Thursday, June 24, 2010

Prescient or Pessimistic? Scientists debate possible oil spill tsunamis

Might the Gulf have its own way of wrapping up the BP oil spill? According to the Huffington Post, geologists speculate that this man-made disaster could result in a natural catastrophe far worse than what we've seen so far.

Until now, the methane gas leaking from BP's damaged oil well has been overshadowed by the more overtly damaging oil leak. However, every barrel of oil that leaks is accompanied by close to 3000 cubic feet of natural gas, which is 75-90% methane. Methane is already a notorious gas. Whiel it is highly useful for heating homes and powering the occasional school bus, it is also a potent greenhouse gas. When released into the atmosphere, it is 20 times more detrimental to the ozone layer than carbon dioxide.

When released into water, it's not much better. As the oil-gas mixture spews into the waters of the Gulf, ocean microbes gobble it up. However, as they feast, they also consume massive amounts of oxygen - like ketchup on their hotdogs. In the areas tainted by the BP oil spill, this feeding frenzy is using up all the available oxygen, resulting in dead zones of water. These lifeless expanses, where no sea life can grow and no further oil can be broken down, could persist for years to come.

While methane is inevitably released during oil drilling, it is typically released in controlled "kicks," or spurts. Apparently, more than a year ago geologists advised BP executives against the location of its ill-fated Macondo well. Seismic data from that area indicated a massive methane deposit in that area. Perhaps, then, the uncontrolled methane kick that sank the Deepwater Horizon platform on April 20 was not entirely unexpected.

But that's just the beginning of the potential disasters. The Huffington Post reports that new fissures or cracks in the ocean floor would be the first sign that methane trapped below the surface might be leaking. And indeed, as mitigation efforts continue, BP robotic submarines and live video feeds report new plumes, fissures, and cracks in the area surrounding the damaged rig.

If the gas did erupt, the disaster thus far would like like a day in the park in comparison. A gigantic bubble of flammable gas under rocketing skyward under massive pressure could cause an impressive array of disasters. Tsunamis could wreak havoc from Texas to Georgia, due to the force of the eruption or the subsequent vaporization of ocean water flooding the recently vacated cavity. Ships and other oil rigs could also sink, due to the loss of buoyancy.

Will this happen? It's hard to say whether such predictions are realistic or over the top. If I lived on the Gulf shores, though, I'd have my suitcase packed.

- Sadie Kneidel

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Internal documents reveal a lack of foresight that may cost BP millions

Could a touch of foresight have prevented the BP oil spill? Recently released internal BP documents suggest that a little discretion could have staved off what has been described as the largest environmental disaster in history.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee made public a series of BP emails and documents from the months preceding the April 20 catastrophe, revealing that the company's disastrous oil spill in the Gulf was no surprise. Or at least, it shouldn't have been.

The dozens of documents divulge a series of money-saving decisions that compromised the safety of the rig. In the six weeks preceding the disaster, BP had spent at least $22 million on the rig, which was overdue to move to its next location. To minimize this hemorrhage of $500,000 per day, BP made a series of money-saving decisions. The company saved $7 million to $10 million by selecting a riskier design model for the well. In addition, they chose to use only six of the 21 recommended centralizers, or devices that assure that the well casing stays centered. Finally, the company decided against a test of the cement's integrity, called a cement bond log.

Would a safer design, more centralizers, or sturdier cement have prevented the rig from exploding? Had the delayed rig not been delayed and losing money, would BP have made these compromises? It's hard to say, and bitter to contemplate. On his fourth and latest trip to the Gulf, Obama vowed that the area would one day return to normal - or better than normal. However, the American public has its doubts. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll revealed that more than half of Americans expect the catastrophe to impact the Gulf for at least a decade to come. Eighty percent expect an indefinite impact on the economy, food and gas prices, and half of those surveyed predict that the coastal ecosystem will never fully recover. The Gulf is now paying a higher price for that infamous rig than BP ever did.

In another poll, 59% of Americans said that they want BP to "pay for all financial losses resulting from the Gulf Coast oil spill, including wages of workers put out of work, even if those payments ultimately drive the company out of business," according to Ironically, even a fraction of that price will surely surpass the money BP saved by cutting corners in the first place.

by Sadie Kneidel