Prof. Bob Bea, of UC Berkeley, a civil engineer with years of expertise in marine oil drilling, says he is concerned that during the current crisis of BP’s blown-out well deep under the Gulf of Mexico, government scientists may not be getting all the information they need from the secretive oil company in order to make intelligent decisions about shutting down the gusher.
“Certainly we independent investigators are not getting information about the condition of the well or about the leaks in the surrounding sea floor,” says Prof. Bea, who is a member of the Deepwater Horizon Study Group at UC Berkeley’s Center for Catastrophic Risk Management, where he is co-director, “And I don’t think the expert investigators at the Department of Energy are getting it either.”
“Information about oil reservoir formations is highly secretive among the oil companies. BP would be loath to share information about what’s going on in a reservoir with competitors,” he says.
What has Prof. Bea and other outside experts concerned is that the casing of the BP well–the long string of pipe that runs from the sea floor down to the high-pressure oil reservoir 2.5 miles below the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico–has “clearly been breached.”
He says this can be known with some confidence because the gas that erupted through the top of the well, exploding through and ultimately sinking the giant floating drill rig, the Deepwater Horizon, “almost certainly” came not from the oil-bearing layer where the bottom of the casing reaches, but from the strata through which the well was drilled, most likely down near the bottom of the well string. (There is good reason to believe the blast came from near the well’s bottom because, according to Dept. of Energy officials, a gamma-ray examination of the BOP showed parts of the lower casing had been blasted all the way up into the blowout preventer, probably explaining why its fail-safe shut-off shears couldn’t work.)
In the time since the well was fitted with a temporary cap last week, allowing pressure to build up within the pipe, Prof. Bea says it is likely that the underground gas bubble, instead of running up the pipe, or staying put where it was in the ground, has been pushing its way along cracks and faults that lead to the surface.
In fact, since the tight-fitting cap was put in place, stopping the gushing oil from pouring into the Gulf waters (over initial government objections), a number of leaks of gas and oil–but primarily gas–have been discovered bubbling up through the sea floor. There are reportedly about five of these leaks now (up from three earlier in the week), which have appeared around the area of the well’s blowout preventer (BOP), one as distant from the wellhead as several hundred yards. There is also reportedly gas and oil leaking from the ground around an unused well some two miles away from the blown-out well.
Bea, who says he has yet to see any such unfinished or sealed-off well marked as required on Interior Department maps of the Gulf sea floor, says it would not be surprising if pressure from below the stoppered and damaged Deepwater Horizon well were forcing gas up out of the ground two miles away. “The rock layers in the two and a half miles below the sea floor have what are called growth faults,” he explains, “and if you activate these faults through drilling operations and the gas starts pushing up through them, from over two miles below the surface, it only has to move upward at a 45-degree angle to come out two miles away.”
He says he has “no idea” whether that is what’s happening at the nearby abandoned well site, but expresses concern that the leak there is being taken too lightly.
Thad Allen, known affectionately by the media as The Retired Coast Guard Admiral Who Acts As The Government’s Pointman for the Spill (TRCGAWAATGPS), has publicly downplayed the significance of the recently observed gas leaks, calling them “small and inconsequential,” and “not unlike an oil link you might have in your car.” (Allen also said he didn’t think the leak at the second well site had “anything to do with” the damaged BP well, which raises an interesting question: If it’s just an old well that is leaking, how many more of the thousands of old abandoned wells are leaking in the Gulf, and if it’s commonplace for them to leak, why are oil companies being allowed to drill underwater at all?).
Allen’s reference to an automotive oil leak is an odd analogy for him to draw. I was just informed by the guy doing an annual vehicle safety inspection on my ’94 Volvo that it has a “small oil leak” on the right side, which deposits maybe a teaspoon’s worth of oil every time I park the car. The thing is, it might take a long time for such a “small” leak to drain my car’s engine of oil, but if that leak is coming from the turbo, for example, it could be an indication that my turbo is failing–a not insignificant problem. And of course, if it is a leak in a seal, or if it is a loose fitting on one of the small pipes that carry the oil to and from the Turbo or the oil filter, that leak could keep getting worse until suddenly it’s a gusher, draining my engine of oil. Point is, a leak is not to be taken lightly, just because it’s “small.”
Yo Admiral! Just for the record, a small leak can become a big leak very quickly–especially if the small leak is highly pressurized natural gas! According to Prof. Bea, natural gas moving upward from a depth of 13,000 feet below the sea floor would expand by “several hundred times” by the time it reaches the sea bottom–a potentially explosive situation, as was demonstrated with the Deepwater Horizon drill rig, where 11 men died in the initial gas explosion last April.
What seems truly insane is that BP is being allowed to keep critical information in its own control. Consider this: Adm. Allen told BP that if the company discovers any major gas or oil leak in the sea floor, it has to call it to his attention “within four hours.” He added that he wanted the company to have plans in place to open up the cap immediately on his orders if there was a need to relieve pressure on the well casing and the surrounding sea floor.
Four hours to inform TRCGAWAATGPS Allen! Does this guy have any idea how fast a gas leak could go from a few bubbles to a big blast of gas, perhaps undermining the BOP and causing it to fall over? Why on earth would he tell BP they could wait four hours to tell him something they know about? They should be communicating with him and government scientists about this stuff instantly!
As I wrote earlier, when I asked at the Unified Command, supposedly the lead organization overseeing the handling of this disaster in process, about the condition of the well below the sea floor, I was told I had to contact BP headquarters in Houston. (BP never responded to my inquiry.) But why would BP be in charge of information about the condition of the well? This is not national security here. It’s all stuff that should be public information, not just for the government bureaucrats and agency scientists, but for journalists and the public at large. Anything BP knows should be passed on immediately to all relevant government scientists and should be disseminated widely to other scientists and engineers as well.
BP clearly is afraid of letting bad information get out. The recent discovery that its public relations crew had doctored photos of the company’s monitoring display to make it look as if all the remote operating vehicle (ROV) cameras were on and actively monitoring for leaks, when in fact many screens were dead, was one bad sign. Another is the propensity for ROV cameras to be turned off when they start to show oil or gas erupting from the sea floor. Both these things make it clear that providing the public with a clear picture of what’s really happening down at the wellhead is not high on the BP agenda. But the government has not been much better when it comes to being open and candid about this disaster. It gave out clearly falsified data about the size of the leak for weeks, going with BP’s absurdly low figures, and has continued to allow BP to spray highly toxic dispersants on oil deep in the water, primarily to prevent the public from seeing the real amount of oil that has escaped from this blown well (and making it hard to fine BP for the fill amount of the escaped oil).
Friday, when I called the press office of the military-sounding Unified Command to ask about the leaking “second well” referred to by Adm. Allen, the press officer said he “didn’t know” about any “nearby leaking well,” but promised to “get back to me” later in the day. Like his useless counterpart at BP, he never did call back.
There should be no secrecy regarding this unfolding catastrophe in the Gulf, either with respect to the damage being done by this blowout–which BP and the Coast Guard, at least until this past week, were assiduously keeping the public in the dark about–or with respect to the condition of the well and the bore hole, and with the deliberations going on about how to shut it down safely and securely.
Clearly the national security state mentality that has overrun American governance has advanced so far at this point that everything–even a blown-out private oil well that is destroying a swath of the American coastline–is being considered a secret matter between a criminal corporation and the government, and not as something suitable for public viewing and public analysis.