A seemingly endless flow of oil from under the sea is ominously approaching the American coastlines from Atchafalaya Bay, Louisiana to Pensacola, Florida — according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports — and while damages are already being felt by fishermen and the local tourism industries things could get a lot worse.
“By the numbers”
Since the April 20th blowout and rig fire, more than 3.5 million gallons of oil have entered the gulf of Mexico at a rate of 210,000 gallons per day. British Petroleum (BP) has spent over $350 million so far — a staggering $16 million a day; roughly $6 million a day for cleaning efforts — and will likely be paying between $2 billion and $14 billion for the spill in the end.
As 10,000 personnel tirelessly work to protect the shorelines and wildlife, more than 290 vessels, including skimmers, tugs and barges, have been assisting in containment and cleanup efforts, while over a million feet of boom has been deployed to contain the spill. At this point, 3.5 million gallons of an oil-water mix have been recovered, albeit nearly 90%, being water.
“The Blame Game”
Two separate Senate hearings took place on Tuesday May 11, 2010, to examine the economic and environmental impacts of the recent oil spill. The morning session was led by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, while the afternoon session was spearheaded by the Environmental and Public Health Committee. Companies like BP — which leased the rig for exploratory drilling, Transocean Ltd — owner of the rig and the world’s largest offshore drilling company, and Halliburton — hired as a subcontractor to encase the well pipe in cement before plugging it, are battling and pointing fingers at each other to limit their respective shares of responsibility in the legal and economic fallout of the oil spill.
The Mineral Management Service has also come under fire as the Wall Street Journal questions the government agency’s role in overseeing offshore drilling because of a “built-in conflict of interest”. It is supposed to be a watchdog that halts drilling when it spots unsafe behavior and yet it, simultaneously, arranges offshore leasing contracts and collects oil and gas royalties.
In a belated but logical reaction, the Obama administration plans to split the beleaguered federal Minerals Management Services (MMS) into two separate sections: one to regulate the oil industry, and another to provide drilling leases and collect federal royalties on the operations.
Multifarious Battle Techniques
According to the Washington Post, engineers are “throwing the kitchen sink” in efforts to plug the gulf oil well. Even golf balls and shredded tires are among the weapons scientists plan to use in the Gulf of Mexico. Engineers have developed at least a half-dozen distinct lines of attack on the leaking well – what might be called plans A through F. Here is a quick rundown of the different strategies envisaged by BP.
Plan A: robotic submarines
… are used to try to close valves on a massive apparatus called the blowout preventer, which sits atop the wellhead 5,000 feet below. The tactic didn’t work, and BP abandoned it.
Plan B: the coffer dam
The use of a 100-ton, 40-foot-tall steel containment dome, or coffer dam. This technique also failed because the dome became clogged with methane hydrates, or ice-like slush created when pressurized gas from the well mixed with cold seawater.
Plan C: the “top hat”
A small containment dome – four feet wide, five feet tall and shaped like a barrel cut in half- that will be lowered over the main leak. Its smaller size, engineers hope, will cut down on the hydrate formation. Downside: Even if this one doesn’t clog, it is too small to capture all the oil that is rushing out of the pipe.
Plan D: the “hot tap”
Engineers want to tap into a section of damaged riser and suck up the oil before it can travel farther down the pipe and spew from the large gash.
Plan E: the “Junk shot” or “top kill”
The idea is to plug the blowout preventer with materials of various shapes and textures, a concoction of rubber pieces, golf balls and other items that ideally will lodge in the nooks and crannies of the hulking stack of valves of the pipe. The next step, called “top kill” would be to inject drilling mud and cement down into the well bore to permanently seal the well.
Plan F: the relief well
The most reliable way to shut down the well also takes the most time. This daunting task requires the drilling rig to bore through rock at an angle and hit the existing well, a seven-inch wide target, at the very bottom, about 3,5 miles below the surface of the gulf. According to BP Vice President David Nagel, the first relief well has already been drilled to 4,000 feet below the sea floor. Work will begin next week on a second relief well in case there are problems or delays with the first one. This whole process could take 80 to 90 days…
To date, cleanup teams have encountered some success in preventing the oil from getting to shore. “It’s clearly a serious situation for BP, and that is why we are so focused on resolving it”, said BP chief executive Tony Hayward, “We will resolve it. It’s simply a question of how long it takes.” Time is obviously of the essence. Every day that goes by is an extra 210.000 gallons of oil being dispersed into the sea. Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and perhaps even the Texas economy could suffer in the aftermath of the oil spill. President Obama could also choose to mull over his support of offshore drilling as a result of what is already being called an environmental catastrophe.