The best reporting of what may have caused the explosion of the Deepwater Horizons platform in the Gulf of Mexico was in my opinion this article written by Joel Achenbach in Sunday’s on-line edition of the Washington Post.
In it we learn engineering theories no matter how well planned are at the mercy of nature’s powerful forces a mile below the ocean’s surface and 13,000 feet into bed rock crust.
An unnamed petroleum engineer, represented by New Orleans attorney Scott Bickford, described the 30 to 40,000-pounds per square inch pressure from the earth’s bowels that “you can’t win against Mother Nature. She throws you a curveball that you’re not prepared for.”
The Deepwater Horizons platform was drilling the world’s deepest off-shore oil well ever attempted for British Petroleum LCC before a gaseous methane bubble burst through the piping and exploded April 20. The platform sank two days later, killing 11 crew and scarring the hell out of the other 115 who escaped..
“We have gone to a different planet in going to the deepwater. An alien environment,” oil industry analyst Byron King said. “And what do you know from every science fiction movie? The aliens can kill us.”
King said: “This is the oil industry’s Chernobyl.”
And from Nansen Saleri, president and chief executive of the technology firm Quantum Reservoir Impact: “The frontiers of exploration have been pushed out to far more complicated and contentious environments. There is a need to take a fresh look at the whole thing.”
Congressman Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House energy subcommittee, met with BP and Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Co. officials Friday and said the investigation centers on the final step of cementing the well completed 20 hours before the explosion. Deepwater Horizons was that close to being home free.
“I think it’s a little bit premature to reach a firm conclusion, but there is obviously an issue with the cementing process,” Markey said. “There is an issue with the overall failure rate of blowout preventers over the years that has not received the highest level of safety attention that it should have.”
Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer, said Sunday that a 4-story high steel cap placed on top of the major oil leak failed because of high-pressure gases and frozen crystals blocked efforts to force the leak through a giant “straw” to an oil tanker on the Gulf’s surface. Other engineering responses are under study and may takes weeks to attempt.
The main gusher of three separate leaks is spilling about 120,000 gallons of gaseous oil mix into the Gulf. Suttles said engineers fear that cutting the pipe where the automatic shutoff valves failed may cause even a flow 10 times greater in volume into the water. Engineers said at the present rate the Gulf leak will surpass by mid June the 10 million gallons of oil spilled since the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground off Prince Edwards Bay in Alaska in 1989.
What BP was trying to tap was Mississippi Canyon Block 252, the Macondo field as they call it, holding 50 million to 100 million barrels of crude.
There have been blowouts since the dawn of the oil drilling industry, but never a blowout like this. This one is the deepest on record, industry officials say. A blowout last August in the Timor Sea had some similarities, but it was in much shallower water, Mr. Achenbach of the Post wrote.
The economic and ecological impact of the oil slick as it spreads to the Gulf Coast shoreline is almost incomprehensible to even imagine. My confidence in the engineers which I supported in early posts is gone. The Deep Horizons disaster proves that deep water projects must be stopped to shallower levels engineers have proven they can control. I still maintain that to stop ALL off-shore drilling would be a mistake. But to leave the decision in the hands of Congress who are prone to knee-jerk reactions could be as big a mistake as the oil leak is now producing. It will be high drama how the Senate tackles the pending new climate and energy legislation. This is not a Republican vs. Democrat battle of ideas. It is the life blood of our future as a nation.
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Jerry Remmers worked 26 years in the newspaper business. His last 23 years was with the Evening Tribune in San Diego where assignments included reporter, assistant city editor, county and politics editor.