Addressing critical questions on the causes, effects of the BP oil rig explosion

BY DANIEL CHANG AND JENNIFER LEBOVICH
McClatchy Newspapers

The April 20 rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico has left BP officials and federal, state and local government authorities with an unprecedented ecological and economic disaster. The mission for those involved is extensive. The oil must be capped to keep hundreds of thousands of gallons from continuing to spill in the Gulf. That could take months. Containing the oil spill and cleaning up the oil washing ashore is a massive effort that is expected to require people working from the delicate marshlands of Louisiana to the white-sand beaches of Florida. That could last months, too. The rig explosion also has set off a national debate over the future of offshore oil-drilling. That debate has already begun and could last for years to come. It’s being argued on Capitol Hill in Washington and in the state capitals throughout the Gulf coastal states. Below, we have assembled a list of some of the most pressing questions and answers to this unfolding story.
Q: When did the rig explode and when did it sink? A: The Deepwater Horizon

RICK LOOMIS/LOS ANGELES TIMES/MCT

Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig well swirls in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana on Thursday, May 6, 2010.

Rig disaster players
Companies involved with the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded, creating a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico: World’s third largest oil company, headquartered in London; project operator with a working interest in the well; hired Transocean’s rig to drill the well World’s largest offshore drilling operator, based in Switzerland and Houston; owned and operated the rig
JAMES EDWARDS BATES/BILOXI SUN-HERALD/MCT ASTRID REICKEN/MCT

offshore drilling rig exploded at approximately 10 p.m. on April 20. The rig was located in the Gulf of Mexico, about 45 miles southeast of Venice, La. Of the 126 people on the rig at the time of the explosion, 115 crew members were accounted for. The Coast Guard actively searched for 11 individuals. Search and rescue was suspended at 5 p.m. on April 23. None of the 11 were found. At approximately 10:20 a.m. April 22 the oil rig sank with about 700,000 gallons of diesel fuel. The rig was found on April 23, sunken and upside down approximately 1,500 feet northwest of the blowout preventer.
Q: How much oil is leaking? A: Using satellite images and

Houston-based manufacturer of oil and gas industry equipment; provided the rig with a blowout preventer – a device designed to stop uncontrolled flow of oil or gas – but the part apparently failed to operate

Oilfield services company based in Houston and Dubai; provided several services to the rig, including cementing on the well to stabilize its walls

Justin Main, a volunteer with the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Miss., inspects the body of a sea turtle found dead on the beach in Pass Christian, Miss., on May 2, 2010. An unusually high number of dead sea turtles have been found on beaches in Mississippi recently.

From left, Lamar McKay, president and chairman of BP America Inc., Steven Newman, president and chief executive, Transocean Ltd., and Tim Probert, president, global business lines and chief health, safety and environment officer of Halliburton, testify before the Senate on May 11, 2010.

South Korean company is the world’s largest shipbuilder; built the Deepwater Horizon, completed in 2001

Anadarko, a large, independent, Texas-based petroleum company; has nonoperating interest in the well
Source: Reuters, Hoovers, the companies Graphic: Pat Carr © 2010 MCT

booms and skimming oily water. Controlled burns also have been used to reduce the spread of oil, according to the Unified Area Command, a coalition of federal, state and local government agencies working together with BP and other private parties.
Q: What are the potential environmental impacts from chemical dispersants? A: When the oil spill occurred,

computer models, oceanographers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict the ruptured well 5,000-feet below the surface of the Gulf is gushing about 210,000 gallons of oil a day.
Q: Who is working on plans to stop the leak? A: An international team of

scientists, engineers and oil drilling experts from the government, private industry and academia are working round-the-clock at BP offices in Houston to find a solution to the leaking well. However, BP Group CEO Tony Hayward acknowledged the spill and BP’s efforts to resolve it are unprecedented. “There is an enormous amount of learning going on here because we are doing it for real for the first time,” he said. Kent Wells, a BP senior vice president, compared the efforts to cap the leaking well to ‘‘trying to do heart surgery at 5,000 feet.”
Q: How is the oil leak being capped? A: After failing to place a 78-

P E T T Y O F F I C E R 3 R D C L A S S TO M AT K E S O N / U. S . C O A S T G UA R D / M C T

Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon on April 21, 2010. The rig, located in the Gulf of Mexico about 45 miles southeast of Venice, La., exploded on April 20 at approximately 10 p.m.

ton, 40-foot-tall steel and concrete coffer dam over the largest leak and into the seafloor, BP announced two new efforts. The first is called a “top hat’’ that engineers would try to place over the main leaking pipe. The oil captured inside would then be pumped to a barge. The strategy is similar to BP’s first effort, but the “top hat,” four feet in diameter and five feet long, is only the size of a shed. BP officials said the small size should help avoid the formation of the slush-like hydrates that thwarted the earlier cofferdam effort by clogging its opening and

making it too buoyant to form a watertight seal against the seafloor. To make certain, the “top hat’’ will be warmed with hot water and injected with methanol, a solvent whose use underwater required EPA approval. BP engineers plan to follow that effort with a so-called “junk shot,” which foresees shooting shredded tires, golf balls and knotted rope into the well at high pressure to clog it and stop the flow. That effort won’t be ready for two weeks, however. Engineers said they also want to tap into a section of the damaged pipe, called a riser, and siphon the oil before it reaches the larger rupture. This method is called a “hot tap.” Lastly, BP has begun drilling two relief wells, which most experts consider the best, longterm solution to stopping the

oil spill. The relief wells will intercept the leaking well about 3½ miles below the surface of the Gulf. Engineers would then inject cement to seal the leaking well. However, the effort will take about 90 days to complete while the oil spill grows larger.
Q: How many states are affected? A: Four states are in the poten-

the U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency authorized BP to use chemical dispersants on the surface of the water. BP also was authorized to conduct tests using dispersants underwater, at the source of the leak. The effects of those dispersants on the environment are still widely unknown, however. Evidence from spills treated with dispersants show dispersion of oil can reduce overall environmental impacts by limiting damage at the sea surface and shore. However, dispersants also can increase impacts on the upper 30 feet of the water column because that is the area where the oil breaks up.
Q: What is the estimated economic impact on the Gulf Coast states? A: Without knowing the extent

Commerce, Interior, and the Environmental Protection Agency have coordinated the federal response and overseen BP’s response. The government has set up 14 staging areas in four states — Mississippi, Florida, Alabama and Louisiana — to help protect the coast line. Authorities say more than 460 vessels are responding on-site, including skimmers, tugs, barges, and recovery vessels to assist in containment and cleanup efforts — in addition to dozens of aircraft, remotely operated vehicles, and multiple mobile offshore drilling units. About 13,000 people are working the on and offshore response to the oil spill, with an additional 2,500 trained volunteers.
Q: Who is responsible for paying the cost? Who is legally responsible for the oil spill? A: So far, cleanup, drilling the

tial path of the spreading oil spill: Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. Wind conditions and sea currents could spread the oil to any and all of the states.
Q: What is being done to rid the oil from the water? A: To contain the oil slick and

of environmental damage, it is impossible to assess the economic impact of the oil spill on the Gulf Coast states. Estimates are likely in the billions. The Gulf of Mexico boasts one of the world’s most productive fisheries and a coastline ringed with rich, varied and fragile marine life. Tourist-magnet beaches also are at risk of being adversely affected.
Q: Who is leading the cleanup operation? A: The cleanup operation is

keep it from reaching shore, response teams have deployed more than 460 vessels — including airplanes spraying chemical dispersants and boats laying

being coordinated by BP and federal, local and state governments. The U.S. Coast Guard, departments of Homeland Security,

relief well and other costs have reached $350 million, according to a BP fact sheet. BP has repeatedly said the company is the responsiblity party and will make sure the spill is cleaned up fully. Currently, there is a $75 million cap on an oil company's liability for economic damages. The White House is asking Congress, as part of an oil response package, to lift the $75 million cap on liability. On Tuesday, Lamar McKay, the president of BP's U.S. operations, said: “Let me be really clear: liability, blame, fault, put it over here. We are dealing with — we are the — we are a responsible party. Our obligation is to deal with the spill, clean it up, and make sure the impacts of that spill are compensated, and we are going to do that.” President Barack Obama has said repeatedly that that BP and any other responsible party will pay for all costs of stopping the spill and cleaning it up.
Daniel Chang and Jennifer Lebovich are reporters for the Miami Herald.

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