The Latest Petroleum Disaster
Well, yet another oil spill. Besides the obvious doomers, and the people who point at 'big oil' as being the world's nastiest bunch of thieves and bandits, it is the CONSUMER who is to blame. We are the ones that are using the product. So long as there is a demand for the product (oil), we are basically asking 'big oil' to take a lot of risks to find the stuff, bring it to land, refine it, ship it to gasoline stations, ready for our convenient use. Nobody to blame but OURSELVES. You can't blame BP, or ExxonMobil, or Royal Dutch Shell. Blame yourself, suck it up, princess.
When 'the masses' find things to complain about, they are really not looking at the entire economic, environmental, societal, and technical picture. You can't just shut down the oil industry. Our food supply would collapse rapidly, and although an immediate reduction of the global population by a factor of ten might seem cool to some people, I don't want to be in that ten percent that's left. You see, the humanoid remains left present quite a disposal challenge. There are, of course, the doomers that our society or species would collapse without oil because... you need oil to make plastics (you don't), or you need more oil to make the renewable energy gizmos (you don't), or you need oil to grow food (you don't). But you need to adapt the technology so you don't need it. Even the pseudo-doomer Gwynne Dyer believes that this transition could be made rapidly - in less than half a decade. I like Gwynne's pseudo-doomer attitude. If you don't do something, it's doom. But if there are solutions (and there are), then we can just do them. I'd like to nominate him for President of the World.
Just over a century ago, cities were overrun with disease, gunfights, and a rather putrid odour. In a matter of a few years, horses made way for horseless buggies, and a lot of problems went away. We have the same thing now, and just as blacksmiths careers were cut short by the automobile, the modern mechanic may well have his/her career cut short by the advance of electrically-driven personal transportation, or whatever actually takes the place of the current internal-combustion engine. A 'gradual' transition may be possible over probably two decades but probably not much more than three decades at the most. A better approach would actually be a 'crash program' that would get the job done in about four or six years.
Regarding the oil spill, BP's response is probably as good as it could have been. There are some questions to ask. Why did the BOP's not work? What about the subsurface shutoff? Why did the 'last resort' subsurface shutoff not close? Because it was not there? There are supposed to be something like three or four or five redundant elements in a BOP stack and a subsurface shutoff in the line. They should have been able to pinch the line off somehow. Did the BOP actually work initially but did the line let go or get punctured by a rig falling on it? Did a pressure pulse due to a slug of gas cause the line to rupture because of excessive pressure? Did the first rig explosion and collapsing rig cause damage to the subsurface casing or cement? Was the wrong drilling fluid pumped down there before some cement set up? Was the cement plug not right, or was the casing cement job bad? I don't know.
One possibility about this well is that actuation of the BOP in the late stages of this well control event (kick, blowout, whatever you want to call it) is that if the cement job was not right, or the casing was not set in there right, the casing could come flying out that well, and then there'd be a big mess to clean up. First, do no damage to what's there already. That is why they did not simply put a cap on the top of the pipe, because that would be a 'normal' thing to want to try. I think it could have made it worse. Well, I was wrong, it didn't make it worse. But the new cap did need to be designed and built. But hey, now that it's been built, why not have one there, ready to hook up if you need to? Plus, it could have made it worse. They had to have a monitoring system all designed and built up so that if there was a problem with a shut-in well, they'd know it. One of the most historically dangerous times in an oil well's life cycle is actually cementing it shut with the intention of re-entrance later. This is when you're in a hurry, and you pump the cement down, and you see the pressures move around as the cement sets. It's easy to get complacent. Then you circulate out the weighted fluid and replace it with water, and pull the drillpipe out, you've done it so many times, and it's always the same - it's a no-brainer. Whoops, drillpipe, water, cement, plug, and then the gas, oil, swearing. Big swearing.
A 'relief well' would probably be a good help, however, perhaps we should already have a relief well drilled down that only would need a quick directional drill of a few days or maybe a week or two - paired with every well? It is expensive, but perhaps the price of oil should include that cost? Plus, you have a second well almost drilled down so once you're done with well 1 and it's safe, you can drill the second relief well into the formation and produce. In any case, this environmental disaster should, if we're smart, push us towards greener/renewable energy. And without affecting our standard of living by very much, we could easily do that. No problem.
The difficulty in plugging such a line at those pressures are substantial. Let's try an experiment. Take a dry chemical fire extinguisher, get someone else to hold the hose for you. Now, get this friend to hit the button and try stopping the thing with your little finger. You'll make one heck of a mess before the powder stops.
There have been some angry people saying the 'government isn't doing enough'. I don't know of any government that has any experience in deep sea oil exploration, except, perhaps Russia. Nobody has ever tried to stop an underwater gusher this deep before, and we can't go down there with our own hands - it has to be a robot. There have actually been bigger and more spectacular and even longer-lasting leaks, but none that has got this amount of publicity. The people with any expertise in this field are already working for the oil companies, though perhaps BP should call in backup from some of its competitors? Oh wait, they've already done that. Everybody is working on it. In any case, putting another team in charge of trying to stop this leak would likely make it spew oil for another couple months as the government realized that it does not have the knowledge of how to do this, hired the same people that have been working on the problem already (away from BP) and starting again. We will see stricter regulation and oversight, but the most effective measure to stop oil spills like this from happening is to not use the product.
There are many media reports that an oil leak like this is 'unprecedented'. Wrong. 1979 Ixtoc, the oil flowed for the better part of a year at rates higher than we're seeing out of this BP well. Memories are short.
No matter whether you believe in CO2-caused global warming, the environmental disaster of oceanic oil spills is undeniable.
The use of natural gas (CNG) in vehicles is a well-established technology, and spills, though they are greenhouse gas spills, do dissipate and the methane will eventually break down in the atmosphere. Perhaps after this oil spill is actually stopped and we are trying to figure out how to go forward, using CNG for a fuel has an advantage in the spill department. I make no bones about being pro-EV. It will take many years to get EV power storage to be as refined as gasoline is today, but it really isn't that hard. Claims that we need way more generating facilities are not quite right - we simply need to use what we have in a more intelligent manner. Dynamic pricing of electricity based on demand would be a great mover for conservation and intelligent charging.
Steps, in my not-so-humble opinion, to ever prevent another disaster of this magnitude (while we are still using the convenient energy source known as oil):
Other things of note: