settled, and then sank one mile down. Remote controlled submersibles have identified and filmed the mangled leftovers about 1,500 feet away from the subject well site. If anything fortunate, besides the high rate of survival when one considers the magnitude of the explosion and energies involved, can be discussed about this entire episode, it may be this: had the rig sank on top of the well, nothing may well have been done to cap off the resulting flow and spill except to watch the entire Mississipi Canyon Block 252 to empty itself out as two new wells were dug, resulting in years of clean up and permanent damage to the environment. As it is, even without the rig on top of the well, the site at the bottom is a jig-saw puzzle of twisted pipe and steel on the ocean floor, necessitating the finest technology and intellect the industry and our government has to call upon. A rudimentary knowledge of the drilling operation may be helpful. Hollow pipes called risers are piece by piece bolted together and lowered to the sea floor. The risers are designed to transport mud, hydraulic supply lines and booster lines, as well as the actual drilling pipe, all in one component. Specific risers are intended for different depths of water, to counteract buoyancy factors and the incredible pressures generated. Each riser is connected to another by way of huge bolts and nuts that are attached at the surface in the moon pool of the rig before being lowered over for the next attachment. At the bottom, the last riser is attached to the well itself as well as a blowout preventer, intended to seal the opening between the pipe and the oil by way of two sections of steel, almost like razors, that cut across the pipe in the event of an emergency preventing any release of oil into the environment. When completed, section by section, these risers reach the 5000 feet from the well head to the surface and the “moon pool” of the rig. Through this riser system, the actual drilling operation is conducted, the center of the riser being reserved for the drill itself. This riser system serves to make the drilling process a totally enclosed system. Through this small diameter hollow pipe our world is connected to the millions of barrel of oil miles underground. The risers on this well were reportedly manufactured by VetcoGray, supposedly a division of General Electric Oil and Gas. These were industry known as “HMF-Class H.” They are of 21 inch diameter and each ninety feet in length. Almost sixty separate risers were required for this operation. The blowout preventer is also controlled, hydraulically, by one of the smaller lines on the perimeter of each riser. The rig is stationed, floating a mile above the drill hole, within tolerances, by a number of mechanisms including global positioning devices. The only ‘anchor’ the rig has to the bottom, is the riser system itself. Otherwise it maintains its position navigationally and mechanically. GE claims its risers are designed for use in high-pressure, extremely dangerous deep-water applications. 15,000psi, or more they claim. The risers themselves are rated at 3.5 million pounds- an incredible amount. At the very bottom, 5000 feet down this time, industry insiders claim the connection with the well can accommodate seven million pounds of stress and load. The system includes flanged connections, flex joints telescopic joints, tensioner rings, etc. My limited knowledge of these many separate components and how they work together makes an accurate explanation right now impossible. I will explain each of them and how they work next editorial. I will be looking for the viable and possible weak link. What I do know right now is that this type of pipe system had ably demonstrated the ability to counteract the surge, sways, torques and pitch of many drill rigs for many years. By understanding the components of the system that was in place prior to the blow-out and explosion, we hope to understand and provide you with the many pieces that were connected to each other in order to understand the integrity of each that was necessary to successfully complete the overall objective—and not spill oil. Once understood, we can, at least our readers can, slow down before jumping to the irrational conclusions presently inundating the news media. What went wrong, the exact cause, will eventually be known, but only after each of these components is returned to the surface and studied, under microscope if need be, by those professionals trained in metallurgy and investigation. Let’s slow down. ************* Notwithstanding this ongoing episode of The Twilight Zone, our economy will continue to depend upon offshore oil. With or without the Deepwater Horizon incident, global oil demand will grow at least 25% in the next twenty years—probably more. The search for oil offshore will accelerate, ultra-deep water drilling being the only place left to find what the human race craves—hydrocarbons. As it has in the past, modern industry will utilize innovative collaborations and create still more coordinated infrastructure solutions in order to provide all of us access to ultra-deepwater reserves; the ones just previously unfeasible. The search will go on worldwide, but for the United States it will be concentrated in The Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf is estimated to contain 40 billion barrels of undiscovered, economically recoverable oil. We will need it for our and our children’s lifetimes. Drilling for oil has always been an exceedingly risky balancing act—known, or at least winked at, by all. Democrats, Republicans, environmentalists, the news media, all have understood the risks involved. Each provided acceptance every time they started their cars, or flew cross-country for Mother’s Day. This democratically agreed to balancing act is one that the offshore oil industry has performed incredibly well for over forty years. This, despite the fact that the immense pressures involved in ultra-deep water drilling, makes all mistakes, even minor ones, sometimes critical. Errors can snowball, go exponential, then out of control. As we see firsthand now. This disaster will dominate our industry, our businesses, nation and lives for many years. But handled with maturity, useful lessons can be learned from the absolutes the Deepwater Horizon will teach us. Let us all hope the right lessons and not the wrong ones, as they so erroneously did with the Three Mile Island near disaster, bind to our souls. There, we all remember, politically unchecked, America became haunted with nuclear fears, so much so that we halted all construction of essential and very safe new plants. That panic resulted in much of the ultra-deep offshore drilling we are inflicted with now. If you doubt, investigate France’s utilization of deepwater drilling for its energy needs. The answer is brutally obvious. Another similar panic over this incident will result in America retreating once again from the benefits of modern technology. New regulations, penalties and unlimited liabilities for future operations may cause many firms to decide against further exploring the Gulf of Mexico or Alaska, instead choosing waters more friendly to such risky capitalism. Or, it will simply mean we buy the same kind of oil from other, less risky, places, like Nigeria, which experiences a similar type drilling spill in the Atlantic almost every year. If so, our resulting economic disaster will be at the pumps, when we fill our cars and pay each winter to heat our houses, not to mention the damage to our oceans. No matter how long it takes BP to absolutely stop the flow at Maconda, this mess we ALL woke up one day to find ourselves covered in IS going to significantly alter all our lives. The sooner we recognize that set-in-stone final ending, the sooner we can accept the ramifications of this accident and get to work repairing both the environment and the now wrecked offshore oil industry—and wrecked it is. Then, and only then, maybe we can all return to taking our relatively cheap gasoline for granted. In the mean time, someone needs to keep pointing the beam of reality upon the overall episode. We intend to be the ones.