Deepwater disaster demands slick thinking

The Engineer

The catastrophic fallout from the Deepwater Horizon disaster is a stark reminder that the offshore oil and gas industry operates at the very limits of technology and safety.

Almost three weeks after the BP-leased rig sank following an explosion that killed 11 workers, around a million barrels of oil a day continue to gush into the Gulf of Mexico.

So far, efforts to plug the leak and clean up the ocean have met with limited success.  Ships equipped with skimming equipment have removed around 100,000 barrels of oily water, but efforts to place a giant containment dome over the leak failed earlier this week. BP – which accepts responsibility for the clean-up – is now considering installing a smaller device that would funnel oil to the surface.

The company has even suggested that it might attempt a rather desperate sounding measure known as a “junk-shot”, in which  a bizarre mixture containing shredded tires, golf balls and human hair is pumped into the well in an effort to plug the leak.

Worryingly, there are also emerging environmental concerns that the dispersant used to break up the oil slicks may be more environmentally damaging than the oil itself. Some critics have claimed that these chemicals – which are being both dumped from the air and pumped beneath the sea to the source of the leak, could have a catastrophic effect on sea-life and  also lead to far wider spread of oil.

Frustrated by the lack of progress, the US government has threatened to lift the cap on compensation that the party deemed responsible for the leak would have to pay. Not surprisingly, the companies under the spotlight are all pointing the finger at each other. BP blames Transocean, which owns the rig, for the failure of a critical blowout valve, while Transocean says as the operator BP is responsible. Meanwhile Halliburton, which cemented the well, has also come under fire.

Given the huge profits made by the offshore oil and gas industry, and the sector’s proud record of rapidly developing engineering solutions that work in the most unforgiving environments it seems astonishing that engineers are still struggling to contain the leak, and that the technology required to address this kind of problem had not been thought through before.

The problem it seems, is that this eventuality was simply not planned for. Indeed it’s emerged this week that US oil industry regulator the Minerals Management Service had failed to require the installation of a backup shutdown system. Even more surprising is the news that shortly after President Obama took office BP received a waiver on the usual requirement to carry out a detailed environmental analysis. A hang-over from the Bush administration’s gung-ho approach to exploration perhaps?

The longer the blame game rumbles on and the longer oil continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico, the bleaker the future looks for deepwater oil exploration. And with deep areas of the ocean bed thought to harbour some of our planet’s largest remaining reserves of oil, it’s a crisis that could have profound implications for our relationship with fossil fuels.

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