"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Some Spill-Related Conversation at the Oil Drum

Lifted directly from The Oil Drum, and relevant to some of the recent themes here. Emphasis added by me.

Relevant to the shabby sensationalism at NPR and much echoed on green media:
shelburn on May 27, 2010 - 11:22am

AP News release

U.S. Geological Survey Director Dr. Marcia McNutt said Thursday that a government task force estimates that anywhere from 500,000 gallons to a million gallons a day has been leaking.

The new government estimate means at least 19 million gallons and maybe as much as 39 million gallons have leaked in the five weeks since an oil rig exploded and sank.

That would be about 12,000 to 24,000 bpd, way under the previous "scientific" estimates. And it is a range, not a flat number. Looks like the task force may be getting it right. No mention in the press release of the snapshot of time when the estimate was made.

Media of course grabs the number and multiplies by number of days starting 3 or 4 days before the blow out without any adjustment or mention of the flow starting out slow and steadily increasing.

That would make the Purdue number which was supposed to be accurate by +/- 20% off by 75% even using the task force's high number, 87% using their low number. And he was on the task force. Be interesting if there is any follow up from the media about the overstatements.

It is still a terrible spill, almost certainly surpassing the Exxon Valdez (which may have actually be close to twice as much as Exxon reported) in quantity even if the top kill is successful.

...and right in line with the estimates posted here on TOD. Too bad the press didn't come here for a little education - they would have been able to ask better questions and provide much better service to the public. I sent NPR a nasty note early on (before the flow-rate controversy) criticizing their superficial coverage, lack of informed analysis, etc. and pointed to the discussions here - not that it did any good...

The gas fraction wasn't addressed in the press release was it?

One can hope that the report from the task force, when it is finalized, will include estimates of the rate over time from the beginning.

Overall the incident is a hard lesson for all sides. The industry needs to have effective procedures and techniques at the ready to handle repairs and disaster mitigation at depth if deep water drilling is to continue. Spill response needs to be improved. We need to understand what happens to oil released at depth and how it affects the ocean ecosystem. Is use of dispersants really the best of the bad alternatives?

Relevant to the technical competence of the response:

First post, so please forgive my ignorance and delete if inappropriate to this thread. Can anyone tell me why they waited over a month to attempt this top kill?

Mostly Amrita, it's because the engineering to do this took a very long time to get right. The pressures and other difficulties under the water made this a logistic nightmare--it was unprecedented. Worse, it was a one-shot game--they screwed it up, this thing gushed until the pressure eased.

Thank you, Professor. I appreciate the level heads and technical knowledge on this site. Praying this works...

Unfortunately the media has done a poor job of explaining the timeframe, why, what, and how. It is juicier to report about how the experts don't know what they are doing, the administration is sitting on their hands and talk about doomsday scenarios. This reporting is flat out wrong in many cases. It would have been much better if real experts and highly knowledgeable individuals like those on this site were the ones covering this.

Re: Shelburn's "Be interesting if there is any follow up from the media about the overstatements," place your bets, ladies and gents.


Steve Bloom said...

I'd say the offical understements are rather more deserving of attention than the unofficial overstatements.

Hank Roberts said...

The overestimates were from the few brief video snapshots available? Or have there been more estimates since the more or less continuous feed was provided?

Hank Roberts said...

The overestimates were from the few brief video snapshots available? Or have there been more estimates since the more or less continuous feed was provided?

Incidentally, a reminder that working at this depth is also the way to get a large supply of cold water for a variety of uses, e.g.

bigcitylib said...

If you read OD now it looks like this thing has totally failed.

dhogaza said...

Top kill is dead ... BP stopped pumping last midnight, and didn't inform the media until after 5PM EDT. While during the day their operations manager was singing an optimistic tune suggesting possible success and stating that they were continuously pumping mud.

The actuality - "top kill #1" is dead, all the mud that was mixed with the oil coming out today was just the well clearing its throat, apparently.

So, it's "top kill #2" ... they've just restarted an hour or so ago.

They were saying they'd pump junk first then mud, but the reports I've seen thus far don't say whether they did, or just resumed mud (apparently the pumping from yesterday afternoon until midnight consumed about 1/2 of the three barge loads they had on hand).

dhogaza said...

bigcitylib beat me to it ... but I had more detail! :)

I don't know WTF BP is doing, talking all day about pumping mud while no mud is being pumped.

It's possibly just a communications problem, but you'd think at this point they would do everything possible to get everyone singing the same tune.

And to get information out ASAP.

Marion Delgado said...

No one connected with BP has addressed at least the possibility of using supertankers to suck up water and oil and clean it. Not to side with Andy Revkin and Chris "Where are the supertankers??" Matthews, but still - I think the oil community is filled with liars and people with an exaggerated sense of competence. If you're only listening to them, Michael, you're getting at most half the story. Alaska has a long history dealing with that fact.

dhogaza said...

Oh, it takes competence to drill a 13,000 foot well 5,000 feet under the ocean from a floating platform, and getting the oil out.

It's just that such competence isn't useful for dealing with the aftereffects of a disaster of this sort. Yeah, they know how to drill another well and intercept the existing drill line, but waiting three months for that isn't what we want to see.

Nor apparently is there anything like the necessary investment in pre-planning, engineering, training, etc to build the competence which is required to deal with such a disaster.

BTW the "top kill" effort was being managed by someone who was part of the famous team of well-killers who dealt with the Kuwait oil fields after Saddam blew up hundreds of wells. They did a lot of improvisation but that was on the surface. And they had a lot of relevant prior experience.

Michael Tobis said...

Just caught up on TOD.


I don't defend BP lying. I also can't see what's in it for them. Except...

The idea that this was financial trickery (shares of BP recovered today; if the current talk on TOD is right they will plummet right back down tomorrow...) is sickeningly plausible to me.

Again that is the suits and not the engineers.

dhogaza said...

Some depressing thoughts on the oil drum from someone who seems to have some relevant knowledge about this stuff...

It really does seem grim for the top kill. Not that the linked post is ultimately authoritative, but if people knowledgeable about the business can come up with lists of all sorts of reasons why it might not work, I at least, will worry.

Horatio Algeranon said...

Of course, speculation about the magnitude of the flow -- and of the cumulative total oil "spilled" -- might easily have been minimized (if not eliminated) if government scientists had simply been tasked (allowed?) to put their best monitoring instrumentation in place at the soonest convenient/safe time after the blowout happened.

But that would have spoiled all the fun (especially for BP) ~@:>

Michael Tobis said...

Does such instrumentation exist? How would one install it under the circumstances?

The main problem of course is still the filthy goop flowing into the Gulf, but I'm quite bothered by the way it's being discussed.

If you could say "why didn't they just put a flange grobulator, say the XYZ-1551 model from Acme, in line of sight of the outflow" that would be a different matter.

Failing that, I don't really know what to say. My point all along has been that the people on the scene now are not the people who were on the scene at the time of the big screwups. I wish them every success but I don't see what the point is for blaming them for any failures, never mind the mockery and contempt they are getting.

If you get into an accident at your workplace you can blame your management chain, you can blame yourself, but you can't blame the company doctor who is trying to set your leg.

Steven Sullivan said...

If the doc fails in his task of setting the leg, I think the doc has to take some of the blame for *that*.

But the situation's not quite analogous. Millions of legs have been set by doctors. This deep-sea blowout is a first. A 'screwup' here by the 'docs' might or might not be as blameworthy as one involving a broken leg. It really depends on the nature of the screwup.

-Steven Sullivan

Horatio Algeranon said...

>> Does such instrumentation exist?

"Best" means just that: the best that is available -- and actually might encompass a combination of instruments (in addition to video, for example) configured in a way that minimizes the uncertainty (installed at multiple perspectives, for example)

I'm certainly no expert but such people do exist. In his testimony to the Energy Commerce committee, Woods Hole expert Richard Camilli talked about one instrument that might be employed to gauge the flow:

imaging multi-beam sonar

At the very least, it might have helped improve the estimates obtained from other methods (eg, video).

>> How would one install it under the circumstances?

Again, experts certainly exist and I would also note that BP did manage to install video cameras and were doing lots of other stuff down there that would seem to be at least as (if not more) involved than putting a few instruments in place.

Also, several oceanographic research institutes actually have ROVs and it is at least possible that they could have installed the instruments themselves.

Camilli actually offered his expertise and instruments in this case but was not utilized by BP (for whatever reason)

It would not seem to be particularly controversial to say that the instrumentation and procedure for monitoring the oil flow in this case was "suboptimal" from a scientific standpoint (ie, that the best available instruments and procedures -- and people -- were not used)

My goodness, the government was actually sticking with the 5000 barrel per day estimate for some time after FSU's Ian MacDonald and John Amos (Skytruth) were telling them they were likely significantly underestimating the flow (their estimate actually falls at the upper end of the range specified by the latest "official estimate" )

of course, even the latest estimates are only rough approximations. Certainly not as accurate as they would have been if monitoring had been better performed.

Michael Tobis said...

Wow. That's pretty much exactly how I imagined the XYZ-1551!

OK, how would you deploy it within 20 m of the plume? How would you keep it out of the way of the ROVs? When would you install it?

We already pretty much know the number is between 10K and 50K bb/day. Suppose it said 22,750 bb/day. What value does that information add?

Nosmo said...

Heard on the radio (Democracy Now I think) this morning that the fines imposed on BP are somewhat determined by the quantity spilled. So BP has a financial incentive to keep the estimates low. Hence they only released one short video of one of the leaks. BP knew all along that the leak was much larger the 5000 bpd, they just have no interest in correcting anyones misimpression.

The ROVs are controlled by cable. It is a big issue to keep the cables from getting tangled especially 5000 feet deep with multiple ROVs. If your first priority is to stop the leak then you don't want additional ROVs putting instruments down there just to monitor flow, you would get by with estimates from the pictures.

It is also well known in the oil industry that BP is not a well run company and has a terrible safety record. No one from Alaska is surprised by this. (Exxon actually is very well run and aside from once hiring a drunk to captain a ship, they have an excellent safety record)

Hank Roberts said...

NPR is back interviewing scientists:


"... it was impossible for members of the team that analyzed the oil plume video to estimate the upper boundary of the oil spilled, according to the Ira Leifer, a researcher at the Marine Science Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Steven Wereley, a researcher at Purdue University.

Wereley and Leifer were both members of that team, and Leifer participated in the satellite image analysis as well. Both researchers say that the seven minutes of video that BP provided to the plume team was not sufficient to estimate the upper boundary of the amount of oil -- only to give a lower-end estimate.

"What everyone on the panel agreed was that due to the low-quality data BP provided to us, it would be irresponsible and unscientific to estimate an upper bound to the emission," said Leifer. "So what we presented in the [plume team] report is a range of expert opinions on what the lower bound is."

Wereley said he was surprised to see estimate of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels and was "disappointed" with the way that the press release was phrased.

"I was really confused when I read the press release yesterday," he said. "I had to read it several times."

An official from Department of the Interior acknowledged that the plume analysis did not set an upper limit on the amount of oil spilled, but said that the estimate of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels per day was based on the area of overlap between the three different methods of estimating the flow.

But Leifer said that he thought combining the analyses this way was comparing apples to oranges.

Meanwhile, all of the panel members emphasized that the results presented Thursday are preliminary."

Hank Roberts said...

Oh, the above was

> Re: Shelburn's "Be interesting
> if there is any follow up from
> the media ....

Hank Roberts said...

ps -- it was only 2 months ago:

Don't miss the illustration.

Michael Tobis said...

Hank, a good riposte. All the same, I don't believe the number is over 25K, at least not yet.

By which I mean not that I don't believe it yet, I mean that I strongly believe that it hasn't exceeded that rate yet. (It may do if the well gets uncorked.) I think it unlikely that I will change my mind on this.

So the perception of whether there is something wrong here again depends on which side of the fence you were sitting on in the first place.

All you can tell from kinematics is how much fluid there is. The fluid includes methane, rapidly expanding at the pipe outlet.

Maybe the kinematics were wrong, too, but we don't need to appeal to that. Anyway, the experienced oil hands don't believe in the 85,000 number, and it was reported far too credulously by NPR.

Hank Roberts said...


Hank Roberts said...

Another streaming video source, because the local TV station and CNN have had different feeds with different timestamps and it's not clear who's got live video now.

Hank Roberts said...

Michael, that quote wasn't meant as a 'riposte' -- it's the only media followup I've seen. This was the key bit:
Wereley said he was surprised to see estimate of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels and was "disappointed" with the way that the press release was phrased.

"I was really confused when I read the press release yesterday," he said. "I had to read it several times."

So typical of what we read scientists saying about press releases based on their work. I'm trying to dig for facts in the fog, not argue for or against, hoping what I find is helpful.

Well, reality has moved on. I've read comments about a pipe bursting in the comments on the WKRP and the CNN video pages associated with comments about halting the feeds (last night?) but haven't found anything very clear.

The newest stream I've found is showing black oil with intermittent bursts of gas bubbles, "Herc 6 Plume Monitorinig" camera:
http://www.ustream.tv/channel-popup/bp-oil-disaster-live has sombre background music I wish I could identify!

There ought to be far better estimates of flow coming out somewhere from someone since those being talked about before were just from the brief first video clips.

Hank Roberts said...

Small update at the PBS link:

Wereley said that BP had provided more video as of Thursday, which the panel will begin to analyze soon in an attempt to define an upper limit for the spill.

Updated 8:55 a.m., Saturday, May 29

Interior Department spokeswoman Julie Rodriguez said in a written statement:

The FRTG was assembled on the principle that, given the complexity of estimating a flow rate at 5000 feet below the surface of the water, many different scientists and approaches should be brought together to try to find best estimates at this point in time. As Dr. McNutt made clear yesterday, there are and will continue to be, differing estimates and conclusions within the group. ...."

Hank Roberts said...