The Pelican in the Room 2

I am getting increasingly worried about the Macondo well’s continuing shut-in state, not to mention the way BP and Admiral Allen seem to be bickering about it. I guess the good news is that the pressure has built to a reasonable level and has pretty much parked there. That’s certainly better than the alternative1. And to a certain extent, I can understand why what was supposed to be a pressure test has been extended for days to keeping the well shut in. Because it is preferable to allowing the well to continue to flow into the Gulf.

However.

BP’s making noise about wanting to try another surface kill. I suppose because the last one went so well. Now, one point in favor of this is that they’ve got the well actually shut in, so there’s at least some integrity to the well cap now. But I’m with Bob Cavnar; I’m worried about the continuing integrity of of the casing and the flex joint2, and I’m also worried about the integrity of the formations. There have been concerns since the beginning about casing damage that could allow oil/drilling fluid into the surrounding formations, which could lead to failure, fracturing, and give the oil a new pathway into the open water. This hasn’t happened yet, but it very well could, and with no warning. And, now that the relief well is getting close enough to completion to give us a little hope, that kind of failure could needlessly complicate those efforts as well.

If you’ve ever watched the movie True Lies, think about the scene where the terrorists are driving along the highway across the Florida keys, and the bridge basically gets blown up around them. One of the trucks ends up teetering between staying on the road and falling off into the ocean. The terrorists try to creep toward the back of the truck, hoping to get it to sway back onto the highway. Then a bird (a pelican, I think) lands on the hood and they all go tumbling into the drink.

That sort of farcical balance, teetering between safety and disaster, is what this is making me think of, and BP’s inexplicable maneuvering is the pelican in this equation.

With the new cap on the well, they’ve got four good fittings they could hook in to for the purposes of pumping oil. One excuse for not having done that yet is that one of the risers still needs to be completed, and I believe that one or two of the vessels they would be using aren’t there yet. (And of course, constant weather worries.) But what about the vessels and risers already on site? As far as I know (again, geologist, not engineering expert) they ought to be able to just retrieve oil from a couple of the valves and not all of them. They should be able to just take whatever capacity the vessels on site have, which would also keep the well at a lower pressure even if they’re not taking the full flow. Why are the pushing the pressure on the well by keeping it shut in if they’re worried about the flex joint failing? Why are they looking at a plan that might cause catastrophic failure with the relief well so close to completion? And so on. Unfortunately, I’m not in full possession of the facts, and through no fault of my own; there’s a lot of detail that BP is keeping to itself.

I’m starting to fall into the paranoid camp that thinks BP is fighting to keep the well shut in and even pushing for the inexplicable attempt at a static kill because that will prevent truly accurate measurements of the well flow. Since, after all, knowing how much the well can flow at would give a pretty accurate way to measure just how much oil has gone into the Gulf, which is important since fines are charged per barrel – and fees for removal of oil from the lease are also charged per barrel.

It would also be easier for me to dismiss my growing sense of paranoia as misplaced suspicion if it weren’t for the fact that this company has already shown a blatant disregard for safety in the interest of savings/profit. BP was aware of the leak in the BOP’s control pod for months, and did not see fit to have it fixed. They didn’t bother to run a cement bond log3. They didn’t conduct a circulation test to see if there was gas in the wellbore. And so on, and so on, an infuriating list that just gets longer and longer the more times BP is called to testify.

BP killed eleven people because they thought the savings were worth the risk. Which is an easy enough decision, I suppose, when you’re making it from hundreds of miles away from the drilling rig. BP has put a knife in the heart of the Gulf of Mexico’s ecosystem because they thought the savings were worth the risk. BP destroyed the livelihoods of thousands because they thought the savings were worth the risk. No one set out to kill eleven people or damage an ecosystem or destroy the livelihoods of people; but all of these things add up to show a disregard for risk, where the people making the decision about that risk are not the ones that will bear the brunt of the damage if the odds turn sour.

So how paranoid am I actually being, if I find it a reasonable conclusion that they just might be willing to risk exacerbating this heartbreaking situation because it could get them out of some fines? It might be worth the risk. At this point we’re all just teetering at the edge of disaster and waiting to see where BP lands.

1 – As in, constant low pressure or a sudden drop in pressure, which would basically indicate that the oil’s found a different way to escape the well.

2 – Mr. Cavnar provides a more technical discussion of that issue here. The problem is, none of us armchair quarterbacks knows precisely what fittings/etc are being used, and no one’s bothering to share that information.

3 – This is basically a sonic assessment to see if there’s cement fully surrounding the casing, which lets you know if the cementing worked properly. Logs usually cost by the foot, so running a log through the entire 15,000 foot length of this well would be a costly proposition. In the past, I’ve seen different types of logs (for a cement bond log you really have to run the whole thing) that companies have tried to save on by only running them for sections of the well, a couple hundred feet at a time. As a geologist, I find this practice very annoying.

2 thoughts on “The Pelican in the Room

  1. Reply Janiece Jul 22,2010 03:01

    I’m starting to fall into the paranoid camp that thinks BP is fighting to keep the well shut in and even pushing for the inexplicable attempt at a static kill because that will prevent truly accurate measurements of the well flow.

    Really? You’re JUST NOW starting to fall into that camp?

  2. Reply Rachael Jul 22,2010 03:32

    @Janiece – Well, I really do try to not let my paranoia rule me. But yeah.

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