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Big Oozy in B-Flat

An Explanation for the Rest of Us



New Orleans, LA, May 13, 2010 - A mile down in the Gulf of Mexico, more than 100 gallons of oil are leaking every second out of a pipe the size of a human arm. To plug the leak, experts enlisted specially-programmed robots, a giant top hat, a black box the size of a boxcar, a gigantic pair of tweezers, dish soap and household garbage.

                The situation described above may sound like the manuscript for a science fiction novel at the very bottom of a Simon and Schuster editor’s reject pile.

                But it’s real, and it’s playing out 50 miles off the coast of South Louisiana at the site of the sunken, decaying Deepwater Horizon oil rig. The gigantic boondoggle is threatening to wipe out what’s left of the vibrant coastal marshlands in South Louisiana.

                We at NoDef ventured into the black cloud that is tech speak to attempt to get a handle on what actually happened when the rig exploded, and what BP is trying to do to clean it up. We read as much as we could, and even talked to a few experts with much fancier titles than mere mortal moonlighting journalists could ever aspire to.

The Backstory

                So without further hype and posturing, let’s kick it back to April 20, when this whole slick mess started.

                On the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, the Deepwater Horizon was a platform the size of a city block, home to a crew of 146 people. It was designed specifically to drill oil wells. The brash showboat of the offshore oil and gas industry, Deepwater Horizon was summoned by BP thinkers to live out their wildest fantasies of drilling tens of thousands of feet below sea floors.

In 2009, the rig drilled the deepest well in history at 35,050 feet. To reach that distance above water, they’d have to drill all the way to the top of Mt. Everest, then go up another mile.

                On April 20, Deepwater Horizon was drilling a well beginning at 5,000 feet, or a little less than a mile down. Workers were in the final stages of getting the well ready to deliver oil that could be used for fuel. After that, the rig could move on, and a platform that actually took oil from the well and made it into fuel would move in.

                Drilling for oil in extreme depths is a time exacting process. To lower anything to the seabed takes about 100 feet a minute. At that depth, where humans would have no hope of survival, the pressure of the water ratchets up to unthinkable levels. The rig is not even anchored to the sea bed, and any work done on the well is operated remotely.

                “We take it for granted what we’re doing out there,” said Dave Rosenberg, an industry professional.

On the sea floor 5,000 feet below the platform, there sat a large structure the size of a house.  All the necessary gadgets to operate the well were inside.

From that structure, a pipe lead down below the sea floor another two and a half miles to the oil itself. Only 20 hours before the calamity that led to the rig’s demise began, final preparations were made for Deepwater Horizon to saunter onto its next feat.

Workers  finished placing a cement cap on the well so oil and natural gas wouldn’t let out between the time Deepwater Horizon left and another rig showed up.

To reinforce the cement, mud is also typically placed at the base of the well. But in the Deepwater Horizon’s case it has been alleged the mud was removed, weakening the cement that capped the well. The plug did not hold.

At about 10 p.m., gas and water shot up the pipe all the way to the rig on the surface of the ocean. Once on the platform, the gas and water created a geyser Old Faithful could only marvel at, shooting 300 feet to the top of the rig. The rig exploded into flames, and 11 workers are still missing and presumed dead.

 The Magic Tweezers

               But even before the gas and water got out of the ground, a mechanism was supposed to shut down the entire well, and avert disaster.

                Along with the gadgets that make the well function, the house-sized structure at the bottom of the Gulf also contained a large emergency failsafe.

                The failsafe is actually a gigantic pair of tweezers, designed to cut through the oil pipe and stop the oil from reaching the surface, said Ed Overton, an environmental scientist and professor emeritus at LSU.

                When the giant tweezers didn’t activate, the well sprung a leak.

                Now, 23 days later, on the sea floor sits the Deepwater Horizon rig, likely charred and in ruins. More than 1,000 feet from the rig, the pipe that connected the well to the rig on the surface is bent in several spots, and leaking oil through a hole in one of them. Near the site of the well is the house. Oil is leaking from a pipe where the giant tweezers were supposed to stop the oil from flowing.

                Five thousand feet above, a pool of oil the size of Delaware is stretching out to the shores of Louisiana’s southern coast, and potentially threatens other coastal areas in the Gulf.

                Rosenberg said the failure of those giant tweezers to activate is part of the problem. BP has tried and failed numerous times to get them to activate with robots operated from the surface of the water, but haven’t had any luck.

                But it wasn’t a problem that hatched overnight. The veteran of the field said oil companies expend reams of paper and countless man hours signing off on drilling operations before a rig is even moved into position for drilling.

                “The cards were dealt when they built that (failsafe), when they decided that was what was gonna go down there,” he said.

                Ultimately, the tweezers cutting off the pipe is the difference between the leak lasting days and months.

                “If R2D2 can’t plug in and spin that shit the right way, then forget it,” Rosenberg said. “Nobody has the magic gizmo that’s gonna go in there and save the day.”

                With magic ruled out, BP is attempting to plug the leaks by taking the long way around.

Drill, Baby, Drill

                Another rig was called to the scene to drill another well. The new well will sit hundreds of feet away from the leaking well. But the new well could take more than a month to drill, according to information provided by BP.

                The new well will sit 3 miles away from the scene of the disaster. From there, crews plan to drill roughly a mile down below the sea floor, and they hope to drill over into the leaking pipe. The leaking pipe is a mere 22 inches wide – about the size of a human arm.

                “The rig is one mile above the water. Then you have to go down another mile or so, then drill over (another three miles),” Overton said.  “And they gotta hit a mighty, mighty small target. You're talking about precision.”

The Top Hat

                In the meantime, BP is trying to lower a structure that resembles a giant top hat into the water to trap the oil. Once the oil is trapped, it can then rise to the surface.

                Crews lowered the giant funnel yesterday. A bigger, boxcar-sized structure already failed over the weekend because ice formed and prevented it from collecting oil.

The Kitchen Sink

In the absence of being able to trap the oil, cleanup crews are moving to the kitchen sink.

One solution already in place involves dropping chemicals into the oil on both the sea floor and the surface of the Gulf. The chemicals are supposed to break up the oil.

“It's a little stronger dish soap,” Overton said of the chemicals. “It's a soap made for oil.”

But there has been significant debate about the use of the soap, which is acknowledged as hazardous to the environment – much like oil. Overton said the soap could be pushing oil down to the sea floor, where an ecosystem already resides. The soap could also wash up on shore.

And there’s no way to know if it’s actually working yet, he said.

“I and a lot of others think (oil) is going to come ashore sooner or later. We haven't had significant if any shoreline impact,” he said. “So something's keeping it off shore. Is that because of (the chemicals) used or is that because of ocean currents or other things that might be in this part of the Gulf?”

The JunkShot

And don’t discard all your household garbage just yet. BP is also proposing to attempt to plug the leak with household garbage.

The so-called junk shot would involve sending a stream of golf balls, tire cuttings, pieces of knotted rope, and seemingly anything else Sidney Torres IV would give them, into a pipe near the leak in hopes that something will stick, and plug the leak.

“The idea is if you can inject something in that stream, that it just might catch on the crimp,” Overton said. “Some of it’s just going to blow right on out. But enough of it just might stick to ultimately start slowing this down.”

Overton said he’s receiving about 30 e-mails a day from private citizens with ideas for how to plug the leak. One idea involved conducting the equivalent of a balloon angioplasty on the ocean floor, he said.

If the current ideas seem like BP is working around the edges, Overton said that’s probably because BP doesn’t want to damage the house-sized structure sitting on the ocean floor.

 Right now, the oil is leaking through holes in the pipe. If the house were to break off, oil from the well would flow directly into the Gulf, completely unchecked.

                “The way I describe these things is low-risk, but also low probability of success,” he said of the solutions they’ve tried so far. “What we don't want is to make the current spill a lot worse than it is. It looks to me that this oil is not flowing up as fast as it could.  You don't do things that will make it worse.”

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