Stories tagged BP oil spill

Jul
12
2010

The Top Hat at work: As you can see, the device is currently unable to capture all of the oil.
The Top Hat at work: As you can see, the device is currently unable to capture all of the oil.Courtesy Library of Congress
BP: Do you know... is that oil well thing still leaking?
Someone else: Hmm. Probably? I haven't heard much about it lately. Let me check.
BP: Sweet. Thanks a mil.
Someone else: Yeah, it's totally leaking still.
BP: Oh, nuts. Ok... like, is it leaking a lot?
Someone else: Yeah.
BP: But didn't we do something about that? Like, we... dressed it up or something?
Someone else: The "Top Hat." You put a cap on it. But the cap is only capturing about 25,000 barrels a day.
BP: "Only" 25,000? Sounds like someone has unreasonably high standards...
Someone else: Could be. But the well is probably leaking about 60,000 barrels a day. Maybe more.
BP: Hmm... Well, we ought to do something about that. What about... what about...
Someone else: Yes?!
BP: What about some sort of cap to suck off the leaking oil. A big metal cap. Like... a giant top hat. Have we tried that?
Someone else: Yes, you've tried it a couple times.
BP: All right then! Operation Top Hat is go!

Bless their little hearts, BP is at it again. While national news overage of the Gulf oil leak seems to have slowed to a somewhat less frantic pace, the oil itself continues to flow. BP had placed a cap over the severed end of the drill riser, but, so far, was capturing only 25,000 barrels (about a million gallons) of oil a day. That number is nothing to sneeze at, of course, but official estimates place the daily flow of oil at about 60,000 barrels, possibly more.

Taking advantage of calmer seas this weekend, BP has been fitting a new cap on the leaking well. While they're reluctant to make any promises, BP claims that the new cap could potentially capture the entire flow of leaking oil. Also, the new cap has a device that could measure the overall flow rate, and it should be able to more easily disconnect and reconnect with the leak. Why would we ever want to disconnect the cap if it's capturing all the oil? Hurricane season is starting, disconnecting the cap in a bad storm could help prevent more damage to well and the oil-recovery equipment.

We'll see, eh?

Meanwhile, the first relief well is slightly ahead of schedule, and it could intersect with the blown well by the end of the month, at which point BP could begin to pump mud and cement into the well to shut it down entirely.

Buzz readers who really know me know my passion for the Doobie Brothers. So I have to absolutely post this parody video featuring their song "Black Water." This effort even has the band's official okay!!

Found on the NYTimes Dot Earth blog, this little video uses

"...software tools from the gaming world to illustrate what a low-end estimate of the volume of oil gushing from the Gulf of Mexico seabed looks like if displayed as stacked barrels."

(25,000 barrels is now the low estimate of how much oil is spilling into the Gulf of Mexico from the ruined Deepwater Horizon wellhead every day.)

I was intrigued, but the lack of scale bugs me. 25,000 barrels obviously makes a big pile, but just how big is big?

Pelican-stock 2010: A flock of well-oiled pelicans need cleaning after the Gulf oil spill crisis.
Pelican-stock 2010: A flock of well-oiled pelicans need cleaning after the Gulf oil spill crisis.Courtesy IBRRC
Should you ever find yourself needing to clean a pelican (and more and more of us probably will after the Gulf oil spill) here are step-by-step instructions and the every-day household product that does the trick well. Proctor & Gamble stock will probably climb at the same rate BP stock drops these days.

Jun
17
2010

NCED researchers studying delta dynamics in coastal Louisiana
NCED researchers studying delta dynamics in coastal LouisianaCourtesy National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics
The Mississippi River has turned out to be a big, muddy, silent hero in the fight to save Louisiana's wetlands from the oil spill.

It turns out that many scientists believe that the flow of fresh water from the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico has thus far kept the oil slick offshore and out of wetlands.

Guerry Holm, a researcher with the National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics (NCED) tells me that the flow of the Mississippi River has been at a relatively high stage for the past two months and that the river's high volume of freshwater has acted as a hydrologic barrier, keeping oil from moving into the Mississippi Delta wetlands from the sea. Holms is now studying how two river characteristics—the slope of the water surface from the river delta to the sea and the time it takes water to move through a wetland to the sea—help mitigate oil contamination of the wetlands.

Holm is collaborating on the research with NCED Principal Investigator Robert Twilley, who is also busy addressing an immediate concern: the flow of the Mississippi tends to drop seasonally, starting in June. If that happens and Mississippi water flow into the delta decreases, Twilley, Holm, and others worry that oil will reach more of the wetlands sooner.

To address these concerns, some area scientists are proposing to shift the flow of water between the Mississippi and a river in Louisiana it feeds called the Atchafalaya. Twilley supports the idea: "We've been in conversation with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state [of Louisiana] about how to manage the river as a protection system," Twilley reports.

Unfortunately, the river flow adjustments may be difficult to accomplish for political reasons. The diversion structure used to control flow between the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers is controlled by Congress. Earlier proposals to send more water down the Mississippi have been met with resistance.

Jun
15
2010

Internal BP documents were released today that seem to highlight decisions by the company to forgo safety precautions in favor of saving money and cutting time in drilling the now-leaking oil well. One of the documents, an email message from an engineer working on the project, refers to it as a "nightmare well," language that the press has really picked up on.

I'm hesitant to fixate too much on a phrase like "nightmare well," because the hyperbolic language used in informal emails isn't always super helpful if taken literally (e.g., "It smells like someone microwaved a goat in the break room. I'm gonna die. If I find out who did that, I will challenge them to a knife duel, ala Steven Seagal and Tommy Lee Jones in Under Siege. The first Under Siege, I mean.") But it does seem like the drilling of that well wasn't the best run operation, to say the least. Hopefully the investigation will determine the extent of BP's responsibility for the accident that caused the leak (or, possibly, the lack thereof).

The documents will very probably be brought up during Tony Hayward's (the CEO of BP) testimony to congress later this week. Should be interesting.

Jun
11
2010

Dive in and explore: Discover amazing videos, pictures, and cool ocean stuff, including teacher resources and actions you can take.
Dive in and explore: Discover amazing videos, pictures, and cool ocean stuff, including teacher resources and actions you can take.Courtesy Smithsonian Ocean Portal

Today marks the 100th birthday of the late, great ocean explorer and visionary Jacques Cousteau. How many remember watching “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” on TV—either as a kid or with their kids? For many of us in the 1960s and 70s, a Cousteau TV special was a major event that brought the whole family together. His programs were how we first came to love and appreciate the marine world and see the effects of human actions. Cousteau was truly ahead of his time, and his conservation ethic is needed more than ever as we tackle problems like climate change, overfishing, pollution, and—of course—the devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
We can draw inspiration from his example and take steps to help the ocean. Some of the most important actions you can take involve making changes in your own home, driveway, and workplace. The newly launched Smithsonian Ocean Portal is an award-winning website designed to help people connect with the ocean and “Find Their Blue.” More than 20 organizations have joined forces to build this site as a way to inspire and engage more people in ocean science and issues. Why not start today, as a birthday gift to Cousteau?
Tell us how he inspired you
and learn more about sharks and squids, coral reefs, the deep ocean, the Gulf oil spill, and much more. Dive in and explore!
Colleen Marzec, Managing Producer
Smithsonian Ocean Portal

Jun
10
2010

The Guardian: sticking it to The Company Men!
The Guardian: sticking it to The Company Men!Courtesy USAF
Rumor Has It that the Prince of Thieves, Kevin Costner, is now The Bodyguard to the Waterworld we call the Gulf of Mexico, where Shadows Run Black... and so does the oil! He'll be putting The Big Chill on BP's oil spill, cleaning up that Untouchable crude oil with centrifugal machines developed by his company. He's sending a Message in a Bottle to the ocean (but not through The Postman): "I don't hate you for destroying the set of Waterworld! I don't want Revenge!"

But does the machine really work, or is it just a Field of Dreams? In his Testament to congress, Costner argued that it does, and that congress should require oil companies to all buy these machines. Will they? It may depend on a Swing Vote! Only time will tell if this modern-day marine Wyatt Earp can help create A Perfect World with his fancy Tin Cups!

I'm Not Funny, and should maybe Never Write on Buzz Again!

Dances with Wolves!

Jun
03
2010

After the failure of the "top kill" plan, BP stated that it would remove the broken riser from the blowout preventer on the leaking oil well—that is, they would cut off the long bent pipe from the machine that was supposed to stop an oil leak in the first place.

BP has now done just that, but, as usual, things didn't go quite as planned. Initially, BP engineers attempted to use a diamond-bladed saw to cleanly remove the riser, but the blade became stuck in the 21-inch steel pipe. Unable to free the blade and continue the operation, BP used a giant pair of shears to scissor off the riser. The shears worked, but the cut is not as clean as it would have been from the saw.

So what happens now? Well, the good news is that BP can move onto the next step of their containment plan. The bad new is that it doesn't seem like they're going to be using the original containment cap that was meant for this operation. (I take it this is because the riser was sheared instead of sawed?) Instead, they'll be using the "top hat." Remember the top hat? That was the plan after the huge containment dome plan failed, but apparently the top hat was sort of shoved aside while the tube-insertion plan was tried out. But now they're using it again.

I wonder how effective the top hat will be? When it was going to be deployed before, it was acknowledged that it would only capture a fraction of the oil from the leak it was placed over—just one of several leaks on the riser. Now that the riser has been cut, all the leaks have been consolidated... Anyway, BP isn't making any predictions about the effectiveness of the top hat here.

The other bad news is that the rate at which oil is leaking has probably increased now that the riser has been removed—perhaps by as much as 20%. The government's estimate prior to the removal of the riser was that perhaps 800,000 gallons of oil were leaking each day. That number could increase to almost a million gallons a day until the top hat is placed over the leak. (Considering that independent estimates have placed amount of oil leaking at over a million gallons a day even before the riser was cut, the flow rate could be much more than that, even.)

Hmm. Stay tuned.

Jun
03
2010

Back when BP was still trying the "top kill" method of slowing the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the news was full of references to "drilling mud."

Make some oobleck: It won't stop the oil flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, but it's fun, and you'll learn something about non-Newtonian fluids while you're at it.
Make some oobleck: It won't stop the oil flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, but it's fun, and you'll learn something about non-Newtonian fluids while you're at it.Courtesy JoshSchulz

This stuff is no ordinary mud. It helps a rig drill faster and keeps the equipment cool and lubricated, but it's got some wacky other properties. It's a non-Newtonian fluid. That means its viscosity changes as you apply stress. If you punch or hit a shear thickening non-Newtonian fluid, the atoms in the fluid rearrange themselves in such a way that the liquid acts like a solid. A shear thinning non-Newtonian fluid (like ketchup or toothpaste) behaves the opposite way, getting thinner and drippier under stress.

Still don't quite get it? Check this video:

When they're running--applying a stress whenever their feet strike the surface--the fluid acts like a solid and they can walk on top of it. But when he stands still....

The Mythbusters have played with this phenomenon, too:

So. Drilling mud behaves kind of the same way. Here's Bill Nye explaining it all on CNN. When the drilling mud passes through a narrow opening, under pressure, it locks up and acts more like a solid. The idea was that if BP could pump a water-based drilling mud into the ruined well head and get it to solidify, then they could slow the flow of oil enough that engineers could encase the whole thing in cement. It didn't work. That's because the oil and gas spewing out of the pipe are under tremendous pressure. BP engineers just couldn't pump enough mud in there to stop the oil.

Depressing, huh?

But oobleck isn't. What's oobleck? It's a non-Newtonian fluid you can make and play with at home.
Instructables tells you how.