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Pandora’s Oil Well May 11, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in BP/Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe, disasters, fossil fuel, geologic time, oil, oil spill.

This piece is cross-posted at truthout and CommonDreams.org.

It has also be re-posted on Peninsula Peace and Justice Center.

Technical jargon conceals by confusion. The immense scale of the problem surrounding the sinking of the Transocean drilling rig, “Deepwater Horizon,” requires that the public stay alert when confronted with slick lingo.  So, I’d like to help readers understand from a geologist’s viewpoint the sad absurdity of the Gulf of Mexico situation—one that is much more than yet another “oil spill.”

In September 2009 BP announced their discovery of the “giant” Tiber oilfield and crowed that drilling a 35,055 foot deep well into the earth’s crust under 4,132 feet of water made it one of the deepest wells ever achieved by their industry. Less than one year later, BP had to alert the public to an explosion and fire onboard the semisubmersible drilling rig—a “unit” floating above the seafloor that when flooded causes the contraption to submerge a desired depth and produce relative stability while drilling for oil and gas in rough waters. The rig was mining oil from the “Mississippi Canyon 252 well” that British Petroleum (BP) owns. And on Earth Day 2010, we learned that BP had “activated an extensive oil spill response” and was working with Transocean using remotely operated vehicles to assess the condition of the Tiber well and the “subsea blowout preventer.”

A critical distinction here is between an oil spill and a blowout. I tried to look up the definition of “oil spill” in OilGasGlossary.com and found the following: “Sorry, but we can’t found (sic) the definition of Oil Spill in our Oil Gas Glossary.” I don’t mean to be disingenuous. I really just wanted to have confirmed my instinct that the vernacular meaning of spill, to flow from a confined space, implies a finite amount of oil. In contrast, the Glossary told me that a blowout is an uncontrolled flow of oil, water, or gas from a well bored into the earth. It suggests to me a comparatively unlimited quantity of the black gold. When BP announced their discovery and termed it “giant” they meant to convey that the Tiber oilfield contained somewhere between four and six billion barrels of oil; this contrasts with a “huge” oilfield usually considered to contain 250 million barrels of the stuff. Regardless of whether it’s giant or huge, this Gulf of Mexico event is more than a spill.

What we have beneath the Gulf of Mexico is a gusher folks. Only unlike 1859 when drillers greeted gushers with celebratory hoots, in 2010 BP confronts the Mississippi Canyon blowout with a relief well—that’s another well drilled near and into the well that is out of control. BP doesn’t use the phrase but drillers call the continuously spewing wells, “wild wells.” Forgive me, but it’s hard to feel reassured by the company’s assertion that they’ve begun to remedy the subsurface problem—oil escaping with great force from inside the earth to the planet’s watery surface—in this manner.

I’m reminded of the Centralia, Pennsylvania underground coal seam fire that has been burning since 1962. Like other coal seam fires, it may continue to burn underground for decades or even centuries until the fuel source is exhausted.  So too the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), banned by the U.S. Congress in 1979 yet still leaking into the Hudson River three decades later from fractures in rock beneath the General Electric facilities at Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, New York where the company utilized PCBs in the manufacture of capacitors.

The time and space scales of the earth dwarf those of us mere humans, yet we tinker with the Earth’s resources, manipulate them for our purposes, and underplay the risks we take. We scramble at the surface of the Earth to curtail the disastrous upshots of our inane technological “achievements.”

When Prometheus stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to people living on Earth, he angered Zeus. The king of the Olympians exacted revenge on humans by ordering the creation from earth of Pandora who would be a vehicle for bringing misery to mortals. According to the myth Pandora’s box (jar)—a present from the Gods—loosed upon earth all the sorrows and plagues then known to humanity. In 2010, we’ve opened Pandora’s well—Mississippi Canyon 252—spewing oil, sowing suffering, and defying control.


1. Michael P. Williams - May 13, 2010

Your analogy to some sort of Promethean ‘Pandora’s box’ is completely inapropos to the loss of control on BP’s Macondo Prospect well. There is no need for a declaration of allegorical Force Majeure to understand the genesis of this disaster.

The proximate cause of this incident is almost certainly a failed primary cementation that resulted in direct and fairly unrestricted hydraulic communication of reservoir fluids (gas and oil) to the uncemented production casing annulus. Zonal isolation is the principal function of a primary cementation, and BP deliberately chose not to evaluate the integrity of that isolation (possibly against the advice of cementing contractor Halliburton), by means of widely-used wireline acoustic logging methods, before commencing to prepare the Macondo well for temporary plugging and abandonment.

Even if BP drilling management believed that this operation, and any remedial ‘squeeze’ cementing that indications of poor isolation might require, could be more economically left to the later re-entry of the well for completion, it is difficult to understand how confirmation of zonal isolation could not have been seen as essential and safety-critical — vis-à-vis ruling out the possibility of reservoir communication to the production casing backside at the wellhead — before displacing the riser to seawater, an operation that brought the differential pressure between an overpressured gas-charged production casing annulus and production casing bore, and across the production casing seal assembly, to a maximum, precipitating the catastrophic breach in mechanical well integrity — either in the wellhead seal assembly, or by gross failure or leak-to-failure of a near-wellhead production casing connection — that gave rise to loss of well control.

BP’s claims of limited involvement in the actual drilling of the Macondo Prospect well are so disingenuous and incongruent with the facts that they would be laughable if they were not so cynically absurd. All aspects of Macondo well design and drilling program execution came under BP’s direct control, supervision, approval and authority, and for BP to suggest that they simply were not significantly involved in the conduct of day-to-day well operations, including those on 20 April, is to turn the world upside down and expect no one to notice.

When the incident investigation is complete, it may well be found that near-wellhead casing connection failure, due to combined high tension and collapse loads, allowed the topmost several ‘joints’ of production casing, along with casing hanger and seal assembly (for which the lock-down ring, a safeguard against upward displacement, was purposefully not installed), to be hydraulically displaced upward in to the blowout preventer bore. Questions of blowout preventer operability and malfunction aside, the shearing blind rams on even a deepwater blowout preventer stack were not designed to reliably sever high-strength, heavy wall production casing.

BP’s decision to defer the setting of a cement plug in the the production casing until after riser displacement to seawater ought to receive serious scrutiny, but the outcome (viz., sudden and catastrophic loss of well control) would not have been materially different if they had set a cement plug first in as much as the well is almost certainly flowing up the production casing annulus.

Getting back to BP’s failure to evaluate the integrity of zonal isolation afforded by primary cementation of the production casing before commencing to prepare a subsea well cased in to a confirmed high-pressure oil and gas reservoir for temporary abandonment, the industry needs to revisit the wisdom of this practice, commonplace as it may (or may not) be. As low as the actuarial probability of this catastrophic loss of well integrity and control may have been, the consequential costs for this failure are beyond extraordinary, making the overall risk — probability of occurrence times consequential costs — of sufficient magnitude to merit a more circumspect approach to preparing and vetting subsea production wells for temporary post-drilling suspension pending completion.

In the end, Transocean, Halliburton and Cameron (the BOP manufacturer) will be found neither grossly negligent nor principally responsible for this disaster — culpability will rest entirely with BP, as perpetrators of one of the most colossal and avoidable risk management failures in offshore drilling history.

Deepwater wells of the type currently out of control in the GoM can be drilled at tolerable risk vis-a-vis loss of life, loss of capital, and economic and environmental damage, and some operators are presently doing just that. BP’s preparedness to take what appear to be ill-considered technical and operational risks in the case of the Macondo Prospect well (and, perhaps, on other projects) should not foreclose the possibility for other operators — and even a reformed BP — to continue the development of deepwater oil and gas resources in the GoM within a more pro-active and prescriptive regulatory framework that dispenses with the current de-facto environment of laissez-faire self-‘oversight’ in favor of a regulatory framework more closely resembling that adopted for U.K. waters as a result of the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster. U.K. operators must provide compelling evidence of safety and reliability in their procedures and designs, at risks that are (by statute) “as low as reasonably practicable” (ALARP), not simple good-faith assurances that “we know what we’re doing because we’re the ones who are doing it.”

2. alyce santoro - May 14, 2010

jill, thanks for the excellent article. grateful to learn of your work, and look forward to learning more.

i’m a buddhist leaning interdisciplinary scientist/conceptual artist/activist myself – here’s a recent article that i think may be kindred in spirit to yours:

3. Jeffrey Learned - May 15, 2010

This is a letter I wrote to all my friends. One of them sent me this article which I greatly appreciated. In turn, I thought I would pass on my thoughts to the readers at this site:

Is the End near? I don’t believe so. However, if THEY can’t turn the Oil off (very, very soon), each and everyone of our lives will be changing far more dramatically, than I ever thought possible.

Those of you who know me, know that I say what I feel, sometimes without censure, as seen at our website HERE.

Sometimes what I believe to be TRUE offends people. Not the fact that what I say might be true, but generally how it is said. I have been working on that delivery and even though my method is far tamer than it was in the past, it still has a “bite” to it. With that being said, I want to share an experience I had last month. I won’t go into lengthy details, but here’s the gist of it.

Around the 20th of April I heard on the news that an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico had an explosion and a number of workers had died and that oil was leaking. When I heard that news I felt something painful deep inside. The experience was unlike anything I can remember. I’ve heard of oil spills (and other massive environmental, social and economic events) in the past and felt great angst for those innocent creatures about to meet their doom, but I was always able to get past it and move on. However, ever since I “felt” this news enter deep inside me I knew an Event had taken place that would have far greater influences (mostly negative) on this planet that I could ever imagine. As I mentioned at the start of this email to you, this is not the End of the World, as I experience it. But Planet Earth, this living organism that is so intimately a part of each and everyone of us has been deeply wounded. She is bleeding her essence into the outer world. It’s a very sad commentary on just how far humans have gone in the direction of the complete and the total loss of their essence and, their ability to function consciously. I guess one could say, or at least I could say, this is Judgment Day (decipher that any way you choose).

Life will continue onward, but at the expense of a massive number of innocent creatures for possibly many generations to come.

This is no ordinary Event. And, the “Energy” from deep within this Planet, that has been, and is being released at this very moment, is no ordinary Energy. It not only must be stopped soon, it must be stopped intelligently.

Solving this massive dilemma must become the priority of every conscious human on Earth. How each of us intercedes is personal to each of us, but we all must take a proactive role in this process. For “the Healing” to truly work it can’t be a quick fix. And, it will take immense Clarity, Purpose and Fortitude by all of us, individually and as a collective, to get through this, because this Event is a reflection of something in each and everyone of us.

This is No Drill!

4. A Dose of Reality | For the Defense…..A Lawyer's View - May 30, 2010

[…] Read it here […]

Jill S. Schneiderman - May 30, 2010

Hi, Philip,
I very much appreciate your kind words about my piece. Thank you for sharing it with others.

5. Pandora’s Well « MotherSky - June 28, 2010

[…] TV reports for two months now about the horrors created by “Pandora’s well,” as geologist Jill Schneiderman calls it. People are hearing that it has turned marshland into dead zones. They are seeing photos […]

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