What are the real environmental and ecological consequences?
Why is there so little known about the situation in the gulf with the BP drilling platform owned by the Transocean drilling company that is called the Deepwater Horizon rig? Because just six months ago it shattered the world record for deep water drilling when it drilled through 5,000 feet of water and 35,000 feet of ocean floor to reach a depth of 40,000 feet, or 12,192 meters deep. At the time it was the equivalent of Apollo reaching the moon in terms of scientific achievement as the deepest well before reached just 9,596 feet or 2,925 meters, in 2008. And that well, by Shell's Perdido rig, which was as tall as the Eiffel Tower reaching downward, was almost 25% deeper than the previous record.
Deep water drilling began in earnest in 2005 when the Kerr McGee Constitution rig first reached 4,921 feet or 1,500 meters. In 2007 the BP rig Atlantis reached 7,053 feet or 2,150 meters, a new record, until Shell reached 9,596 feet or 2,925 meters with Perdido in 2008. By September, 2009 BP shattered the record again with Deepwater Horizon reaching the 40,000 foot level, 12,192 meters.
Drilling a hole that deep does not mean producing oil, however. The first deep water well was drilled by BP in 1999 and called Thunder Horse but took ten years to resolve the new engineering problems the great depths brought about before it could produce oil in 2009. When Deepwater Horizon shattered the previous records just 7 months ago it achieved a depth four and one half times deeper than anything previously recorded.
What does it mean to be first? In terms of deep water drilling the biggest concern is whether the materials used underground can withstand the tremendous change in earth pressure at the new depths. Consider this, at 10,000 meters, less than the depth of Deepwater Horizon, the pressure is 1,000 times greater than sea level. Pressure analysis is an imperfect science at best as the different rock and salt layers below the water impact on pressure differently.
Until a well is drilled the real pressure cannot be known and massive computers monitor the pressure changes while the well is being drilled. Each time a record was set the firms made known that there was a tremendous engineering challenge to make certain the materials being used at those depths could withstand the pressure.
Once drilled the real work begins in testing and determining if the oil producing equipment from the pipelines to the safety valves will work at the increased pressure loads. Not clear in press reports is the fact the Deepwater Horizon platform was not even producing oil when it exploded as equipment was just being installed for the production task.
The Shell Perdido platform, that completed drilling in 2008, did not commence producing oil until one month ago, March 31, 2010. Two years between drilling and production was a new deep water record. The BP rig that exploded completed drilling just seven months ago. What had to be taking place was the installation and testing of the production equipment, by unmanned submersible vessels, far below the surface.
Could the massive new pressure requirements on the production equipment have been the failure that caused the well to explode and destroy the massive rig up on the surface? Most likely. The problem is further compounded by the fact the drilling platform then sank and collapsed on the wellhead more than 5,000 feet below the surface. That means the unmanned subs must somehow work through more than 32 thousand tons of debris to reach the wellhead. Simply stated, it has never been done and seems unlikely the current submersibles could achieve such a task.
If they fail to stop the flow of crude oil an alternate well must be dug which could take 7-9 months or longer. The worst blowout of an offshore rig was in 1979 in Mexico and it took 9 months to seal the well, with over 3,500,000 barrels of oil discharged.
Ironically, offshore drilling has been quite safe. There are over 8,300 offshore rigs in use around the world with nearly 2,500 platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. Offshore drilling has been underway since 1947. Other than the Mexican blowout in 1979 and the loss of 3.5 million barrels, no other accident resulted in more than 202,381 barrels lost. It is a dangerous business but the environmental damage has been minimum.
Short of an engineering miracle like dropping a concrete cap over the wreckage and hoping to seal off the multiple leaks, millions of barrels of oil could be lost and the environmental impact could be devastating to the economy and ecosystem of the gulf states. No doubt a stronger government policy toward deep water drilling is needed, especially when wells reach record depths. But in the business of science there is no better way of learning than through experience. Often times it is the only way.
Once I was involved in an environmental disaster in which no prior scientific data existed to evaluate the consequences. Before this event nothing had ever been experienced to establish a benchmark or method to calculate the potential damages. The event was called Three Mile Island, the worst and only nuclear plant disaster in America.
The loss of cooling water allowed the rods powering the reactor to become exposed and brought about a condition never experienced in public records in the world. Did the reactor core meltdown? Did it sink through the containment walls and would it send out a burst of radioactive gas? Would it continue melting down until it reached the core of the earth? What type of damage could such an unknown catastrophe cause?
It didn't help that just 12 days before the TMI disaster Hollywood released the haunting film China Syndrome about just such a nuclear meltdown taking place. The public was on edge when TMI suddenly made Hollywood fiction into reality. That was in 1979. By 1982 I was chief of staff of the New Jersey Department of Energy and TMI was owned by a Jersey firm. The aftermath and clean up of TMI, which took from 1979 until 1993, was partly the responsibility of our Department.
When I arrived in 1982 the reactor core had remained sealed since the accident. No one knew what happened inside the reactor core. It was not until 1985 that the first camera was dropped into the core and the partial meltdown became obvious based on the incredible damage to the reactor rods from the super-heating. Thank God the containment held. A billion dollars and 14 years later TMI 2 was sealed, there was still radiation contamination of the concrete, but it was no longer a threat to the public. It was sealed until both reactors could be decommissioned which is expected in 2034.
The BP accident in the Gulf has many similarities as it was also a new technology being used where it had never been used before under conditions that had never been experienced. We can only hope they do not suffer similar problems overcoming the disaster. In the meantime, it would be nice if our government would come clean on the problems and potential for long term economic and environmental consequences
as honesty in regulatory affairs has been absent from the government for quite some time.