What We’ve Learned from the Gulf Spill
In the future, relief wells should be drilled simultaneously with the main well.
by Michio Kaku
If the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico were a tragedy, it would be in three acts. In Act I, there was the chaos caused by a methane explosion that killed 11 workers and unleashed the greatest environmental catastrophe in U.S. history. In Act II, we saw the floundering of BP officials, as eight failed attempts were made to cap, siphon, stuff, smother or seal the leak.
We are now slowly entering Act III, where engineers have painfully learned some valuable lessons and are on the verge of slowly killing this raging monster.
The nagging question is: Why did it take so long? Why couldn’t they have capped the leak months ago?
For three agonizing months, BP’s engineers and executives were essentially making things up as they went along, conducting a billion dollar science project with the American people as guinea pigs. The basic science of stopping oil leaks at 5,000 feet below sea level should have been done years ago.
All eight failed attempts to control the leak might have worked if the blowout had taken place at 200 feet. The 1979 Ixtoc oil leak in Mexico, which was the mother of all oil disasters, took place at 160 feet and raged for 10 months. It was eventually stopped by a relief well. The lessons learned from that and other oil disasters gave confidence to engineers in the industry that they could handle any leak.
Physics are different at 5,000 feet than they are at 200 feet. The pressure at 5,000 feet is enormous, about 2,000 pounds per square inch. Think of placing a passenger car on every square inch of your chest. You would be crushed like an egg shell within a fraction of a second. Even military submarines cannot operate at those depths. Instead, special remote controlled robotic subs are required. They are often hard to control and sometimes even collide.
Furthermore, methane, which is found as a gas in our kitchen stoves, solidifies into an ice-like hydrate at those tremendous depths and cold temperatures. The original explosion, it is conjectured, was caused when heat was applied to set the well’s cement seal, expanding the methane hydrates into gas that shot up the riser pipe and ignited. The presence of methane hydrates also foiled the first attempt to cap the leak. Later, BP engineers had greater success by sending warm water down the pipe to prevent methane hydrates from clogging it without creating gas bubbles like the one that caused the explosion.
BP officials initially low-balled the size of the leak. Although they originally stated that 1,000 barrels of oil were leaking per day, they also released video that gave a startlingly different picture.
In our freshman physics courses we teach the students that the flow rate from a pipe is the product of the area of the pipe times the velocity of the fluid. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to multiply these two numbers. Even a simple back-of-the-envelope estimate of the leak from watching the video will give you estimates of 40,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil per day. Did BP officials knowingly release misleadingly low figures, perhaps because they can be fined more than $4,000 per barrel by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency?
In the future there should be much tighter controls on deep-water drilling, and there should be redundant systems on hand so that the well can be capped or siphoned immediately if the blowout preventer fails. Perhaps relief wells should be drilled simultaneously with the main well, since they are the gold standard for stopping oil leaks and work nearly without fail. There also has to be a standby fleet of ships with skimmers, centrifugal pumps and booms ready to handle oil once it is leaked.
More importantly, the basic science of plugging oil leaks at great depths has to be completed, so that any future tragedies will not be repeated as farce. Until we end our oil addiction and develop alternative energy sources, similar plotlines will no doubt recur.
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