Gulf Oil spill: nightmare over?

guardian.co.uk, Sunday 18 July 2010 18.45 BST

When the history books come to be written about America’s worst environmental disaster, Sunday 18 July may be seen as the day the cry went up that the oil had permanently stopped spewing into the Gulf of Mexico.

But things being the way they are, the announcement came in a cryptic statement from BP that was so shrouded in techno-garble and caveats that its huge significance was perilously close to being lost. “Right now there is no target set to open the well back up to flow,” said Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer, adding: “We’re hopeful that if the encouraging signs continue that we’ll be able to continue the integrity test all the way to the point that we get the well killed.”

Given their importance, Suttles’ words deserve to be translated into plain English. Tests over the weekend on the new cap placed over the broken well suggested that it was working, there were no leaks, the flow had been stopped and – wonder of wonders – it might stay that way until the well is finally and conclusively plugged, probably next month.

It is a sign of how cautious the main parties have become in the wake of numerous publicity gaffes that nobody was prepared even to hint that the nightmare of oil billowing into the clean waters of the Gulf was over.

I can understand how they feel – I’ve become so accustomed to them trying things that don’t work that it’s hard to believe that this time they might have finally stopped the leak.

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5 comments on “Gulf Oil spill: nightmare over?
  1. paul walter says:

    The teev news mentioned that BP are already liable to fines of twenty billion dollars and still climbing.
    What I would like to know is, the ultimate cost of it all, both in lost production and loss of refinable oil, plus clean up and compensation costs, plus the value of resources lost apart from oil.
    Any clues, anyone, as to where to start ( remembering that the well is only temporarily capped with more work and expense required), as to ascertaining a meaningful inventory on the cost of the incident?

  2. Elise says:

    Not over yet, tigtog. The oil can leak other places than just up the tubing to the wellhead.

    Putting a sealing cap on the well means that the full pressure will be felt in the well, which could have more than one weak point.

    Given the high probability that they had a bad cement job, then there is the possibility that the oil can find its way through fractures in the formation, and travel some distance in the sediments before coming to the sea floor. This can occur at some distance from the wellhead. I was musing about this to better half on the weekend. One would wish that pessimistic predictions would never come true.

    Regrettably, it already seems that they have seepage elsewhere, some distance from the well. There may be a weak or permeable layer in the sediments, or the drilling may have fractured the formation out to some distance, creating an alternative path for the oil to reach the surface.

    I reckon they will need to block the seepage at source, rather than where it comes to the sea floor, or they could be chasing their tails with new leaks popping up as fast as they try to plug them. The best/only permanent solution is probably a good job with the relief well, and a better cement job this time.

    The troubles are not over yet. Least of all for the marine life and fishermen that depend on it.

  3. Elise says:

    Paul @2, my pessimistic prediction is that BP could go the way of Union Carbide after the Bhopal disaster, or Enron after massive fraud, etc. The lawyers will probably make a meal of BP, regardless of what the political leaders try to do to stop it.

    Exxon seem to have escaped that fate after Exxon Valdez, by having a big legal team and deep pockets to fund a long-term denial campaign. It may have helped that the Exxon spill was in a more remote and less populated area, so less money available to fund class-action suits. I don’t fancy BP’s chances of trying the same trick.

    Hope the guys who encouraged the risk-taking atmosphere in BP have taken a moment to reflect on the true cost of down-side risk, against the savings they made from their short-cuts to safe practice? Makes you wonder about the true value of their self-acclaimed risk management policy…net minus how many billions???

  4. akn says:

    One would hope that the citizens of the US might now pay vigorous attention to general ecological issues including to the Niger Delta but I’m not holding my breath.

  5. tigtog says:

    NYT: Seep in Gulf Likely Not Tied to Well, Officials Say

    I’m feeling a Christine Keeler moment coming on.

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