Gulf oil crisis

We’ve all read the news, are watching, with disbelief the oil slick that is growing by the second.  BP says they are taking all measures to stop the leak.  The government says they are doing the best they can — which means they have to rely on BP engineer and scientist expertise in the hopes that someone will figure out how to stem the gusher.  

Perhaps I’m just naive about equalizing the pressure from the oil driving up the surface and the efforts to plunge heavy mud against it until it holds the oil at bay, but I had two distinct thoughts when the explosion and resulting leak happened.  The first surrounded the story of the little Dutch boy who saved Holland from disaster by plugging a hole in the dike with his finger.  You see a hole with liquid gushing out and you put in a stopper.  You plug a hole.  However you have to do it, you plug the hole. 

This led to thought #2.  So why has it taken so long for this method to be engaged (which may not work because the pressure may cause a burst surrounding the current leak and create a worse leak)?  The first attempts were to a) drop a cone over the leak and continue to salvage the oil; and b) to siphon the oil to the surface and salvage the oil. 

The heavy mud method followed by concrete plug doesn’t salvage oil.  It stops it.  No oil. No money.  No matter what the cost to BP for making repairs to the damages caused by the oil, if they are able to continue harvesting the money, their loss will eventually be paid for by the continued revenue stream of the oil they capture.  That, in my opinion, is why the oil isn’t plugged yet.  Because of money.  Because future oil revenues will stop if the leak is plugged.  Because the bazillions (?) of dollars of investment in a rig that exploded killing 11 men and injuring many more is a lot of money.  Because money is more important to this empire than the creatures that live on it, the men and women working for the empire, or the planet we are destroying. 

I’m sure many of us, with our unscientific solutions have thought of ways to stop the oil.  And even if some of us may have stumbled upon a right idea, it still wouldn’t matter — because we would be thinking of how to stop the oil…not salvage the well. 

The rich, rich, who have their money tied up in oil aren’t thinking about the vast destruction of marine life or of the devastation to the industries that rely on the Gulf.  They are watching, with deep sadness, and possibly despair, as they see their financial portfolios take a ding as this well gets capped. 

And if there REALLY is no known way to completely and effectively stop the leak, then shame on all of humanity and all the governments that lie in bed with them for allowing a company like BP to become powerful enough to build an off-shore well with no knowledge of how to protect our waters and the life that depends on them for survival.

10 thoughts on “Gulf oil crisis

  1. Hi, dear Lady – I am afraid I do not know your name.

    Your comments on the oil problem are not quite right – at least I do hope not.

    The main problem is that the depth of the bottom is reported to be around 5,000 feet below the surface, which is one statute mile, or thereabouts.
    That made the problem of a high pressure well insoluble, and the thing with oil wells is that there is no way of knowing what the pressure is going to be, for sure.

    I would guess, possibly wrongly, that there is another hole into the dome ( of rock, anti-cline ) which is allowing water in which increases the pressure of the oil inside – otherwise the pressure would normally be within controllable boundaries.

    Because of the huge depth, there is no way that the normal drill string could keep the hole plugged against excess pressure – having a very long drill string hanging from an oil rig depends on the weight of the drill string hanging down as a tie; the length at the bottom is in compression, but at a certain length higher up at a point force becomes neutral, thereafter the force becomes tensile owing to the pendulous weight being greater than the pressure induced compression.

    To be an effective strut, the drill string radius of gyration / length, being the slenderness ratio, would have to be more than 1 / 180 ( by the well-known Perry-Robertson formula, which is a working solution of Euler’s strut theory ); here we have about 1 / 5,000 maximum, roughly too slight by a factor of around 25; so, in the event of the force being greater than the pendulous length, there is no possibility of the drill string plugging the hole – it would have just blown out, the drill string bending like boiled spaghetti.

    Second guess is BP’s problem is that no-one thought that this might be the case, obviously – a case of wishful thinking. So to plug the hole with golf balls etc is a fantasia, because it is plugging the hole from the inside, as it were. When you plug a hole in a ship, you plug it from the outside if you can, so the pressure holds the patch in place – and that is what has to be done here – the question is HOW ? The plug has to have its beginning at the bottom of the hole. Conceptually, you drill another hole, but that presents the same problems as the first.

    Or, to put it another way, one could do what is done if you want to plug a volcano = nothing, because there is nothing you can do except wait for the earth to solve the problem herself.

    So, I would think that your idea that BP do not care is off target – but they may not know how to get round the problem, just possibly because there is no way. ( ? )

    Yours sincerely,
    Allan McDowall
    ( retired oil tanker captain )

    1. Allan,
      Thank you for taking the time to explain the challenge. I get it now. Now I’m even more worried — that BP may not be able to get around the problem because there might be NO workaround. I just don’t get how a company can be allowed to drill a hole to a pressure bomb without having all potential problems and solutions figured out? This is isn’t drilling in the middle of desert — it’s right in the ocean, killing so many creatures (and humans) in such a horrible way. I just listened to an interview with a bird rescuer, who was barely able to speak through the emotion of trying to save pelicans, knowing that, also, by saving the adults they were finding covered in oil, unable to fly, out looking for food for their offspring, that all their babies would die of starvation.

      I can’t wrap my head around it. Money trumping Mother Earth. My question, now, after reading your explanations, is wouldn’t it make sense (if future off-shore drilling continues to be endorsed) to have relief wells dug at the same time as the main well, so that in another disaster scenario, it would only be a matter of days (not months) to redirect flow to the relief well? I realize it would be expensive, but shouldn’t it be necessary?

      Janet (Gen Plus)

  2. Janet,
    What went before are my own views, based on my experience – and what follows is the same.
    Not all things are safe. Nothing which is fun is absolutely safe.
    Edge of technology is also fraught with risk – as much care as possible is taken to minimise the risk, but if it was absolutely safe, nothing would ever get done at the frontiers of experience – Apollo is a prime example.
    The problem of drill strings blowing out or gas igniting at the sea surface does occasionally happen – seldom, but it happens. If you search around you can find filmed records of it occurring, ( mainly on dry land because that is where most oil wells are because it is more easily accessible, not because that is necessarily where most oil is ) – usually without the accompanying horrendous sounds.
    The whole thing begins to move upwards, then pops out with a huge gush of black oil, color depending on what type of oil it is.
    The oil in the sea ia a short term ‘disaster’.
    But oil is a natural material, and under the radiation of the sun and the bio effect of the sea gradually morphs into proteins which various sea creatures are able to ingest. These creatures are low down on the food chain, so in turn provide food for other creatures. This is not an opiate for your misgivings, but a fact.
    After the tanker ‘Amoco Cadiz’ had gone ashore on the French coast, there was awful pollution. But, after about 6 months, this had turned dark red, and was being ingested by tiny sea animals. After 2 years, the shellfish harvest actually improved. This is not to say that oil pollution is a good thing – but that crude oil does break down naturally – composts, if you like.
    There are natural oil seepages on the seabed in certain parts of the world – you have one between San Francisco and Alaska where there is a species of gastropod which has evolved to live on oil. Yummy, yummy !
    What does the damage are chemicals which are used to try to wash the sea and sands, or are washed overboard from chemical tankers; being heavier than water, they sink to the bottom where they are invisible and undetectable, sharing the desecration of the sea-bed with demersal fish trawling.
    The only solution to a leak of this kind is to duct the oil away by means of a huge inverted funnel, such as you use to fill fuel cans. This could be done by utilising the fact that it floats, so is lighter than water. So the oil floats up a pipe line, aided by a pump because one needs to keep the oil pressure inside the funnel lighter than the surrounding sea, so that the sea tends to flow into the funnel rather than oil run out of the funnel.
    One is then faced with the problem of sealing the edge of the conceptual ‘funnel’ edge on th seabed, which has to be done from the outside because the pressure is ‘now’ more outside than it is inside. This is relatively easy, well within known oil field practice, by means of bags of heavy ‘mud’.
    Salving the oil by sucking / scooping is worthwhile because money thrown away is profit gone which eventually would have fed back into the system to feed families.
    So cleaning by salving the precious material and trying to recover the spilled oil for use as heavy ends helps to pay for the clean up and salvage directly.
    This misfortune would have happened to any organisation who had tried to drill a well in this location – whoever they were.
    It is a very good example of the limitations of convergent mind-set vis a vis a divergent approach ( think inside the box instead of outside the box. )
    Dangerous industries are trained to operate inside the box.
    Novel solutions always come from people with whom you disagree, outside the box.
    Otherwise you would be recycling cosyness, would you not ?
    So, don’t bash BP – you bash yourself.
    Bash, if you must, the greedy people who drive gas guzzling monsters when it is blindingly obvious that this precious material is running out.
    Plant as many trees as possible, make buildings a reflective colour, make road surfaces pale not black, go to bed at sunset and get up at dawn, have fewer children – there are too many of us.
    Take care of this lonely little blue marble. There are no more, not within conceivable reach.
    Now, I am off to hide. Best wishes to you, Janet.
    Thank you for your interesting takes on life.
    ( retired tanker captain. )
    ( M.Sc(eng), C.Eng, MIMechE, MRINA, FNI, Master Mariner )

  3. Dear Janet,
    Last time I touched on the optimistic side of the Mexican Gulf leak.
    This time, if I may, I will touch on the physics. So, here goes:-
    When one sinks a well, the outer case contains the pipes and valves. At the bottom is the wire-line valve, which shuts everything off. The outer case looks rather like a top-hat, very tall but inverted, made of steel, with a huge flange where the brim would be. It has to be heavy, in this case, as I show you here.
    Obviously, when everything is shut off, the pressure in the well must be equal to or greater than the hydrostatic head of sea water above. Taking 1 mile = 5028 feet, and a start estimate for diameter of casing of 12 “, then taking 1 atmosphere as 30 feet of sea water, approximately, one arrives at a pressure of 167 atmospheres, which is approximately 2,505 Pounds per square inch, rounding up.
    Assuming an initial casing diameter of 12 “, this gives an area of 113 inches square, ( on the basis of pi x 144/4 = cross-sectional area – all simple stuff ).
    Divide 2505 by 2240 to get tons force = 1.118 per square inch. times 113 = 126 tons force on the bottom of the casing.
    To allow for shock, allow double = 126 x 2.
    To allow for safety, allow another 1/2 of the total = 126 x 3 = 378 tons force.
    So, to keep the jacket in place needs a downwards force in the order of 400 tons. I see no such weight in place.
    Secondly, oil under pressure in a very cold environment has a lot of liquid gas in suspension. When the oil comes out of the well under pressure, the liquid gas evaporates into gas and oil; the gas cools by virtue of adiabatic cooling so the temparature is suddenly and drastically cooled, which causes the seawater in contact with the super-cooled petroleum gas to freeze, almost instantaneously.
    This ice clogs up any pipes and valves, so the system is no longer open, so the pressure rises, so the temporary cap lifts off.
    Conceptually, the principle is to put a huge weight on top, with a conical point on the bottom.
    The inverted cone fills the hole, and the weight of 400 or so tons keeps the cone in place.
    Problems arise to a) clear the hole of debris &
    b) to hold the weight central over the hole.
    Having succeeeded in doing both, it should be simple to lower the weight onto the hole.
    That is the only practicable solution that one has come up with so far.
    Whilst the debris is being cleared, the leakage rate will increase enormously for a short while.
    So to plug the well, the hole has to be cleared of debris.
    That may be extremely difficult to do.
    One must point out that drilling in USA is almost invariable carried out by spwecialist contactors, expecially if the prospector is a foreign company.
    These are the people on the spot, who have the responsibility for complating the op. safely.
    They can be quite difficult to get to change their ways, if I may put it like that.
    I think that is about as specific as I can be, and I hope it helps to look at it specifically, not vituperatively.
    Yours sincerely,
    Allan McDowall
    ( retired tanker Captain )

    1. Allan, I appreciate the depth (pun not intended) of your knowledge. Your explanations make it easy to understand the challenges behind stopping the leak. Hindsight is 20/20 for BP and for the government, but, honestly, I’m more than disturbed that these super companies (and the government) are always more interested in the bottom line than in the safety of the planet and the people on it. I agree with your comments from an earlier post regarding the necessary risk that comes with invention, but there is a big difference in taking risk that affects oneself or one’s company vs. risk with our planet. When astronauts head off into space, they take a knowing risk — with their own lives. In this case, BP (and likely all the oil companies) choose to take risk as the expense of the life in our oceans. There is just no other explanation than risk of the planet for money. Yes, as you also pointed out, Americans must stop their reliance on fuel-guzzlers so that there is no market for the major oil producers. At the same time, as someone who has attended a few car shows with a focus on green vehicles, what I’ve observed is that the country’s infrastructure must be dramatically changed (and possibly how we choose to live our lives) in order to accomodate alternative fuel sources.

      Your comments, and great knowledge, are welcome anytime.

  4. Allan and Janet.

    I’ve found your exchange here somewhat enlightening. Especially vis a vis the physics/mechanics relating directly to just how such things as off shore oil wells work, and how one might go about plugging it.

    So I’ll insert my two bits here, which probably will not contribute anything useful, in light of what has already been said above. I work as a heavy equipment operator. Every once in a while, when digging along a city street, an operator may snag a live residential water service, leaving a small copper pipe stub sticking out of the side of a larger water main. What usually happens in this case is that someone has to go and slide an OPEN ball valve type fitting over the existing pipe (usually not more than an inch or so in diameter). Of course, as the valve is being slid over the pipe, the water is continuing to jet through the valve, so no pressure is yet building up behind it. The next step is to use a big wrench to tighten the pressure ring around the pipe until the valve is securely attached. And the last step is to close the valve.

    Now, last night, when I discussed this idea with my wife, it sounded like a very GOOD, even great idea. I was thinking that BP or their sub contractors could fabricate a large diameter ball valve (very strong valve type) and slide it over the pipe at the bottom of the ocean floor, and lastly weld it in place. I figured that there would not likely be any practical way to turn a huge wrench around it to turn a compression ring at that depth anyway.

    But now, after reading what Allan has said, the whole concept (the idea that I have) is looking somewhat naive. If I’ve read correctly, Allan, it seems that the pressure of the jetting oil would just blow the valve clean off, or else it would push the remaining body of inserted pipe right out of the ocean floor. Do I have that correct? I’m asking because I want to believe that the idea would work, and be uncomplicated to implement (though I know better).

    It does seem like your reverse funnel concept would be the most practical though, and would create the least amount of back pressure, and probably be a lot less difficult to implement than the 400 ton plug.

    Well, I just wanted to share my thoughts on this, with the hope that somehow it might in some way contribute to part of a greater solution. I really have no idea who I would share my idea with where it would matter anyway; and it’s probably already been looked at and tossed out for logistical reasons, I’m guessing.

    Kind regards to both of you,

    Al Roy (Canada)

  5. Second comment:

    Just had a talk with the missus, telling her about what I read on this page, and about the idea I had for a using a valve, and right then a second idea popped into my mind. Using your reverse funnel scenario with a valve on top would seem to be a quick, and potentially long-term fix for the problem. Put a big steel ring, perhaps several feet deep, on the bottom of the funnel, so that when it’s weighted down, the ring pushes deep into the sand and helps to seal the leak.

    If a wide, flat deck was at the bottom of the funnel, around the edge, I’m guessing that it would be a simple matter to lower a couple of hundred concrete lock blocks into place to hold it down. Once that’s done the valve could then be shut.

    It SEEMS like it might work.

    1. Al,
      You never know where the good ideas will come from. I kind of like your idea. I wonder what Allan’s perspective will be on your ideas.

      There have been other great ideas with merit…and I’ve heard from readers who have not been able to figure out how to get their ideas shared. I’ve actually written to a few top officials without receiving any replies. I realize top thinkers are working on finding solutions, but there are so many excellent innovators in the world that there ought to be some centralized idea pool that any citizen can submit an idea to regarding the oil crisis. Perhaps there is one and I just am not aware of it?

  6. Janet & Al – Now it is nearly June 2012, The sea has eaten the oil, as it always does, eventually – because it is a natural substance – it has not been interfered with into a chemical by man.
    I do no know how BP plugged the hole, but it would have been by the lowering of a massive jacket and the injection of heavy mud ( bentonite ). The problem was that the original drill pipe had blown out and buckled, as previously described, making the job of getting at the hole more difficult.
    No doubt somewhere there is a description of exactly how BP managed to plug the hole. I will try and find out, assuming that it is now long enough ago not to be a secret any more.
    Before one screams at these people, it is worth remembering a few things.
    First, most of the oil that remains untapped is under the oceans. Secondly, perversely, when something begins to run out, many people try to use as much as they can, so as to get more than other people ( Jeremy Clarkson et al ).
    thirdly, There is a massive commercial demand for oil products – not just gasoline & gasoil, but plastics – so many things. That means there is also a serious political need for oil also – the political party that squeezes down on oil is less likely to get the votes.
    Thinking green, conservation, managing our numbers, our food and water supplies, and our currencies are still based on the pig / trough principle. The actual resources do not change. the people still have the same brains and muscles. Whilst there were plenty of strong,less fortunate people living sparsely on land on & under which were raw materials and crops gave entrepreneurs huge opportunities to profit from their fellows – you and me. Now there are far fewer, and capitalism exists on the basis that you pass the ball of loss to make your profit, down the line, until it reaches the poor wretches at the bottom who have no-one to pass it on to.
    I put it to you that mediaeval economics don’t actually work hugely well when the poor and the rich have the same currency – the poor cannot possibly keep up with the rich. It is not a question of not working hard enough – it is a question of passing the financial inefficiencies on down the line. As to the bankers, that is an international cartel, who take because they can – actually, the money belongs to their customers and their shareholders. But as long as they agree internationally that they will behave like that, they do. Consider. The Head of the British Army gets in the order of £500,000 / yr. The Prime Minister gets £140,000 / year. Bob Diamond of Barclays gets £25,000,000 / yr – roughly. So does that mean that the Prime Minister is less worth than Mr. Diamond by a factor of 25 m’n to 0.14 m’n ? ( 178 :1 ? Should we perhaps dragoon Mr. Diamond into No. 10 Downing Street ? Looked at like that, it is quite ludicrous – we should wake up.
    Darwin is right – the fittest survive – but in the long run, the fittest ‘ group ‘, not individual – and that means keeping all the members of that group fit, or as many as possible. So we need to divide the resources between us, not grab piles fro a few – simply because when you are on top of a pile, the only way to go is down.

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