Expedition to Contain Oil Leak Begins in Gulf

Daily News Article   —   Posted on May 6, 2010

(from The Wall Street Journal, wsj.com) ASSOCIATED PRESS, ON THE GULF OF MEXICO – A boat carrying a 100-ton concrete-and-steel contraption [called a Subsea Oil Recovery System] designed to siphon off the oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico arrived Thursday. Engineers hope it will be the best short-term solution to controlling the leak that has only worsened since it began two weeks ago.

Another boat with a crane plans to start lowering the box to the seafloor later in the day.

Meanwhile, a rapid response team planned to head to the Chandeleur Islands off Louisiana’s coast Thursday to look into unconfirmed reports that oil from the spill had arrived there, Coast Guard Petty Officer Erik Swanson said.

The boat hauling the specially built containment box and dome structure pushed off Wednesday evening from the Louisiana coast and arrived at the site of the disaster Thursday morning.

The Joe Griffin would meet up with another BP-chartered boat, the Boa Sub C, a Norwegian vessel that will use a crane to lower the contraption to cover the gusher of oil spewing from the seabed-something that has never been tried before at such depths. BP PLC spokesman Bill Salvin said the drop is expected at about noon Thursday.

The dome-like top of the structure is designed to act like a funnel and siphon the oil up through 5,000 feet of pipe and onto a tanker at the surface. Oil has been gushing into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of at least 200,000 gallons a day since an offshore drilling rig exploded and sank last month, killing 11 people.

“We’re a little anxious. They’re gonna try everything they can. If it don’t work, they’ll try something else,” Capt. Demi Shaffer told the Associated Press aboard his boat just after it set off. The AP is the only news organization with access to the containment effort.

A 12-man crew aboard a supply boat was carrying the precious cargo. The 280-foot Joe Griffin, owned by Edison Chouest Offshore, also was involved in helping fight the fire that resulted from the oil rig explosion. …

BP, the operator of the oil rig has tried several high-tech undersea tactics to cap the leak. The containment dome endeavor is unprecedented and engineers are fully aware of the risks.

First, crews need to properly position the four-story structure above the well as it sinks deep into the mud at the bottom of the Gulf with the help of a remote-controlled robotic submarine. A steel pipe will be attached to a tanker at the surface and connected to the top of the dome to move the oil.

“It’s very dark down there … and we will have lights on the [submersibles], and we know exactly where to put this and guide it into place,” said David Clarkson, BP’s vice president for project execution.

That process presents several challenges because of the frigid water temperature-about 42 degrees Fahrenheit-and exceptionally high pressure at those depths. Those conditions could cause the pipe to clog with what are known in the drilling industry as “ice plugs.” To combat that problem, crews plan to continuously pump warm water and methanol down the pipe to dissolve the clogging.

They are also worried about volatile cocktail of oil, gas and water when it arrives on the ship above. Engineers believe the liquids can be safely separated without an explosion.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry tried to moderate expectations that the containment box would be a silver bullet.

“I know we are all hoping that this containment system will work, but I want to remind everybody that this containment system is a first of its kind deployed in 5,000 feet of water,” Landry said.

Asked to handicap the odds of success, Bob Fryer, a senior executive vice president for BP’s Deep Water Angola, offered up this assessment: “This has never been done before. Typically you would put odds on something that has been done before.”

Fryer also said BP is exploring a technique in which crews would reconfigure the well that would allow them to plug the leak, but that effort is a couple weeks off.

The containment effort comes as dozens of boats were deployed across the Gulf to fight back the slick at the surface, including setting fires to burn off oil and laying booms to soak up the crude and block it from reaching the coast.

While people anxiously wait for the mess to wash up along the coast, globules of oil are already falling to the bottom of the sea, where they threaten virtually every link in the ocean food chain, from plankton to fish that are on dinner tables everywhere.

Hail-size gobs of oil with the consistency of tar or asphalt will roll around the bottom, while other bits will get trapped hundreds of feet below the surface and move with the current, said Robert S. Carney, a Louisiana State University oceanographer.

“The threat to the deep-sea habitat is already a done deal-it is happening now,” said Paul Montagna, a marine scientist at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.

Scientists say bacteria, plankton and other tiny, bottom-feeding creatures will consume oil, and will then be eaten by small fish, crabs and shrimp. They, in turn, will be eaten by bigger fish, such as red snapper, and marine mammals like dolphins.

The cause of the rig explosion is still not known, but investigators from multiple federal agencies are looking into the matter. The rig owner, Transocean Ltd., said in a filing with regulators Wednesday that it has received a request from the Justice Department to preserve information about the blast.

Associated Press.  Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal.  For educational purposes only.  This reprint does not constitute or imply any endorsement or sponsorship of any product, service, company or organization.  Visit the website at wsj.com.

Questions

1. What short-term solution to the oil leak is being implemented today in the Gulf of Mexico?

2. How does the Subsea Oil Recovery System work?

3. a) Define silver bullet as used in para. 14.
b) Why is success of the Subsea Oil Recovery System uncertain?

4. a) What challenges do engineers/crews face with this endeavor?
b) How do they plan to overcome the problem created by the water temperature?

5. What additional solution is BP exploring?

6. What is currently being done to slow the spread of the oil?

7. The AP (Associated Press) states in the article that they are the only news organization with access to this story.
a) Why do you think this is so?
b) Do you think other news organizations should have access to the story, including local news from Louisiana, Mississippi, etc.? Explain your answer.

OPTIONAL CHALLENGE QUESTION: Read today’s commentary on the oil leak at: studentnewsdaily.com/commentary/keep-the-lights-on.
a) Do you agree with the commentator? Explain your answer.
b) Ask a parent or grandparent the same question.


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Resources

For photos of the Subsea Oil Recovery System being transpoted on the supply boat The Joe Griffin, and other photos related to the oil leak, go to the New Orleans Times Picayune website at photos.nola.com/4500/gallery/oil_spill_gallery_for_may_5_2010/index.html.

Watch a news clip explaining how the Subsea Oil Recovery System works:

  

 

Watch a 3D simulation of the British Petroleum Subsea Oil Recovery System designed to control oil flow at Block 252: