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Will Deepwater Disaster Stem Drilling? No Chance, Says Expert

Mary Catherine O'Connor | Friday May 7th, 2010 | 2 Comments

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill—wait, can we call it a gush? spill is too polite—Obama put a moratorium on new drilling leases, Calif. Gov. Schwarzenegger reversed his support for the plan to allow new drilling into the Tranquillon Ridge formation off the coast of Santa Barbara and the fishing, shipping and energy industries of the Gulf Coast are all waiting for the brunt of the fallout due to this massive accident.

But don’t expect this to appreciably reverse the course of oil exploration, overall, says David Hughes, a geoscientist, energy consultant and fossil fuels fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.

“We’re hell-bent on growth, and we’re going to need a lot of hydrocarbons to build whatever comes next,” he says. Even making the turbines needed for wind power requires massive amounts of fossil fuels. “There’s no chance the energy we get from renewables will even come close to [energy from] hydrocarbons, so we need to realize how precious they are and use them to build a life boat.”

So precious is oil, energy companies are drilling ever deeper for the black gold. “The depth of the Deepwater Horizon drill is not the norm, but there are rigs that go deeper,” says Hughes. And a number of drills are in the works that will go way deeper, including the Petrobras project off the coast of Brazil, which will plunge more than 20,000 feet below the sea floor (that’s as deep as Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, is tall).

So this begs the question: how likely are we to see repeats of massive oil gushes like Deepwater Horizon? “There is no way to reduce the risk to zero,” says Hughes. “As a geoscientist, having looked at Mother Nature, she is really unknowable, down to the last detail, no matter what people say.”

However, there were precautions, such as remote shut offs, that were not in place at Deepwater Horizon that could be used on other drills, he notes. “[Deepwater Horizon] was a huge gamble and a huge loss and will cost billions to clean up, so there will be people pulling all the stops to lower the risks [going forward],” says Hughes. “I don’t think you can prevent it, but you can lower the risks.”

Ironically, the Offshore Technology Conference is taking place right now in Houston, Texas, and Offshore magazine has been posting lots of coverage of the spill and recovery response. This video has the most telling (and disturbing) images of the spill that I’ve seen.

In fact, if you want the drilling industry’s perspective, Offshore has a pretty deep well—ha!—of stories. Deepwater drilling is the big focus these days…basically because, outside of tar sands, it represents the new frontier of oil exploration—or, more accurately, the last frontier, since we’ve sucked the easier options dry already.

Deepwater Horizon less lethal that others

As bad as the Deepwater Horizon incident is, it presently rates below both the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, and the Union Well oil rig explosion off Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1969, in terms of oil spilled. That said, the Deepwater Horizon story is still unfolding, and the oil will probably continue gushing for many weeks.

There is one favorable factor at play in the Gulf Coast, Hughes notes. The high temperature of the Gulf Coast waters will allow for faster decomposition of the oil, relative to how long the oil would linger in waterways closer to the poles. On the other hand, there’s an unpredictable undersea current that might spread the spill into the Eastern Seaboard and the Florida Keys.


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  • Forrest Guump

    Tar Balls Forever

    BP has been given a solution, 3 days ago, for a 12 hour fix. This would most likely close the BOP. Their “teams” of engineers, with their higher education and arrogance, will not listen to a guy from the field with 30 years drilling experience and proceed with that trojan horse that will only help minimize the damage.

    Simply planned, ROVs are capable to use hydraulic grinders or cutters and cut any hose. They could then attach special made fittings subsea and use alternate rams ( the annulars) to seal this wreck. It is unheard of before it was brainstormed or untried and therefore must be impossible. I call the B.S words. Cut the hose, crimp a hose fitting on with modified cable cutter that crimps with dies and does not cut, install a hotstab, close any function they want. MORONS @ BP…sorta has a ring to it.

    They will, in fact, have a huge party where there will be much back slapping and praise regarding what a good job they all did. That party to take place when the well is killed and they will have only lost, by their estimations, 15 to 20 % of the 5000 BPD into the sea. At 90 days that equates to 18,900,000 gallons but they are now all heroes because only 3,780,000 gallons of that amount was lleft on the beach in tar ball form. But what the hell, that is easy to clean up and deal with. 100% Morons.

  • Forrest Guump

    Tar Balls Forever

    BP has been given a solution, 3 days ago, for a 12 hour fix. This would most likely close the BOP. Their “teams” of engineers, with their higher education and arrogance, will not listen to a guy from the field with 30 years drilling experience and proceed with that trojan horse that will only help minimize the damage.

    Simply planned, ROVs are capable to use hydraulic grinders or cutters and cut any hose. They could then attach special made fittings subsea and use alternate rams ( the annulars) to seal this wreck. It is unheard of before it was brainstormed or untried and therefore must be impossible. I call the B.S words. Cut the hose, crimp a hose fitting on with modified cable cutter that crimps with dies and does not cut, install a hotstab, close any function they want. MORONS @ BP…sorta has a ring to it.

    They will, in fact, have a huge party where there will be much back slapping and praise regarding what a good job they all did. That party to take place when the well is killed and they will have only lost, by their estimations, 15 to 20 % of the 5000 BPD into the sea. At 90 days that equates to 18,900,000 gallons but they are now all heroes because only 3,780,000 gallons of that amount was lleft on the beach in tar ball form. But what the hell, that is easy to clean up and deal with. 100% Morons.