Some of you who live in California may recall seeing a glow at night on the western horizon in the Bakersfield area if you were driving at night on Highway 5. (For you East Coasters, that's the fastest way to get from S.F. to L.A.) This was ten or fifteen years ago. It was a gas well that got away from whoever drilled it, and it didn't stop until the now familiar relief well finally killed it. It was a relatively benign reminder that nothing works every time and Murphy is still alive and active. Given enough time and opportunity, the worst will always happen.
In the interests of full disclosure I worked most of my adult life for Exxonmobil. You don't have to go any further than Exxon Valdez to know that even the best run operations will screw up big time now and then. With that caveat in mind, BP was shockingly cavalier about important stuff for ANY well completion, let alone one five thousand feet below the surface of the ocean. If something like this were to happen in outer space, we could concievably send some astronauts up and they could do a spacewalk and fix it. We have no way of getting a human being anywhere near that well. If we were only sending something into outer space, wouldn't we AT LEAST put in a fresh battery and check to make sure the wiring was right before we sent on it's way?
I was on a platform in the Santa Barbara channel called Heritage. It's the first one you see looking oceanward when you come down out of Gaviota Pass, for you Californians who use 101 enough to know what I'm talking about. If the ocean were drained, Heritage would look like an Eiffel Tower twelve hundred and fifty feet high with a box a couple of hundred feet square sitting on top of it. All you can see sticking above the water is the box. Heritage cost somewhere in the vicinity of half a billion dollars, and had to be built in Korea because, unlike nearby Hondo, it's base wouldn't be able to get under the Golden Gate Bridge.
I have friends in the Gulf of Mexico who are in deeper water. Their platform would look more like a TV antenna, held upright by huge guy wires, with the box sitting on top. They tell me it moves around a lot, but it works fine. At some depth (cetainly five thousand feet) no kind of platform is feasible. On a platform, the blowout preventer is right on the deck, easily accessible. When the well is ready to produce, you kill it (with mud, please!) remove the BOP and put the wellhead on in it's place. The well head is specially designed for that well and has a serial number so it can't be used anywhere else. It has two shutoff valves, called Master Valves, one automatic, one manual. The automatic valve will close if any number of sensors or emergency systems are activated, and the manual valve can be used if the automatic one fails.
These automatic valves are periodically tested, and must close in a certain amount of time. If they don't, you must do whatever it takes to fix them before you can flow the well again. When you are in water five thousand feet deep, building a platform is not feasible, so the wellhead is on the bottom of the ocean, and the oil is piped to the surface. If anything goes wrong, how do you fix it? All the major oil companies are installing subsea completions even as I write this. The important thing to remember about any tanker spill is that it can't spill any more oil than the tanker has in it. You are dealing with a finite amount of oil. Let's pray that the 'top kill' they're now trying works before you even read this screed. Until BP's well is actually killed, all the oil in that formation can, at least theoretically, get in the water. The damage from this one has the potential to be truly biblical. I think Exxonmobil has it's act together considerably better than those nimrods at BP, but, at least to this Community College 'C' student, subsea production at those kinds of depths are beyond ALL oil companies present capabilities.
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