As of today, it has now been two months since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil drilling platform unleashed an undersea gusher in the Gulf of Mexico that has become the largest man-made environmental disaster in American history.
The broken pipe continues to spurt somewhere in the range of 25-30,000 barrels of oil per day (best estimates) into the teeming waters.
According to BP (audio), the LMRP, which is the tube inserted through the cap, is now collecting approximately 13,000 barrels per day, or roughly half of the oil leakage, which is being collected and processed by the drillship Discoverer Enterprise at the surface. Last week, the company initiated a second collection system, which is essentially a reverse-flow of the top kill operation which attempted to plug the well by pumping debris into the pipeline. This pipeline is connected to the Helix Energy Q4000 rig at the surface where 10,000 barrels per day are being burned off, sparing water quality at the expense of air quality. A quick calculation suggests that approximately 80% of the oil leak is now being diverted from the Gulf waters. The company estimates that approximately 200,000 barrels have been collected so far.
The company plans to add additional processing capacity and a third riser in the short term while it also makes contingency plans in the event of a hurricane that will allow it to disconnect the pipes from the ships. The relief wells that will hopefully stop the leak entirely are still underway and are expected to be completed in August.
By that time the total amount of oil discharged will be approaching 2 million barrels or 84 million gallons (roughly 8 times the amount of the Exxon Valdez). If stopped in August, it will not be the largest oil spill in world history, but should easily make the top five.
Note (6/24): I was using numbers from the BP website. I guess I should have known better. If 60,000 barrels per day are leaking (which could be even more, now that the cap has failed again), then the total discharge could approach 200 million gallons by mid-August, making it the second largest discharge in world history, dwarfed only by the deliberate discharge of oil by Iraqi forces in Kuwait during the first Gulf war which released enough oil to cover the entire state of Rhode Island with oil a foot deep.
A new web site is tracking animal fatalities using Fish & Wildlife Service data. Of course, they are only counting the animals they find, which may only be the tip of the iceberg. They have recorded roughly a thousand birds, turtles and mammals, so far. As animals, driven by the oily water crowd in towards the shoreline, they face the risk of a massive die-off.
As for the clean-up of this mess, work crews are using a variety of tools including skimmers and various type of vacuum systems, looking for a truly safe and effective method of getting the oil and now the dispersants out of the water. BP has now ordered 32 of Kevin Costner’s Ocean Therapy centrifuge machines some of which are expected to begin operation this weekend. Skimmer vessels will pump the oily water onto a barge where the machines are said to be able to process 600,000 gallons per day. That suggests that the machines could have the oil cleaned up in as little as six months, if they can get to it. But we have no idea what will happen to the massive undersea plumes. Will they eventually rise to the surface? What kind of impact will they have on marine life?
I had written earlier about a very safe and effective method developed by Michigan-based Recovery I, using corncobs that might still be used on beaches and in places where the barges can’t reach. There is now a video demonstrating the effectiveness of this approach. The company, which has continued to develop their supply base and has plenty of corn cobs on hand, is evaluating the effectiveness of a decanting centrifuge to be used in conjunction with the cobs. The company is still waiting for a commitment from the Deepwater Horizon Response Team. Perhaps, if their CEO Adria Brown, was a movie star, they would have heard back by now.
(Author’s note: On the video it says that the cobs can absorb 500 times their weight in oil The correct number is 500% or five times their weight.)
RP Siegel, PE, is co-author of the 2009 novel Vapor Trails, a story about an oil spill and the company responsible.
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