Planet Gore

‘What We’ve Learned From the Gulf Spill’

Physicist Michio Kaku has a thoughtful op-ed in today’s WSJ on what’s been learned from the BP disaster. (Behind the paywall) Some excerpts:

The nagging question is: Why did it take so long? Why couldn’t they have capped the leak months ago?

For three agonizing months, BP’s engineers and executives were essentially making things up as they went along, conducting a billion dollar science project with the American people as guinea pigs. The basic science of stopping oil leaks at 5,000 feet below sea level should have been done years ago.

All eight failed attempts to control the leak might have worked if the blowout had taken place at 200 feet. The 1979 Ixtoc oil leak in Mexico, which was the mother of all oil disasters, took place at 160 feet and raged for 10 months. It was eventually stopped by a relief well. The lessons learned from that and other oil disasters gave confidence to engineers in the industry that they could handle any leak.

Physics are different at 5,000 feet than they are at 200 feet. The pressure at 5,000 feet is enormous, about 2,000 pounds per square inch. Think of placing a passenger car on every square inch of your chest. You would be crushed like an egg shell within a fraction of a second. Even military submarines cannot operate at those depths. Instead, special remote controlled robotic subs are required. They are often hard to control and sometimes even collide.

And his conclusion:

In the future there should be much tighter controls on deep-water drilling, and there should be redundant systems on hand so that the well can be capped or siphoned immediately if the blowout preventer fails. Perhaps relief wells should be drilled simultaneously with the main well, since they are the gold standard for stopping oil leaks and work nearly without fail. There also has to be a standby fleet of ships with skimmers, centrifugal pumps and booms ready to handle oil once it is leaked.

More importantly, the basic science of plugging oil leaks at great depths has to be completed, so that any future tragedies will not be repeated as farce. Until we end our oil addiction and develop alternative energy sources, similar plotlines will no doubt recur.

Mandates to drill relief wells might make sense, but would be expensive. If Brazil, for example, doesn’t impose similar conditions then why would any oil company drill in American waters when they can make much more money elsewhere? And secondly, there were supposed to be booms on hand for controlled burns, but those were nonexistent. Those booms being missing is as much a failure at the state level as at the federal level. I can’t believe that there isn’t someone on the Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, or Florida state payroll whose job it is to check on those booms. 

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