Aardvark and No Play

“aardvark” has a plausible summary of the state of play at the well site. Be sure to click through to the diagram while you read it. I am not saying that everything there is right (I am not qualified to say either way) but it certainly offers some insight into the flavor of the technical problem.

Comment 7 on this Dot Earth article is somewhat simpler, and also tells the story quite well.

Future of Climate – Talk Tomorrow in Houston

If you happen to have time and money on your hands in Houston this weekend, you may want to come hear me talk to the Gulf Coast MENSA regional meeting about future climate scenarios. Because of the nature of the audience, I have allowed myself some fairly wild concepts in the talk.

The talk might be of interest at science fiction conferences and the like. If anybody is interested, let me know.

I’ll post the slides next week.

The event is called SynRG; it’s at

Four Points Sheraton

11065 Katy Freeway

Houston TX, 77024

and I speak at 5 PM on Saturday. (Unfortunately I think they charge a hefty admission fee expecting you to attend the whole weekend event.)

Conflicting Reports re "Top Kill"

Not a bad interview for mass market TV with Dr. Groat below.

He confirms my impression that we aren’t getting a clear prognosis on the “top kill” at this time.

Nobody’s talking much about the period of time between a hypothetical failure here and a successful relief well on a time scale of a few months. Maybe there’s not much that can be done.

We are possibly facing a particularly fierce hurricane season, too, based on the usual heuristics for such things.


Update: The NYTimes quotes an anonymous worker on the scene declaring failure. It’s not clear that this is definitive. Some speculate that BP wants to defer the declaration of failure into the long weekend. (h/t RN: see comments)

Some Spill-Related Conversation at the Oil Drum

Lifted directly from The Oil Drum, and relevant to some of the recent themes here. Emphasis added by me.

Relevant to the shabby sensationalism at NPR and much echoed on green media:

shelburn on May 27, 2010 – 11:22am

AP News release

U.S. Geological Survey Director Dr. Marcia McNutt said Thursday that a government task force estimates that anywhere from 500,000 gallons to a million gallons a day has been leaking.

The new government estimate means at least 19 million gallons and maybe as much as 39 million gallons have leaked in the five weeks since an oil rig exploded and sank.

That would be about 12,000 to 24,000 bpd, way under the previous “scientific” estimates. And it is a range, not a flat number. Looks like the task force may be getting it right. No mention in the press release of the snapshot of time when the estimate was made.

Media of course grabs the number and multiplies by number of days starting 3 or 4 days before the blow out without any adjustment or mention of the flow starting out slow and steadily increasing.

That would make the Purdue number which was supposed to be accurate by +/- 20% off by 75% even using the task force’s high number, 87% using their low number. And he was on the task force. Be interesting if there is any follow up from the media about the overstatements.

It is still a terrible spill, almost certainly surpassing the Exxon Valdez (which may have actually be close to twice as much as Exxon reported) in quantity even if the top kill is successful.

…and right in line with the estimates posted here on TOD. Too bad the press didn’t come here for a little education – they would have been able to ask better questions and provide much better service to the public. I sent NPR a nasty note early on (before the flow-rate controversy) criticizing their superficial coverage, lack of informed analysis, etc. and pointed to the discussions here – not that it did any good…

The gas fraction wasn’t addressed in the press release was it?

One can hope that the report from the task force, when it is finalized, will include estimates of the rate over time from the beginning.

Overall the incident is a hard lesson for all sides. The industry needs to have effective procedures and techniques at the ready to handle repairs and disaster mitigation at depth if deep water drilling is to continue. Spill response needs to be improved. We need to understand what happens to oil released at depth and how it affects the ocean ecosystem. Is use of dispersants really the best of the bad alternatives?

Relevant to the technical competence of the response:

First post, so please forgive my ignorance and delete if inappropriate to this thread. Can anyone tell me why they waited over a month to attempt this top kill?

Mostly Amrita, it’s because the engineering to do this took a very long time to get right. The pressures and other difficulties under the water made this a logistic nightmare–it was unprecedented. Worse, it was a one-shot game–they screwed it up, this thing gushed until the pressure eased.

Thank you, Professor. I appreciate the level heads and technical knowledge on this site. Praying this works…

Unfortunately the media has done a poor job of explaining the timeframe, why, what, and how. It is juicier to report about how the experts don’t know what they are doing, the administration is sitting on their hands and talk about doomsday scenarios. This reporting is flat out wrong in many cases. It would have been much better if real experts and highly knowledgeable individuals like those on this site were the ones covering this.

Re: Shelburn’s “Be interesting if there is any follow up from the media about the overstatements,” place your bets, ladies and gents.

Oil Spill: Two Excellent Charts

While we’re holding our collective breaths about the top kill operation, the oil remains out there. The New York Times has two excellent maps giving a sense of the extent of the damage and the risk.

This one shows the shoreline that has been impacted.

This one shows the development of the floating oil over time. Comparing the daily maps makes it apparent, as I said last week, that much of it is dissipating, so keeping the oil at sea is a good plan, at least insofar as the coastal impact is concerned.

I realize there’s controversy about the booming strategy, but it seems to me that slowing down the progress of the oil to the shore has been a worthwhile proposition.

PS – Information I have just received while composing this is “So far the “top kill” effort, launched Wednesday afternoon by BP engineers, has pumped enough drilling fluid to block oil and gas spewing from the well”.

This doesn’t mark successful completion as I understand it, which admittedly is not that well. I believe they still have yet to kill the pressure at the surface. But it sounds like significant leakage is now, at least for the time being, stopped, and this is an important step to say the least. The prognosis for this amazing repair operation is now looking good.

Update: Here’s the clearest simple explanation of the “top kill” I have seen, and it’s consistent with the above.

Update: NASA time series video; h/t Andrew Sullivan and Houston Chronicle:

Image: clipped from the first New York Times link above

Go Read This, OK?

This one’s for Andy.

I don’t know Al Giordano from Adam, and I don’t know why he calls his site the “Narcosphere” and I don’t think I care. But he gets this so exactly right I’d like to quote the whole thing. That wouldn’t be fair, so here’s a good quote:

Without an easy solution in sight, and with the knowledge sinking in of just how harmful this oil gusher will be to the Gulf of Mexico, its shores, its fishing and tourism and quality of life, a lot of people seem to be screaming that somebody should yell louder and point their fingers harder.

Okay, just this once, I will point fingers. You know who is to blame in addition to BP and the government that allowed this oil rig to be built?

Go follow this link to find the answer to that question, and lots more about how you can help.

Update: My gripe is with people demanding that the mess be undone by Obama. As a commenter on Giordano’s site said, “I worked to elect a president, not a glorious magic dictator.”

Calling this Obama’s Katrina is ridiculous. Nobody expected Bush to reverse the hurricane. They just wanted water, food, medical support on the scene. In this case, everything feasible is being done after the disaster.

It is true that in both cases the disaster was caused by laziness in government administration tracing back to misallocation of resources by government policy. In both cases it was neglect of consequences of foreseeable events.

Update: Brad Johnson has a much sounder case here, when he argues that everything except capping the well should be taken over by the government, regardless of whether the capping operation works. There is a case to be made that BP’s problems aren’t just a matter of bad luck, but of bad process, and that it should therefore be ineligible for government contracts.

Brad’s focus on the “foreignness” of BP rubs me the wrong way, though. It’s not as if Americans expect or want US companies to be treated badly overseas, is it? If Exxon/Mobil had this record, should we treat them differently?

It’s clear that the incentive structure wasn’t sufficient to seriously get a safety-minded culture at BP, or at least at BP America. How best to handle that is interesting.

My view is that large corporations, which should not be considered “persons” for purpose of rights, should for comparable reasons not be considered “persons” for purposes of ethical responsibilities.

That is not to say that BP isn’t liable for damages or penalties. It is to say it is meaningless to get mad at BP; it is not a morally responsible entity. The incentive structure has to somehow go beyond the corporation and to the people who run it.

How? Social pressures and transparency where possible, and well-thought-out regulations and incentives.

It would not be impossible for a concerted effort to succeed in destroying or greatly diminishing BP as an organized entity over this. Would it be a good idea? I don’t know. I think it would depend a lot on how and why this was done.