Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Earth

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."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Methane-Trapping Ice May Have Triggered Gulf Spill

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

    by BlueKitties (1541613) <bluekitties616@gmail.com> 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 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.

      • Re:Spill baby spill! (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Shakrai (717556) on Monday May 10, 2010 @07:42PM (#32164190) Journal

        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."

        I wonder if that can be harnessed as an energy source?

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Dragoniz3r (992309)
          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 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.
            • Like you said at first, they ALSO require pressure. And they're shock-sensitive. Shock, minimal temperature changes, or minimal pressure changes can make them go back into gaseous form.

              There is a ton of energy available in this form, throughout the oceans. It's a concern that the instability of these methane structures could actually cause some rapid climate change, if they're disturbed by warming oceans, current changes, etc.

              That same instability makes them damn hard to mine for energy. A number of companies and research organizations have tried, but so far, everyone that's disturbed them has watched as the methane bubbled up to the surface, and escaped into the air.
            • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

              by b4upoo (166390)

              I do not get why lowering a containment dome over the leak allowed freezing. I don't know what an oil and water mix can take to freeze solid. If that is the issue why not simply add a heater inside that container?
              Further why do we not have containers poised above every valve cluster in case of urgent need? Why was this never required? Why were the shut off valves not tested every day or two? And why not simply bolt some lead on

        • by binarylarry (1338699) on Monday May 10, 2010 @08:05PM (#32164344)

          ....need more vespene gas?

      • Re:Spill baby spill! (Score:5, Informative)

        by jbengt (874751) on Monday May 10, 2010 @08:32PM (#32164508)

        Article says "Drillers have long been wary of methane hydrates because they can pack a powerful punch.. . . " . . . Doesn't exactly sound like this was a new and unforseen problem, . . .

        The drilling is taking place in deeper and deeper water. Deep waters have high pressure and the low temperature. Both of these make formation of methane clathrates more likely. The high pressures a mile beneath the ocean surface also make it easier to dissolve gas in the oil. Avoiding pipeline blockages and explosive decompressions is not trivial. To the extent the industry is pushing the limits of what has been done before (and they are pushing limits of depth) they can be surprised by details that they haven't encountered before.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by ormondotvos (936952)
          The gas to oil ratio in that well is 3000 to one. Not a typo.
      • Re:Spill baby spill! (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Lars T. (470328) <Lars.TraegerNO@SPAMgooglemail.com> on Monday May 10, 2010 @08:48PM (#32164600) Journal

        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.

        But it does sound like a sudden rapid expansion. And it sure does sound that the problem was hastily ignored, because preventing it simply cost too much money.

        The good news is that there will be a charity concert in New Orleans, so BP won't have to pay so much money to their victims.

        • by falconwolf (725481) <falconsoaring_2000 AT yahoo DOT com> on Monday May 10, 2010 @09:07PM (#32164718)

          The good news is that there will be a charity concert in New Orleans, so BP won't have to pay so much money to their victims.

          If it ends up like Vladez oil spill BP won't have to pay anything. More than 20 years later the fish [cnn.com] have not recovered and the fishermen have not been compensated. Heck, oil still persists [adn.com], is still found. Large corporations laugh while going to the bank to make another deposit while the people pay.

          Falcon

          • by mi (197448) <slashdot-2014@virtual-estates.net> on Monday May 10, 2010 @09:37PM (#32164936) Homepage

            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 [csmonitor.com]. 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.

        • Re:Spill baby spill! (Score:5, Interesting)

          by budgenator (254554) on Monday May 10, 2010 @11:43PM (#32165662) Journal

          "This well had been giving some problems all the way down and was a big discovery. Big pressure, *16ppg+ mud weight*. They ran a long string of 7" production casing - not a liner, the confusion arising from the fact that all casing strings on a floating rig are run on drill pipe and hung off on the wellhead on the sea floor, like a "liner". They cemented this casing with lightweight cement containing nitrogen because they were having lost circulation in between the well kicking all the way down. The calculations and the execution of this kind of a cement job are complex, in order that you neither let the well flow from too little hydrostatic pressure nor break it down and lose the fluid and cement from too much hydrostatic. But you gotta believe BP had 8 or 10 of their best double and triple checking everything. On the outside of the top joint of casing is a seal assembly - "packoff" - that sets inside the subsea wellhead and seals. This was set and tested to 10,000 psi, OK. This was the end of the well until testing was to begin at a later time, so a temporary "bridge plug" was run in on drill pipe to set somewhere near the top of the well below 5,000 ft. This is the second barrier, you always have to have 2, and the casing was the first one. It is not know if this was actually set or not. At the same time they took the 16+ ppg mud out of the riser and replaced it with sea water so that they could pull the riser, lay it down, and move off. When they did this, they of course took away hydrostatic on the well. But this was OK, normal, since the well was plugged both on the inside with the casing and on the outside with the tested packoff. But something turned loose all of a
          sudden, and the conventional wisdom would be the packoff on the outside of the casing. Gas and oil rushed up the riser; there was little wind, and a gas cloud got all over the rig. When the main inductions of the engines got a whiff, they ran away and exploded. Blew them right off the rig. This set everything on fire. A similar explosion in the mud pit / mud pump room blew the mud pumps overboard. Another in the mud sack storage room, sited most unfortunately right next to the living quarters, took out all the interior walls where everyone was hanging out having - I am not making this up - a party to celebrate 7 years of accident free work on this rig. 7 BP bigwigs were there visiting from town. In this sense they were lucky that the only ones lost were the 9 rig crew on the rig floor and 2 mud engineers down on the pits." TRANSOCEAN DEEPWATER HORIZON EXPLOSION-A DISCUSSION OF WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED? [drillingahead.com] Reply by Garry Denke on May 4, 2010 at 6:06pm

          The "kicks" he's talking about are pressure surges from gas in the well, so everybody knew what the well was doing because it was kicking all the way down, so no surprises there. The well was drilled, Halliburton was contracted to cement the casing which was done and tested and they were pumping out the mud from the riser pipe and filling it with seawater when the explosion occurred. The riser pipes is rated for 15,000 PSI and have a 3.5 million pound load-carrying capacity, between these riser pipes and the blowout preventer is a connector device rated for 7 million foot-pounds of bending load capacity. Right now this riser pipe comes out of the well head goes up 1500 feet and is bent over and the free end is now buried in the seabed. I don't see where they were cutting costs too much. Deepwater Horizon would probably have disconnected from the well and moved on in a day or two if there hadn't been an explosion.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Loki_1929 (550940)

        Our options are as follows:

        1) Continue drilling and have an accident every few decades
        2) Switch to wind/solar with all-electric vehicles immediately and pay about 5000% of world GDP in the next 10 years doing it and 3 - 5x current energy prices thereafter
        3) Switch to an all-Amish life
        4) Work on a gradual transition to cleaner and more sustainable energy sources by continuing to utilize what we have and what works while developing new stuff that actually works

        You seem to be advocating options 2 or 3. Some pe

        • 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 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.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Anenome (1250374)

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

        • 1) Continue drilling and have an accident every few decades
          2) Switch to wind/solar with all-electric vehicles immediately and pay about 5000% of world GDP in the next 10 years doing it and 3 - 5x current energy prices thereafter
          3) Switch to an all-Amish life
          4) Work on a gradual transition to cleaner and more sustainable energy sources by continuing to utilize what we have and what works while developing new stuff that actually works

          You forgot

          5) Invest in a comprehensive expansion of nuclear power, electric

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by ultranova (717540)

        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,

  • Since these methane hydrates contain a significant amount of methane (i.e. natural gas), in the years since it was discovered that there are large deposits of them, they've periodically been touted as something we should actively drill for, as e.g. in this 1997 PopSci article [google.com].

    • 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.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by LockeOnLogic (723968)
      Yea cause that's just what we need, another source of fossil fuel to further delay action on the energy crisis.
      • by mr_mischief (456295) on Monday May 10, 2010 @07:49PM (#32164230) Journal

        If it's methane gas that will otherwise be freed to the atmosphere, it's much better to burn that for fuel than to free it and drill for oil under it. Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, by about 80 times.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by clustermonkey (320537)

        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

        • 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.

        • 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.

          Only if that were true, but it's not. Those who use fossil fuels get to pass on the external costs to others. One way to make polluters pay is by taxing carbon. But of course some complain that that harms businesses or people. Are you one of them?

          And that's only half of it. Fossil fuel supporters complain about how alternative energy sources get subsidies. Well, guess what? So do fossil fuels. Here's Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) bragging about how his bill 'Has Huge Subsidies For Clean Coal! Huge!' [youtube.com]. He starts by saying the Nuclear Power industry has received $145 Billion in federal subsides over the years. But combined solar and wind have only gotten $5 billion. In another video the CEO of Chevron agrees to lobby with Sierra Club to end coal subsidies [grist.org]. Those subsidies for nuclear power above? The Freemarket CATO institute reprinted a "Forbes" article printed on 26 November 2007 about how the Nulear Power Industry is Hooked on Subsidies [cato.org]. Among other things it says "How do France (and India, China and Russia) build cost-effective nuclear power plants? They don't. Governmental officials in those countries, not private investors, decide what is built. Nuclear power appeals to state planners, not market actors." In 2007 [treehugger.com] in the US all alternative energy sources including the $3.0 Billion corn based ethanol got, when corn is not a good feedstock for ethanol, got $4.875 Billion dollars. Subtract that $3 Billion and geothermal, solar, wind, and others only got $1.875 Billion. Coal got $3.760 Billion. Itself, oil [issues.org] has gotten the majority of federal energy incentives.

          What is happening is the government and not a free market is picking winners and losers. The government should end all subsidies, including allowing industries to pass external costs to others, and let the different players compeat.

          Falcon

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by interkin3tic (1469267)

      Since these methane hydrates contain a significant amount of methane (i.e. natural gas), in the years since it was discovered that there are large deposits of them

      The article says 168 liters of methane from 1 liter of methane hydrates... I have no idea how much methane hydrates would be released, or how much methane would have to be released before it became an issue, but that sounds like a lot of methane and I've heard methane is quite a bit better at soaking up heat from solar rays than carbon dioxide.

      So, is that a concern, or would that just be a small drop in the bucket?

      • by Anonymous Coward

        So, is that a concern, or would that just be a small drop in the bucket?

        Read up on the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum [wikipedia.org]. The whole world was so warm, there was basically no ice anywhere on the surface (maybe some at extreme depths), and the Arctic Ocean was warm enough for alligators. One theory [wikipedia.org] for why temperatures spiked so high has to do with a runaway positive feedback loop, where rising temperatures cause clathrates to melt out, which causes more heating.

        So no, not just a drop in the bucket.

        Cheers,

    • by QuantumG (50515) *

      That was before the global warming hysteria started. Now any discussion of peak oil is irrelevant unless it is being used as justification for switching to more environmentally friendly power sources (or as just a reason why we should all go live in trees). There was a time when peak oil was an economic argument, but now it is firmly a doom-and-gloom, we're-killing-the-earth argument.

               

  • "would have to tread even more lightly as it pushes farther and farther offshore in search of energy"

    Is there a correlation between the amount of methane hydrates and the distance from shore?

  • Arctic? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by RobertM1968 (951074) on Monday May 10, 2010 @07:03PM (#32163854) Homepage Journal
    I wonder how they've avoided the problems up around Alaska or other places where it's actually cold enough for there to be ice - much less methane trapping ice.
    • Re:Arctic? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Trepidity (597) <(gro.hsikcah) (ta) (todhsals-muiriled)> on Monday May 10, 2010 @07:13PM (#32163944)

      This doesn't really answer why it's not a problem in Alaska, but the temperatures aren't actually much different. Alaskan offshore drilling is in relatively shallow water, which at those latitudes is somewhere in the low single digits C once you get below the ice pack; while this operation in the Gulf was at about 1700 meters depth, where the temperatures are also in the low single digits C. (There's lots of complicating factors, but this graph [blogspot.com] of depth v. temperature for three different latitudes gives an idea.) There's differences in pressure, which might matter, but also big differences in geology.

    • Re:Arctic? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by LehiNephi (695428) on Monday May 10, 2010 @07:26PM (#32164078) Journal
      Hydrates require both high pressure and low temperature to form, along with the proper composition of water and methane. Take away any of the three, and hydrates disappear. Typically the gas/water/oil is warm enough when it reaches the surface that hydrates do not form, and by the time it cools down enough, it has already been processed so that the water and methane are no longer mixed.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Albinoman (584294)

      I've been wondering how warm oil is coming out of ground. Surely the oil coming out from such deep depths and with all the friction from the sand it carries along the way, the oil should be pretty hot.

    • Re:Arctic? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Nebvin (570587) on Monday May 10, 2010 @09:26PM (#32164878) Homepage

      I wonder how they've avoided the problems up around Alaska or other places where it's actually cold enough for there to be ice - much less methane trapping ice.

      I'm a gas field operator in Alberta, and hydrates can be a massive problem, especially when the wells are not big enough to justify dehydrating the gas at the well site and has to flow to a central facility. Since I operate a sour gas field (contains hydrogen sulfide) the problem is even worse. At our normal field pressures the gas starts to hydrate at around 20 C (68 F) if we are not taking extra steps to control it. It is one of the biggest causes of equipment damage and injuries/deaths. I have never operated oil wells so I am not knowledgeable about how they effect production of oil, but I have read about deaths due to mishandling hydrates at the wellhead of oil wells in Alberta and BC. To reduce the rate that they form, we inject chemicals such as methanol into the gas, and have line heaters at regular intervals along the pipeline. They are a regular problem and danger.

  • by 3seas (184403) on Monday May 10, 2010 @07:05PM (#32163870) Journal

    Don't cha just gotta wonder with ocean floor earthquakes why we havn't have more natural oil spills in the ocean?

    • by the eric conspiracy (20178) on Monday May 10, 2010 @07:12PM (#32163932)

      Of course we do. The Gulf is said to leak 2000 barrels a day naturally.

      Some natural leaks in the gulf of California are even bigger.

      • by capnkr (1153623) on Monday May 10, 2010 @08:29PM (#32164482)
        ..and 2000 *barrels* @42 gal/per = 84,000 *gallons* per day. (Barrels to gallons conversion made because otherwise the numbers seem so disparate...).

        The California seafloor leaks are much larger. I don't think they know exactly how much, but this source [isa.org] quotes "8-80 Exxon Valdez spills", I would guess they mean annually. That's somewhere between 86.4 and 864 million gallons.
        • by Chris Burke (6130) on Monday May 10, 2010 @09:04PM (#32164712) Homepage

          The California seafloor leaks are much larger. I don't think they know exactly how much, but this source quotes "8-80 Exxon Valdez spills", I would guess they mean annually. That's somewhere between 86.4 and 864 million gallons.

          They're talking about the total volume of oil residue contained in the down-stream sediments in the seabed, deposited over an unknown period of time. And it seems like they're talking equivalent pre-biodegraded volume, but I'm not sure.

          The statement about the rate of seepage was slightly further down:

          There is an oil spill everyday at Coal Oil Point (COP), the natural seeps off Santa Barbara, where 20-25 tons of oil have leaked from the seafloor each day for the last several hundred thousand years.

          25 tons/day * 7.3 bbl/ton * 42 gal/bbl = 7665 gallons/day.

          That's tiny compared to this spill at 200,000 gal/day.

    • by Rijnzael (1294596)
      Possibly because if there were oil near faults, it would be boiled and/or ignited (oxygen permitting). It's entirely possible that there are oil deposits near these places, but the proximate volcano would likely grab our attention more so. But IANAG (I am not a Geologist).
    • http://news.slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=1639434&cid=32078300 [slashdot.org]

      Whether or not the answer is any good is another matter entirely - I wouldn't know.

    • by Daetrin (576516)
      The short answer is that we do have natural oil spills in the ocean. It's at a comparatively small amounts leaking through indirect cracks spread over wide areas and over long periods of time, so nature is able to adapt to it. That's as opposed to a giant hole drilled directly into the oil field allowing it to gush out at a rapid rate in a very small area. Believe it or not concentration and/or intensity of something often makes a big different on the effect it has. Take a look at little kids setting insect
    • by Huntr (951770) on Monday May 10, 2010 @07:28PM (#32164096)
      The oil deposits are about 20000 ft below the sea floor. If there were an earthquake that could unleash a significant amount of oil from 4 miles down, i.e., similar to this or other man-made oil disasters, we might have bigger problems to worry about.
  • 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.

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by maxume (22995)

        Step 1: Use your diesel tractor to plow a field and plant some hay.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by h4rr4r (612664)

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

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Shakrai (717556)

          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 Delwin (599872) *
            so far.

            I'd lay odds that orbital solar can bring down a hell of a lot more energy with a lot less mess and risk than nuclear.
          • by h4rr4r (612664)

            So use it. I fully support Wind, Solar, Tidal and clean nukes. By clean nukes I mean ones good at breeding fuel, so the waste ratio is lower.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by fwr (69372)
      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
      • by je ne sais quoi (987177) on Monday May 10, 2010 @07:33PM (#32164128)
        "Wacko environmentalists" have absolutely nothing to do with it. The big problem with doing that is, unfortunately, there's precious little oil left close to shore. You could fill the entire U.S. coast so full of wells it looks like a pin cushion and it would hardly make a dent in the oil price. You can see the chart right here [wordpress.com], U.S. oil production has been on a steady decline for decades and will never, ever recover, it doesn't matter how many wells you drill. Even the discovery of the north slope of Alaska and building the pipeline never got the U.S. production to recover from its 1972 peak. ANWR? Forget about it [blogspot.com], ANWR's a blip that's laughably too little, too late. This is why the Republican chant of "drill baby drill" is so ridiculous, drilling is pointless without oil to find. We've used up most of the oil near shore, which is why BP was drilling in 5000 feet of water, it has nothing to do with environmentalists.
      • The amazing thing is, if we allowed ocean drilling much closer to shore we wouldn't have these problems.

        From what I've read, BP or one of their partners were to blame, this could have been avoided where it was, but corners were cut, regulations were eased, etc. I'm not convinced the way to prevent these things is to let those same idiots drill closer to the shore. I think the way to prevent these things is to not have idiots drilling anywhere.

        ironically, it is the wacko environmentalists that are to blame for this situation

        You have some odd views there. Environmentalists don't want drilling -anywhere-. They're not to blame.

    • Because there is a very large, very powerful industry whose best interests involve drilling.
    • by morgan_greywolf (835522) on Monday May 10, 2010 @07:25PM (#32164070) Homepage Journal

      And, more importantly, why do we want to make drilling off the cost of Florida legal?

      I'll tell you why: it's the same reason we aren't all driving electric cars. Because the oil industry, by hook and crook, has done everything it can to make damned sure we're totally dependent on them for our transportation needs, such as buying up all the patents to make sure NIMH and Li-Ion batteries couldn't be used in cars, lobbying hard against ZEV-promoting initiatives, etc. See Who Killed the Electric Car? [wikipedia.org].

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by maxume (22995)

        Cobasys is no longer controlled by Chevron (it is jointly owned by Samsung and Bosch):

        http://www.cobasys.com/investors/ [cobasys.com]

        They will sell you nimh battery packs:

        http://www.cobasys.com/products/transportation.shtml [cobasys.com]

    • by Trepidity (597) <(gro.hsikcah) (ta) (todhsals-muiriled)> on Monday May 10, 2010 @07:29PM (#32164104)

      Oil is really valuable, so there's a very high bar for the monetary cost of disaster to be not worth it, on a purely profits-vs-cleanup-costs basis.

      Some back-of-the-envelope estimates. Say this disaster ends up costing BP $10 billion. Say that any given rig has a 1% chance of causing a disaster of that magnitude. So we assign a $100 million amortized cost per rig, to cover the "chance this rig will catastrophically blow up". Is it still worth drilling in that case? Well, it actually barely changes the economics at all: these deep-water wells cost about $500-600 million to drill and put into production to begin with. So add to $100m to that and total costs are basically still on the same order of magnitude.

      In particular, these rigs can produce a lot of oil. BP's Thunder Horse rig in the gulf produces 250,000 barrels per day. Even if they make only $10/barrel operating profit (probably a low estimate), that's $2.5m per day in profits from the well, i.e. almost a billion dollars per year. Unless fully 10% of such wells incur $10b catastrophic cleanup costs every year, BP comes out ahead.

      • 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 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 frank_adrian314159 (469671) on Monday May 10, 2010 @09:08PM (#32164732) Homepage

            I think making them pay the actual total cost of cleanup might be a better solution.

            Unfortunately, their liability was limited to $75M under the 1990 Oil Pollution Act [epa.gov]. Of course, wanting to close the barn door after the horse has burned it down, the White House now wants to increase that to $10B [al.com], a figure slightly more in line with something that would make an oil company slow down and think about how shoddily their operations are being run [salon.com].

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by Chris Burke (6130)

              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.

      • This is an excellent post. To put it another way though, they certainly have a monetary incentive to cap the well: if the well really is leaking 5000 barrels of oil a day, that's 1.8 million barrels per year. At the current crude oil price of $77/barrel [bloomberg.com], that's $140 million a year they're losing by having all this oil leak out into the gulf since a lot of their development costs are paid for (i.e., drilling the well). Of course, that 5000 barrels/day estimate is malarky, the WSJ is putting it at more li
    • by fredmosby (545378)
      Even with the disasters that have happened, in terms of the cost to the human race, it's a lot less damaging than fighting a war to get oil. We should continue to develop new technologies that don't rely on oil. But until those technologies can replace oil offshore drilling is our best alternative.
  • This is why government needs to step in and make industry take actions which affect the bottom line adversely but are in the public interest. Will the industry suffer and lose profits from added safety regulation and oversight? Of course. But those profits are unfairly being funded by the damage and suffering resulting from this kind of reckless corperate activity.
    • by LehiNephi (695428)
      It's really a matter of tradeoffs. Stricter regulation means higher costs, which get passed on to the rest of the economy. Sure, safety can be increased, but at what cost? And how much damage would we prevent? We're really bumping up against the law of diminishing returns.

      Think of it this way: does one major disaster every thirty years (if you take Exxon Valdez plus BP Deepwater Horizon and extrapolate) outweigh thirty years of economic growth made possible by cheap energy? Considering the sheer quan
    • 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 [noaa.gov], 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.
  • Better Article (Score:5, Informative)

    by bill_mcgonigle (4333) * on Monday May 10, 2010 @07:19PM (#32164010) Homepage Journal

    This one has more detail [myway.com], and is actually really-well written. Really, an AP story with some investigative journalism. Kudos, guy, you're making your co-workers look bad. :)

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by nbauman (624611)

      I agree. That was the best story of dozens that I read on the entire subject.

      There were 2 reasons for that: (1) Schwartz and Weber interviewed Robert Bea http://www.ce.berkeley.edu/~bea/ [berkeley.edu] and (2) They were smart enough to understand what Bea was talking about.

      The reason Bea is so brilliant is that (1) He understands the technology thoroughly and (2) He concentrates on the question of why engineers don't do what they know they have to do in order to prevent accidents. Bea does for civil engineering what Feynm

  • 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.
    • by chill (34294)

      Well, it looks like the crew doing the cementing was from Haliburton, so can we call it the Haliburton Spill?

      • by itlurksbeneath (952654) on Monday May 10, 2010 @08:36PM (#32164534) Journal

        And what if it turns out that, in fact, BP broke no regulations, bent no rules and this was simply something that nobody could have for-seen and no safety equipment on the planet could have withstood the pressure released from below the earth's surface? Would it be the Mother Nature spill?

        Also, I don't think a lot of you appreciate the safety culture in an offshore environment for American companies. Safety is number one. Nobody wants to die on the job, nobody wants their actions to cause somebody else's death and no company wants to tell someody's loved one they died on the job. Safety is a very serious thing offshore - for employees and employers. Following procedures, regulations, safety protocols is paramount to everything else.

    • 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 h4rr4r (612664)

        You mean how BP acted during Exxon Valdez? And here again?

        During Exxon Valdez they lied about cleanup equipment and personnel being available, this time they neglected to use safety equipment other governments would have required.

  • That they are treading on thin ice?

  • To me, the underlying cause is that some disconnected individuals in a power hierarchy are taking irresponsible risks playing Russian Roulette with our environment.

    Details on this and against it can be easily researched. If one takes a more distant perspective, it may become more clear - or not - who cares at the moment?

  • 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).

There are never any bugs you haven't found yet.

Working...