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Some good news but what triggered the Gulf disaster?

Author : Paul Gay

18 May 2010

At last there is some good news from the oil polluted Gulf of Mexico where a drilling rig exploded and sank three weeks ago with the loss of 11 offshore workers. BP has claimed its first success in the battle to control the oil spewing from the damaged well head 5000ft below the surface. By attaching a tube to the broken pipe on the sea bed, the clean up team can collect some of the escaping oil and gas.

Boom protecting Breton National Wildlife refuge near Venice, LA
Boom protecting Breton National Wildlife refuge near Venice, LA

Oil has been spewing into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of at least 5000 barrels per day since April 20th creating a massive oil slick which is threatening the coast lines of the US states of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana and wreaking havoc on wild life and fisheries throughout the Gulf.

BP has now managed to insert a tube into the broken riser, the pipe that had connected the Deepwater Horizon rig to the well-head on the sea bed. A mixture of oil, gas and water is being pumped to the Discoverer Enterprise drilling ship on the surface, which is collecting the oil to separate it from the water, and flaring off the gas.

Warm water and methanol are being pumped down around the tube to prevent the creation of gas hydrate crystals that form in the high pressures of deep water and which hampered previous attempts to capture the escaping oil.

BP, which has taken responsibility for the incident, thinks it is too soon to say how much of the oil was being caught by this method, although the successful insertion of the tube was described by a spokesman as a positive step forward. The company hopes to stop the leak completely by blocking up the well within 10 days. This would involve pumping heavy mud down the well to counteract the pressure of the escaping oil and gas and then cementing it closed.

Not that BP has been sitting idle for the past three weeks. The company has launched a massive cleanup operation involving more than 275 surface vessels, including skimmers, tugs, barges and recovery vessels, to contain and disperse the oil. Numerous aircraft are dropping chemicals onto the slick to disperse the oil and an extensive subsea operation using robotic submarines is attempting to stem the flow of oil from the damaged wellhead. Despite this massive operation, attempts to close safety valves and the application of a 100-tonne steel cofferdam, dropped over the wellhead to collect the oil, have both failed in the extreme conditions of the ocean floor.

Meanwhile, the US authorities are engaged in a Congressional Hearing to apportion blame for the disaster and to decide who pays. The hearing, which will undoubtedly grind on for some time, can only really have one outcome regardless of who was responsible for the incident. The cost to date of the spill response, containment, relief well drilling, commitments to the Gulf Coast States, settlements and federal costs, amounts to about $350 million. Once the compensation claims that will follow, the costs will be into the billions.

And so far, there has been no official mention of the prime cause of the disaster; the explosion that cost the lives of 11 workers and ripped the wellhead pipework from the seabed.

Would it not be a sound idea for the hearing to establish the cause of the explosion as well as weighing the cost of the cleanup?

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