National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: A Window on the Deep

As BP’s reputation in the U.S. plummeted, the company in a new spirit of openness began releasing live video feeds from their Remotely Operated (Underwater) Vehicles “ROV”s working on stopping the torrent  of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico.

Although there is no sound to accompany the picture (there is not much to hear 5,000 feet under the water) the feed, from time to time, makes for fascinating watching. Perhaps BP could reassign one of their PR folks to tell what is going on in the picture – sort of like NASA describing a moon walk 40 years ago.

Last week followers of the video were able to witness BP’s Top Kill exercise in which 30,000 barrels of drilling mud were pumped into the well head in a vain effort to staunch the flow. As one learned Professor of Petroleum Engineering pointed out, Top Kill was like trying to stop five fire hoses blasting up a pipe with two fire hoses blasting down. Even so, BP’s CEO kept maintaining that the effort had a 70 percent chance of success.

Watchers were treated to clouds of black oil billowing from leaks in the broken riser pipe being replaced with clouds of brownish drilling mud.  Now this does not make for gripping television, except it is so important. The fate of four states, the Gulf seafood and tourist industries, tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of jobs,  and who know what else hangs on being able to stop the flow before there is not much left of our southern sea coast.

Some are now talking about some sort of leak continuing until Christmas.

By the Memorial Day weekend it was time to get serious. Everybody from the White House on down were warning that the next plan known as the LRMP Cap, might not work, so get ready for another two or more months of gushing oil. This of course was so that we would not get our hopes too high after last week’s failure.

On Sunday evening, our eye-in-ocean was right there as BP installed the “mud mats” to provide a firm footing for whatever needs to be placed on the bottom. The reason we knew this was that our little TV friend had a big caption on the bottom of the screen saying “Installing Mud Mats.” Now that is full disclosure.

On Monday morning, we were treated to a circular saw cutting away at various smaller pipes attached to broken riser pipe. In the afternoon we got to see the lowering into the depths of the LRMP Cap – the device which is supposed to rest on, hopefully, the newly sawn-off pipe emerging from the top of the blowout preventer.

Tuesday was the big day. In the morning we witnessed a diamond circular saw blade, which somebody says costs $100,000, cutting away at one of the smaller pipes that used to run 5,000 feet to the surface along with the riser pipe that fell to the bottom when the Deepwater Horizon sank. Around noon the giant shears that were to cut through the riser pipe were deployed and after three attempts which only dented the pipe, disappeared to the surface leaving the audience for all to wonder whether the shears were too weak for the job or BP was just doing a practice run. After some more circular saw action, at 7 p.m. Tuesday night the giant shears succeeded in cutting through the broken riser pipe. Attention then turned to the wire saw which by then was firmly attached to the top of the blow out prevernter in preparation for making the final clean cut through the gushing riser pipe.

By 2 a.m. on Wednesday morning, most observers agreed that the wire saw was stuck halfway through cutting the pipe; this was later confirmed by the Coast Guard. By dawn, the big shears came back from the surface and by noon had clamped onto the piece of the fallen riser still spewing oil, in what looked like an effort to relieve the pressure on the stuck sawing wire. By noon the wire saw was humming away again. The real test comes when they try to install the cap.

The major lesson one can draw from days of on and off watching is that the process of controlling the runaway well is going to take longer than initial claims. Some are now talking about some sort of leak continuing until Christmas. When this is all over oil well MC252 will probably have cost some $10s of billions and never produced a useful drop. BP may or may not still be in existence.

Naturally there will be a little something extra in your gasoline bill to pay for all this.


Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.