Sunday, May 2, 2010

Tragedy in the Gulf - Acoustic Switch Update

Kessler AFB, December 1963. I remember the first time I saw the Gulf of Mexico. I was about a week out of boot camp in San Antonio. Two busloads of us were shipped via Greyhound to Kessler Air Force Base in Biloxi Mississippi for primary training. The Air Force Schools at Kessler trained radio operators, control tower operations, and a host of other “electronic specialties.”

Brought up in the Pacific Northwest with it's rugged coast line, the Gulf appeared to me to be a big lake! My impressions of the Gulf of Mexico, in no particular order, were:

  • Beaches blindingly brilliant.
  • The water was warm.
  • No pounding surf.
  • No rough hewn craggy headlands.
  • Off shore barrier islands created the calm “lagoon.”
  • In the backwaters and marshes, an entire society of magnificent birds, fish, frogs, snakes and grumpy gators!
  • At night, kicking the water up as you walked along the beach created a brilliant phosphorescence light show.
Recent events got me reminiscing about my five months living on the Gulf. Unlike storm damage caused by a hurricane where you simply pick up the wreckage and rebuild, oiling of the beaches and estuaries may result in their outright destruction.

It is hard to fathom the audacity of extracting oil located in deep water and thousands of feet beneath the ocean floor. The technology that make this possible is mind boggling.

The search for oil has taken us further offshore, resulting in the development of Drilling Semi Submersible’s (DSS.) DSS’s are “cutting edge technology” floating drilling structures.

Massive tanks filled with seawater produce a vessel with an exceptionally low center of gravity and great mass. This allows the structure to resist “rocking and rolling” in response to wave motion, creating a stable drilling platform.

The DSS offers other operational advantages:
  • Maneuvering is excellent; it is easy to change position.
  • No anchor handling tugs are required.
  • Not dependent on water depth.
  • Quick set-up.
  • Not limited by obstructed seabed.

Deepwater Horizon being delivered from South Korea

The Deepwater Horizon, built in 2001, was constructed in South Korea and transported to the Gulf on another breed of hybrid vessel, developed largely to meet the needs of off shore drilling. You may recall the "M/V Black Marlin" was sent to the Middle East to retrieve the "USS Cole" back in 2000.

The Deepwater Horizon represents the 5th generation of DSS’s. She is classified as an “Ultra Deep Water” Drilling Semi Submersible, designed to work in water up to 8,000 feet deep, with a maximum drilling depth of 30,000 feet. That is more than five miles!

She also carried another acronym – MODU – Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit. She was capable of moving herself from drill site to drill site. Diesel engines driving generators, supply juice to her eight electric propellers or thrusters.

At these depths it is impossible to use anchors and cables to hold the platform stationary over a given spot thousands of feet below. The drill platform is held in position by eight thrusters – propellers – which are controlled by a computer receiving positioning information from Geophysical Positioning Satellites (GPS.)

This process is called Dynamic Positioning.

Think of the platform as being a “ship” going nowhere! Each of eight propellers, pushing to overcome the effects of wind and current, to hold the platform in the required position relative to the sea floor, day after day after day.

Now image lowering a drill bit on the end of a pipe less than a foot in diameter, 5,000 feet through water before it even reaches the sea floor. Can you imagine the tremendous weight of that entire pipe? There the drilling begins, coursing thousands more feet into the oil-bearing strata. In this case, they had progressed 18,000 feet below the seabed.

With the hard part taken care of, a “straw” – called a riser – about a foot in diameter with a blow out protector rated at 15,000 psi on it’s tip is lowered to connect with the drill pipe casing on the sea floor. Once that connection is made, it’s a simple matter to bring the oil to the surface!

Last September, BP (In 2001 British Petroleum formally renamed itself as BP) proudly announced the Deepwater Horizon had completed the deepest oil well in the world. Drilling had reached a formation 18,000 feet below the seafloor. It all came to a sudden end at 10 PM, Tuesday, April 21st when a violent explosion wracked the Deepwater Horizon.

It’s hard to learn what happened out there. The press is cluttered and focused now on the environmental issues. I did find a detailed explanation of events leading up to the catastrophe.

More than 4,000 platforms and drill rigs in the Gulf

It did not go unnoticed by me that the supply vessel Damien Baxton, brought 94 survivors ashore at the “E” Port - Port Fourchon, Louisiana, 42 miles north of the explosion and fire. Port Fourchon is a major supply base for all Gulf activity. From toilet paper to drilling mud, it all passes through Port Fourchon out to hundreds of oil platforms.

The big “E” port, so called because of its shape as seen from the air, was close to ground zero, all but wiped out when Katrina made landfall five years ago. The new highway bridge linking Port Fourchon with New Orleans was just dedicated last fall!

The CEO of Transocean, Ltd., owners of the DSS, issued this news release. Buried amongst the headlines of the fire, sinking, and resultant oil leak, the name “Halliburton” surfaces. Employees from Halliburton were apparently involved in a procedure just moments before the blowout and resulting explosion and fire, which sent this unit to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

Halliburton has a habit of being involved in questionable events. A fact not lost in Washington.

And I wouldn't count on the "good intentions" of BP to step up to the plate and do the right thing. Exxon Mobile still has unfinished business in Alaska, more than 20 years after the Exxon Valdez!

We’ve been given the gift of extraordinary intelligence facilitating such an audacious undertaking of going deeper than we’ve ever gone before to tap oil reserves. Questions have been raised about whether BP should have installed a secondary cut-off valve and why the company had not installed a so-called "acoustic switch" on the blowout preventer, which is on the seabed and designed to stop pressure from the oil well damaging the drilling rig, so it could be activated remotely.

Norway and Brazil demand these backups be installed. Ironically, BP uses the Acoustic Switch on all their wells off shore in the United Kingdom. Dick Cheney in 2003 exempted them on wells offshore in the USA. Deemed an unnecessary expense at $500K.

What a shame if that intelligence were poisoned by greed, resulting in someone making a calculated decision not to place a $500K acoustic switch atop the well head, that by all accounts, may have prevented this terrible ongoing disaster.
The cost of that switch being about equal to one day’s rent BP is paying for the use of the rig. ($278K/day)[1]

The last night I was in Biloxi, I went down to the beach just at sundown. Off on the southern horizon, a huge mass of cumulonimbus clouds, what we commonly call “thunderheads” was billowing up into the darkness. Every few minutes, a cloud would light up, as if a flashbulb had gone off inside it. I shuffled along, kicking that warm Gulf water into the air, which exploded with tiny sparkles of phosphorescence.

[1] Source: Transocean Financials

6 Comments - Click here:

islami ruya tabirleri said...

There you have it - a glimpse into what is going on here
that was quite a useful information that u gave
Thanks for sharing it.

grampa ed said...

I just read your blog for the first time and was really impressed as you have covered so much more than anyone else has. I will be back as I want to read more on the railroad parts of your blog. Their is a Railway Museum near here in Union Illinois called "Illinois Raiway Museum". It is small but big and I have enjoyed visiting their displays. Spent a lot of time at the Northwestrn depot in Harvard Illinois as My grandfather and uncle ran the Railway Express Agency their. Watched a lot of trains during the war years of the forty's. Sure has changed. Thanks for the article, and I was in San Antonio for basic myself but went to Wyoming afterword.

twindmirror said...

Very interesting, all I've seen on tv is that the government is going to talk to the oil company. Has the acoustic signal shut off device ever actually been used on a blow out similar to this? Amazing that Cheney thought it was too expensive. Is Cheney's opinion on well safety published anywhere?

Unknown said...

As a no drilling proponant from Day 1, this illustrates my fear. The occurance of this catastrophy makes my point moot.

Robert in Port Townsend said...

Between January and March of 2001, incoming Vice President Dick Cheney conducted secret meetings with over 100 oil industry officials allowing them to draft a wish list of industry demands to be implemented by the oil friendly administration.

Cheney also used that time to re-staff the Minerals Management Service with oil industry toadies including a cabal of his Wyoming carbon cronies.

In 2003, newly reconstituted Minerals Management Service genuflected to the oil cartel by recommending the removal of the proposed requirement for acoustic switches.

The Minerals Management Service's 2003 study concluded that "acoustic systems are not recommended because they tend to be very costly."

Olda said...

The question is, what would be acoustic system good for, when even remotely operated vehicles sent down did not help. I suppose that acoustic sytstem itself "may have prevented" nothing...

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