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

India PM Modi's Party Distances Itself From Religious Conversions

BJP under fire for being slow to rein in hardline affiliate groups allegedly trying to promote Hindu-dominant agenda by luring Muslims and Christians to convert More

Anti-Whaling Group Found in Contempt of Court

Radical environmentalists who threw acid and smoke bombs at Japanese whalers in the waters off Antarctica continue their campaign to disrupt Japan's annual whale hunt More

UN's Ban Urges End to Discrimination Against Ebola Workers

Ban was speaking in Guinea on the second day of a whistle-stop tour aimed at thanking healthcare workers of the countries at the heart of the epidemic 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.
US Decision on Cuba Underscores Divisions Among Miami Cubansi
X
Sharon Behn
December 19, 2014 9:34 PM
For decades, older, more conservative Cubans have been gathering at Café Versailles on the corner of Calle Ocho to eat Cuban food and talk politics. After hearing of President Barack Obama’s decision, a number of them gathered in front of the café with posters to protest. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on the situation.
Video

Video US Decision on Cuba Underscores Divisions Among Miami Cubans

For decades, older, more conservative Cubans have been gathering at Café Versailles on the corner of Calle Ocho to eat Cuban food and talk politics. After hearing of President Barack Obama’s decision, a number of them gathered in front of the café with posters to protest. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on the situation.
Video

Video Three Cities Bid for Future Obama Presidential Library

President Barack Obama still has two years left in his term in office, but the effort to establish his post-presidential library is already underway. The bid for the Obama Presidential Library is down to four locations in three states -- New York, Hawaii, and Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, each of them played an important part in the president’s life before he reached the White House.
Video

Video Cuba Deal is Major Victory for Pope’s Diplomatic Initiatives

Pope Francis played a key role in brokering the US-Cuba deal that was made public earlier this week. It is the most stunning success so far in a series of peacemaking efforts by the pontiff. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky has more.
Video

Video Fears of More Political Gridlock in 2015

2014 proved to be a difficult year politically for President Barack Obama and a very good year for the U.S. Republican Party. Republican gains in the November midterm elections gave them control of the Senate and House of Representatives for the next two years -- setting the stage for more confrontation and gridlock in the final two years of the Obama presidency. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone has a preview from Washington.
Video

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video VOA Reporter Tours Devastated Peshawar School

Islamist militants wearing military uniforms and strapped with explosives attacked a military run school Tuesday in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. At least 141 people were killed in the horrific attack, most of them young students. VOA reporter Ayaz Gul visited the devastated school and attended the funeral of the principal who courageously tried to save her students from the deadly attack.
Video

Video Nigerians Fleeing Boko Haram Languish in Camp Near Capital

In its five-year effort to impose Islamic law in northeastern Nigeria, the Boko Haram extremist group has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Some of those who ran for their lives now live in squalor on the edges of the capital, Abuja. Chris Stein reports for VOA.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.

All About America

AppleAndroid