Cap and Blow?

What the hell are they thinking in Washington, and down at the “Unified Command” in New Orleans, letting BP try to close off the oil volcano spewing out the top of the damaged Blowout Preventer (BOP) stack?

And what the hell is the mainstream press doing not asking about the clear evidence of oil or gas spewing out under pressure from cracks in the seafloor around the base of the BOP? (See the image of oil spewing from the sea floor.)

Sure the initial partial closing of the valves is working, but they haven’t built up much pressure yet–just to 6000 lbs/square inch, which isn’t much above the 5000 lbs/square inch at that depth of the ocean–and a lot could go wrong. seriously wrong, and good reason to think it will.

I made a call to the media office of the Unified Command, the office set up to respond to public and media inquiries about the disaster, which is supposedly composed of people from the US Coast Guard, other federal agencies, and BP. When I mentioned the videos taken by BP’s own remote operating vehicles (ROVs) of the oil and/or gas spewing from cracks in the sea floor, I was told I had to call the press office in Houston, “because you’re asking us a question about the sub-surface well.”

But here’s the thing. The press office in Houston is not run by the Unified Command. The people at the office there answer the phone with the phrase: “BP Press.” They do this because they are BP employees, and the office is in BP headquarters.

This means if you want to know anything about the structural integrity of the well below the BOP, you have to get that information from BP, not from the government. That’s the same BP that told government regulators that they could handle any emergency. The same BP that assured us when the well blew that the spill was just leaking 1000 barrels of oil a day–a figure that appears to have been knowingly understated by a factor of 50 to 100.

Now, when I called BP I got a PR guy with a Brit accent named Toby Odone, who claimed he was “not aware of any oil leaking around the well itself.”

He also said, “We’re pretty certain that there is no oil leaking around the well that shouldn’t be there.”

How then to explain their own ROV videos, showing exactly that? Odone assured me he’d “get back” with an answer. So far, no answer.

Odone also said something else that was disturbing in its facileness. He said that the relief wells were within feet of the original bore, and that they had “not detected any hydrocarbons.” This, he assured me, meant that there was no leak from the casing. But I pointed out that those side wells had been drilled from a mile away, on a slant, so that they only approached the original well during the last quarter mile or so from the bottom of the 18000-foot bore. They were nowhere near the bore during the first several miles of casing, so they can offer no clue as to the integrity of the bore above the first quarter mile or so above the oil reservoir. Odone agreed that this was true.

I also put a call in to the US Energy Department, which is supposedly monitoring the science of this disaster and which put the attempted shut-down of the well on hold for 48 hours earlier this week while seismic tests were conducted to try and determine the integrity of the casing that goes from the BOP down to the oil reservoir. A press officer at the DOE asked me to provide a link to the ROV video of the oil leaking from the sea bed, and promised to get back to me with an explanation of the department’s thinking about that. So far, no response or explanation. Clearly, though, the Energy Department is worried that shutting down the flow entirely at the top of the stack could cause such high pressures inside the casing that it will blow a crack in the pipe and allow the oil and gas to push upward outside of the control of the pipe.

That’s why they are closing the top of the pipe slowly, monitoring the pressure all the time. If they can shut it down and the pressure rises to 9000 lbs/square inch or more, which is roughly the pressure at which the oil is coming up from below ground, then they will know that the integrity of the pipe has been preserved, but if they cannot get the pressure to build beyond 6000 or so lbs/square inch, it would mean that the casing has been compromised, and they would not be able to shut the flow down from the top. leaving successful completion of a relief well as the only possible shut-down option.

But here’s the question: If we can already see oil, or perhaps gas, blowing out of cracks around the BOP, doesn’t this mean that somewhere below ground, the casing has already breached? And if it has already blown open, isn’t any attempt to shut down the flow and build up the pressure in the well just threatening to worsen whatever break already exists? Especially since BP and the government say that this “fix,” even if it works and doesn’t blow the tube or burst the damaged BOP, is only a temporary fix, until the relief well is drilled and the well is plugged at the bottom. Meanwhile, instead of this risky attempt to shut the well at the top, they could be just attaching pipes to collect all the oil in tankers on the surface, at minimal risk to the wellhead and the casing.

Why isn’t the Energy Department or the Coast Guard addressing this question of the threat to the well? Why has no reporter at the regular daily briefings hosted by retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen asked this question?

It seems to me a fairly safe prediction that as they crank shut the opening at the top of the well, the oil pushing up from below at 9000 lbs/square inch of pressure, or even 6000 lbs/square inch of pressure, is going to push through whatever leaks already exist in or around the well casing, and will be blowing up through the ground around the BOP. If it’s bursting out through those cracks already, while the pipe is wide open, there should be little doubt that it will burst out even more powerfully when the top of the pipe is capped. That’s grade-school physics.

And if things do go badly, as the oil and gas blow out of the casing and push their way up through the fractured well hole and the poorly set concrete that was put down there by Halliburton to fill the well bore, it will widen the pathways to the surface, probably following new fracture lines that will have it coming out even further from the well hole. In no time, we will have oil spewing from a wide are of sea floor which will make it impossible to collect.

I don’t claim to be a geologist, engineer or oil well expert, and I don’t want to be an alarmist, but having seen the images of oil spewing up from the sea floor, I have enough basic scientific understanding to know that the casing has to have been already breached, and that anything that increases the pressure on that damaged casing is only going to make things worse.

So why are they trying to close down the well from the top?

I’m just asking, because nobody else seems to be.

DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback). He can be reached at dlindorff@mindspring.com





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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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