Posts tagged ‘Offshore Drilling’

New Ways to Drill, Old Methods for Cleanup

As hopes dim for containing the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico anytime soon, more people are asking why the industry was not better prepared to react.

Members of Congress are holding hearings this week and demanding to know why the federal Minerals Management Service did not force oil companies to take more precautions. Environmentalists are saying they tried to raise the alarm to Congressional committees that the industry had no way to respond to a catastrophic blowout a mile below the sea.

Local officials in the gulf are beginning to ask, “What was Plan B?” The answer, oil industry engineers are acknowledging, was to deploy technology that has not changed much in 20 years — booms, skimmers and chemical dispersants — even as the drilling technology itself has improved.

“They have horribly underestimated the likelihood of a spill and therefore horribly underestimated the consequences of something going wrong,” said Robert G. Bea, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies offshore drilling. “So what we have now is some equivalent of a fire drill with paper towels and buckets for cleanup.”

For years, major oil companies, as well as the Minerals Management Service, played down the possibility of an uncontrolled blowout on the sea floor, arguing that safeguards like blowout preventers were practically foolproof.

In November, Walter D. Cruickshank, deputy director of the Minerals Management Service, told a Senate committee that an undersea blowout and massive spill that had occurred in East Timor last year was highly unlikely in the Gulf of Mexico because of tighter United States regulations. All wells had safety devices to shut off the flow in emergencies, he said.

At the same hearing, a BP vice president, David Rainey, promoted the oil companies’ “blowout preventer technology, which includes redundant systems and controls” and told senators that “contrary to popular perception, ours is a high-tech industry.”

What government regulators and industry officials did not foresee in the Deepwater Horizon disaster last month is that the rig would sink and that robots would not be able to stanch the flow of oil at such depths, even though a consultant hired by government regulators in 2003 had warned that they were unreliable.

“This is the first time the industry has had to confront this issue in this water depth, and there is a lot of real-time learning going on,” BP’s chief executive officer, Tony Hayward, acknowledged at a news conference Monday. “The investigation of this whole incident will undoubtedly show up things that we should be doing differently.”

Once oil was flowing into the water, the methods of dealing with it have changed little in decades, environmentalists say. Tenting spills with giant upside-down funnels has been done in shallower waters, but until last weekend, it had not been tried in deep water. The first attempt failed.

“The oil industry went off the deep end with a new kind of risk, and they didn’t bother to build a response capability before they had a big disaster,” said Richard Charter, an advocate with Defenders of Wildlife who studies offshore drilling.

The heart of the industry’s plan to contain the oil falls to the Marine Spill Response Corporation, a nonprofit organization formed in 1990 after the Exxon Valdez disaster. It is maintained largely by fees from the biggest oil companies.

Judith Roos, a vice president of Marine Spill Response, said the majority of its equipment, including booms and skimmers, was bought in 1990. “The technology hasn’t changed that much since then,” she said.

Steve Benz, president of the corporation, said his group had no budget for research.

In the last three years, however, the company has added C-130 planes to spray dispersants. On this, the company says, it is ahead of the regulatory curve.

Allison Nyholm, a policy adviser with the American Petroleum Institute, said the industry had done extensive experiments with improving skimmers, booms and dispersants. Some booms are fire retardant and allow burning on the water, for example, while others actually absorb oil.

She noted that blowout scenarios were rare and needed to be handled on a case-by-case basis.

“One of the best tools is how you bring the best professionals together to respond to the spill,” Ms. Nyholm said. “It is not the dispersant or the boom or the burn, it is how quickly can you get the right people together.”

Yet Rick Steiner, a marine biologist and frequent consultant on big oil spills, said the oil companies could have had some version of the containment dome ready before the spill, rather than building one after it happened.

“It is like building the fire truck when your house is on fire,” Dr. Steiner said.

Engineers who work on rig structures said such prefabricated containment domes would not be practical. They said that each dome would have to be tailored to the spill, so there was little sense in making one beforehand.

Jeffrey Short, a former scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who now works for the environmental group Oceana, said it was clear that the industry was not willing to pay for enough boats and booms to enclose such a fast-growing spill.

“It’s just really hard to corral something that’s expanding at that rate,” Dr. Short said. “Ultimately it’s an investment challenge. How much money are you willing to spend on an event that happens infrequently?”

Several environmentalists also said the industry should have predicted that a blowout of this magnitude would eventually happen. John F. Amos, a former geologist for oil companies who now runs an organization that tracks oil spills using satellite images, told Congress last fall that the undersea blowout in East Timor was a warning. It leaked for 10 weeks before crews managed to drill relief wells. “Blowouts are surprisingly regular occurrences,” he said. “But ones that lead to catastrophic spills like this are quite rare.”

Jerome J. Schubert, an engineer at Texas A&M who has written extensively about undersea drilling, found in a 2005 study that “blowouts will always happen no matter how far technology and training advance” and that there were no foolproof safeguards to stop them. The study, co-written by Samuel F. Noynaert and financed by BP, found that blowouts in undersea wells had occurred at a steady rate since the 1960s despite improvements in technology.

“The best safeguards don’t always work,” he said.

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May 17, 2010 at 3:06 PM Leave a comment

Obama to reverse ban on oil exploration off East Coast

President Barack Obama is to announce on Wednesday a plan to permit exploration for oil and natural gas off the coast of Virginia as a way to create jobs and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

Obama, who wants Congress to move a stalled climate change bill, has sought to reach out to Republicans by signaling he is open to allowing offshore drilling, providing coastlines are protected.

Joined by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Obama is to detail an updated plan for offshore oil and natural gas drilling in remarks at a military base in nearby Maryland.
For more than 20 years, drilling was banned in most offshore areas of the United States outside the Gulf of Mexico because of concerns that spills could harm the environment.

The administration has been weighing the pros and cons of offshore drilling since it took office and put the brakes on a Bush-era proposal which called for drilling along the East Coast and off the coast of California.

An administration official said, as part of the new plan, Interior will conduct the first new offshore oil and gas sale in the Atlantic Ocean in over two decades as part of a lease sale 50 miles off the coast of Virginia.

Seismic exploration in the south Atlantic and mid-Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf of the United States will determine the quantity and location of potential oil and gas resources to support energy planning.

The Bush plan had called for leases to be offered in November 2011, but it was not immediately clear whether the Obama administration would stick to that schedule.

A senior Interior official said in January that drilling off Virginia’s coast would be delayed past the original 2011 leasing date.

The proposed Virginia lease area, located about 50 miles from shore, may hold 130 million barrels of oil and 1.14 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, based on Interior Department estimates.

Article continues HERE

March 31, 2010 at 8:40 AM Leave a comment

Can Senate trio salvage a climate bill?

A Senate Democrat, Republican and independent on Wednesday announced a rescue effort for troubled climate legislation and quickly got some backing from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as well as at least one environmental group.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., together with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., met with Obama administration officials and later announced that they would work to patch together a bill that could pass the Senate.

Can these three revive the Climate Bill?

An earlier bill introduced by Kerry and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., that would impose mandatory limits on heat-trapping gases for the first time is stalled in committee because of a Republican boycott.

The senators said that they were not usurping that effort, but would take the best pieces of the Kerry-Boxer bill and try to broaden support by adding more incentives for nuclear power and offshore drilling. They also said they had the blessing of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

“Our effort is to try to reach out; to broaden the base of support” for a bill, said Kerry.

More for nuclear, offshore drilling
Besides looking at creating a market for companies to trade an ever-decreasing number of carbon pollution permits, the senators are working with the White House on ways to expand the nuclear power industry through government incentives.

For full story click HERE

November 6, 2009 at 11:03 AM Leave a comment


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