Potential for Future Disasters
A dragon, in the form of high pressure, exists in
every deep water oil reservoir. The fiercest dragons
lurk in the deepest reservoirs. All deep water oil
reservoirs have the potential for a disastrous
There are about 4,000 oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. Some are on stilts, some float but are anchored in place and some are dynamically positioned. But nearly all the new projects have deep reservoirs under deep water.
Can a Deepwater Horizon scale disaster happen again? The short answer is yes, but a more complete explanation follows.
Why Disastrous Blowouts Occur
The dragon in the reservoir under the Deepwater
Horizon was held in check by 3 miles of heavy mud.
But the mud and the riser had to be removed before
the Deepwater Horizon could be moved to drill another
well. Before this was done, the lower part of the
well was filled with cement. The dragon would be held
in check after the cement set. Then the mud was
replaced by sea water. The blowout occurred when the
dragon blew past the not-quite-set cement. The blind
shear ram failed to cut the drill pipe and the dragon
The Ixtoc blowout occurred in a somewhat similar way. The drillbit encountered unconsolidated sand which allowed heavy mud to escape down the hole, a sort of upside down blowout. The operators of the oil rig knew they were in trouble when mud stopped coming up. They countered by pumping all the mud they had down the hole. When the mud ran out, they activated the blind shear ram and ran for cover. The blind shear ram failed to cut the drill pipe and the dragon escaped.
The Easy Oil is Gone
(It is necessary to introduce a few oil industry
acronyms and concepts.
Oil in place (OIP) means the all the oil in a reservoir.
The amount of oil that can be delivered to the refinery is the
recoverable oil. The product of OIP and the recovery factor defines
the amount of recovered oil. Recovery factors range from 15 to 60
The Deepwater Horizon drilled into the relatively small (50 million barrels OIP), deep (over 3 miles) Macondo Prospect because that was the best place to drill. Of course an oil company is going to drill in places which maximize profit. But the best places are mostly drilled. Only the difficult places are left. This is true in the Gulf of Mexico as well as the whole Earth. Here are a few examples;
The Thunderhorse PDQ floating oil rig was designed to tap the Thunderhorse oil field, the largest oil field in the Gulf, is located 150 miles from New Orleans. It is a prize because it holds a billion barrels of OIP. But the prize was difficult to snatch because is is 4.5 miles down. The Thunderhorse PDQ successfully tapped the prize in 2008. Initially, Thunderhorse produced at 250,000 barrels per day, but it has since slowed. A billion barrels of OIP is nice, but what counts is the amount of recoverable oil and that is yet to be determined.
The Thunderhorse PDQ is twice as big as the Deepwater Horizon and nine times more expensive, although they look similar. Here, the Thunderhorse PDQ is being transported by the Blue Marlin, the big sister of the Black Marlin.
Currently, Thunder Horse is the largest production site in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Thunderhorse oil field is owned jointly by BP and ExxonMobil. Here is a picture of the Thunderhorse oil rig after Hurricane Dennis in 2005. The pronounced list is due to a plumbing error. A check valve was installed backwards. Fortunately, Thunderhorse was not connected to an oil well at the time.
The cost of the Thunderhorse PDQ and the technical difficulties of tapping the Thunderhorse oil field are both immense. Whether it is economic to drill ultra deep oil reservoirs in the Gulf of Mexico is yet to be determined.
The Hibernia oil platform stands in the Atlantic Ocean 196 miles from land and not far from where the Titanic sank. It does not float. It sits on the sea floor. It relies on its weight of 1.2 million tons to resist storms and icebergs. Its oil tanks hold oil enough to fill the Exxon Valdez 5 times. It costs 5 billion dollars. It is well worth it because it taps a reservoir 24 times bigger than the Macondo Prospect.
The Hibernia platform has the additional danger of an iceberg collision. Also, there is no possibility of a relief well to stop a blowout.
The Liberty oil field is inconveniently located off the North coast of Alaska. BP has an ingenious plan to tap it. They propose building an 32 acre island 1.5 miles off the coast. A "super oil rig" is built on the island which is capable of drilling 3 miles down and 8 miles sideways to reach the Liberty oil field. This picture comes from a New York Times article article which discusses the risks involved.
The 8 mile length of the pipe to the oil field magnifies the "kick" problem as pointed out in the New York Times article.
The Tupi oil field is located 160 miles off the coast of Brazil. At 5 to 8 billion barrels, its size is comparable to Prudhoe Bay or North Sea oil. But it will be difficult to produce because the ocean is 6,600 feet deep and the oil is a further 16,000 feet.
The Era of Difficult Oil Begins
Virtually all new projects in the Gulf of Mexico are difficult and pose
dangers to the environment. The projects
described above are not cherry picked to emphasize
the difficulties. They are typical. These descriptions serve as
examples of how astonishingly good modern methods of
finding oil are. There aren't many places for oil to
The oil projects described above could be described as ingenious, but they could also be described as desperate, and a sign the Age of Oil is drawing to a close.
The oil projects described above could all be described as dangerous. They all have the potential of producing Deepwater Horizon scale disasters. This potential is typical of new projects. It is possible to predict more disasters.
It is not easy to drill for oil in places like Iraq, Kazakhstan and Nigeria for reasons needing no explanation. The difficulties of producing oil from Athabasca oil sands, not to mention the environmental costs, are well known. Efforts to produce oil from shale continue without success.
A Few Random Thoughts
Seven out of eight of the largest corporations on
earth are oil companies. Walmart is number three, BP
is number four. Any major oil company could become
involved in a Deepwater Horizon scale disaster. They
are all strongly driven by the profit motive. That is
not to exonerate BP--they may be the worst of the
bunch. BP is known within the industry for aggressiveness and
risk taking. BP has been seriously hurt by the blowout.
BP's stock has lost half of its value and the
dividend has been cut. BP stock appears in retirement
portfolios of millions around the world. They are the
ones actually paying for the disaster.
In my view, BP should pay for the cleanup and it should compensate victims. And BP should be fined. My wild guess for the cost of all this is 100 billion dollars. BP can survive paying this amount.
The obvious fact is that BP was on a quest for oil when the blowout occurred, yet the price of oil was not affected. The market must believe that BP will not pay and/or that blowouts will not happen again. Yet, obviously, the blowout will make oil more expensive.
It is safe to say that anyone reading this is an oil user. We live in the Age of Oil. It is hard to say it, but we oil users caused the disaster.
One final thought. We have magical birds called loons here in Wisconsin. They overwinter in the Gulf of Mexico. Loons, like pelicans, are diving birds. We hope they come back next spring.
One more final thought. The people of the United States and Europe ignore the continuous environmental catastrophe in the Niger delta. Problems there dwarf the Gulf oil spill.
A Personal Note.
If you have read the above, thank you. I invite
comments or questions. I would especially like to
hear about errors in fact or in logic. E-mail me