Archive for July, 2010

oil-eating bacteria

ABC News reports: Undersea Plumes Nowhere to Be Found as Tests Show Seafood to Be Safe

“When a large amount of oil comes into the environment, then they quickly muster, if you will, and they can sometimes grow to 1,000-fold,” said Jay Grimes, a professor of microbiology at the University of Southern Mississippi.

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“For southern Florida, the Florida Keys, and the Eastern Seaboard, the coast remains clear,” said Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D., under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. “With the flow stopped and the loop current a considerable distance away, the light sheen remaining on the Gulf’s surface will continue to biodegrade and disperse, but will not travel far.”

The scare is over, return to your stations and enjoy the sunsets.

Dr. Lubachenco’s announcement is no surprise to the savvy readers of this obscure blog, but it’s nonetheless good to hear the official word.  Don’t expect any apologies from the fear mongers who predicted that the loop current superhighway would carry oil to east coast beaches as early as the first week of May or from the media folks who were eager to report the pending doom.

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A. The environmental effects will be modest  (initial Hayward assessment made shortly after oil started gushing into the Gulf)


B. Environmental catastrophe (revised Hayward assessment while on the political hot-seat)

It’s much too soon to make a call, but the early data seem to favor A.  The Telegraph and Time have posted interesting articles on this topic.

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AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

From NOLA.com:

CEDYCO Inc. of Houston owns the wellhead, but the company declared it “orphaned” under the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources “orphaned well” program in 2008.
That program allows companies to abdicate some responsibility for the well and gives the state permission to plug it and prepare the site for redevelopment.


  1. Lots of explaining to do on this one.  What barriers were in place in the well bore?
  2. How can you “orphan” a well that hasn’t been temporarily abandoned or equipped with downhole plugs, especially in an area with vessel traffic?
  3. No “deep pockets” responsible party on this one.  Cleanup costs will be paid from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.  Good luck collecting damage costs.
  4. Bad practices yield bad results, regardless of location or water depth.

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Fighting Deepwater Horizon Fire

This question is receiving a lot of attention since the topic was discussed at the Department of the Interior – Coast Guard investigation.

To the best of my knowledge, this concern was first raised by a one of our very smart and experienced contributors, Dr. Malcolm Sharples, who did not wish to be identified at the time.  Malcolm is now comfortable being identified, and I thought I would draw attention to his insightful comment.  See item 3 in this 30 April post.

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As promised in “Deepwater is Not the Problem,” comparative performance data for surface and seafloor BOPs follow.  Every study and informal review that I have seen has indicated that subsea BOPs are more reliable than surface BOPs. These data are not surprising.  Because of the time and cost involved in pulling and repairing subsea stacks, preventive maintenance programs tend to be more comprehensive.

The studies cited below were completed 10+ years ago, but to the best of my knowledge the conclusions are still valid.  If there are any more recent studies, BOE would like to hear about them.

West Engineering Chart

West Engineering Paper

Recent data indicate surface BOP reliability is only one-tenth that of subsea BOP equipment.

Tertrahedron Study

Subsea BOPs have smaller failure rate than surface BOPs.

SINTEF study: This study is limited to seafloor stacks, and shows there is no difference between failure rates for deepwater and ultra-deepwater wells.

(For wells in >400 m WD) It seems that there is no correlation at all between the failure rate and the downtime related to the water depth.


Sintef Subsea BOP Reliability Study (click to enlarge)

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The oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico appears to be dissolving far more rapidly than anyone expected, a piece of good news that raises tricky new questions about how fast the government should scale back its response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

A very good article in the New York Times confirms what experienced oil spill observers expected – oil from the Macondo spill is disappearing rapidly as a result of natural processes (see SINTEF diagram below).  While marsh and coastal damage could be significant, more oil from Macondo shouldn’t add to those problems.

SINTEF Weathering Diagram

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Per the transcript:

Morning Admiral. My question is did you receive my documentation that indicates that possibly a nuclear submarine had ran into the drill shaft and caused this explosion?

No, but the ROVs discovered an advanced alien society on the seafloor.

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AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Boat Strikes Well in Louisiana Inland Waterway.

Does the well have a subsurface safety valve?

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In the Gulf of Mexico, deepwater drilling is more risky because that is where the high-rate wells are, not because the water is deep.
  • Water depth had little to do with the well integrity problems at Macondo. Similar errors in planning and execution would have yielded similar results in any water depth or on land.  Has Montara already been forgotten?
  • Subsea BOP stacks have a much better performance record than the surface stacks used in shallow water drilling (more on this later in the week).
  • Historical data indicate that blowouts occur less frequently in deep water, not more frequently (more to follow).
  • Obviously, blowouts involving high-rate wells are likely to do more damage.   This applies regardless of the water depth.   You can reduce the spill risk by prohibiting drilling in the areas with the highest production potential, but that wouldn’t be very sound energy policy and you won’t find many buyers for the leases.
  • It is safer to conduct intervention and capping operations on subsea wells.  Regulators would not even allow surface capping to be considered at Montara because of the high risk to workers.  The subsurface ROV work is perhaps the biggest Macondo success story.
  • If the Macondo well was in shallow water (with the wellhead above the water surface), and well integrity concerns precluded a risky surface capping operation, how would the flow have been contained and collected?
  • Other things being equal, the environmental risk is less at deepwater locations which tend to be farther from shore.

Water depth is just one well planning consideration.  Abnormal pressures and temperatures, shallow gas, hydrogen sulfide, ice, permafrost, storms, currents, extended reach targets, and horizontal completions are some of the others.  To prevent another Macondo, in the US or anywhere else in the world, we need to focus our attention on the 3 categories of issues listed below.  These issues are important in all water depths and in all environments.

  1. Well integrity including design, construction, barriers, verification, and monitoring.
  2. BOPE performance and reliability under all conditions.
  3. Capping, containing, and collecting oil in the event of a blowout.

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