Saturday, June 26, 2010

BP's deadline to give facts on Gulf oil spill

BP has been given until Friday, July 2 to provide documentary evidence establishing exactly what is happening behind the scenes at their ongoing Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

This material would answer current worst-case scenario speculation about the state of BP’s Mocando wellbore – whether it is structurally compromised – and the ongoing attempts to dig relief wells. There is currently a 2,500-square-mile-and-growing oil slick in the area that is spreading to the shorelines, but little is publically known about the state of things under the surface, and the issue is rife with speculation.

The demand comes in a letter written by Congressman Edward J. Markey, chairman of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee. It was Rep. Markey who oversaw the June 15 congressional hearings that criticized CEOs of the world’s largest privately owned oil companies – BP, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Shell and ConocoPhillips – for their “zero disaster planning.” His response back then was:

BP said they didn’t think the rig would sink. It did.

They said they could handle an Exxon Valdez-sized spill every day. They couldn’t.

BP said the spill was 1,000 barrels per day. It wasn’t. And they knew it.

This time around Rep. Markey is demanding information from BP that would provide the full picture of what’s going on deep below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. This includes the truth about the condition of BP’s wellbore, reports of seabed oil leaks, the design and timeframe of relief wells and the size of the oil and gas reservoirs in question.

Addressed to BP’s controversial CEO Tony Hayward, Markey’s June 23 letter opens with:

I write to request information related to the integrity of the wellbore and
casing at the Deepwater Horizon leak site, as well as to request further
information on the design, testing, timeframe and likelihood of success for the
relief wells being drilled today. While BP has repeatedly stated that the relief
well would be completed by mid-August, I am concerned that possible damage to
the wellbore and casing and the difficulty of the operation itself could result
in more weeks or months before the flow of oil and gas is finally stopped.

This gets straight to the heart of a speculation, spearheaded by Matthew Simmons, that BP’s problems might be much greater than we could imagine. This line of thought, which ranges from the technical to the frankly apocalyptical (using a nuclear device to fuse the seabed and stop the leak) is that the Mocando wellbore has been so badly damaged that it has spawned multiple leaks from the seafloor – or at the very least that the extreme fragility of the well casing is behind the abandonment of the top kill procedure. This has a bearing on how much oil is gushing from the well – itself a matter of controversy – and what chances the relief wells have of success, as the more damage there is to the wellbore, the trickier and slower a proposition it will be. While Simmons’ more extreme comments have made the headlines, his more regular views about the reality of peak oil have been, at best, buried at the end of interviews with him. For example, when asked by CNN Money what lessons should be learned from the BP spill, Simmons replied: “That oil peaked. The easy stuff is over. We have to continue drilling in shallow water, but we probably need to take a deep breath and step back. Until we develop a new generation of equipment that can respond to these accidents, just don't go into the ultra-deep water and deep formations because it's just too risky.”

Rep. Markey, in his letter, cites this “speculation that the wellbore and casing at the Deepwater Horizon leak site may have been damaged and that leaks of oil and gas may already be coming through the sea floor or through the pipe itself,” then goes on to state:

In fact, in his June 17 press briefing, Admiral Thad Allen stated that “I think
that one thing that nobody knows is the condition of the wellbore from below the
blow out preventer down to the actual oil field itself. And we don’t know, we
don’t know if the wellbore has been compromised or not. One of the reasons we
did not continue with top kill at higher pressures, there was a concern that if
we increased the pressure too hard it might do damage to the casings and the
wellbore. What we didn’t want was open communication of any oil from the
reservoir outside the wellbore that might get into the formation and work its
way to the sub sea floor and then result in uncontrolled discharge at that

In a June 18, 2010 article in the Times Picayune, Bob Bea of the
University of California at Berkeley indicated that there is reason to believe
that oil and gas is leaking from places other than the containment cap. BP
officials said that a disk that is part of the subsea safety infrastructure may
have failed in the initial April 20th explosion, which may have contributed to
the failure of the “top-kill.” As reported by the Wall Street Journal, people
familiar with BP’s “top-kill” attempt have speculated that some drilling mud may
have escaped the well into the surrounding rock.

He continues with questions about the relief wells – is the August timeline too optimistic, and just how structurally similar will these be to BP’s original, and deeply flawed well? He asks BP’s Tony Haywood about the volume of oil still underground:

In the June 17, 2010 hearing of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee,
you testified that you believed the reservoir contained 50 million barrels of
oil. The damage that such a quantity of oil could do, should it all leak into
the Gulf of Mexico, would be staggering. It is imperative that the efforts to
permanently halt the flow of oil are successful.

Again, no-one knows for sure how large the oil reserve in question is – which is an important issue if BP is not able to contain the leak, with the assumption being that it will run until it is at least half empty. Just asking this question, Rep. Markey seems to be hinting at some of the worst-case speculation.

Rep. Markey goes on to demand BP provides to-the-minute technical information, including “all measurements, images, and other documents related to the condition of the wellbore” and anything relating to “hydrocarbons leaking from anywhere other than the containment cap.”

This information, when it comes in from BP in early July, should silence the ongoing speculation – because we will then be dealing with facts, rather than having to take what BP’s publicity department wants us to believe (who, to recall, initially stated no oil was leaking, and then that only 1,000 barrels a day, then, that the figure might be 5,000 - while Rep. Markey is of the opnion that "the rate could be as high as ~ 100,000 barrels per day up the casing"). This is technical information – and it has a good chance of subsequently being published, considering Rep. Markey’s track record in that area – that means we don’t have to blindly accept what BP’s spin machine puts out.

And recall that Markey, in his response to the June 15 hearings stated that the five major oil companies involved were guilty of a “kind of Blind Faith” that such a disaster “could never happen to them.” It was this thinking “that has led to this kind of disaster,” he stated. Markey illustrates this corporate approach with the following:

What we found was that these five companies have response plans that are
virtually identical. The plans cite identical response capabilities and tout
identical ineffective equipment. In some cases, they use the exact same words. . .

We found that all of these companies, not just BP, made the exact same

The covers of the five response plans are different colors, but the content is ninety percent identical.

Like BP, three other companies include references to protecting walruses, which have not called the Gulf of Mexico home for 3 million years.

Two other plans are such dead ringers for BP’s that they list a phone number for the same long-dead expert.

The American people deserve oil safety plans that are ironclad and not

(I’m not going to comment on the use of the phrases “Virtually identical” and “ninety percent identical.”)

BP does not have to reply, but all the same, it is essentially in a bind. Failure to provide this information would likely lead Rep. Markey to suggest they have something to hide, and possibly land BP in front of a congressional hearing to defend their handling of this ongoing environmental disaster. Basically, if BP is silent on this, it would give mainstream credence to the web speculation that their wellbore is fatally compromised and that the relief wells may not be the immediate fix that we all so desperately want to see. And that would cause even more damage to BP’s share price, currently in freefall.

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