BP’s Fight Against Pollution From Deepwater Gulf Blowout

June 2010 Vol. 237 No. 6

Rita Tubb, Managing Editor

The eyes of the world continue to be focused on the U.S. Gulf of Mexico as BP mobilizes its full resources to stop the flow of oil and fight the oil spill, which follows the blowout and sinking of the Transocean Deepwater Horizon drilling rig operating in Mississippi Canyon 252 block.

The initial incident occurred on April 20 when the Deepwater Horizon, under contract to BP and located 41 miles off the Louisiana coast, experienced an explosion and fire while drilling an exploratory well. The rig ultimately sank, claiming the lives of 11 men who are still missing and assumed dead. The explosion also injured 17 others.

“Losing 11 of our industry colleagues is a tragedy for the offshore community,” said BP Group Chief Executive Tony Hayward. “As an industry, we must participate fully in these investigations and not rest until the causes of this tragedy are known and measures are taken to see that it never happens again.”

Following the explosion and fire, it became clear that the blowout preventer on the seabed had failed, causing oil to leak into the water at a rate of about 5,000 Bpd.

Intense Scrutiny
The Department of the Interior and Department of Homeland Security quickly began conducting a joint enquiry into the explosion and sinking of the Transocean Deepwater Horizon. The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations and Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources have begun conducting investigations.

BP has also launched its own investigation into the incident and has assembled a team in Houston which includes industry experts from Exxon, Shell, Chevron and Anadarko, service firms and government agencies who are working to stem the flow of oil from the sub-sea well and contain the spill offshore to protect the shoreline along the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida.

Cleanup Efforts
BP began ramping up preparations for a major protection and cleaning effort on the shorelines off Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida on April 30. To supplement its Houma, LA incident command post, which oversees the offshore containment effort and onshore response in Louisiana, BP established a similar onshore incident command post in Mobile, AL to oversee the onshore response in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

Each of the states has oil spill response plans already in place and trained community groups and volunteers available to aid in the response to the oil spill and deploy resources.

“We are doing absolutely everything in our power to eliminate the source of the leak and contain the environmental impact of the spill,” Hayward said. “We are determined to fight this spill on all fronts,
In the deep waters of the Gulf, in the shallow waters and, should it be necessary, on the shore,”

BP and the armada fighting the spill have faced many agonizing delays caused by bad weather and problems attributed to “equipment malfunctions” that have prevented crews from stopping the oil flow.

In early May, BP announced it was relying on a variety of options for stopping the leak. According to BP press reports, on May 2, a drilling rig began a relief well. The new well, in 5,000 feet of water, is planned to intercept the existing well around 13,000 feet below the seabed and permanently seal it. The new drill site is about half a mile from the leaking well in Mississippi Canyon block 252, and drilling is estimated to take three months.

Although earlier attempts to activate the seal-off valves on the blowout preventer stack on the seabed failed, BP continued to use up to eight remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to work on the blow-out preventer and subsea equipment.

The company also installed a four-story, subsea collection system made of steel and concrete that was placed over two of the three leaks to collect the leaking oil and pipe it to a tanker on the surface.

When ice-like methane hydrate crystals formed inside the massive 100-ton box, forcing its removal, plans were made to install a much smaller two-ton box called a top-hat.

BP reasoned that the smaller top-hat structure would prevent the ice-like slush from forming inside the structure because it will allow less seawater into the system to mix with gas to form hydrates.
Because the larger structure froze before pipes could be connected, the top-hat will be lowered with pipes attached, circulating hot water and injecting hydrate preventing methanol.

If successful, the leaking crude will flow into the box and then be pumped through a pipe to a tanker on the surface.

Although the top-hat was scheduled to be deployed within three days of this report, BP officials said they were also considering a junk shot which involved a concoction of rubber pieces, golf balls, rope and other items that will be pumped down to clog the blowout preventer stack. If this proves successful, as it did in Iraq and Kuwait following the Gulf War, drilling fluid will be pumped down to stop the flow of oil.

Also under consideration is the installation of a new blowout preventer, provided tests indicate removing a top portion of the of the 50-foot stack will not cause the well to rupture.

Moreover, dispersants are being used on the seabed to break up and prevent the oil from rising to the surface.

Work continues to collect and disperse oil that has reached the surface. More than 275 vessels are being used, including skimmers, tugs, barges and recovery vessels.

The volume of dispersant applied to the spill on the surface amounts to over 315,000 gallons since the spill response began. Intensive operations to skim oil from the surface of the water are ongoing. By May 12, some 100,000 barrels of oily liquid had been recovered. The total length of deployed boom is now more than 1 million feet as part of the efforts to stop oil from reaching the coast.

According to BP, the cost, as of May 12 was about $350 million, including the cost of spill response, containment, relief well drilling and commitments to the Gulf Coast States, settlements and federal costs.

Congressional Hearings
Despite the challenges BP faces in trying to stem the flow of oil from the well and prevent the spill from impacting the entire Gulf Coast, Congressional and agency hearings on the disaster were held in Washington, D.C. in mid-May to examined what caused the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and the oil spill now spreading across the Gulf. Key executives from BP, Transocean and Halliburton, who provided a number of services on the rig, including cementing of the final production string, along with Cameron, maker of the blowout preventer, participated as well as several industry experts.

Early on, Hayward announced that BP would pay “all necessary and appropriate clean-up costs” from the massive oil spill in the Gulf. This is not to say, however, that others did not play a role in causing the event. How much, however, is unknown at this time.
Certainly three specific incidents, the failure of the blowout preventer, the rig explosion and the oil spill that followed will be carefully critiqued. It will likely take months before ongoing investigations yield any answers about the causes for these incidents and years for the many resulting lawsuits to work through the courts to allocate blame.
One thing seems certain. Costs will ultimate be in the multi-billion dollar range as federal, state, city officials and area residents harmed by the spill seek restitution.