Underwater Accident Leaves the Oil Spill Uncapped

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Oil is now gushing freely from the uncapped well

Over the past week or so, as BP has blunted the Gulf spill by channeling more and more of the oil into containers on the surface, it’s been easy to think that the accident could be managed, even if sealing the well has proved impossible so far. But the challenge of working 5,000 feet beneath the surface of the ocean means that a mistake could happen at any time—and that mistake could easily disrupt BP’s jury-rigged containment system.

Well, that accident has happened. At his daily noon press briefing today, Coast Guard Admiral Thad W. Allen announced that an underwater robot had bumped into a venting system that is part of the pipes connecting the drillship Enterprise on the surface to the containment cap over the bleeding wellhead. That bump sent gas rising through the vent that carries hot water down to the containment cap—necessary because the cold temperatures on the ocean floor can cause icy hydrates to form on the machinery, blocking oil capture. (That’s what happened during BP’s failed attempt to put a containment cap over the well last month.) As a result, Allen said, BP had to remove the containment cap, to see if any hydrates had indeed formed.

In the meantime, that now means that anywhere from 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil a day are  flowing unchecked into the Gulf. (It’s not fully clear how much—the estimates range—and the secondary containment system, which pumps oil up to the Q4000 platform to be burned, is still functional and has been processing about 10,000 barrels a day.)  You can see the live feed of the spill here—oil is billowing out of the uncapped and sheared riser pipes like flame from a plane’s afterburner. The orange-red you might see on the feed is the effect of chemical dispersants being applied to the oil as it comes out of the riser.

Allen said that if the containment cap is shown to be unaffected by the accident, BP should be able to reattach it by this evening, putting the company back on track for partially containing the spill. (Over the past few days, the company has managed to capture or burn about 27,000 barrels of oil a day.) But if hydrates have indeed formed on the containment cap, there’s no telling how quickly BP would be able to repair it and resume containment—leaving the oil to gush. It’s also worth remembering that when BP sheared off the riser pipe earlier this month to prepare for the containment cap, it increased the flow from the well by as much as 20%, according to Allen’s numbers at the time, or perhaps more. That means that if the company can’t reattach the containment cap soon, BP will have effectively made the situation worse than it was before—though perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us by now.

But the entire debacle is a reminder of just how challenging it is to operate 5,000 feet below the surface of the ocean, in the deep gloom, where all work needs to be carried out by remote-controlled robots. We should also remember, in case we’ve forgotten, that this spill is far from contained, and that more trouble is to be expected during the stormy days between now and August, when the relief wells are scheduled to be finished. (And even those wells aren’t a sure thing.) A day after a federal judge blocked a six-month government moratorium of deepwater drilling, on the grounds that the White House had failed to prove that the operations posed a significant threat to safety and the environment, this latest little catastrophe shows that we haven’t even begun to reckon with the true dangers of drilling.

Update: Just in case you thought the day couldn’t get worse, the Coast Guard also reported that two workers on oil spill response boats had died, though they haven’t yet released details. (The Institute of Medicine is currently holding a two-day meeting in New Orleans to look at health and the oil spill—even if workers on spill response aren’t being exposed to dangerous levels of chemicals, there is a major risk of heatstroke when working in the unforgiving Gulf sun.)

Oh, and Accuweater is raising the possibility of a tropical storm or hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico next week.

The idea that we can handle this is ludicrous.