With its “top hat” oil collection chamber waiting on the sea floor as a standby measure, BP plc on Friday was about to attempt a more promising tactic to siphon some of the oil leaking from its ruptured well 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico (GOM).
Last Friday the company was planning to use a “riser insertion tool” — a piece of pipe fitted with a rubber sealing device — to reach as far as possible into the well riser and capture leaking oil before it mixes with seawater. A previous attempt to collect oil in a 100-ton, four-story containment dome failed a week earlier when oil and gas mixed with the cold seawater under high pressure and formed natural gas hydrates, which clogged the device (see NGI, May 10).
BP COO Doug Suttles told reporters on Friday that the insertion tool is a new idea and currently the best bet for minimizing the flow of oil into the GOM, although it is not a fix for the leak itself.
Asked whether it will work Suttles said, “It’s very, very difficult to predict that. Clearly what we believe is it will work. If we didn’t believe it will work we wouldn’t attempt it. Over the next day or two we’ll know if it works.”
Meanwhile it has been widely reported that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimate that the leak is spewing 5,000 b/d could be way off the mark. Scientists examining video provided by BP of the leak have calculated that the flow could be as much as about 70,000 b/d.
BP has disputed this, and U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry, the federal coordinator of the spill response, when asked about the higher estimates on Friday said whether the flow is 1,000, 5,000 or 15,000 b/d, the mobilization of resources since the accident has always been to prepare for a worst-case scenario.
Lars Herbst, Minerals Management Service (MMS) regional director for the GOM, told reporters Friday that there would be a new assessment of the flow “here shortly within a day or so.”
Suttles said BP has spent $450 million so far to combat the disaster, which began April 20 when an apparent well blowout caused a fire aboard and the sinking of Transocean Ltd.’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. Eleven lives were lost in the accident. BP is the majority owner and the operator of the well in Mississippi Canyon Block 252. Anadarko Petroleum Corp. has a minority stake.
The catastrophe has garnered the scrutiny of Congress as well as regulators in Canada, who are looking for lessons that might be applied to their own offshore operations (see related stories).
Should the insertion tool not work to capture some of the leaking oil, BP will attempt to collect it in the top hat, which is a much smaller version of the containment dome that failed earlier due to gas hydrate clogging. It is thought the smaller volume of the top hat, plus the addition of pumped-in methanol, will combat hydrate formation. “The issue we’re trying to fight is this hydrate formation,” Suttles said. “The riser insertion tool is the best option to combat that first.”
Meanwhile, relatively little of the giant and growing spill has reached the shores of Gulf Coast states. Responders in Florida were bracing for the worst but said on Friday that nothing was expected to hit land for at least 72 hours. Tar balls have been gathered along the Louisiana coast, though.
Responders have deployed 1.2 million feet of boom to contain the spill, Suttles said Friday, and the goal is to have 3.5 million feet available and deployed as needed. He said the weather was cooperating with containment efforts and was expected to allow for skimming of oil from the sea surface, controlled burns and dispersant deployment over the coming days.
The BP response entails plans and backup plans — and there are stiff upper lips all around.
“It’s clearly a serious situation for BP, and that is why we are so focused on resolving it. And we will. We will resolve it. It’s going to be a question of how long it takes, but we will resolve it,” CEO Tony Hayward, told reporters in Houston early last week.
Executives are hoping that they might stop the flow of oil and permanently seal the well using a technique called a junk shot in which they force a variety of materials — golf balls, tire pieces, knotted rope, etc. — into the well’s nonworking blowout preventer to jam it up.
The tactic was previously described by Suttles as akin to clogging up a toilet, and some experts have warned that the maneuver could make things worse. Kent Wells, BP senior executive vice president, said the technique had been used successfully elsewhere, Kuwait, for instance, but never at 5,000 feet below the sea surface. “Whatever we try, we want to make sure it’s not going to make matters worse,” he said.
Wells said multiple “shots” were being prepared and if one doesn’t work, a different “recipe” would be used for subsequent attempts. “There’s a little bit of a science [to it] even though it sounds odd,” he allowed. If the well is plugged in this manner, heavy mud and ultimately cement will be used to seal it permanently in a process called top kill.
Drilling of the first of two relief wells was begun a week ago. That well had reached a depth of 9,000 feet as of last Monday with as much as almost three months of drilling still necessary before it intercepts the renegade well. Drilling of a second relief well as a backup was expected to begin Sunday (May 16), two days later than previously thought. Some experts have warned that a relief well is a risky maneuver to seal a blown out well and that there are better tactics.
“What we’re doing is drilling two relief wells to give ourselves — to use a British expression — a belt and braces on this effort, and we believe that is the right approach and will ensure ultimate success…” Hayward said. “The relief wells ultimately will be successful.”
Hayward said he doesn’t think the incident will prevent offshore drilling to continue in the United States, even with the backlash from politicians and environmentalists. The near-fatal Apollo 13 moon mission in 1970 “did not stop the space race,” he said. “Neither did the Air France plane last year coming out of Brazil stop the world airline industry flying people around the world. It’s the same for the oil industry.”
The GOM, he noted, represents about one-third of U.S. oil and natural gas production.
Hayward said the company is better able to respond to disasters than it was five years ago before he took over. An explosion in 2005 at BP’s Texas City, TX, refinery led to 15 deaths and huge fines levied by U.S. officials. BP also has had oil leaks in recent years on the Alaska oil pipeline. Those incidents and others led BP to step up safety initiatives and become better prepared, Hayward said.
“In the last four or five years we have made major improvements in safety performance. It has made the company much better,” he said. “Four years ago it could have been very different.”
Hayward admitted that there were mistakes made in the company’s first response to the incident. Initially BP refused to compensate Gulf Coast fishermen who could not produce written proof of their normal earnings. BP also faltered, said Hayward, when fishermen who signed up to assist with the relief effort were required to sign agreements limiting BP’s liability in their future claims.
“It was a bit bumpy to get it going,” he said. “We made a few little mistakes early on.” As far as the response effort, “we have tried to be very aggressive on all fronts.”
Asked if he thought he would lose his job because of the GOM disaster, Hayward said, “I don’t at the moment. That, of course, may change. I will be judged by the nature of the response.”
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