The Unnatural Disasters in the Energy Sector

It has been more than a month since the April 20 explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 people. At the time of this write-up, British Petroleum made little headway with its much touted ‘top kill’ method to ‘kill’ or plug the leaking well from gushing oil. The method began on May 26 (only to be suspended for nearly a 16-hour period after the first ten hour of operation) with remote control submersibles pumping ‘drilling mud’ –” a mixture of synthetic petroleum and clays –” into the renegade well. BP engineers temporarily shutdown the ‘top kill’ operation when they saw that too much of the drilling fluid was escaping along with the oil.

To overcome the high pressure of the gushing oil and gas from the well, the mud will have to be pumped countercurrent not only at a higher pressure but also at a higher flow rate. Under 30,000 horsepower of hydraulic pressure, the mud is expected to push into the leaking drill hole, stopping it up. Once the leaking stops with the mud, BP can follow up with cement to plug the broken pipe permanently. BP restarted the ‘top kill’ maneuver on May 27 saying that some of the drilling mud had successfully forced down the well bore where most of the oil was gushing. However, undersea pictures confirm that a lot of oil continued to leak through leaking pipes connected to the well. BP engineers are trying to plug the hole using different weights of mud and sizes of debris like golf balls and tires, and then watching and waiting hoping for miracles. The efficacy of such measures is unknown to this author. BP plans to continue with the process into Sunday, May 30, before giving up and considering other options, including another containment dome to try to capture the oil.

The Gulf oil spill accident was originally claimed by BP to have been sending 210,000 gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico each day. No one believes those numbers any more. Recently, the U.S. Geological Survey said that between 504,000 to 798,000 gallons a day had been billowing out of the broken pipe. That means 20 million to 32 million gallons have spilled in the first 40 days of the disaster. This disaster is America’s worst man-made disaster dwarfing the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, which resulted in 11-million-gallon spill in Prince William Sound blackening 1,500 miles of Alaska’s coastline. According to SkyTruth, an environment advocacy group, the oil-slick has grown to about 29,000 square miles, roughly half the size of Bangladesh. More than 70 miles of Louisiana coastline are affected by the spill and nearly 54,000 square miles of sea area are closed to fishing by the Federal government, thereby disrupting the fishing industry there, let alone denying hundreds of thousands of beach-goers from spending their summer days on the Louisiana shoreline.

BP’s failure to promptly stop the leakage some 5,000 feet underwater shows that it has been avoiding to consider prudent methods and technologies that other industries have been using in recent years to eliminate such accidents from happening, e.g., six sigma tools like the FMEA (failure mode and effects analysis). Over the years, with tens of billions of dollars of quarterly earnings and the "cozy and sometimes corrupt" relationship it enjoyed with the regulators at the Minerals Management Service, the oil industry has become so insular and arrogant that it started believing that it is untouchable by any agency and need not adapt itself with modern technological advances in science and engineering. It has failed to invest adequately on R&D and hire smart engineers to help it get out of the pre-1989 engineering doldrums.

More unforgiving is BP’s outmoded clean-up efforts for oil spills; its technology has remained largely the same since the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989.

Shortly after the leak was discovered, BP tried using remote-controlled submarine devices to stop it. That didn’t work. Then it tried two other techniques. The first was a huge containment dome weighing 98 tons that would have captured the oil so it could be siphoned off to a waiting tanker. But ice crystals formed when escaping gas mixed with water, thwarting that effort. BP was also pumping 120-degree water and methanol into the long pipe to prevent the formation of crystals of gas hydrates. (Those hydrates — combinations of natural gas and sea water at high pressures and low temperatures — form slush-like crystals that can block pipelines or even lift heavy objects off the seafloor.) Then, BP announced it was employing a similar, but smaller device called a "Top Hat." The crews tried to position a 5-foot structure weighing nearly 2 tons over the leak. It didn’t work. BP said it had yet another plan — sending a "junk shot" — loads of shredded rubber tires and golf balls, to clog the leak at the source. The junk shot technique was used successfully in the Kuwaiti oilfields in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. But those wells were on land and, even in harsh desert conditions, could be repaired by people, not by robots working in extremely cold water 5,000 feet under sea at a pressure of 2,300 pounds per square inch (psi).

All these failed attempts show that it had no clue as to how to adapt fundamentals of fluid mechanics, reservoir engineering and instability phenomena like the countercurrent flow limitations to design fail-proof systems in such accidents with the drill pipe and had virtually left it to nature to dictate such disaster scenarios.

After all those initial fiascos, BP engineers inserted a four-inch-wide pipe into the broken section known as the riser, from which the majority of the oil has been leaking, and began siphoning some of the oil to a drilling rig at the surface. The deep-sea plumbing did not do anything to close the well, and a substantial amount of oil continued to leak at the bottom of the gulf.

From the latest testimonies of the rig operators it seems that there were problems with the blowout preventer before the accident. One of the control pods wasn’t functioning as it should have weeks earlier. BP said in congressional testimony that it found one of the pods had a dead battery. The crew was also supposed to pump enough seawater into the well to move the fluid away from smaller pipes on the seafloor. However, records showed that they pumped only half as much as was required, leaving the more viscous fluid where it could block pipes and distort pressures. That could explain why some of the pressure readings showed that the cement had capped the well, thus providing erroneous information to the crew on the rig. Transocean, which owns the rig, said that BP did not plan to conduct a pressure test before sealing the well closed.

Unnatural or man-made disasters in the energy sector are not uncommon or unexpected. On May 27, Turkish rescue teams found 28 dead in a coal mine in the northern Black Sea province of Zonguldak, three days after an underground explosion caused the mine to collapse. Some 40 miners were reported to have been working in two separate areas of the pit at a depth of about 540 meters when the explosion occurred on May 24. Turkey has lost 60 miners in recent months. An explosion at a mine in Anshun in southwest China’s Guizhou province killed 21 workers on May 13. When the Wangjialing mine flooded this past March, 153 workers were trapped underground in a much-publicized event. One hundred fifteen of the workers were eventually rescued. But accidents will happen in a country that gets about 70 percent of its enormous energy supply from coal mining. China’s vast coal mining industry is notoriously accident-prone, with about 2,600 people killed last year due mainly to lax regulation, corruption and inefficiency. In April Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia killed 29 miners. This was the highest death toll in an American mine since a 1970 explosion killed 38 at Finley Coal Company in Hyden, Kentucky.

Most accidents in the offshore rigs happen because of the poor design of the drilling pipes and equipment and shortchanging safety requirements. Most accidents in coalmines happen because of the presence of methane, often in explosive concentrations. The only question is how diligently miners and mining companies will work to avoid explosions by proper ventilation to remove methane. Two other major problems with the regulatory agencies are that often times their laws don’t go far enough and that they are not enforced strongly. Only a small fine is levied on repeat offenders.

These disasters have shown that most powerful energy companies do not have the best interests of the people in mind when they are closing in on the kinds of profits that ancient kingdoms could only dream about. Even if the Deepwater leak is stopped in a week or so, America will need a long-term recovery and restoration effort costing billions of dollars. The Gulf of Mexico and West Virginia tragedies have also highlighted the need for much stronger oversight and accountability of energy companies working either offshore or onshore. The idea of relying on the assurances of these corporate predators that they are looking out for the safety of their workers and the health of surrounding communities and the environment is oxymoron. They need to be tamed, closely monitored and regulated, and constrained in ways that no longer allow them to trample the best interests of our people.