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Methane-Trapping Ice May Have Triggered Gulf Spill 341

Posted by kdawson
from the packs-a-punch dept.
sciencehabit writes with an excerpt from Science that begins: "Methane-trapping ice of the kind that has frustrated the first attempt to contain oil gushing offshore of Louisiana may have been a root cause of the blowout that started the spill in the first place, according to [UC Berkeley] professor Robert Bea, who has extensive access to BP p.l.c. documents on the incident. If methane hydrates are eventually implicated, the US oil and gas industry would have to tread even more lightly as it pushes farther and farther offshore in search of energy."
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Methane-Trapping Ice May Have Triggered Gulf Spill

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  • Spill baby spill! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by BlueKitties (1541613) <> on Monday May 10, 2010 @06:57PM (#32163814)
    Yeah, so I'm trolling, wanna fight about it? But in all seriousness, this is why I'm against sudden rapid expansions of industry into sensitive environmental areas.
  • by nimbius (983462) on Monday May 10, 2010 @07:09PM (#32163904) Homepage
    but if the risk of offshore drilling is so great why do we continue to do it? if it costs more to make alternative fuels, where is the breaking point where a disaster is more or less expensive? why are we still allowed to continue drilling offshore when known unknown conditions exist which have not been fully counter measured?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 10, 2010 @07:16PM (#32163970)

    Uh, dude, look around you. 99.99% of everything you eat, own, use, buy, throw away or want is brought to you by oil. *Nothing* matches it for chemical versatility, nothing else even comes close to the energy density of oil.

    It's one of our very few true energy sources. There is also hydro-electricity, nuclear electricity, and coal/gas electricity. Everything else is farts.

    You can't run our civilization on electricity alone. All air traffic would immediately and forever stop. Car traffic would essentially disappear. You'll go back to wooden sail ships (how are you gonna mine, refine and transform metal without oil? With coal? Good luck with that, *no one* is gonna want that in their backyard, except poor countries...)

    Food production depends on oil for everything. Fertilizers, harvesting, transportation, transformation and your drive to the supermarket. All oil.

    Your job, your house in the suburbs, your car? Oil.

    You want to know what your kids should learn?

    How to raise, breed and ride horses.

  • by fwr (69372) on Monday May 10, 2010 @07:16PM (#32163974)
    The amazing thing is, if we allowed ocean drilling much closer to shore we wouldn't have these problems. One, the depth would not be so great that the pressure created these methane and ice / sludge pockets. Two, a leak, if one were to occur, would be much easier to contain. You could actually send someone down to fix the problem if it were close enough to the shore. You are not sending someone down under 5000 feet of water... So, ironically, it is the wacko environmentalists that are to blame for this situation. Their answer? Either don't drill at all, or if you do, drill even further out, where the problems are even greater. Yea, that makes a lot of sense...
  • by je ne sais quoi (987177) on Monday May 10, 2010 @07:16PM (#32163982)
    Yeah but they never get past the "touted as the next best thing" and graduate to the "best thing". The issues are precisely what is the problem with the dome on the deepwater horizon well -- the clathrates (gas hydrates) clog everything. Also, since they're a solid phase, they don't flow very well while trying to extract them. You can try heating sections of subsurface to thaw them, and you get some, but then they freeze again on the way up to the surface. You can try reducing the pressure to inhibit freezing, but then you're also reducing flow. As far as I know, to date there's only one well that's ever actually produced any significant amount of gas from the clathrates and that was essentially a fluke since the clathrates were sitting just below a traditional gas reservoir and as the gas came up from that, the clathrates sublimated and boosted the pressure slightly.
  • by LockeOnLogic (723968) on Monday May 10, 2010 @07:20PM (#32164028)
    Yea cause that's just what we need, another source of fossil fuel to further delay action on the energy crisis.
  • by h4rr4r (612664) on Monday May 10, 2010 @07:25PM (#32164066)

    You are not very imaginative. You can run on electricity alone, you use that to make whatever hydrocarbons you want.

  • by interkin3tic (1469267) on Monday May 10, 2010 @07:33PM (#32164132)

    this is why I'm against sudden rapid expansions of industry into sensitive environmental areas.

    Article says "Drillers have long been wary of methane hydrates because they can pack a powerful punch. One liter of water ice that has trapped individual methane molecules in the "cages" of its crystal structure can release 168 liters of methane gas when the ice decomposes."

    Doesn't exactly sound like this was a new and unforseen problem, it doesn't sound like this happened because we were being hasty. It sounds like it happened because they were on some level being stupid and ignoring a well-known risk. In my book, that's an even stronger reason not to drill. We've known about that for a long time and the oil companies -still- haven't made sure this can't happen? These are not people who should be making potentially environment-altering decisions for the rest of us.

  • by dAzED1 (33635) on Monday May 10, 2010 @07:42PM (#32164196) Homepage Journal

    I worry about permanently assigning blame only once those responsible decide they're going to do nothing (or next to nothing) ala Exxon Valdez. Accidents happen, and unless BP acted in gross negligence, and unless they don't put much effort in to fixing the problem, I won't be worried about permanently affixing their name to it.

    But ymmv, I'm not your spiritual leader.

  • by Shakrai (717556) on Monday May 10, 2010 @07:44PM (#32164200) Journal

    You can run on electricity alone, you use that to make whatever hydrocarbons you want.

    Sure. Of course the only carbon free electrical source that can scale like that is nuclear....

  • by tibit (1762298) on Monday May 10, 2010 @07:57PM (#32164292)

    Finally someone who sees the numbers for what they are.

    I keep saying that BP laughs all the way to the bank.

    What they are doing right now with the dome and booms is just PR stalling. They know full well that drilling the relief is the only way to fix the problem, but the public would go apeshit if they "did nothing" for 3 months. Of course the fact that they are in fact, umm, drilling the relief well is quickly lost on mostly everyone.

    The best thing we can do is buy up as much of their stock as we can. That way we can partake in their profits!

  • by Dragoniz3r (992309) on Monday May 10, 2010 @07:59PM (#32164302)
    You'd sure think so. If, with my 20 liter tank, I can store over 3000 liters of methane gas, that would seem to me to be a fairly efficient fuel storage mechanism. The devil may be in the details of keeping the ice frozen, and decomposing it in a controlled fashion though.
  • by clustermonkey (320537) on Monday May 10, 2010 @08:02PM (#32164324)

    Yeah, 'cause artificially limiting the use of available energy sources while not providing any viable alternatives won't deepen the energy crisis.

    We need innovative people to come up with viable alternatives, not endlessly complain about the impacts of available options. If someone actually comes up with a feasible, scalable alternative to fossil fuels, the switch to using that idea would just take care of itself due to market forces. The ugly truth is - there's currently no real alternative to switch to and complaining without providing viable alternatives won't change that.

  • by topherama (1344245) on Monday May 10, 2010 @08:10PM (#32164374)

    Could we please stop calling it the "Gulf" spill? Oil spills are conventionally named after the company responsible. That would be BP, or Transocean (the company that leased the rig to BP). Additionally, it's not really a "spill," but for lack of a clearly better word (gucher perhaps?), I am willing to accept that. Calling it the "Gulf" spill doesn't put enough responsibility on those who should be bearing it.

    I'm so tired of this filth people bullshit and then repeat, and it's getting worse even here. The company responsible isn't BP, they're just the company that owns the asset (the rig itself). The company responsible, and thus liable, is the CONTRACTOR. You know, the little engineering company that BP contracted to drill the well, who was supposed to get it working and then hand over control to BP for capturing and refinement. The engineer drilling the well fucked up, his famous last words of "there's water everywhere" (paraphrase) mean the casement was fucked, water was entering the pipe, and everything was coming straight up from 5000 feet like a fatass sucking a shake through a straw. Unequal pressure through incompetent drilling led to the explosion and this whole thing.

    Oh, one more thing, that little engineering company that is LEGALLY LIABLE for the fuck-up is only worth $50 or a $100 million, and just declared bankruptcy (hypothetically, of course). So there goes pretty much all of the money for the clean-up, save what BP donates to make themselves look good. The stupid shit Obama thinks he can pin this on BP, and there's not a chance in hell they're paying a dime more than they want.

  • by clarkkent09 (1104833) * on Monday May 10, 2010 @08:14PM (#32164390)
    The problem is we need oil and we need those companies to drill for it. Given that there are about 4000 oil rigs in the gulf [], it is unrealistic to expect 0 accidents forever. When you say the government needs to step in and make industry take actions you are almost always on a very slippery surface. The devil is in the details. Can the accidents still happen even if those regulations are followed exactly? Unless those regulations require miracles then the answer is probably, and they just allow the industry to say "Hew, it's not our fault, we followed the government's safety rules exactly". Much better to require as we do now for the companies that own that oil to pay for the cleanup. What is needed is full enforcement of that, but my prediction is that after years of wrangling and lawsuits, BP will really only pay a fraction of the true cost.
  • by sean.peters (568334) on Monday May 10, 2010 @08:21PM (#32164428) Homepage
    Clathrates require enormous pressures and very cold temperatures to remain stable. Warm them up to room temperature... and let's just say your gas tank won't be remaining whole very long.
  • by h4rr4r (612664) on Monday May 10, 2010 @08:22PM (#32164432)

    I think making them pay the actual total cost of cleanup might be a better solution. By that I mean they must clean every grain of sand that oil touched, if this bankrupts them good.

    Only higher oil costs will move us to better fuels.

  • by sean.peters (568334) on Monday May 10, 2010 @08:36PM (#32164532) Homepage

    ... if 1) we didn't massively subsidize the use of fossil fuels, and 2) the price of various forms of environmental devastation wasn't treated as an externality. Consider that the continental shelf is the property of the US government, and we have been and continue to lease the mineral rights to BP, et al, for way below market rates. And that we provide massive security services to various oil companies in the form of huge military commitments in the Middle East. And we provide an enormous interstate highway system, the cost of which is only partly offset by user fees such as tolls and gas taxes.

    Also, consider that fossil fuel extractors and consumers are essentially paying nothing for the privilege of dumping huge amounts of greenhouse gases and other pollutants into the atmosphere, even though everyone is paying the cost in the form of climate disturbances, poor air quality, etc. And that when these major spills happen, the companies involved generally get off without paying significant damages (note that after years of litigation, Exxon ended up paying a tiny fraction of the total estimated damages from the Exxon Valdez spill - local fishing and tourism industries were left holding the bag).

    Greener alternatives such as wind and solar could compete, if the true costs of fossil fuels were paid at the pump. But they're not.

  • by h4rr4r (612664) on Monday May 10, 2010 @08:50PM (#32164622)

    In a few years?
    So how many tourist dollars is that?
    How many fishing dollars?
    What about the cost to the environment?

    I think they are lucky more folks are not calling for criminal prosecution.

  • by oldspewey (1303305) on Monday May 10, 2010 @09:11PM (#32164756)
    To badly paraphrase Noam Chomsky, capitalists are actually big fans of socialism. They love the idea of socializing harm ... it's the profits they don't like sharing.
  • by mi (197448) <> on Monday May 10, 2010 @09:37PM (#32164936) Homepage Journal

    If it ends up like Vladez oil spill BP won't have to pay anything.

    The compensatory damages, that Exxon is on the hook for, exceed half a billion dollars []. That's in addition to their spending on the actual clean-up...

    The Supreme Court (in a 5-to-3 vote, with your beloved David Souter writing for the majority) did remove the punitive $2.5 billion as "excessive"... But the compensatory $507 million were left standing... Yes, it took much too long. Maybe, if the plaintiffs weren't greedy (greed is only good, when you are making something, that other people want), they would've gotten their compensation 20 years earlier...

    while the people pay.

    "The people" (including The Children[TM]) also use the oil. Every day... We can't do anything without it.

  • by jeffsenter (95083) on Monday May 10, 2010 @09:57PM (#32165062) Homepage

    Sadly, BP should hope that things work out for it the way things worked out for ExxonMobile after the catastrophe of the Exxon Valdez.

    Exxon had a drunk for a captain who crashed a poorly designed oil tanker causing one of the worst environmental disasters in history. The region's environment still has not recovered two decades later. But ExxonMobile sure has! ExxonMobile is the most profitable company in the world. From 2005-2009 the annual profit for ExxonMobile averaged $36 Billion!

    The US Supreme Court was also generous enough a few years ago to reduce the punitive damages award against ExxonMobile for the Valdez from an original jury amount of $5 Billion down to $500 Million (about five days worth of profits).

  • by Chris Burke (6130) on Monday May 10, 2010 @10:06PM (#32165114) Homepage

    BP has made a lot of noise about how they've paid more than that already, $300 mil+ I remember reading.

    But speaking of closing the barn door, if that sounds like it's just PR, well the PR loss of having this spill go on right as they're talking about expanding off-shore drilling is costing them a lot more money than they're worried about spending on cleanup. Higher liability for this spill means little compared to losing out on profits from a bunch of future wells. Even if they're only delayed.

  • To badly paraphrase Noam Chomsky, capitalists are actually big fans of socialism. They love the idea of socializing harm ... it's the profits they don't like sharing.

    No, that's neither capitalists nor free market supporters. What those are are corporatists [] or Fascists [].


  • by DigiShaman (671371) on Monday May 10, 2010 @10:50PM (#32165370) Homepage

    Really, oh great prophet? And what better way would that be? Keep in mind that everything modern is based on the hydrocarbon, from lipstick to plastics. Quite frankly, I'm not sure we would have reached the technological progress we have so quickly without it. Whether or not the time compression was worth it or not, I will leave up to you to decide.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 10, 2010 @10:58PM (#32165424)

    Thanks to Exxon Valdez, there is no longer a commercial fishing industry in Prince William Sound. No doubt you would be content to just roll over if some multinational corporation took away your ( and your children's) livelihood tomorrow.

    This "greed" you speak of amounts to a couple of years worth of fishing income, in exchange for a lifetime of lost fishing opportunities. Exxon should be parted out and obliterated to pay for the damages they did to Alaskan fishermen.

  • by danlip (737336) on Monday May 10, 2010 @11:34PM (#32165594)

    The problem is that #4 is ofter #1 in disguise, i.e. nothing much happens to make the transition. And no one is really advocating #2 or #3, they're just used as the bogeyman by the people trying to stop the real #4.

  • by arkane1234 (457605) on Monday May 10, 2010 @11:44PM (#32165666) Journal

    which embody most of the capitalistic world, so let's not go splitting hairs.
    If it quacks like a duck...

  • by symbolset (646467) on Tuesday May 11, 2010 @12:17AM (#32165796) Journal
    It's a storage medium. TANSTAAFL.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 11, 2010 @12:45AM (#32165888)

    You forgot an option.

    5) Nuclear power.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 11, 2010 @01:01AM (#32165934)

    Yes, but the wacko environmentalists do prevent us from getting nuclear [], wind [], and hydroelectric [].

    So, we either "stay the course" with oil or we learn how to use an ox and plow.

    Personally, I'd rather have a nuclear station in my backyard.

  • by thegarbz (1787294) on Tuesday May 11, 2010 @02:40AM (#32166462)

    The problem is that #4 is ofter #1 in disguise

    You deserve every mod point I have. People are instinctively reacting to the news of the disaster. They do this all the time. OOOHH there's a spill leaking out huge amounts of oil, EVIL oil companies, BAD oil companies, this would NEVER happen if we would just all switch over to alternative energy sources.

    I have seen the Exxon Valdez quoted time and time again in comments here on slashdot. All I can say is wake up and expand your horizons people. Look outside the oil industry. If you want to judge human progress look at all major accidents. No one wanted to make Chernobyl melt. No one wanted to cause problems at 3-mile island. Yet while driving home from work in a Ford F250 drinking water from plastic bottles people are muttering about the evil oil companies, whereas the simple fact is as human technology evolves there will be accidents, there will be situations that have not yet been encountered before, and there WILL be dire consequences.

    Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe this is the last accident we'll ever see. Maybe there will be no more death from mining, maybe environmental destruction from bitumen mining in Canada (honestly this puts the BP spill to shame except that it comes with a government granted licence) will stop tomorrow. ...

    A far more likely scenario is that in 50 years when the world is running of clean efficient fusion power there will be an industrial accident that will remove a small country from the world maps, and then here on slashdot with it's shiny new web 5.0 interface we can discuss how it's unsafe and we should be moving to a new source of energy.

  • by Anenome (1250374) on Tuesday May 11, 2010 @04:46AM (#32166944)

    You couldn't stop #4 from happening if you wanted to.

  • by ultranova (717540) on Tuesday May 11, 2010 @04:55AM (#32166982)

    It sounds like it happened because they were on some level being stupid and ignoring a well-known risk. In my book, that's an even stronger reason not to drill. We've known about that for a long time and the oil companies -still- haven't made sure this can't happen?

    It could also be that it's simply impossible to eliminate the risk completely. While I doubt that the oil companies are concerned about the environment, I also find it unlikely that they want to waste valuable oil by spilling it into the ocean, not to mention get all the badwill they do when that happens.

    The nasty, awful, horrible truth is that sometimes shit happens, no matter how cautious you are.

  • by HiThere (15173) <charleshixsn@e[ ... t ['art' in gap]> on Tuesday May 11, 2010 @11:22AM (#32170704)

    Sorry, but windmills require maintenance. It's not "all gravy" once you get the mill built.

    It *IS* true that with well designed equipment the maintenance costs are lower than with oil...but they need to be, because there are other costs. Specifically line ballasts to handle the periods when the wind isn't blowing and the sun isn't shining. That basically means that you need to store about two weeks usage at the rate if usage of the coldest (or hottest) part of the year. Even that's cutting your margins a little close, but you can probably import power given that much warning. (Which, of course, you don't get. You don't know how long you'll be "becalmed". If I recall correctly occasionally sailing ships would be becalmed for a month or longer.)

    Solar cells are a bit more predictable, but the prediction isn't always to their benefit. In some locales you can predict a month or more of overcast per year. (I remember when I was growing up in South San Francisco it seemed like there were years without a single sunny day...though I'm sure that was an overestimation.)

    So... you've got to suit your power source to your site, and you need lots of backup power. It's no wonder that oil can coal looked like better solutions, though now they're causing global problems.

    Everything has problems. The question is "Which problems are easiest to solve?"

    FWIW, I think that a combination of wind and solar is usually the best choice, but it comes equipped with many problems that need to be dealt with. (E.g., as a backup power source, how about you pump a bunch of water into a reservoir in a high location...perhaps with an airtight pressure cover. Then when you want to supplement your power you run some of the water into a lower reservoir via a turbine. It works, but it's not cheap.) Just remember to identify the costs of the problems, and factor them into the cost of your proposed solution. (Yes, it will make you look expensive compared to coal and oil. But they *aren't* including the costs to the problems they cause as a part of their estimated costs. They're insisting that someone else pay those costs.)

  • Re:energy (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ArcherB (796902) on Tuesday May 11, 2010 @11:52AM (#32171218) Journal

    Well, since hippies hate nuclear (because of a very small chance of a meltdown), wind (because it kills birds), hydroelectric (because it interferes with fish), solar (because it's ugly/turtles/godknowswhy), coal (because it's dirty), oil (because it's dirty), gas (because it's dirty), geothermal (because it requires you to dig holes), and even wood (because you have to cut trees and make smoke), why don't we just cut the middle men and burn hippies for power?

    Your ideas fascinate me. Where can I sign up for your newsletter?

    Actually, I think the goal is not saving the earth, turtles or fishes. I believe that they hate the fact that someone, somewhere is using more than someone else. Actually, it's not even the fact that someone has more than someone else so much as it is the fact that someone has more than they do. If they can drive all of mankind back to caves and trees, we'll all be equal. It doesn't matter if we are all equally impoverished and equally miserable. All that matters is that no one is getting more than they are. I sincerely believe that is the goal.

    Case in point. []

The human mind ordinarily operates at only ten percent of its capacity -- the rest is overhead for the operating system.