Thursday, May 27, 2010

What if the BP oil disaster can't be fixed?

BP have started a new and riskier technique to stem the flow of oil from 1.5 km under the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. Called a "top kill", it basically involves pumping mud at high pressure into the hole to try to weigh down the oil pushing up. Although it has been used successfully on many wells before, it has never been done at this depth (there has never been a problem of this magnitude at this depth before). BP are giving it a 60-70% chance of success. What is not often mentioned is that there is also a chance it could make things worse. It may be a couple of days before it is clear which is the case.

While we're waiting, here are two interesting things to check out.
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First, an article at Grist that examines our demand that problems be fixed and compares this disaster to the ongoing unfixable disasters that are not as visible, but just as deadly. While I think this article is unduly pessimistic (in that the top kill may well work, and if not, then the relief well already underway, though slow, is very likely to work after a couple of months), it does make some interesting points about our attitudes to risk.
H/T Milan.

Second, a live feed of the ocean floor with a counter showing the cumulative size of the oil pollution, depending on whose estimate you believe. This is a great illustration of how boring a catastrophe can be. It reminds me of this Benjamin quote.

13 comments:

byron smith said...

Obama finally makes the connection between the immediate problem and (one of) the larger issue(s):

“The fact of the matter is, is that not only do we have to revisit how these oil companies are operating … but we’ve also still got this overarching issue,”

“Even if you hadn’t seen the catastrophe down in the Gulf, the reason that folks are now having to go down a mile deep into the ocean, and then another mile drilling into the ground below, that is because the easy oil fields and oil wells are gone, or they’re starting to diminish.”

Milan said...

Perhaps some good will come of all this, if it delays, restricts, or prevents new offshore drilling - especially in the Arctic.

byron smith said...

So far, top kill seems to be going well.

If it works, will we all suddenly be grateful to BP for their technical accomplishment?

byron smith said...

That earlier Obama quote in more context, where he does also address climate change, as well as peak oil:
"We all know the price we pay as a country as a result of how we produce and use — and, yes, waste — energy today. We’ve been talking about it for decades — since the gas shortages of the 1970s. Our dependence on foreign oil endangers our security and our economy. Climate change poses a threat to our way of life — in fact, we’re already beginning to see its profound and costly impact. And the spill in the Gulf, which is just heartbreaking, only underscores the necessity of seeking alternative fuel sources. We’re not going to transition out of oil next year or 10 years from now. But think about it, part of what’s happening in the Gulf is that oil companies are drilling a mile underwater before they hit ground, and then a mile below that before they hit oil.

"With the increased risks, the increased costs, it gives you a sense of where we’re going. We’re not going to be able to sustain this kind of fossil fuel use. This planet can’t sustain it. Think about when China and India — where consumers there are starting to buy cars and use energy the way we are. So we’ve known that we’ve had to shift in a fundamental way, and that’s true for all of us."


Quote from here.

byron smith said...

When the tail wags the dog: cheap energy and tax revenue reinforce our addiction.

byron smith said...

The US-centric view of the BP Gulf disaster: "There are more than 2,000 major spillage sites in the Niger delta that have never been cleaned up; there are vast areas of the Colombian, Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon that have been devastated by spillages, the dumping of toxic materials and blowouts. Rivers and wells in Venezuela, Angola, Chad, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Uganda and Sudan have been badly polluted. Occidental, BP, Chevron, Shell and most other oil companies together face hundreds of outstanding lawsuits. Ecuador alone is seeking $30bn from Texaco."

byron smith said...

Top kill has failed.

John S said...

There's some pretty damning stuff in that "Top kill has failed" link that you posted above - eg. "The company went ahead with the casing, but only after getting special permission because it violated safety policies and design standards".

byron smith said...

It just seems to get worse and worse the more the story unfolds. BP's share price is taking a beating and one headline I saw this morning suggested that this could sink BP by making them vulnerable to a takeover bid. I won't link to it since it was hardly a reputable news source, but it is an indication of the scale of the anger that such a story could appear in populist newsprint.

One of the sad ironies of this situation is that disasters of this scale and culpability have happened frequently in the developing world but big oil rarely get more than a slap on the wrist because the governments are either too corrupt and/or too desperate for the revenue. It will be interesting to see to what degree BP is held to account by the US government (and not just by stockholders).

eclipsenow said...

It's almost like we have to make every other decision before we make the right decision and adopt Electric Cars and New Urbanism (powered by renewables + nuclear waste eating Gen4 reactors).

When we've made all the mistakes, and found there is no other way, then we will be forced, kicking and screaming, into the right decisions.

And then we'll wonder what all the fuss was about.

byron smith said...

Somehow, I suspect the sunk costs (pardon the pun) in fossil fuel power will make the kicking and screaming quite vocal and painful.

byron smith said...

The rise and fall (?) of BP.

byron smith said...

"I have no idea what new energy sources are going to be available, what technologies might drive down the price of renewable energies. What we can predict is that the availability of fossil fuel is going to be diminishing; that it's going to get more expensive to recover; that there are going to be environmental costs that our children … our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren are going to have to bear." President Obama.