LET’S TALK ABOUT SEEPAGE: BP’s leaking oil well has finally been stopped. On Thursday, BP activated a new containment device at its failed Macondo well, sealing the well for the first time in three months. You’d think that would be great news—it means less oil in the Gulf of Mexico, less oil in our wetlands and on our beaches, and—this is mostly good news for BP—it means we don’t get to watch live, 24-hour video feeds of the spill.
So why does oil spill point man Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen seem upset about that?
To answer that question, let’s look over the events of the past week. On Monday, BP installed the new capping stack on top of the old, failed blowout preventer. BP planned to activate the stack and “shut-in,” or seal, the well late Tuesday, but that didn’t happen until Thursday. Then BP began integrity tests to measure pressure in the well. If the pressure read low, it could indicate that oil was leaking from the new cap, the well had been depleted more thoroughly than previously thought, or the well was leaking at some unknown point. If the pressure read too high, the well would have to be vented, and eventually a collection system adequate enough to handle the well’s output would be installed to siphon the oil to surface vessels.
BP told us those integrity tests were to last anywhere from six hours to two days. The government’s plan was then to install a collection system, a process which requires uncapping the well and allowing oil to escape at its previous rate for up to three days—three more days of oil gushing in front of BP’s live underwater video feeds. The collection system is designed to relieve pressure that could potentially cause leaks in the new containment system or, even worse, a difficult-to-detect and difficult-to-contain rupture in the reservoir that allows oil to seep from the sea bed. On Monday, Washington Post staff writer David A. Fahrenthold proposed another possible motivation for reopening the well: “If the well is never reopened and connected to ships on the surface, it could complicate the U.S. government’s efforts to calculate the ‘flow rate’—the speed at which the oil was leaking,” Fahrenthold wrote. “That would be vital to determining BP’s liability for the spill.”
But as of Wednesday morning, the tests had not stopped. BP has contained oil at the drill site for a full week now (aside from some small leaks Allen described as more like ‘drips,’ according to a Tuesday Associated Press report) and is happy to keep the well closed, but the company’s deviation from the government plan left Allen steamed. Though he has, on a daily basis, granted BP 24-hour extensions on its integrity tests, Allen still sent a strongly-worded letter to BP’s management on Sunday demanding accountability for side effects caused by the cap “in no more than four hours,” as quoted in a Monday Mobile Press-Register report.
He may have reason to be concerned. Also on Sunday, an oil seep was detected less than two miles from BP’s broken well as BP conveyed that pressure levels that “weren’t as high as expected,” the Associated Press reported.
According to a story in Wednesday’s Miami Herald, pressure readings are now at about 6,800 pounds per square inch (PSI)—8,000 to 9,000 PSI is ideal.
The press, the government, and BP have all seemingly avoided the seep. BP spokesman Mark Salt blew off an AP reporter’s seep question by saying, “we continue to work very closely with all government scientists on this.” In recent days, Allen has called the seepage “inconsequential,” and suggested it may be coming from another nearby abandoned well. I’m not an expert, and BP and Allen are surrounded by experts, but my research suggests that subsea oil fields can be many, many miles long. A Wikipedia article on oil fields states that “oil reservoirs typically extend over a large area, possibly several hundred kilometers across.” Other sources describe reservoirs that extend a hundred miles or more. In that light, the idea that a seep is not relevant to the Macondo site because it is two miles away from the well seems disingenuous. And more than one well can tap the same reservoir, so the fact that there is a nearby abandoned well is not necessarily evidence that the Macondo reservoir is not blameworthy for the nearby seep. Information on the Macondo reservoir’s physical dimensions was not available—BP may protect that information for business purposes. However, we do know that the reservoir is thought to contain 50 million barrels of oil, a volume that would require a reservoir of a substantial size.
Seeps occur naturally and frequently in the environment (California’s La Brea Tar Pits is a terrestrial example of a naturally-occurring seep). According to a National Academies’ Ocean Studies Board report that studied oil in the sea from 1990 to 1999, seeps “contribute the highest amount of petroleum to the marine environment, accounting for 45 percent of the total annual load to the world’s oceans and 60 percent of the estimated total load to North American waters.” But unlike a blowout or a spill, seeped oil escapes slowly and continuously—natural forces are enough to degrade the oil before it causes a meaningful environmental impact.
No one is arguing for uncapping the well to stop the seep—that would be cutting off your nose to spite your face. A small, slow seep is obviously preferable to a wide-open gushing well. But consider these things: the seeps’ very existence, the low pressure reading, Allen’s four hour time limit for reporting seeps, Allen and BP’s offhand dismissal of the seep as unrelated to the cap, and Allen’s initial apprehension about the possibility of causing seeps with a cap. With those things in mind, it seems odd that Allen and BP would so quickly disregard the possibility that the seep may be caused by the cap, and subsequently offer little justification. However, there’s still the possibility that they know more than we do.
After three months of this crap, that’s a downright scary thought.
Madison Underwood is a Birmingham Weekly staff writer. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.