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Fools’ Errand in the Gulf

It is increasingly looking like the BP Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico is gravely damaged, and that the cap that was placed on top of the casing and the blowout preventer is simply causing gas and oil to leak out of the drill pipe into the surrounding concrete and subsurface layers of rock. Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the nominal head of the disaster response operation, on Monday admitted that methane appears to be seeping from the surrounding seabed, and demanded that BP provide an explanation. He also said BP had to be prepared to remove the cap at a moment’s notice–clear evidence that there are fears the blowout could get worse, with oil and gas rising uncontrollably from the sea floor.

It all raises the question of why the temporary fix of capping the top of the well was ever even attempted, knowing that there was a strong likelihood that the 13,000 feet of well casing had been damaged by the initial violent blowout and by the racing oil and gas and debris pressing up from deep in the bowels of the earth.

There was already clear evidence that the casing had been breached. While it had not been mentioned in mainstream news reports, one view taken of the sea floor taken by a videocam on the Hos ROV 1, one of the remote robot submersibles monitoring the wellhead, and on display on the BP website, beginning at about 2:48:40 Central Time on June 16, showed clouds of muddy looking water suddenly spring up and begin obscuring the view of the sea floor. Some of the billowing material was light colored, and could be mud pushed up by leaking methane gas. Some looked decidedly dark brown, like the oil that has been seen coming from the top of the blowout preventer (BOP).

A second rover, the Viking Poseidon ROV 1, which was not included in the live cams displayed from BP’s public access site on June 16, but which could be seen live here, also showed a large cloud of churning brown material billowing up from the sea floor beginning at 3:06:00 Central Time. Other images showed bubbles rising form the sea floor–something that had not been seen earlier.

If either of these video images are in fact showing oil or gas coming out of the ground around the wellhead, it could mean only one thing: that the liner has been seriously breached somewhere below ground, and that there is no way to either stop the oil flow, or even collect it all from above the wellhead. That would certainly explain why the pressure at the stoppered wellhead has leveled off at about 6750 psi. That’s well below the “8000-9000 psi” that until Friday was what the government and BP said would be full pressure, and is even below the new, improved target mentioned by retired Adm. Thad Allen, who on June 16 said a more modest 7500 psi would be okay. (Allen’s claim that the underground pressure in the reservoir, 13,000 feet below the sea flow, could be lower by 15-20%, explaining the low readings at the wellhead, because of the 1-2 million barrels that have already escaped, is patently absurd. We’re talking about a reservoir said to contain over 1 billion barrels of oil! Two million barrels would be just 0.2% of that amount. Furthermore, the reservoir isn’t a rigid container like an oil tank. Its pressure is caused by the weight of the 2.5 miles of crust and mile of water sitting atop it, which will continue to press down with the same force however much oil remains in the deposit. There might be a slight decrease as oil comes out, but not by that amount.)

The only hope of stopping this catastrophe would be the relief wells that have been drilled to within a few feet of the casing, several miles down below the surface of the earth, but even those offer no certainty of success. If the well casing is damaged below the point of entry of the side wells into the original well they won’t stop the leak from moving up through the original well hole.

The failure of the effort to cap the well above the BOP, a was pretty well foreordained when the same Viking Poseidon ROV 1, a month ago, showed a video of oil blasting out of cracks in the sea floor around the BOP, already proving that the casing had been breached.

It is possible that the pressure in the pipe was greater at that point, back on June 13, because the well opening, at the top of the BOP, was still crimped and holding back the gusher. Once that opening was cleared in preparation for installing the current cap, the oil was able to flow out more freely, which would have reduced the pressure on whatever leaks exist in the casing below ground.

But now, for reasons that still elude me, the government has allowed BP to try to shut down the well at the top, allowing the pressure in the whole casing to rise precipitously, and it appears the inevitable has happened: the oil and gas is pushing out the breaches in the casing, and is likely expanding the openings, too, making the breach worse than before.

The top of this blown-out well should be opened up wide as soon as possible, and BP and the government should focus all efforts on those relief wells, and on trying to get this runaway well sealed at the bottom as soon as possible.

Trying to shut things off at the top was a fool’s errand, and can only have been driven by a BP and White House desire to show that something is being done. However, some things shouldn’t be done, and this is one of those things. The idea that the government and BP knew that shutting down the top of the well could lead to disaster, and that for the sake of a short-term PR benefit, they went ahead and did it, knowing that it would only provide temporary relief at best anyhow, is insanity.

By the way, last Thursday I contacted both the BP and the government-run Unified Command press offices asking for an explanation as to how they could shut down the top of the well, when BP’s own cameras in June showed oil blowing out of cracks in the sea floor near the wellhead. Both offices promised to respond. To date, neither has.

DAVE LINDORFF is a founding member of the new independent online newspaper ThisCantBeHappening!, where this article first appeared.

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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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