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Understanding the BP Blowout and Its Implications

Understanding the BP Blowout and Its Implications

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Published by billwhitefortexas
Bill White explains some basics about well blowouts in deep water and questions that must be answered to minimize the risks of a similar incident in the future.
Bill White explains some basics about well blowouts in deep water and questions that must be answered to minimize the risks of a similar incident in the future.

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Published by: billwhitefortexas on May 04, 2010
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12/16/2012

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Understanding the BP Blowout and Its Implications
 By Bill WhiteYesterday Texas’ Governor referred to an “act of God” when questioned about the blowout on the BP well, and talked about “a big wave coming along at an inopportunetime.” Others who oppose offshore drilling are also claiming humans cannot preventthis kind of catastrophe, and that it is inevitable despite use of the best technology and procedures. These kind of sweeping generalizations are not helpful to determining the path forward for offshore drilling.We all should keep the families of those who lost their lives, and those who are workingnon-stop to contain the spill, in our prayers. I write to explain some basics about well blowouts in deep water and questions that must be answered to minimize the risks of asimilar incident in the future.Everyone in the industry for years has known that the best way to deal with a blowout indeep waters is to prevent it and to have equipment in place on the ocean floor to shut inthe well. Federal and state leadership should require BP, Transocean, and their expertswho have reviewed this situation to make public the details of what happened and the plan and timetable for bringing the well under control.For understandable reasons, most of the public information and planning has centered onefforts to contain the growing oil spill. In the last several days experts working on this
 
 problem have made public several plans to bring the well under control. Many of us believe that successful placement of a subsea containment vessel over one or more of theleaks holds real promise for significantly reducing the flow, although it will requireenormous skill to execute
.
Many good men and women work in the offshore industryand for this company, and no one intended the loss of human life and damage to themarine environment. However, I, and others knowledgeable about the industry havefound insufficient information available about what the responsible companiesnow know concerning the causes of the blowout.Two personal experiences shape my strong belief that we must understand the causes of the blowout to determine how to avoid this situation in the future. First, almost 25 yearsago, a bankruptcy judge and trustee both put me on a team that dealt with one of thelargest onshore blowouts, spewing highly toxic gas. The blowout occurred near Jackson,Mississippi, and the operator was bankrupt, so a new team of experts worked together to bring the well under control after it was a towering inferno for months; I led the groupwhich identified the cause as preventable human error. Second, in the mid-1990s, I ledU.S. Government efforts to begin the closure of the surviving nuclear reactors atChernobyl. Again, we had to identify the causes of the initial failure and release, and itturned out to be a combination of design flaws of the Russian RBMK reactors andegregious human errors. In the first case, the facts showed that sour gas drilling could besuccessfully undertaken with better procedures. In the second, we concluded that thedesign of all of the oldest Soviet reactors posed an enormous risk, and that those reactorsmust be closed.
 
 An expert panel should immediately begin the investigation of what went wrong and howto prevent it, so the public and others can make more informed decisions about the risksof deep offshore drilling.
Blowouts and Well Control
A blowout is an uncontrolled flow of oil and gas, and anything it may bring up with itsuch as water and rock. We find oil and gas deep underground, where the sheer weightof the rock exerts pressure on concentrations of the fluid or gas so it will flow naturally todrilled holes called wells. The industry looks for oil and gas in places where it can flowfrom the pressurized rock into the hole, or “well bore”, and subsequently, to the surface.If the rock is too dense where hydrocarbons are present, then the oil or gas cannotnaturally flow into the well bore and must be stimulated to be economically productive.In the early days of the industry people talked about “gushers” and people celebratedwhen they would experience a big plume of oil spewing out of a completed hole. But asthe whole world’s sensitivity to the environmental risks of hydrocarbon productionincreased, and as people drilled to greater depths, encountering even greater reservoir  pressures, more sophisticated well control technologies were needed to ensure that the oilor gas did not “flow” up the well bore without proper control, assuring that it was safely produced into tanks and processing facilities when it hit the surface.

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