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Deep Horizon blowout caused by 'methane bubble'

News reports from this past weekend indicate that the Deep Horizon drilling rig disaster was caused by a methane bubble that traveled up the drill column. The details in the AP story are not completely clear, but it seems that exothermic heat released by curing cement caused a significant amount of methane, which exists on the ocean floor in the form of slushy, heavier-than-water crystals, to warm up enough to convert to gas phase and begin traveling up the drill column. From that point, the laws of physics took over as the methane encountered decreasing external pressures and increasing temperatures as it rose through the column:

As the bubble rose up the drill column from the high-pressure environs of the deep to the less pressurized shallows, it intensified and grew, breaking through various safety barriers, [Robert Bea, a University of California Berkeley engineering professor] said.

"A small bubble becomes a really big bubble," Bea said. "So the expanding bubble becomes like a cannon shooting the gas into your face."

Up on the rig, the first thing workers noticed was the sea water in the drill column suddenly shooting back at them, rocketing 240 feet in the air, he said. Then, gas surfaced. Then oil.

"What we had learned when I worked as a drill rig laborer was swoosh, boom, run," Bea said. "The swoosh is the gas, boom is the explosion and run is what you better be doing."

The gas flooded into an adjoining room with exposed ignition sources, he said.

The greatest bit of irony about the accident is that occurred on the day that BP executives and officials were holding a party aboard the rig to celebrate it's outstanding safety record during the exploration phase of operations:

"That's where the first explosion happened," said Bea, who worked for Shell Oil in the 1960s during the last big northern Gulf of Mexico oil well blowout. "The mud room was next to the quarters where the party was. Then there was a series of explosions that subsequently ignited the oil that was coming from below."

According to one interview transcript, a gas cloud covered the rig, causing giant engines on the drill floor to run too fast and explode. The engines blew off the rig and set "everything on fire," the account said. Another explosion below blew more equipment overboard.

... The BP executives were injured but survived, according to one account. Nine rig crew on the rig floor and two engineers died.

"The furniture and walls trapped some and broke some bones but they managed to get in the life boats with assistance from others," said the transcript.

The reports made Bea, the 73-year-old industry veteran, cry.

It also seems clear that for whatever reason, the three redundant safety features that were installed on the drill column all failed to work:

Blowouts are infrequent, because well holes are blocked by piping and pumped-in materials like synthetic mud, cement and even sea water. The pipes are plugged with cement, so fluid and gas can't typically push up inside the pipes.

Instead, a typical blowout surges up a channel around the piping. The narrow space between the well walls and the piping is usually filled with cement, so there is no pathway for a blowout. But if the cement or broken piping leaves enough space, a surge can rise to the surface.

There, at the wellhead of exploratory wells, sits the massive steel contraption known as a blowout preventer. It can snuff a blowout by squeezing rubber seals tightly around the pipes with up to 1 million pounds of force. If the seals fail, the blowout preventer deploys a last line of defense: a set of rams that can slice right through the pipes and cap the blowout.

Deepwater Horizon was also equipped with an automated backup system called a Deadman. It should have activated the blowout preventer even if workers could not.

Based on the interviews with rig workers, none of those safeguards worked.

Unfortunately for the whacked-out minions of Daily Kos, Firedoglake, and Democratic Underground, this appears to have been a very tragic and costly accident, and nothing more.

Deep Horizon was a unique oil drilling rig, operating hundreds of miles off shore and drilling in water a mile deep. It also utilized a state-of-the-art motorized, satellite-controlled positioning system instead of being moored to the sea floor by anchors. The engineering feats required to position any floating platform over a tiny spot in the floor of the sea and actually drill an oil well are truly impressive. The engineers who design these systems design them to achieve a maximized combination of performance and safety. BP certainly had reason to celebrate what had been, up until the time of the accident, an extraordinarily successful venture.

We would be wise to wait until further investigations reveal more information about the events leading up to the blowout, before making any more snap judgments about who is responsible and why. Instead, let's pray for the souls who were lost and their families, and hope that the well can be capped as soon as possible.


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Comments (25)

this appears to have bee... (Below threshold)
wolfwalker:

this appears to have been a very tragic and costly accident, and nothing more.

Three independent safety systems, and they all failed to work? Sounds like something more than "just an accident" to me.

Politicians aren't able to ... (Below threshold)
Roy:

Politicians aren't able to pander correctly without making snap judgements. Their hips are specially made for shooting from.

"Three independent safety s... (Below threshold)
GarandFan:

"Three independent safety systems, and they all failed to work?"

Seeing as we live in an 'imperfect' world. Yes.

For once global warming rea... (Below threshold)
914:

For once global warming really can be blamed.

YOU ARE AN IDIOT AND AN APO... (Below threshold)
MARCO GARCIA:

YOU ARE AN IDIOT AND AN APOLOGIST FOR BP. SO IN LIEU OF BEING PISSED AT BP I AM SUPPOSED TO BE IN AWE OF THIS ENGINEERING AND TECHNOLOGICAL MARVEL? THE ONLY REASON YOU CAN UTTER THOSE WORDS IS BECAUSE YOU HAVE NOT BEEN DIRECTLY AFFECTED BY IT. I BET IF YOU AND YOUR FAMILY LIVED ON THE COAST OR YOUR LIVELIHOOD WAS AFFECTED YOU'D BE BITCHING INSTEAD OF BEING IN AWE OVER ENGINEERING MARVELS. YOU ARE INTELLECTUALLY DISHONEST AND SITES LIKE KOS AND FIREDOG LAKE SERVE TO MAGNIFY THE INHUMANITY AND TRAGIC NATURE OF THESE ACCIDENTS.

From what I can gleam from ... (Below threshold)
Stan:

From what I can gleam from the story, there was no way that this accident could have been foreseen. While it is true that all of the safety procedures were followed, the accident was one those once in a lifetime ones. With a methane bubble that large, there was no way the BOPs could have prevented this catastrophe. Even if the crew had been paying attention, I doubt that this disaster could have been prevented. As for the resulting oil spill, it was not as devastating as the drive by media and the left wing blogs have been saying. Hell there is more oil that seeps up from the bottom of the Gulf in one year than the rig accident spilled and the Gulf seems to eat it all up.

Marco: sorry, I didn't read... (Below threshold)

Marco: sorry, I didn't read your post. I don't read all-caps, despite having taken a semester of it in kindergarten.

this appears to have bee... (Below threshold)
Steve Crickmore:

this appears to have been a very tragic and costly accident, and nothing more.

That sounds like a snap judgement to me!

Only last week, wizbang in several posts were saying why didn't the government/Obama do something to stop it or surround the oil slick?

My best guess/estimate as to what caused the blowout was that too small a cement cap was placed on too deep a well, more than 18,000 feet down, with too much unanticipated pressure and like air accidents, or better or worse, the Challenger/NASA accident on January 28, 1986 -where 0 rings were used, for the first time in uncommonly cold temperatures.

Though the destruction of the Shuttle Challenger was caused by the hardware failure of a solid rocket booster (SRB) "O" ring, the human decision to launch was, in itself, flawed. The resolution to launch was based upon faulty group decision support information and further aggravated by the related mismanagement of that information. However, as in most transportation accidents, there are usually other contributing factors that help to create an environment leading to mistakes and failures.

Probably, the Deep Horizon accident was the accumulation of not one error, but of several flawed decisions, taken in a culture increasingly complacent, but one in which safety and environmental consequences were more and more taking a back seat to liftoff or drilldown.

"the Challenger/NASA accide... (Below threshold)
GarandFan:

"the Challenger/NASA accident on January 28, 1986 -where 0 rings were used, for the first time in uncommonly cold temperatures."

Hate to rain on your "engineering degree" there Stevie, but Morton-Thiokol engineers were well aware of O-ring erosion in previous marginal launch conditions. They warned NASA not to launch but were brow-beaten into agreeing to the launch.

As for your 'too small' cement cap theory. That's probably a bigger bubble than the one that grew and expanded as it approached the surface.

I realize that the hole is ... (Below threshold)
Wayne:

I realize that the hole is a mile down but I'm not sure why they can't just blow it shut or shear the pipe off at ground level and place a heavy plug on top of it.

There are always bubbles of... (Below threshold)
bryanD:

There are always bubbles of one gas or another during the pouring of cement---sometimes only *air*.

It was Halliburton's job to *snake* (shake/vibrate) the pour area free of such bubbles as the cement began its quick curing to give the cure a head start.

And yes, I predicted Kagan would be nominated to the Supreme Court here at the first available post last month, too....so, HALLIBURTON!!!

"And yes, I predicted Kagan... (Below threshold)
GarandFan:

"And yes, I predicted Kagan would be nominated to the Supreme Court here at the first available post last month, too....so, HALLIBURTON!!!"

Want to point out that 'post' Bryan?

"Want to point out that 'po... (Below threshold)
bryanD:

"Want to point out that 'post' Bryan?"
12. Posted by GarandFan

Sorry. We all know that my comments are excised as "troubling" by Jay Tea. It's common knowledge here. Don't play stupid.

Speaking of "troubling", has Jay Tea overindulged himself to the point of stupefaction this evening?
Grocery day?
Because my posts haven't been erased these past few hours.

Anyway, about Kagan. On my post I mentioned listening to her (unsuccessful) defense of the McCain-Feingold bill before the Supreme Court on C-Span.
She was unflappable. Unflappable against 2 opposing lawyers and 4 of the Court. And she was flying 100% solo for the 2 hours I listened.
Now, I don't agree with many of her positions on policy...too Bushian and statist.
But that unflappability I knew would put her in the first rank of Obama nominees for SC.

The End.

Unfortunately for the wh... (Below threshold)
BlueNight:

Unfortunately for the whacked-out minions of Daily Kos, Firedoglake, and Democratic Underground, this appears to have been a very tragic and costly accident, and nothing more.

More to the point, the scientific details will become increasingly clear as to what actually occurred. The question then becomes, what one regulation would have prevented this one accident? If one regulation would have done the job, there is no need for comprehensive reform of the oil industry. If that regulation was already in place, and was not followed, the fine is enough, and there is no need for reform.

I'm not a conspiracy theori... (Below threshold)
_Mike_:

I'm not a conspiracy theorist but the escape of the large methane bubble begs the question - when was Al Gore's last chili dog and where was he during the time in question. These are the questions the media should be asking!

There's a bigger methane bu... (Below threshold)
Roy:

There's a bigger methane bubble up on Capitol Hill that's going to burst soon. The pile covering it just needs to be prodded with a few pitchforks.

Bluenight:"If one ... (Below threshold)
JLawson:

Bluenight:

"If one regulation would have done the job, there is no need for comprehensive reform of the oil industry. If that regulation was already in place, and was not followed, the fine is enough, and there is no need for reform."

You miss the point, I think. Congress has to be seen as 'effective' in a crisis. Therefore, they have to do something - anything - to show that they're up on the subject and have a clue about what to do next. But the vast majority of them have little to no experience in the fields they're trying to control.

NOT doing 'something' isn't an option. They HAVE to 'reform' the oil industry, or at least pretend they are. And after the mess they've made of things so far, I'm not at all confident they WON'T make it more of mess than it already is.

As always on wizbang, it´s ... (Below threshold)
Steve Crickmore:

As always on wizbang, it´s always Congress' fault who act or should act in the public interest, which is anathema to wizbang who champion private interests and the bottom line, despite the considerable human and environmental costs even with Deep Horizon spill.

There appear to many suspects with the blowout. I suggest you start with BP, which even falsified studies to safeguard production schedules "BP was the beneficiary of a falsified test, claiming that the company rushes work and cuts corners to save money" and were willing to pay derisory fines to maintain their high profit margins or pressure the the promiscouos minerals management officials, with gifts to make cursory incompetent inspections.

Conservatives hope once they have found the one sole cause of the massive Deep Horizon blowout/spill they can return to "drill, baby, drill", Drummond even sooner, as if they could be so lucky, and the world was so simple and big oil corporations and their attendant companies like Halliburton were so innocent in their benign pursuit of billions of dollars.

"this appears to have been ... (Below threshold)
Marcel Kincaid:

"this appears to have been a very tragic and costly accident, and nothing more ... before making any more snap judgments "

What a joke. The blowout was, as could have been predicted, a result of failing to properly test and maintain safety equipment and not even installing other safety equipment. The claims that this failure could not have been foreseen is malarkey, deeply ignorant about physics and engineering, and grossly intellectually dishonest.

Ah, so Marcel believes he h... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

Ah, so Marcel believes he has sufficient, hmm, presence to hand out judgment.

Just to test a few points Marcel, how do you test a blowout preventer?

Do you know how a blowout preventer even works, and what sequence of events is necessary to bring it into function?

Do you understand 'Dynamic Positioning'? If you do, how does it's use complicate the reaction to events that led to the explosion?

Working up the list, Steve, whose responsibility is it to coordinate and deploy first responders in an offshore emergency? Who constitutes the initial NCA in such an event?

As to Hallburton, what exactly does 'cementing' have to do with causing the blowout? Where is the evidence for this claim?

Regarding Wayne's question, what is the PSI at 5,000 feet below sea level? What is the ambient temperature? What is the character of seabed terrain at that location and depth? And given the force behind the leak, what tensile strength and volume capacity are necessary for a containment vessel to effectively stem the flow?

When people cannot answer basic questions like these, they should recognize that they do not know enough to place blame or demand specific actions, and - unlike Congress - should let people who know what they're doing address the problem and stop trying to impress everyone with knowledge they don't have and arrogance that just gets in the way.

As for you Marcos, I live on the Gulf Coast and everyone here is dealing with this with some concenr but no hysteria. You need to change your diapees and take a nap, the adults are doing fine without your throwing a tantrum.

DJPSI at 5,000 feet ... (Below threshold)
Wayne:

DJ
PSI at 5,000 feet is approximately 2,000 PSI. Temperature is about 4 to 5C. The rest I'm not sure.

Where was I placing blame? I didn't. I just ask a question. If you are so enlighten then answer it. If you don't know the answers to my question then simply say so.

I would caution with assuming the experts have not overlook anything. Sometimes the experts as with anyone will overlook the most simplest of solutions in a complex situation. Ask NASA about that. This is especially true with people who are used to dealing with things in a finesse way instead of using brute force.

However I assume there are reasons but hate assuming. Besides I would like to know know for my own curiosity and knowledge.

Tonight we find out that th... (Below threshold)
Indie:

Tonight we find out that the BP oil gusher is apparently 10x worse than originally thought.

For those who have denied the need for reform (blue knight) or those who have said "it was not as devastating as the drive by media and the left wing blogs have been saying. Hell there is more oil that seeps up from the bottom of the Gulf in one year than the rig accident spilled and the Gulf seems to eat it all up.' (stan) I think your ideology has consumed your brains.

Everyone who looked at this he**hole with clear eyes from the get go knew that it has been a lie. It's what we get from Republican corporatacracy. Lies.

Keep voting Republican so you can drill baby drill. Black water is exactly what you ordered up with that vote.

Hi there,Do you thin... (Below threshold)

Hi there,
Do you think is a need to installed a blackbox in oil Rig or oil platform? to know what is actually happen even all rig personal have dead after explosion.

Just a suggestion only for future planning.

"Indie", the initiative und... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

"Indie", the initiative under which the rig was operating was created by the Obama Administration, and the rig was inspected just last year by government officials whose rules were confirmed by the Democrats in control of Congress.

The "Republicans did this" lie is not going to work for you this time.

Amy, instrument data is already relayed in real time to shore facilities. A "black box" similar to what is installed in commercial aircraft would not give us more information than we have. The problem is that whatever went wrong apparently did so at the sea bed or under it, so there is no way to know what happened by reviewing the technical records.

The Wall Street Journal rep... (Below threshold)
Indie:

The Wall Street Journal reports that the well lacked a remote-control shut-off switch that is required by Brazil and Norway, two other major oil-producing nations. The switch, a back-up measure to shut off oil flow, would allow a crew to remotely shut off the well even if a rig was damaged or sunken.

U.S. regulators considered requiring the mechanism several years ago. They decided against the measure when drilling companies protested, saying the cost was too high, the device was only questionably effective, and that primary shut-off measures were enough to control an oil spill. A 2001 industry report argued against the shut-off device.


This is the same industry that Cheney and Bush had worked in for years and gave lifetime appointments to their oil industry cronies. Those same appointees of MMS that in 2008, prior to Obama, was caught up in a wide-ranging ethics scandal -- including allegations of financial self-dealing, accepting gifts from energy companies, cocaine use and sexual misconduct -- that exposed its ridiculously close relationship with the oil industry.


Of course you might want to conveniently ignore that. Wouldn't fit your argument.

Shame on you.




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