Gulf Oil Spill Containment Attempt Fails

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, May 10, 2010 (ENS) – Hope that BP could immediately contain oil spilling from the broken Deepwater Horizon wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico suffered a setback on Saturday.

BP’s attempt to place a 100 ton containment dome over the main leak at the wellhead was suspended when hydrates, icy crystals formed when gas combines with water, built up inside the dome, said BP’s chief operating officer Doug Suttles. He stressed that this operation has never been done before in 5,000 feet of water where the wellhead is located.

Because gas hydrates are lighter than water, the dome became buoyant, Suttles said. In addition, the hydrates blocked the top of the dome, keeping the leaking oil from being directed up a pipe into a drillship on the surface.

BP engineers lower the large containment dome in an attempt to keep the Deepwater Horizon oil from spilling into the gulf. May 6, 2010. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

BP says a second, smaller containment dome is being prepared to lower over the main leak point. The small dome will be connected by drill pipe and riser lines to a drillship on the surface to collect and treat the oil. The company says the smaller dome is designed to mitigate the formation of large hydrate volumes.

The oil rig Deepwater Horizon, owned by the Swiss corporation Transocean, Ltd, and leased to the British company BP, exploded April 20 after an 18,000 foot test well was about to be capped 51 miles southeast of Venice, Louisiana. The rig caught fire and burned for 36 hours. It sank April 22 and lies on the seafloor about a quarter-mile from the broken wellhead.

A series of valves at the wellhead called a blowout preventer has failed to shut off the flow of oil, which has been gushing into the gulf at an estimated rate of 5,000 barrels a day for the past three weeks.

BP, the party legally responsible for stopping the oil and cleaning up the mess, says its work on the blowout preventer has positioned company engineers to attempt a “top kill option” aimed at stopping the flow of oil from the well by pumping material down into the wellhead.

BP said it will pursue this option in parallel with the smaller containment dome over the next two weeks.

Work on a relief well drilled near the original well to divert the flow of oil began on Sunday May 2 and continues. It is expected to take some three months to complete.

More than 290 vessels, including skimmers, tugs, barges and recovery vessels, are being used to collect and disperse oil that has reached the surface of the sea.

The volume of dispersant applied to the spill on the surface amounts to over 315,000 gallons since the spill response began. The U.S. EPA is constantly monitoring air quality in the gulf area through air monitoring aircraft, and fixed and mobile air stations. This data is posted as it becomes available on www.epa.gov/bpspill.

The Coast Guard and the EPA authorized BP to conduct tests of a new approach to use this dispersant underwater, at the source of the leak. Tests were done to determine if the dispersant would be effective in breaking up the oil and helping to control the leaks. No further use of dispersants underwater is planned until BP provides the results of these tests. The EPA reserves the right to discontinue the use of this dispersant method “if any negative impacts on the environment outweigh the benefits,” the agency said today.

Intensive operations to skim oil from the surface of the water also continued. Some 90,000 barrels of oily liquid has now been recovered.

The total length of deployed boom is now more than one million feet as part of the efforts to stop oil reaching the coast.

Winds from the southeast blowing between 10-15 knots are forecast to persist throughout the week. The National Weather Service says these moderately strong onshore winds have the potential to move new oil onshore.

The Mississippi Delta, Breton Sound, the Chandeleur Islands and areas directly north are all in the path of the oil today. West of the Mississippi Delta, the shoreline west of Barataria Bay to Isles Dernieres also is threatened. With continued winds from the southeast, forecasters say potential oil contacts could reach as far west as Oyster Bayou on Tuesday, and Atchafalaya Bay late Wednesday.

In the offshore waters of Louisiana, the area of impact is expanding. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sunday expanded its fisheries closure to include areas west of the Mississippi River as well as state waters to the east of the river’s mouth.

The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals today announced the closure of some oyster harvesting beds to the west of the Mississippi in addition to previously closed areas along the coast to the east of the river’s mouth.

Tar balls were sighted today for the first time on Alabama’s beaches, on Dauphin Island.

“We have white sugar sand beaches that stretch for 55 miles in Alabama, and a total of nearly 600 miles of tidal shoreline at stake,” said Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper in Mobile, Alabama. “For them to now have oil deposits is just the beginning of what is going to be a 24-hour-a-day fight to protect one of the most valuable natural resources in America.”

Oil has reached the shores of Main Pass on the Louisiana mainland. May 10, 2010 (Photo by Daniel Beltra courtesy Greenpeace)

U.S. Senate hearings into the causes of the huge spill will open Tuesday. In testimony prepared for a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing and another hearing at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, BP America Chairman and President Lamar McKay said the company is investigating the incident with a team of more than 40 people “and has not yet reached conclusions about incident cause.”

BP said the cost to date of the response amounts to about $350 million, including the cost of spill response, containment, relief well drilling, commitments to the Gulf Coast states, settlements and federal costs.

McKay said BP will pay “all necessary” cleanup costs associated with the oil spill and is committed to paying claims for other losses and damages related to the spill.

In his prepared testimony, Transocean CEO Steven Newman will give a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing some insight into what happened in the lead-up to the April 20 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon.

“Drilling had been completed on April 17, and the well had been sealed with cement,” says Newman, so that the well could be reopened by the operator, BP, if at a later date the company wanted to begin production.

At this point, says Newman, drilling mud – a heavy fluid pumped into the well and circulated to prevent oil, gas or water from moving to the surface – was no longer being used for pressure containment.

After drilling was concluded, the cementing sub-contractor, in this case, Halliburton, was responsible for encasing the well in cement, for putting a temporary cement plug in the top of the well, and for ensuring the integrity of the cement, Newman explains.

“The cement and the casing were the barriers controlling pressure from the reservoir,” says Newman. “Indeed, at the time of the explosion, the rig crew, at the direction of the operator, was in the process of displacing drilling mud and replacing it with sea water.”

“For that reason, the one thing we know with certainty is that on the evening of April 20, there was a sudden, catastrophic failure of the cement, the casing, or both. Therein lies the root cause of this occurrence; without a disastrous failure of one of those elements, the explosion could not have occurred. It is also clear that the drill crew had very little (if any) time to react,” Newman says. “The explosions were almost instantaneous.”

Newman also will tell lawmakers about BP’s responsibility for the incident. “All offshore oil and gas production projects begin and end with the operator,” he says.

“When the operator, in this case, BP, leases a parcel of land on the outer continental shelf from the U.S. government, it must prepare and submit detailed plans specifying where and how a well is to be drilled, cased, cemented and completed based on its interpretation of propriety data, including geologic data from seismic surveys,” Newman will explain. “Once those plans are approved and permits are issued and work begins, the operator, or leaseholder, serves as the general contractor that manages all of the work that is performed on its lease.”

Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Observed From the International Space Station, May 10, 2010 (Photo courtesy NASA)

President Barack Obama met with Cabinet and senior officials to ensure the federal government is doing all it can to help stop the flow of oil and mitigate the environmental impact. The President stressed the importance of engaging independent experts in the fields of science and technology, and of bringing every perspective to the table to identify potential solutions.

The President asked Energy Secretary Steven Chu to lead a team of administration officials and government scientists to Houston this week to meet with BP officials to pursue potential solutions.

In addition, to deal more generally with the harms created by oil spills, President Obama requested that the administration send legislation to Congress to toughen and update the law surrounding caps on damages.

National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis and Acting Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service Rowan Gould have been dispatched to command centers along the Gulf coast to help lead efforts to protect coastal communities and natural resources from BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Jarvis, who is stationed in the Mobile Incident Command Center, and Gould, who is stationed in the Houma, Louisiana Incident Command Center, are among the more than 380 Department of Interior personnel who have been deployed as part of the oil spill response.

Overall, more than 10,000 people are currently responding to the oil spill to protect the shoreline and wildlife.

In Florida, Attorney General Bill McCollum today joined Governor Charlie Crist to announce the launch of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Legal Advisory Council.

Chaired by former state Attorneys General Bob Butterworth and Jim Smith, the pro bono council will identify firms, lawyers, and other experts who can help the state develop its legal strategy. The council will collect the ideas and suggestions of its members, including general courses of action to be taken now; legal strategies and theories; and data and information collection and preservation.

“Floridians need our help now and it is never too early to tap into the best legal resources available,” said McCollum. “By taking this step today, we will be in the best position possible when moving forward with any litigation or other resolution on behalf of Florida and its citizens.”

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