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BP's Well May Leak for 55 Years or More Into the Gulf of Mexico?

Wednesday, 14 July 2010 09:01 By Vern Radul, t r u t h o u t | News Analysis | name.

BP
(Image: Roberto Rizzato / Flickr)

On June 15, 2010 the US Department of Energy announced that a group of federal and independent scientists convened by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, and Chair of the National Incident Command's Flow Rate Technical Group (FRTG) Dr. Marcia McNutt (Director of the U.S. Geological Survey), had developed a new estimate for the amount of oil gushing from the ruptured well in the Gulf of Mexico that indicated the leak could be spewing up to 2.52 million gallons of crude oil per day from BP's Macondo Well.

"This estimate brings together several scientific methodologies and the latest information from the sea floor, and represents a significant step forward in our effort to put a number on the oil that is escaping from BP's well," said Chu, who then expanded with, "As we continue to collect additional data and refine these estimates, it is important to realize that the numbers can change. In particular, the upper number is less certain - which is exactly why we have been planning for the worst case scenario at every stage and why we are continuing to focus on responding to the upper end of the estimate, plus additional contingencies."

Estimates from both BP and from the US Government of the amount of oil gushing from the blown out wellhead on the gulf seabed have been almost continually revised upwards since the well blowout and leak began on April 20, with widespread suspicions that BP has deliberately understated the leak rate in attempts to limit liability for the company.

It now appears that Chu may have been somewhat prescient with his statement that "it is important to realize that the numbers can change", and that the estimate of oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico may need to be increased again, since an undated internal BP document obtained by Chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA) was released by Markey on Sunday June 20 showing that BP's own internal analysis believed that a worst-case scenario, based on damage to the well bore, could result in a leak rate from the well of 55,000 to 100,000 barrels of oil per day.

In the document, BP stated: "If BOP and wellhead are removed and if we have incorrectly modeled the restrictions, the rate could be as high as 100,000 barrels per day up the casing or 55,000 barrels per day up the annulus (low probability worst cases)"

"Considering what is now known about BP's problems with this well prior to the Deepwater Horizon explosion, including cementing issues, leaks in the blowout preventer and gas kicks, BP should have been more honest about the dangerous condition of the well bore," said Markey:

"When the oil spill started, BP said it was only 1,000 barrels a day. Now we know it could end up being 100 times larger than that in a worst-case scenario."

"This document raises very troubling questions about what BP knew and when they knew it. It is clear that, from the beginning, BP has not been straightforward with the government or the American people about the true size of this spill. Now the families living and working in the Gulf are suffering from their incompetence."

"BP needs to tell us what it will do if the well bore is compromised and 100,000 barrels per day of oil spills into the ocean. At this point, we need real contingency planning, not a plan with dead scientists and walruses..."

100,000 barrels per day would be 4.2 million gallons of oil per day leaking into the waters of the gulf, or more every three days than the total officially reported 10.8 million gallons of crude oil the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill poured into Prince William Sound off the Gulf of Alaska.

BP's well has now been leaking continuously for more than two months.

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Congressman Markey appeared on NBC's Meet The Press with his announcement. Democracy Now's Amy Goodman reports in this video:

What may be even more troubling is a Sunday June 20 Associated Press report that states:

The oil emanating from the seafloor contains about 40 percent methane, compared with about 5 percent found in typical oil deposits, said John Kessler, a Texas A&M University oceanographer who is studying the impact of methane from the spill.

That means huge quantities of methane have entered the Gulf, scientists say, potentially suffocating marine life and creating "dead zones" where oxygen is so depleted that nothing lives.

"This is the most vigorous methane eruption in modern human history," Kessler said.

The small microbes that live in the sea have been feeding on the oil and natural gas in the water and are consuming larger quantities of oxygen, which they need to digest food. As they draw more oxygen from the water, it creates two problems. When oxygen levels drop low enough, the breakdown of oil grinds to a halt; and as it is depleted in the water, most life can't be sustained.

All of which prompted Orlando Independent Examiner Gregory Patin to speculate that:

Given the continual incremental increases of the oil leak as well as the failure to mention the amount of methane gas escaping in to the Gulf, it does suggest that at best, this is a result of utter incompetence or outright lies. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the American people have been willfully mislead by BP, the corporate media and the US government in order to gradually condition them to accept the enormity of this disaster.

It is also possible that the environmental damage will not be able to be reversed - at least in our lifetimes. Some of the oil may be able to be cleaned up, but it is impossible to clean up methane.

If the well is leaking at this so far maximum estimated rate of 100,000 barrels per day, that times 365 days in a year would equal 36 million 500 thousand barrels leaked per year.

Oil industry analysts have estimated that there may be as much as a billion barrels or more of oil in the reservoir below BP's Macondo Well.

CNN's Wolf Blitzer said on June 16 that "One - one expert said to me - and I don't know if this is overblown or not - that they're still really concerned about the structural base of this whole operation, if the rocks get moved, this thing could really explode and they're sitting, what, on - on a billion potential barrels of oil at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico."

Bloomberg noted June 19 that, "The ruptured well may hold as much as 1 billion barrels, the Times reported, citing Rick Mueller, an analyst at Energy Security Analysis in Massachusetts."

CBS noted on June 18 that, "The oil well spewing in the Gulf of Mexico could contain as much as 1 billion barrels of oil and could keep flowing for more than a decade, the Times of London reported" and that, "The Macondo oil well could be one of the largest oil discoveries in the world."

The Times article has since been removed from their website. The Times and its sister paper the Sunday Times are published by Times Newspapers Limited, a subsidiary of News International. News International is entirely owned by the News Corporation group, headed by Rupert Murdoch.

Given that BP's nearby Tiber and Kaskida wells each contain at least three billion barrels of oil (see this, this, this and this), estimates of more than a billion barrels for the leaking Macondo reservoir are not unreasonable.

If the well is leaking at this so far maximum estimated rate of 100,000 barrels per day, and there are 1 billion barrels of oil in the reservoir, then determining how long the well could leak if it is not plugged is a simple high school mathematics level calculation.

One billion barrels divided by 100,000 barrels per day equals 10,000 days to empty the reservoir into the Gulf of Mexico.

That would mean a continuous leak of 100,000 barrels per day for 27.39 years, if the well is not plugged.

If BP's well is "only" leaking at half that rate - at 50,000 barrels per day - then it will leak for about 55 years, if there is a billion barrels in the reservoir, if it is not plugged.

While these admittedly back-of-the-envelope calculations do not take into account possible pressure and daily flow rate changes over time, they certainly give a new perspective on the enormity of the catastrophe and on its potential environmental impacts.

With those calculations in mind, it is therefore no surprise that Kenneth Feinberg, the US lawyer chosen to manage the $20 Billion compensation fund BP agreed to in a June 16 deal with President Barack Obama, said that not all claimants for damages resulting from BP's leak can be compensated:

"There's not enough money in the world to pay every single small business that claims injury no matter where or when," Kenneth Feinberg told the House of Representatives Committee on Small Business.

"You've got to decide in a principled way... and work out some definition in that regard," he said, while stating his determination to "pay every eligible claim."

"There's no question that the property value has diminished as a result of the spill. That doesn't mean that every property is entitled to compensation," he said, adding: "There's not enough money in the world to pay everybody who'd like to have money."

Feinberg, who also headed a compensation fund for victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks, was tapped by President Barack Obama to administer the 20-billion-dollar fund established by BP earlier this month.

The House Committee on Small Business examined the recently created $20 billion BP compensation fund for victims of the oil spill at a hearing entitled "Recovery in the Gulf: What the $20 Billion BP Claims Fund Means for Small Businesses" on June 30, 2010.

Watch Kenneth Feinberg's testimony to the committee in this video, from the hearing:

It is also no surprise, considering the calculations above and the potential for a decades long uncontrolled leak into the Gulf of Mexico, that the day after BP agreed in meeting with Obama to the compensation fund that the International Business Times reported that the $20 billion escrow fund (.PDF) deal may in fact have been a positive outcome for BP in terms of limiting BP's exposure over the long term:

Credit analysts see the negotiated $20 billion escrow fund as a positive outcome for BP because it reduced a significant amount of uncertainty and stretched the payments over 3.5 years.

The terms include $20 billion set aside in an escrow fund to pay for damages and $100 million in a separate fund to help oil workers who lost their jobs. In addition, BP has agreed cancel dividends for the rest of 2010.

For the $20 billion fund, BP will pay $3 billion in the third quarter of this year, $2 billion in the fourth quarter, and then $1.25 billion per quarter until the full amount is exhausted. Meanwhile, before the fund reaches $20 billion, BP will set aside U.S. assets to "assure" payments.

However, $20 billion is not the cap for liabilities and it does not include fines and penalties.

Brian Gibbons, senior oil & gas analyst at CreditSights, an independent credit research firm, said the $20 billion escrow fund - which was not overly punitive - removed a large degree of regulatory uncertainty by providing an established dollar amount and time line.

"The fear was that the government was going to do something so drastic as to effectively push the company into bankruptcy," said Gibbons.

"Now they can come out of the meeting and say they have held BP accountable and hold up a $20 billion escrow account," explained Gibbons.

The cost of helping the US Gulf Coast recover economically from BP's catastrophic oil leak could run into the trillions of dollars, a US lawmaker said Thursday following a briefing from top government officials.

"It will take billions of dollars - even trillions," Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee told reporters, citing "a presentation by the president's team on the BP oil spill" early Thursday July 1.

The ecological environment and sea life of the Gulf of Mexico may never recover.

A version of this article originally appeared at Antemedius | Liberally Critical Thinking.

Vern Radul

Vern Radul is editor of Antemedius where he blogs under the pseudonym "Edger" 

Last modified on Wednesday, 14 July 2010 13:46