"A cloud of granular oil."
That's how Phillipe Cousteau, Jr. described the situation under water in the Gulf. He and ABC reporter Sam Champion shot the footage above about 25 miles off the Louisiana coast in the center of the oil slick that has reached the surface.
One of the reasons for the dive was to see if BP's application of the dispersant Corexit was effective or more harmful. I'm not sure that question was answered, but there's no doubt left about the toxicity of the area. It's dangerously toxic to any living thing. Cousteau and Champion had to be hosed off and "degreased" before removing their hazmat suits. Lucky them. Unfortunately, marine life and birds don't have a similar option.
The Corexit website claims the dispersant works by breaking the oil into tiny droplets. From their front page:
When the COREXIT dispersants are deployed on the spilled oil, the oil is broken up into tiny bio-degradable droplets that immediately sink below the surface where they continue to disperse and bio-degrade. This quickly removes the spilled oil from surface drift…reducing direct exposure to birds, fish and sea animals in the spill environment. By keeping the oil from adhering to wildlife COREXIT dispersants effectively protect the environment.
Oil clearly adhered to Champion and Cousteau, so I'm a little confused about that claim, even though they had hazmat suits and not feathers. But even more than that, Cousteau has a point when he says that breaking up the oil into droplets means it has more points of entry into the fish and other wildlife than it might otherwise.
Nalco, the manufacturer of Corexit, has responded to claims of environmental Armaggedon with a special statement about the properties of their dispersant. In the long run, history will prove the truth of their claims, I expect.
Top Kill: Working or not?
As I write this at 4:30pm, BP has stopped their Top Kill effort because more mud is escaping along with oil than they expected.
The more I read, the less optimistic I am about this technique working.
A 2004 Texas A&M Study (PDF) commissioned by the MMS looked at the problem of a deep water blowout where oil is flowing outside of the blowout preventers. It's interesting to note that they didn't even consider a catastrophic failure of the blowout preventer itself, as is the case here. They're not very optimistic, at least in their intro:
In failure scenarios where there has been a catastrophic failure either of the surface equipment, the wellhead system or high casing, or at almost any point where influx is flowing outside of the blowout preventers, options become very rapidly non-existent. Even higher-horsepower ROVs can do little but stay outside an area of turbulence, and visibility could well be reduced anyway. Mudline mechanical intervention becomes an impossibility at this point with present tools and techniques. Specifically, there are no tools available which can hold station in a blowout with influx moving through the desired intervention area. ROVs also do not possess the horsepower required to consider some of the work tasks involved in a given scenario, particularly when affecting repairs on damaged blowout preventers.
The authors have a pretty dim view of the "Top Kill" technique, calling it the "least desirable of the blowout control alternatives (p.195). If the mixture isn't set in the right place, it won't be effective and the only solution will be to drill a relief well to relieve the pressure, which would take months.
Or, as I said in another post, there just hasn't been significant technological advancement in this area. If development investment is a reflection of where the heart is, then our hearts are near computers and medicine. Oil slicks, not so much.
So, we wait. And we hope.
We're all locked in a battle where fear fights to overtake hope. It's a horrible situation, and BP is looking worse than ever.
At the end of the Texas A&M report section on blowout simulation, there's a blunt reality for BP.
Causes for blowouts vary widely, however there is a constant. The majority of blowouts can be attributed to complacent, careless drilling practices.
Careless drilling practices. Outdated technologies. Drilling on the edge of the precipice of the Continental Shelf. Arrogant regulators working in a system where regulation was something to scoff at, not take seriously. As usual, the victims are many, from dolphins to the humans who lost their lives on that rig.
It is, indeed a nightmare. I just hope it's not a recurrent nightmare.