BP Rushes Oil Containment Dome to Broken Wellhead

ROBERT, Louisiana, May 5, 2010 (ENS) – The best hope for containing the thousands of barrels of oil a day gushing from a broken wellhead on the Gulf of Mexico seafloor is a 100 ton, 40-foot tall metal containment dome that BP crews loaded onto a barge this afternoon at Port Fourchon, Louisiana.

The barge is headed to the site of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, about 40 miles from shore, where the oil rig exploded on April 20 burned for a day and a half and then sank, leaving the test well it had been drilling uncapped and leaking unchecked for the past two weeks.

There, at some time during the next 48 hours, the containment dome will be lowered to the seabed on a cable to cover the leak at the end of the broken riser pipe that is tapping into oil 18,000 feet beneath the seafloor.

Today, BP executives in Houston explained to reporters on a teleconference just how this new technology will work – they hope.

BP containment dome is loaded aboard a barge at Port Fourchon, Louisiana. (Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

Bob Fryar, BP senior executive vice president for deepwater Angola, and David Clarkson, BP vice president for project execution, said the principle is simple but the engineering in a deep water environment is complex.

“This is new technology, never done before at this depth,” said Fryar. “The environment we’re operating in is a mile below the surface – too deep for divers. At these depths pressure is immense, 2300 pounds per square inch; it is very cold, about 43 degrees Fahrenheit; and it’s a dark environment. Fluids can behave in ways that are complex and challenging.”

Once the containment dome is lowered, remote operated subs will guide it into place. Engineers will use the drillship Discoverer Enterprise to lower two pipes, a smaller one inside a larger one. They intend to flow the leaking oil up 5,000 feet through the smaller pipe into storage tanks on the drillship at the surface.

Fryar and Clarkson said they are concerned about gas hydrates that form ice plugs inside the drill pipe as the oil begins to flow upwards. They intend to pipe warmer surface water down between the larger pipe and the smaller one to keep ice plugs from forming. Injecting methanol may also help dissolve ice plugs, they said.

“If the riser jams we would move off the station, take that back up and remove the plug, and do it again with more heat and more methanol,” said Clarkson.

When the fluids arrive on the drill ship, they will come into a closed processing system, said Clarkson. They will be separated into gas, oil and water. The gas will be flared off, the oil will be stored, and the water will be decanted over the side.

If no major problems are encountered, the system could be operational by Sunday.

BP engineers also have stopped a smaller leak on the broken well riser pipe by installing a valve, reducing the number of leaks to two. Another containment structure is under construction to capture and control the second leak.

Drilling also continues on a relief well near the damaged well to provide a permanent solution by sealing off the damaged wellhead.

Good weather has allowed aerial dispersant, skimming and controlled burning to resume in the ongoing effort to reduce the size of the oil spill.

Based on spill trajectory maps issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the spill today extends for at least 4,000 square miles, with at least 300 square miles of heavy contamination.

There is no confirmed oil on shore, BP’s Doug Suttles told reporters in a briefing at the Unified Command’s Joint Information Center in Robert, Louisiana. “When we see oil approaching shore, we are trying to do everything we can to keep that oil from getting to shore. We have now deployed more than 100 miles of boom,” Suttles said.

But the National Audubon Society says reports of oil reaching the Chandeleur Islands mark the initial assault of the massive Gulf oil spill on the first of 25 recognized Important Bird Areas that line the Gulf coast from Louisiana to south Florida.

Designated by Audubon in conjunction with Birdlife International, the sites provide essential habitats to hundreds of species. South of Gulfport, Mississippi, the Chandeleurs are breeding habitat for Sandwich and royal terns, plus brown pelicans, only recently removed from the U.S. Endangered Species list and just beginning to bounce back.

Audubon President Dr. Frank Gill said, “We already are launching new efforts that go beyond the emergency response. Thousands of citizen-science volunteers will help to confirm the location and status of birds now and to monitor the impact after the deadly oil arrives.”

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today surveyed response efforts across the Gulf. He inspected the containment dome, flew over the Gulf to view containment and cleanup efforts underway on the surface, and visited national wildlife refuges on the Louisiana and Alabama coast.

“I am encouraged by the coordinated and comprehensive response initiatives I saw today,” Salazar said at an afternoon news conference in Robert. “Federal and state employees are working tenaciously with speed, skill and dedication side by side with thousands of volunteers to assist BP in capping the seabed leak, contain the surface spill and protect the Gulf coast environment and communities.”

Oil leaked from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead, approaching the coast of Louisiana east of the mouth of the Mississippi River. (Photo © Daniel Beltra courtesy Greenpeace)

Suttles agreed, saying, “The teamwork is tremendous across private and government entities. It is unprecedented that we are all working together in such a joined up way.”

“The weather is also cooperating,” Salazar said, “providing response teams with favorable winds and calm seas to mount an all-out effort to attack the surface spill with dispersants, skimmers and controlled burning. We have plans in place, resources deployed, and the people we need to fight the spill.”

But even so, the oil might reach Florida’s west coast, and today, representatives from BP, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection met to plan a multi-agency response in case that happens.

In meetings over the last couple days, the Coast Guard and Florida DEP have spoken with trustees from various national and state wildlife refugee areas, along with every county emergency management office on the West Coast of Florida.

The agencies also met with over 30 members of non-governmental environmental organizations including Tampa Bay Watch, Save our Seabirds, Sarasota Bay Estuary Program and the Sierra Club.

The latest predictions from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, indicate no impact to the western coast of Florida, from Taylor County to Collier County within the next 72 hours.

“We are standing up a unified command, consisting of the U.S. Coast Guard, Florida Department of Environmental Protections and BP, to facilitate planning and identify resource requirements to ensure a robust multi-agency response,” said Capt. Tim Close, Commander, U.S. Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg. “We are planning for the worst case, but hopeful any impact will be substantially less than that, if at all.”

To ensure consistent coordination with the Gulf Coast states, Incident Commander U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Interior Secretary Salazar, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and NOAA Deputy Under Secretary Monica Medina are holding daily calls with the Governors from the five Gulf Coast states to provide updates on the response to the BP oil spill and answer any questions that arise. Governors Haley Barbour, Charlie Crist, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry and Bob Riley have been invited to participate in the daily calls.

Today, Governor Jindal joined Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser to launch the parish’s first jack up barge to serve as a central point to support booming efforts and speed up the deployment of resources.

Governor Jindal announced that the Louisiana National Guard will build a float ribbon bridge at the Shell Beach Marina in St. Bernard Parish which be used to load boats with booms and supplies as needed.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2010. All rights reserved.