Friday, June 25, 2010

First Storms Approach Gulf Coast, Capping Would Stop, Cleanup Worsen

Relief well drilling, capping and cleanup crews will be forced to evacuate in as early as three days if the first tropical storms of the hurricane season find a path to the Gulf of Mexico.

The National Hurricane Center by mid-Friday placed a 70% chance one of the storms with winds in excess of 100mph will whip through the area where an oil well blowout of volcanic proportions has spewed an estimated 60,000 barrels of oil and gas daily since April 20.

However, computer models were divided evenly whether the storm would head directly to the blowout site 40 miles south of Grand Isle, La., or west to inland Mexico.

Usually, rig operators begin closing down as early as 120 hours before a storm of 40mph winds. BP engineers said crews and support ships at the blowout site will remain as long as possible.

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, in charge of the government's response team, said on CNN this morning that contingency plans were well prepared.

No matter what the plans, the cap on the ruptured well will be removed from siphoning and the full force of the blowout estimated unimpeded at 100,000 bpd will directly enter the sea already blackened with oil plumes.

Drilling on the two relief wells will be terminated for the storm's duration and not resumed until at least a week after their crews return.

Storms or hurricanes will not disturb the capping and containment pipes and submersible submarines at the rupture point 5,000 feet below the surface. But all piping to the surface will be removed.

What is unknown is the volume of surface oil slick surged to inland beaches, marshes and drinking water sites from the force of the tropical storm or hurricane. Nor do experts agree on how much disturbance the storms will have on the gigantic oil plumes in shallower waters of 2,000 to 3,000 feet.

Earlier this week, the New York Times talked to industry officials about evacuation procedures in the event of tropical storms and hurricanes.

“An early hurricane season or a series of hurricanes could be a double whammy, disrupting both the relief-well process as well as the recovery of the leaking oil,” said Donald Van Nieuwenhuise, director of geoscience programs at the University of Houston.

Hurricane forecasters say as many as seven hurricanes and two dozen storms are predicted through the end of November.

Last season was rather benign, rarely interrupting work on the nearly 4,000 oil rigs in deep and shallow water in the Gulf.

Coast Guard offshore compliance officer Steve Sutton said oil companies have filed evacuation and return plans his office approves.

“But we don’t tell them when they have to leave,” Sutton said, and  “we don’t prescribe" when they return.

 Holly Hopkins, an expert on production operations with the American Petroleum Institute, said that of all its workers in the gulf, BP would probably want those at the well site — which in addition to the roughly 250 people aboard the relief-well rigs includes scores of engineers and technicians aboard large oil-processing vessels and smaller service ships — to be “the last ones out” as a storm approaches. “Obviously, safety’s first,” she said. “But they’re going to want to stay on location as long as possible.” 

She said last-minute evacuation by helicopters is complicated since they cannot operate safely in winds in excess of 45mph.

If any of the equipment encountered storm conditions it would have to be inspected before work could resume, adding to the delays, she said. 

Whether government inspectors are directly involved, the Times article did not say.



The first hurricane will be put up or shut up time for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. After throwing public tantrums, the Army Corps of Engineers reluctantly authorized a prototype six-mile sand berm drudged from the Gulf inland shores constructed on his coast barrier islands. Whether the six-foot-tall, 25-foot wide berms of sand withstand the wind and ocean ferocity during the storm is crucial. Skeptics said the dredged Gulf floor would only accelerate the velocity and volume of surge action into coastal inlets.

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