Newsweek: BOP “tilting noticeably”, “Very possible that there are subfloor leaks” says expert

Thursday, June 24, 2010
By Paul Martin

FloridaOilSpillLaw.com

Efforts to stop the flow may have set the stage for an even bigger catastrophe.

The Oil Spill’s Worst-Case Scenario?, Newsweek, June 23, 2010:

[O]nline speculation has fueled fears that the leaks could be much greater than what’s been shown. According to these theories, such leaks at the bottom—that is, below the sea floor—could present a new “worst-case scenario” for the disaster, which has now stretched past its second month.

It’s possible that hydrocarbons are leaking out the bottom or sides of the well. If so, they might erode surrounding sediments and undermine the foundation upon which the 450-ton blowout preventer sits. If such leaks aren’t sealed off in time, the entire structure could topple over. “After that, it goes into the realm of ‘the worst things you can think of,’” writes a commenter on the oil- and energy-focused website The Oil Drum. It was this commenter’s post that has become the subject of wider speculation. “The well may come completely apart as the inner liners fail. There is still a very long drill string in the well that could literally come flying out … at the very least we are stuck with a wide open gusher blowing out 150,000 barrels a day of raw oil or more.” …

“The blowout preventer should be well anchored, with about 2,900 feet of full string casing and cement,” says Don Van Nieuwenhuise, director of geosciences at the University of Houston. “However, the well has received some exceptional pressure jolts or kicks, and that has been a concern to BP from the very start.” …

[A] handful of clues suggest that the company is concerned. On Friday, BP spokesperson Toby Odone acknowledged that the 45-ton stack of the blowout preventer was tilting noticeably…

“We don’t know anything about the underground portion of the well,” he said. …

As many have speculated, and as the New Orleans Times Picayune reported Friday, concerns over structural integrity are what led BP to halt “top kill” efforts late last month. When it was digging this particular well, the company ran out of casing–the pipe that engineers send down the hole–and switched to a less durable material called liner. This may have created several weak spots along the well that would be particularly vulnerable to excessive pressure or erosion. So instead of sealing the well, the company has been focused on trying to capture the oil as it flows out the top.

At this point, some experts say, additional leaks wouldn’t matter much. “It’s very possible that there are subfloor leaks,” says [Oil geophysicist at Columbia University, Roger] Anderson. “But that doesn’t change the strategy moving forward.” The linchpin of that strategy involves drilling relief wells…

But to work, the well must be sealed as far down as possible–if it’s sealed too high, oil could still escape through any leaks beneath the seal. In this case, relief wells will have to drill down to 5,500 meters, and that takes time, at least until August. The real question now is whether the entire structure can hold out long enough.

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