Saturday, May 08, 2010

BP’s “Apollo 13”: It Just Gets Worse and Worse

A BP spokesman by the name of Bill Salvin made the unfortunate comparison between his company’s ecologically disastrous blowout and subsequent oil disgorgement into the fisheries of the Gulf of Mexico, and NASA’s “Successful Failure” of 1970, the nearly doomed manned mission to the moon, Apollo 13.

“It’s just an amazing effort, truly an Apollo 13 effort 5,000 feet below the surface of the ocean trying to stop this spill.”

Why make that comparison?

NASA is a United States federal government agency working under a federal budget. An agency whose employees, in April 1970, “worked the problem” and got what would otherwise have been a doomed mission to the moon back to Earth with no moon rocks to show for it, but with slightly less than three healthy crew members (Fred Haise came down ill with a urinary tract infection). NASA spared no expense to design, build and execute these moon missions. The reputation of the United States, and the lives of our astronauts were, after all, at stake.

BP is a multinational oil giant with billions upon billions of dollars at its disposal. BP and its drilling contractor, Transocean, along with dozens of consultants, consulting companies, the US Coast Guard, and Jesus knows who else are all set to “work the problem.” A problem caused by their own failure to use the safest, most reliable blowout preventer equipment with a remote control cutoff switch because it was too expensive. Half a million dollars, after all, is just too much money to spend in order to assure failsafe drilling in an environment unreachable by man.

But I suppose what Salvin is referring to is the fact that the problems they are encountering are ones that they did not anticipate, and ones that have to be solved on the fly.

But drilling engineers do not rocket scientists make.

Witness “the dome.” On its face, putting a dome over the seafloor oil gusher and using it to collect the oil and gas gushing out into the lower bathyal waters of the Gulf of Mexico seemed like a good idea, although BP engineers cautioned that it had not ever been done in water this deep.

So imagine their surprise when gas (methane, etc) hit the cold water of the lower bathyal Gulf of Mexico and froze into a slush called a gas hydrate. Gas hydrates are the most abundant form of hydrocarbon on the planet, after all. It exists abundantly in marine sediments below 300 meters (1000 feet) in water depth. The USGS estimates that gas hydrates comprise twice the total carbon to be found in fossil fuels on Earth.

The gas hydrate slush clogged the top of the dome out through which the oil was to be extracted and siphoned up to processing ships on the sea surface.

Gee, they never thought that would happen.

Their proposed solution? Pump warm water down to the dome to melt the gas hydrate.

Is that even possible? Pumping warm water through a mile long hose that extends down through frigid water (just above freezing at that water depth) to counteract an ocean’s worth of cold water? Has anyone ever even modeled that before?

No, where the NASA near-disaster and the BP impending disaster differ is that while some things were not anticipated by engineers in either project, NASA had the tools and the instrumentation at both ends of the disaster to “work the problem.”

BP is flying blind without a compass (not that a working compass would do them any good). My impression is that BP engineers are doing what they do best: looking around for a bigger hammer.

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