News / USA

Both Old and New Cutting-Edge Technology Used in Oil Spill

5,000 barrels of oil spew into Gulf of Mexico daily

Booms laid for protection at Breton National Wildlife Refuge, near Venice, Louisiana.
Booms laid for protection at Breton National Wildlife Refuge, near Venice, Louisiana.

Multimedia

Audio
Rosanne Skirble

Since the April 20 explosion and fire that sank the BP Deepwater Horizon off-shore oil rig, about 800,000 liters of crude oil a day have been spewing from the broken well into the Gulf of Mexico.

The massive spill is threatening marine life, commercial fishing and hundreds of kilometers of coastal wetlands. Unlike a tanker spill or a broken pipeline, this is an ongoing crisis.

When President Barack Obama visited the Gulf region Sunday to assess the scope of the disaster and the steps being taken to end it, he made it clear to reporters what he sees as the top priority.

US Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, brief President Barack Obama about the situation along the Gulf Coast following the BP oil spill, at the Coast Guard Venice Center in Louisiana.
US Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, brief President Barack Obama about the situation along the Gulf Coast following the BP oil spill, at the Coast Guard Venice Center in Louisiana.

"We've got a bunch of different tasks. The first one is how do we plug this hole."

'The hole'

That hole - actually three gushing vents of crude oil at the damaged ocean-floor well-head nearly 2 kilometers below the surface - was caused by the failure of a blow-out preventer. That's a pressure-sensitive safety device designed to shut off the flow of oil in case of a sudden break in the pipe leading up to the floating oil platform.  

Lamar McKay, head of BP America told ABC News that attempts to use underwater robotic equipment to fix the shut-off valve are complex. "This is like doing open-heart surgery at 5,000 feet [1,524 meters], in the dark with robot-controlled submarines."

British Petroleum is responsible for the repair and cleanup effort. Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward says BP has also begun drilling a relief well to intersect the existing well, bore a hole in it, and then pump in cement to plug the leak. But that job could take as long as three months to complete.

Crew aboard the motor vessel Poppa John train to deploy fire-resistant oil-containment boom off the coast of Venice, Louisiana.
Crew aboard the motor vessel Poppa John train to deploy fire-resistant oil-containment boom off the coast of Venice, Louisiana.

Dome solution

Right now, the best hope for a quick fix appears to be the 12-meter tall concrete-and-steel domed tower that BP engineers are preparing to lower into the Gulf and place directly over the main leak by week's end. The 80-ton box would capture and siphon the escaping oil to tankers on the surface.

Richard Charter is an oil industry expert and senior policy advisor for Defenders of Wildlife. He says the dome technique has never been used at such depths and is risky.

"I would hope that they would be very careful in deploying those with cables and remote operating vehicles, not to pump and break off the riser pipe." If that happens, he says, "You would have a wide open well on the sea floor and the flow rate could increase exponentially."

BP announced Wednesday that their robotic submersible had managed to stop one of the three leaks. However, until the other two are capped, oil continues to flow unabated into the Gulf of Mexico.

New approaches

The disaster response team includes U.S. government agencies and British Petroleum.

BP's Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward says a massive operation is underway to contain the spreading oil slick down before it reaches shore.

BP Group Chief Executive Tony Hayward discusses the operation with a US Coast Guard official.
BP Group Chief Executive Tony Hayward discusses the operation with a US Coast Guard official.

"We're doing something that's never been done before, we're deploying dispersants on the sea bed at the source of the leak. On the surface we have a fleet of a hundred vessels to contain the spill. We are dispersing dispersant from almost an air force of planes. We've got five planes including two Hercules C-130s dispersing dispersant."  

Those dispersants, designed to break the oil into small and more manageable globules, are not without their problems, says Defenders of Wildlife Senior Advisor Richard Charter.

"And some of it sinks as tar balls. So in the ocean the toxicity impacts the bio-availability of the oil toxins, and it may be greater as a result of applying the dispersant."  Charter says that could mean that fewer birds die in the marshes of Louisiana as the oil washes ashore.

Charter says such methods to contain or slow a spill - like dispersants, skimming boats and floating booms - have been around for decades.

He such methods will only address about 10 percent of the oil. "Even if you have containment booms deployed in the ocean, you quickly reach a certain sea state where the oil goes over the boom and under the boom and there is a certain component of this slick that is under the surface anyway and that just goes right under the boom."  

Human factors

Robert Bea, an engineer with the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California Berkley  has worked on oil disaster teams for five decades.

He compares technology developed for off-shore drilling to that developed to send astronauts into space. Bea says the pattern of repeated failures on oil rigs - including this latest disaster - points to human factors and not prevention technology. "[Among these are] procedures, how people are selected, how they are trained at various levels. And I think that we are yet to see this kind of thinking show up strongly on board these drill rig operations."

Bea hopes the massive oil spill will prompt new and stricter regulations that govern off-shore oil drilling. He says these rules should address not only technical fixes like requiring remote shut-offs, moving operations farther from shore, and better containment strategies, but also management issues like how a rig is staffed and operated.

Bea says the oil and gas industry has consistently opposed stricter federal regulation, most recently in 2009. Among the voices rejecting those rules, he says, was British Petroleum.

You May Like

Photogallery Obama Announces Plan to Send 3,000 Troops to Liberia in Ebola Fight

At US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Obama details troop deployment and other pieces of US plan More

China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

Muslims in Kunming say that they condemn the violence, it is not a reflection of the true beliefs of their faith More

Humanitarian Aid, Equipment Blocked in Cameroon

Move is seen as a developing supply crisis in West Africa More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Communityi
X
September 16, 2014 2:06 PM
Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Community

Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video West Trades Accusations Over Ransoms

As world leaders try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the jihadist group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London, there is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.
Video

Video Washington DC Mural Artists Help Beautify City

Like many cities, Washington has a graffiti problem. Buildings and homes, especially in low-income neighborhoods, are often targets of illegal artwork. But as we hear from VOA’s Julie Taboh, officials in the nation's capital have come up with an innovative program that uses the talents of local artists to beautify the city.
Video

Video US Muslim Leaders Condemn Islamic State

Leaders of America's Muslim community are condemning the violent extremism of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. Muslim leaders say militants are exploiting their faith in a failed effort to justify violent extremism. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Americans' Reaction Mixed on Obama Strategy for Islamic State Militants

President Barack Obama’s televised speech on how the United States plans to “degrade and destroy” the group known as the Islamic State reached a prime-time audience of millions. And it came as Americans appear more willing to embrace a bolder, tougher approach to foreign policy. VOA producer Katherine Gypson and reporter Jeff Seldin have this report from Washington.
Video

Video Authorities Allege LA Fashion Industry-Cartel Ties

U.S. officials say they have broken up crime rings that funneled tens of millions of dollars from Mexican drug cartels through fashion businesses in Los Angeles. Mike O'Sullivan reports that authorities announced nine arrests, as 1,000 law enforcement agents fanned out through the city on Wednesday.
Video

Video Bedouin Woman Runs Successful Business in Palestinian City

A Bedouin woman is breaking social taboos by running a successful vacation resort in the Palestinian town of Jericho. Bedouins are a sub-group of Arabs known for their semi-nomadic lifestyle. Zlatica Hoke says the resort in the West Bank's Jordan Valley is a model of success for women in the region.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid