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Monday, July 19, 2010

Oil Spill Response Decision Making

What is going on down there in the Gulf? BP says the new cap is holding. Admiral Allen says there's not enough pressure registered at the well head and that the lower than expected pressure readings could mean a breach in the well bore or a breach in the well head structure. He wants more tests. This is insane. Somewhere along the line BP and/or Admiral Allen and/or the government have lost their bearings. Three weeks ago they told us we would be collecting 80,000 barrels a day, supposedly more than enough capacity to cover the total amount gushing into the Gulf. Now they're acting as if they plan to let the new cap do all the work, walk away from the well head completely and move assets elsewhere.

Know-it-all Congressman Edward Markey of Massachusetts had this to say in a letter to Admiral Allen:

"If the well remains fully shut in until the relief well is completed, we may never have a fully accurate determination of the flow rate from this well. If so, BP -- which has consistently underestimated the flow rate -- might evade billions of dollars of fines."

When it comes to spending money Markey seem to have no concept of the dollar; when it comes to collecting it, he doesn't want to miss a dime.

Hey, Markey! It's not just about the money!

Where is this sudden change in spill containment coming from? Is it BP or the government? We should stick to the original plan. The new cap is in place. It's holding back the pressure better than expected. We should use this opportunity between now and the end of July or beginning of August - when the relief wells are expected to hit their marks - to collect as much oil and flare as much gas as possible.

The problem, I suspect, is that the government, in its infinite wisdom, established operational conditions that make shutting the well and leaving it a higher priority than siphoning the oil. They told BP that BP would have to pay for everything. They would be fined on the total spill amount AND have to pay all clean-up and economic hardship costs. BP also announced they were donating revenues from spilled oil to Gulf Coast charities. This latter decision was prompted by President Obama when he promised the American people that BP would not profit one cent from the oil coming out of the well.

Add to this the U.S.C.G. and E.P.A. general rule of thumb with respect to spilled or leaking pollutants. Rule number one: Stop The Leak!

But as Admiral Thad Allen, BP and President Obama has said on numerous occasions: This is an unprecedented situation that requires an unprecedented response.

Why should BP spend billions keeping the Q4000 and the Helix Producer and all the other oil industry assets on scene if it can prove to the government's satisfaction that no more oil is leaking from the well? There is no incentive for BP to do anything more than what is required of it by the U.S. Government and BP's Board of Directors. Stop the leak. Clean up the spill. Pay the fines.

Herein lies the insanity. So what if the pressure and seismic tests with the new cap in place conclude the well is secure? That's now. What happens tomorrow, or a week from tomorrow? What happens if the well burps a huge, catastrophic bubble of methane gas? Isn't it better to have a relief valve of some sort, like the flaring and collection capability that's currently available with the Q4000 and Helix Producer?

I realize there's a huge air pollution nightmare associated with the burning and flaring of gas and oil, and I realize that the collection of oil on the surface and subsequent transfer of oil to cargo ships adds another pollution risk to the equation. But neutralizing the pressure in the well seems to me to be more important than the quick fix of this containment cap, and to that end, the Q4000 and Helix Producer have an important job to do.

According to BP's latest update:

BP continues to work cooperatively with the guidance and approval of the National Incident Commander and the leadership and direction of federal government including the Department of Energy, Department of the Interior, Federal Science Team, Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation and Enforcement, U.S. Coast Guard and secretaries Ken Salazar and Steven Chu. At this time, the well integrity test on the MC252 exploratory well continues.

During the test, the three ram capping stack has been closed, shutting in the well. All sub-sea containment systems (namely, the Q4000 and Helix Producer systems) have been temporarily suspended.

I think Admiral Allen and the other government authorities (It's a mouthful, isn't it?) should step back and keep the recovery and flaring assets on scene and working. Stick to the plan. Don't put all your faith in this cap. Take the slow, deliberate approach to neutralizing the well.


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