Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Doomsday Oil Leak

Nearly two months after the blowout and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon, no one has been able to give a definitive estimate of the scope of the disaster. The government and BP have consistently low-balled the amount of oil escaping. On April 23rd, three days after the blowout, there was no reported leak at all. Soon, the estimate was placed at 1,000 barrels per day and then upped every ten days or so until now the official flow rate is now about 60,000 barrels per day. A barrel of oil is 42 US gallons.

Finding accurate and timely information about the leak has been frustrating to say the least.

BP says they have no idea how big a field they've tapped. However, the last Gulf well DWH drilled was to world record depth and BP announced to shareholders one of the biggest reserves ever located, estimated larger than 3 billion barrels. No doubt BP had high hopes for this well also.

Since the official information on the leak is questionable and sparse, the interwebnets are predictably filled with visions of apocalypse. I've heard of everything from fiery hurricanes to a massive sea floor collapse caused by the detonation of a small nuclear bomb. However, government officials have already denied any plans to “blow up the gulf.”

One prediction (attributed to government scientists) has the sea water displacing the leaking oil in the reservoir being vaporized by high temperature and the subsequent explosion causing an 80 ft tsunami that kills everyone for miles inland.

My personal favorite is for the oil to accumulate until it covers the entire gulf and then bursts into a giant ball of flame that will only extinguish when the atmosphere runs out of oxygen.

Now, I don't know how long it would take a 615,000 square mile inferno to deplete enough oxygen to kill us all, but I did run a few numbers on how much oil is needed to coat the gulf an inch thick. My answer: about 255 billion barrels of oil would cover the entire gulf with an inch of crude.

That's a little less oil than the assumed reserves of Saudi Arabia. It is highly doubtful, but not impossible, that the leaking reservoir holds billions of barrels. Still, it won't take an inch of oil to create an environmental disaster of unimaginable proportion. A particularly thick oil slick is only 80 microns deep, at least according to Wikipedia.

Dividing 255 billion barrels by 80,000 we arrive at about 3.2 million barrels of oil to thickly slick the entire Gulf of Mexico. That's about 135 million gallons, or about how much the government now admits has already spilled! That's two months of two million gallons a day, folks.

Of course what is gushing out of this hole in the bottom of the sea is not refined oil, but a nasty conglomeration of mud, rock, oil and gas – about 100 parts gas to one part muck by most reports. I haven't dared to calculate the impact of so much gas being released into the air. Most of the yucky stuff appears to be suspended under the water – finding neutral buoyancy according to its specific gravity. The dispersant BP is adding enhances this effect. Compared to a giant blowtorch, keeping the oil underwater is probably a good thing.

Now there are reports of the well casing leaking far below the surface, with oil snaking up through the rocks and emerging from the seabed around the wellhead. In fact, there are videos taken by BP's submersibles that appear to show oil leaking directly from cracks on the sea bottom.

The big plan is still to wait until August when two relief wells will be finished. However, extreme pressure readings were recorded on Deepwater Horizon before the blowout so there is no guarantee that any relief well will not be met with the same fiery fate. I guess we'll know more in August.

While we wait, President Obama finally officially acknowledged the problem with his very first address from the Oval Office. Calling BP reckless and demanding the company pay billions of dollars in restitution, he promised more government regulation over big oil while conveniently forgetting the regulations already in place had been bypassed and ignored by the government itself.

His only proposed solution to the disaster? Prayer. I'm not kidding, he ended his speech by urging us all to pray our way out of an oily mess created by greed, hubris and indolence.

God, save us from these idiots.

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