BP Chamber Clogged, Removed From Leaking Gulf Well

Saturday, May 8, 2010
By Paul Martin

By David Wethe
Bloomberg.com

May 8 (Bloomberg) — BP Plc said gas hydrates like ice crystals formed inside the steel chamber it’s trying to use to capture leaking oil from a Gulf of Mexico well, forcing the company to move the structure aside while working on ways to stanch the flow of crude.

The hydrates clogged the 40-foot-tall containment system, which was designed to funnel oil to an overhead drillship, Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer for exploration and production, said today at a press conference in Robert, Louisiana. He said BP placed the chamber on the seafloor, about 200 meters (656 feet) away from the well’s biggest leak, and will evaluate ways to prevent hydrate slushes from forming.

“I wouldn’t say it’s failed yet,” Suttles said. BP expected to deal with hydrates forming in the pipe above the containment system, which would have been broken up by sending warm water through an insulating layer, he said.

The containment system was London-based BP’s best hope for slowing the leak while the company drills a relief well aimed at relieving pressure so the flow of oil from 5,000 feet beneath the Gulf’s surface can be stopped altogether. BP has 20 experts studying the possibility of injecting pieces of rubber into the well, called a “junk shot,” to stop up the pipe.

“We continue to look to see if that’s going to be a viable option,” Suttles said. He said the company wants to ensure the junk shot doesn’t make the leak worse.

Clogged Dome

Meanwhile, BP over the next 48 hours will consider ways to prevent the containment dome from clogging, such as applying heat. Hydrate gases crystallize like ice in the cold waters and high pressure deep beneath the ocean’s surface. BP engineers thought the opening atop the dome was large enough that it wouldn’t clog with hydrates, Suttles said.

BP expected the containment system, a rectangular structure with a pyramid-shaped dome on top, to capture as much as 85 percent of the flow of oil. He said the relief well is “ahead of plan,” having reached a depth of 9,000 feet.

The leaking well, called Macondo, began spewing an estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf after an April 20 explosion on Transocean Ltd.’s Deepwater Horizon rig.

The explosion and fire aboard the rig, which BP leased from Geneva-based Transocean, killed 11 workers. A bubble of methane gas that shot up the drill column and burst through several seals and barriers caused the blast, the Associated Press reported late yesterday, citing interviews with rig workers obtained by a California engineering professor.

Cause Investigated

Suttles declined to comment on the report. The U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Minerals Management Service will begin an investigation May 11 to identify the factors leading to the incident, according to a government statement issued today.

The Minerals Management Service, overseer of offshore drilling, completed inspections of all deepwater drilling rigs operating in the Gulf without identifying hazards, regional director Lars Herbst said at a press conference yesterday.

Inspectors checked test records of blowout preventers, an assembly of valves atop wells on the seafloor. The blowout preventer on the BP well failed to stop a mixture of oil and gas from ejecting unexpectedly and igniting the rig, according to Suttles. Houston-based Cameron International Corp. supplied the blowout preventer for the Deepwater Horizon.

Besides possibly injecting rubber cuttings into the well, engineers are considering installing a second blowout preventer atop the first, Suttles said.

Deepest Attempt

Similar containment boxes have been used to funnel crude from leaking wells in shallow water. This is the deepest deployment of such a system, according to a fact sheet provided by BP.

Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry said efforts to battle the spill are the biggest she’s ever seen. Suttles said more than 8,500 responders and 4,000 volunteers are involved.

Calm seas have enabled BP to burn as much as 9,000 barrels of oil from the surface, Suttles said yesterday. The Coast Guard and BP have been skimming oil from the Gulf. Oil accounts for about 10 percent of the 45,000 barrels of oil and water skimming boats have recovered so far, Suttles said.

Controlled burns won’t be done today because of high winds, Coast Guard Petty Officer Connie Terrell said in a telephone interview. BP plans to do more skimming today and to drop additional dispersant on the oil slick, company spokesman Mark Proegler said.

Refuge Closed

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service yesterday stopped public access to Louisiana’s Chandeleur and Freemason islands, where BP and federal officials Thursday said oil from the spill first reached shore.

The islands comprise the Breton National Wildlife Refuge. Barring the public will protect nesting birds and speed cleanup work, the Fish and Wildlife Service said yesterday.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration yesterday widened a fisheries closure in the Gulf of Mexico, calling it necessary to reassure consumers that fish and shrimp caught in the region are safe to eat.

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