Deepwater Horizon Disaster Random Observations

The jury still seems to be out as to what the ultimate fate of the Southeast USA will be as far as the big oil spill in the gulf goes. No oil seems to have creeped ashore yet, and I am sure all the coastline residents are praying that it moves somewhere else.

I have noticed a bunch of interesting things about the story of the Deepwater Horizon. Feel free to chime in or make your own observations on the story.

First and foremost, the human cost has taken a major backseat to the environmental cost in the media reporting. I have seen a ton of old Exxon Valdez footage, and a lot of status updates on the slick but very little footage or even mention of the families of the workers who lost their lives on the rig.

Pretty much nobody who is reporting on this story knows anything about how a deepwater oil rig works. That includes me. I took a few minutes to peruse a blog or two that had people on it that know what the deal is and it was like they were speaking greek in their comments. Very fascinating stuff.

I think that BP and Transocean are doing everything they possibly can to get that thing plugged. It will be interesting to see how they do in the coming days when the seas die down.

So far the markets seem to be doing a big shoulder shrug on the whole thing. Time will tell on that one.

The federal response has been quick (for the feds), but I think they are in over their heads as far as the technical issues go.

If you are into Facebook, this is cool. Sure you are getting info that certain parties want you to get, but it is far ahead of anything that we used to get, which was basically zero. There are interesting documents and photos on the site as well.

I hope that the parties involved will be able to plug/cap the well soon and get the mess cleaned up.

12 thoughts on “Deepwater Horizon Disaster Random Observations”

  1. My prediction is that this will all be forgotten by September, when gas is back at $4/gal.

    There is actually nothing here to debate. The USA is broke, busted, buddy can you spare a dime? We can drill all the oil we can find here or we can walk. Some of you may favor walking. Good for you. Those of us with kids and jobs and lives in fly-over country need to drive.

    Further, the chances of a disastrous spill increase if we do not drill offshore. Tankers are a bigger source of spills than drilling rigs. (see below for more context)

    Here is something to help you rationalize the situation. The well is leaking 5000 bbl/day. At ~160 l/bbl that is 800,000 l. A km^2 is 1,000,000 m^2. A prism with a base of 1 m and a height of 1 mm has a volume of 1 l. Therefore, the days leakage cannot cover 1 km^2 to a depth of 1 mm. Further, within a couple of days, half or more of the leakage will evaporate.

    Here is more context:
    “Oil in the Sea III: Inputs, Fates, and Effects”
    National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences (2002)

    The 4 sources of oil in the environment are:

    Natural seeps:

    Natural seepage of crude oil from geologic formations below the seafloor to the marine environment off North America is estimated to exceed 160,000 tonnes (47,000,000 gallons), and 600,000 tonnes (180,000,000 gallons) globally, each year. Natural processes are therefore, responsible for over 60 percent of the petroleum entering North American waters, and over 45 percent of the petroleum entering the marine environment worldwide.

    Petroleum extraction:

    Activities associated with oil and gas exploration or production introduce, on average, an estimated 3,000 tonnes (880,000 gallons) of petroleum to North American waters, and 38,000 tonnes (11,000,000 gallons) worldwide, each year. Releases due to these activities, therefore, make up roughly 3 percent of the total petroleum input by anthropogenic activities to North American waters and 5 percent of the total worldwide.

    Petroleum transportation

    The transportation (including refining and distribution activities) of crude oil or refined products results in the release, on average, of an estimated 9,100 tonnes (2,700,000 gallons) of petroleum to North American waters, and 150,000 tonnes (44,000,000 gallons) worldwide, each year. Releases due to the transportation of petroleum, therefore, make up roughly 9 percent of the total petroleum input through anthropogenic activities to North American waters and less than 22 percent worldwide.

    Petroleum consumption

    Releases that occur during the consumption of petroleum, whether by individual car and boat owners, non-tank vessels, or runoff from increasingly paved urban areas, contribute the vast majority of petroleum introduced to the environment through human activity. On average, an estimated 84,000 tonnes (25,000,000 gallons) of petroleum are input to North American waters, and 480,000 tonnes (140,000,000 gallons) are input worldwide, each year from these diffuse sources. Therefore, releases associated with the consumption of petroleum make up nearly 70 percent of the petroleum introduced to the world’s oceans from anthropogenic sources and nearly 85 percent of the total petroleum input from anthropogenic sources to North American waters.


    Collectively these four categories of sources add, each year on average, about 260,000 metric tonnes (about 76,000,000 gallons) of petroleum to the waters off North America. Annual worldwide estimates of petroleum input to the sea exceed 1,300,000 metric tonnes (about 380,000,000 gallons).

    The Deepwater Horizon spill is estimated to be 5000 barrels per day which is 210,000 gallons or 700 tonnes. It will have to continue for more than 7 months to reach the same order of magnitude as the natural seepage.

  2. A few points to add.

    1. BP is known in the Gulf for having one of the most intense and comprehensive safety and environmental training programs, and they live by their rules. EVERYBODY on any job can stop the job, and there will be no negative repercussions for the whistle blower.

    2. Everybody thinks about the pressure on the seabed at the depth they are working at, roughly half a PSI per foot of depth (14.7psi/33 ft sea water) but the internal pressure is much greater. Gas under such high pressure that it can erode (washout) sealed threads in heat treated drill pipe. This could be part of the reason for the disaster in the first place.

  3. As for the sudden interest in this disaster after the seabirds are injured, while the deaths of 11 men and 29 in West Virginia a few weeks ago exerted little influence, Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street gave the answer:

    “I just got on the Board of the Zoological Society, cost me a million; that’s the thing with WASPS — they like animals but they can’t stand people!”

  4. Recommended reading: “Drilling Down: A Troubled Legacy in Oil: The spill in the Gulf of MExico is the latest disaster for BP which has been haunted by as history of cost cutting.”

    May 1, 2010, Wall Street Journal: Weekend Journal:

    Subscription only

    Concluding paragraphs:

    BP has acknowledged criticisms of “systemic lapses” leveled by a Chemical Safety Board report for its past sins. In 2006, the Chemical Safety Board’s report about Texas City warned that BP’s managers, scarred by “a cultural issue,” posed “an imminent hazard” to safety. Then, after the Alaskan oil spills, Congressional investigators heard testimony by a former BP engineer in Alaska complaining, “There is no doubt that cost-cutting and profits have taken precedence over safety and the environment.” He asked rhetorically whether, rather than “Beyond Petroleum,” BP actually stood for “Beyond the Pale.” Mr. Wine says that since Mr. Hayward became CEO, BP has been rolling out a new system for developing and maintaining operating standards across the company, including safety standards, as a response.

    The price of the historic inherent flaws in BP’s culture is currently at least $6 million every day for the clean-up operation. Repairing the environmental disaster will cost a fortune. Politically, the consequence for past cost-cutting is incalculable. Yet, BP’s recovery and success is important to the world’s oil supply.

    Producing oil is an old, dirty and hazardous business. Easy oil—”the low hanging fruit”—is now the preserve of the traditional producer countries like Russia and Venezuela whose short-sighted self-interests are preventing efficient production from their oilfields. Western corporations have been compelled to switch their search under the Atlantic seabed and breaking technical frontiers. “Cracking the Gulf” is at the cutting edge of the industry’s technical expertise.

    In the rush to find more oil, BP’s explorers in Houston, blessed by skills admired by rivals, have been remarkably successful. But the operating conditions are brutal. The constant stream of inventions to allow Big Oil’s masters of the underworld to remotely guide a drill through a mile of water onto the seabed and then squirrel a 12-inch path through five miles of sand, salt, clay and rock towards a potential bonanza depends upon remarkable scientific calculations. Finding elegant solutions to seemingly intractable problems causes oil men’s hearts to beat faster. Risk is the oxygen of oil companies.

    At best, only one out of three tests in the Gulf strike oil and each costs $100 million. Even the best geologists tend to use just three words, “possibly,” “probably” and “regrettably.” Mistakes and bad luck eventually strangled Amoco, Arco, Texaco and Mobil. Like other stricken, the former giants were forced into mergers. BP’s continuing survival depends on avoiding the agony of pinpointing a potential reservoir only to discover that the oil seeped away 60 million years earlier. That depends on calculating the risks, and winning.

    But with every gamble comes the reckoning. The Mocando blow-out could terminate oil companies’ hopes for drilling the easy oil off Florida. That temporarily aborted plan will depend on the images from the Gulf coast. Exxon was crucified 21 years ago by TV pictures of oily seabirds, floating salmon and the devastation of pristine shores. Robustly, Lee Raymond refused to accept that Exxon bore the responsibility. Eventually, he trampled the original $5 billion damages awarded by the court down to $507.5 million. Ever since, Exxon has been cursed for its insensitivity but it remains the world’s biggest private oil corporation. Mr. Hayward is now facing his baptism of fire—to limit the damage and ensure BP’s survival. Few CEOs will envy his challenge.

  5. More than 100 offshore workers, who were working on the Transocean oil rig during the explosion last week in the Gulf of Mexico, were able to make it to rescue lifeboats in time to avoid serious injury or death. These workers did not have to be airlifted, and were the lucky ones who managed to escape the raging inferno in time. However, that doesn’t mean that these workers have been left unscathed in this tragedy. The maritime lawyers at our firm have recently signed on a roustabout who was working on the Transocean rig at the time of the explosion. He suffers from Post traumatic stress disorder, and we are concerned that other workers like him who were not physically injured in the explosion could be at risk from PTSD, and not know it.

    For more information you can read:

  6. Cool, trial-lawyer spam.

    My uninformed thoughts:

    -The media and enviros care more about birds than they do about oilfield workers.

    -The media are making a big deal about costs to the Gulf fishing industry. But the media don’t mention that the presence of oil platforms is an overall boon to the Gulf fishing industry.

    -The environmental costs of the accident have probably been wildly overhyped. They usually are in such situations. This was the case with Exxon Valdez, where the environmental effects of the spill were mostly gone after a few years. How much oil was spilled from sunk tankers during WW2? Where is all that oil now?

    -Occasional accidents are an expected cost of oil drilling, as they are of coal mining, aviation and every other important technology. After a mining disaster or plane crash, nobody says that we should stop mining coal or flying. Why should we stop ocean drilling? This kind of accident is extremely infrequent, and on balance more people might be killed in other ways if we stopped ocean drilling.

    -Robert Schwartz is right about the relative risks to the environment of ocean drilling vs. importing oil by tanker.

    -If we stop ocean drilling, other countries won’t. The Brazilians and Chinese are not likely to be as fastidious about safety and the environment as we are.

    -Obama and the Congress will use this accident to rationalize banning ocean drilling again.

    -Obama sounds like the worst kind of lawyer. He blames BP for all bad consequences, without acknowledging the risks they take to produce a valuable commodity or the fact that oil exploration benefits the country. I think there is a reasonable argument to be made for socializing some of the cleanup costs here. Obama should be using his rhetorical skills to put this accident into perspective and discourage demagoguery. Instead he piles on and we get 24/7 punitive hindsight. But when BP earns a profit, count on Obama to demand that they pay taxes at whatever confiscatory rate our elite parasites decide is “fair”. There will be less domestic energy development as a result of all this.

    -But if you want to build a giant windmill that generates electricity only part of the time, and at a cost far above that of oil- or nuclear-generated power, you will get government subsidies.

    -It’s conceivable that oil companies will now squeeze their own margins to keep from raising prices for refined products, because they are afraid of being victimized by the government if they happen to raise prices for any reason.

  7. Yea, trial lawyer spam! I will leave it since it is like me discovering a new element or something.

    Good point about the platorms helping the fishing – not only that I didn’t hear anyone complaining about them before the accident. There are obvious risks with these enterprises and everything is OK as long as the jobs and money are there but now one accident and it is like the oil companies just sprouted platforms overnight and this is something new. In the Gulf? Who knew?

    I have often wondered how much gas/oil is leaked into the oceans just from pleasure craft, Robert Schwartz begins to try to put a nubmer on it, interesting.

    As for WW2 the US was probably responsible for releasing tens (hundreds?) of millions (billions?) of gallons of oil and other nasties into the ocean during the sub warfare campaigns in and around Japan and in the Pacific, especially later in the war.

  8. Stacey,

    You’re vermin. I say this as someone who’s father died in the oil fields.

    Anyone who claims to be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from this even is lying and any lawyer who take son such a case should be disbarred.

    Why? Simple, the clinical definition of PTSD requires that unusual reactions to normal environmental stressors keep occurring 6 weeks or more after the incident. It’s perfectly normal for anyone who has faced a life threatening situation to exhibit unusual psychological responses to stressors for several weeks following the event. There is not single living human being regardless of their proximity to the disaster who has valid scientific grounds to file a PTSD lawsuit. Indeed, really a year or more should elapse between the event and the final diagnosis of PTSD.

    But then again, you knew all that already didn’t you? You knew and your client knew it. You both just see the dollars signs. How many millions of dollars do plan on stealing? How much money are you going to take from IRAs and pensions invested in BP? How many people is BP going to fire to pay for your new car your client’s new swimming pool?

    Frankly, I think someone who cuts corners to get production cost down is morally superior to a vulture who upon witnessing a great tragedy sees nothing but dollar signs. Cutting production cost is the ultimate creator of wealth and rising standards of living. What good do you do? What good is served by filling exploitative lawsuits based on junk science?

    Next time you hear a lawyer joke wishing the entire profession was dead on the sea floor. This is why. You’ve become a profession dominated by greed and lies.

  9. Jonathan,

    Can you explain how the presence of off-shore drilling is generally a boon to the fishing industry? The reasons are not readily apparent to me. (Unless it is the basic argument that everyone needs fuel.) Does a rig warm the surrounding water in a way that ocean life likes? Or leak bio-available iron into the ocean?


    Thanks for taking the effort to put the magnitude of the leak into perspective. Large numbers like the leakage rate are hard to understand without looking at the other sources of oil in the ocean. It would be nice to normalize the values by ocean surface area or volume, as appropriate; I would guess that the concentration on the surface is the most relevant variable that leads to environmental damage.

  10. Dave A.,

    AFAIK it is empirically true. If you google “offshore drilling fishing”, most of the links on the first page of results go to theoretical arguments against offshore drilling as a supposed threat to fishing. The one link that’s based on actual experience rather than fears and speculations is to a Field and Stream article that discusses how the areas around Gulf drilling platforms are widely known as good places to fish.

  11. -But if you want to build a giant windmill that generates electricity only part of the time, and at a cost far above that of oil- or nuclear-generated power, you will get government subsidies.

    And it will kill far more birds per kwh than the oil rigs.

    The reason why the rigs improve fishing is that they become artificial reefs. Every sunken ship is full of fish hiding from their predators and looking for smaller fish to eat. Here in southern California, they have sunk all sorts of things to the sea floor to improve fishing. For example. There are even guides so fishermen can find them.

Comments are closed.