As a geologist, I've always been fascinated by doomsday scenarios. I've imagined the earth being destroyed by meteorite impact, by nuclear winter and by shifts in the earth and moons magnetic fields. As a sci-fi fanatic, I've watched every 2012, left behind, destroyed by monsters, aliens and volcanoes, end-of-the-world, cheesy B-movie you can name. But, until recently, I never gave any thought to the crazy notion that an out of control oil well would be our planet's undoing.
I guess I'm one of the few sane people left because a Google search now turns up about a million references to BP Armageddon and the Armageddon Online website is certain to soon add the BP- well to its poll of most likely mega- disasters. So after spending 30 years in the oil business, let me tell you why this particular environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is not going to bring it all to an end.
First off, blowouts are not nearly as uncommon as people would like to think. The oil companies, (BP in particular) would like you to believe that these events are very rare and every action to control them is unprecedented. This is not the case.
In fact, Red Adair, the greatest wildwell fighter that ever lived, used to say that somewhere in the world there was always a well which needed to be tamed. He proved it by not only charging more than a million dollars (in the 1970's) for his company to look at a blowout, but he sometimes had as many as 5 wells working at the same time in different regions. When Saddam Hussein invaded the Kuwaiti oil fields in 1991, the Iraqis set fire to more than 700 oil wells. Red and his team extinguished and capped over 100 of these wells in 9 months while the other 24 teams controlled the rest. When Red Adair died in 2004 at the ripe old age of 89, it is estimated that he had fought over 1000 blowouts in his lifetime. None of these blowouts or the pollution that followed brought the world to an end. You are now saying to yourself, "Yeah, but this one is different."
No, it is not. Once you delete the shallow wells and the development wells in known fields, you are still left with a few hundred critical operations due to high pressures, great depth or impossible conditions. Does that sound to you like what we are facing in the Gulf? It should.
It's a good bet that at least some of those 100 will get out of control.
The Minerals Management Service (MMS) studied offshore blowouts in the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) between 1992 and 2006. They found 39 blowouts out of over 15,000 wells drilled. MMS used that statistic to justify excluding BP and other operators from an Environmental Impact Assessment requirement for deepwater wells drilled in the Gulf, asserting the rate was too low to be significant. This carefully manufactured blowout rate, clearly, was not a good reason to exclude BP and similar companies from regulatory intervention. It should be remembered this is the same MMS who were exposed as engaging in sex, drugs, payoffs, prostitution, and other various offenses while, supposedly, creating the above exception. At the same time they exempted Fifty Billion Dollars of royalties, which should have been paid to the government for our use.
Only 1/3 of the original 15,000 wells were exploration wildcats, so that is about 1 blowout in 100 wildcats. Those are not good odds given the risk of an environmental catastrophe of this magnitude.
Additionally, World Oil published a database of 1200 blowouts in the Gulf between 1960 and 1996. That is equal to 33 blowouts per year in the Gulf Coast and we're still here.
I know you're probably thinking, "What about all the horrendous stories I've been hearing about the BP Deepwater Horizon well in particular?" Most of them are sheer nonsense. Now, the Facts instead of Myths, or disinformation, which ever you prefer.
First, although BP's well is drilled in deepwater, it is not the deepest The record water depth for the deepest oil well was set by Shell at 9356 feet at the Perdido development in the Gulf in 2008. As for total depth, the well is only about 18,300 feet and I have drilled a couple wells to that depth myself without major problems. The deepest hole ever drilled went to 40,230 feet and was drilled by the Russians for scientific purposes. The deepest oil well was 35,055 feet (nearly twice as deep as the current BP blowout); drilled, ironically, by BP using the Deepwater Horizon rig in 2009.
"So what happens if the pressure builds and the blowout preventer (BOP) blows apart?" This already happened in 1979 with the Mexican well Ixtoc 1 and they were still able to control it with two relief wells. In Australia, last year a well blew out with no BOP and they still controlled it with a relief well after 5 attempts. As for reservoir pressure, the scare-mongers throw out terms like 40,000 70,000 psi. If that were true then the well would have blown out when the reservoir was first penetrated months ago and it is doubtful that the overburden of sediments could have contained it for millions of years. In reality, they drilled into the formation with 14 pounds per gallon mud weight (about twice the density of seawater) corresponding to about 11,000 psi and this is the reservoir pressure that BP testified to under oath. I have been on numerous over-pressured wells which required 18 pounds per gallon mud weight and I have heard that it is possible to add the mineral galena (mostly lead) to bring the mud weight even higher. BP is lying about there being no precedent. The government is letting them get away with it.
"I heard the casing could collapse and this well could blow for 10 years." No. The casing collapsed in the Ixtoc 1 well and they brought it under control in 9 months. Casings frequently collapse during a blowout, so it is standard operating procedure to assume this might be a problem and is planned for in most cases. It is probable that part of the casing has already collapsed in the BP well, but as long as the relief wells intersect the hole near the reservoir they should still be able to bring it under control. As for billions of barrels of oil flowing up into the Gulf for decades, it is helpful to know that the producing interval is probably only about 60 feet thick. I have seen some of the subsurface seismic imaging in this area and it not a world class structure, so the entire reservoir is likely only capable of producing about 50 million barrels of oil, still an environmental disaster but not to the degree reported.
"The earth could crack open and sea water could rush in and turn to steam and blow the planet apart." This one is so far-fetched they couldn't even use it for the plot of a B-movie. If you believe this insanity I've got some beachfront property in Colorado I could sell you. The earth is already cracked open. It's called the Mid-Atlantic ridge and similar plate tectonic boundaries cover the entire globe. Magma comes up and pushes the plates apart, but seawater definitely doesn't rush into the cracks. By the way, there is no active plate boundary in the Gulf of Mexico and there is certainly no danger of magma welling up beneath 50,000 + feet of sediments."
"What if an underground blowout occurs and oil starts gushing up from dozens of places miles from the well." This is certainly a possibility and that is what happened with the Union Oil of California Santa Barbara blowout in 1969. While I was working for UNOCAL, reports varied about how far away the faults were which broke through to the seafloor causing months of oil leaks. The Ixtoc 1 well also leaked around the wellhead. The point is that both of these blowouts were controlled by pumping heavy mud at a high enough rate to counter the reservoir pressure. The multiple leaks rumor is fed by Matt Simmons, (author of numerous works dealing with Peak Oil). He is now in a situation where he profits the more the value of BP stock falls. As always, there is the mysterious Russian underground source, who claims they have seen these other leaks up close and personal. But where is the proof? Always demand to see the proof.
All of these outrageous rumors lead to the inevitable conclusion that we should Nuke this well and this is where the fun stops. A nuclear detonation even a "controlled" bomb could have so many unforeseen consequences that it should not even be considered. For one thing, the sediments are unconsolidated down to at least a thousand feet, so it would be like tossing a boulder into a mud puddle. Not only would it splatter everywhere, but it would be impossible to contain the radioactive materials. These radioisotopes could contaminate the submarine region and expose marine life to harmful and possibly fatal radiation. Nothing would be closed (certainly not the casing) and a crater would be opened which could trigger landslides and sediment flows along the slope.