Some of us have been watching intently BP’s live undersea camera in amazement (best reality show on TV) , appreciating how difficult and complicated the undersea work to plug the Macondo oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico appears to be.
The sequence of failed attempts at stopping the flow of oil tells us something about the state of understanding of our World. The first containment dome, 40 feet high and weighing 100 tons, was lowered on May 8, but it plugged up with icy gas hydrates that prevented the oil from flowing up pipes into the waiting ship. Then engineers tried a much smaller four by five foot containment dome called a “top hat”. That did not work.
On May 16, day 24 of the spill, Kent Wells (With a name like that, was he born for this job?), Sr. Vice President BP, provided an operational and technology update where he presented the “insertion pipe” option. In this procedure, a 4-inch pipe had been inserted 5-feet deep into the 22-inch wide riser, along with rubber baffles to direct the flow of oil to the surface. Wells asserted that the difference in pressure between the surface and the oil exiting the riser would be sufficient to “cause a good percentage of the oil to rise”. In his briefing on May 24, showed how much oil had been recovered from the well through the inserted 4-inch pipe. The (cumulative flow) chart clearly shows that the daily flow is decreasing.
That same day, BP was preparing for the “definitive” option: the so-called “top kill” procedure. The top kill procedure was designed to force pressurized heavy fluids known as ‘mud’ through the well’s blowout preventer and into the wellbore at rates of 50 barrels per minute. The same day, BP COO Suttles acknowledged that there was a risk that the bulk of the mud might be diverted to the damaged riser, which is still connected to the BOP. That is exactly what happened.
The failure of these attempts questions whether we possess the basic understanding of fluid dynamics to remedy the problem. The science of fluid dynamics is well established. Leonhard Euler came up with the basic laws of fluid motion in 1759. Navier and Stokes refined these equations in the mid-1800s. Today, we have computer simulation programs, such as Flowmaster, that can be used to design pipe systems interactively in front of us. Fluid dynamics, even in this instance, should be deterministic, predictable, and follow the basic rules of science and physics.
The interactions between ground pressure, the relative densities of the three fluids: water, oil and gas, and the effect of pressure at the bottom of the sea and at the top on these three fluids would appear to be a relatively uncomplicated problem, in light of everything else going on (disposal, logistics, politics and policies, impact on the environment.)
There are two possible causes to BP’s ineffectiveness: Either we, as a society, are unable to master the basic science behind this problem, or BP, as an organization, has not been able to draw this knowledge into focus, and put it to work to solve his problem. Any thoughts?