Monday, July 12, 2010

Hope and optimism flow in the Gulf of Mexico

A native son visited the Gulf last night, lifting the spirits of millions by playing for thousands and doing it all for free.  But the real reason for hope and optimism: We are going to learn about the Macondo well integrity as early as today, perhaps tomorrow, and the flow of oil might be significant checked within days.

On Saturday, engineers removed the Lower Marine Riser Cap that has been restricting the flow of oil from the damaged blowout preventer.  Yesterday, the damaged base portion of the original riser was removed, and oil began flowing at the most unrestricted rate yet. 

Through today, engineers will lower a new cap to the wellhead, which will be bolted onto the flange that once held the riser's base.  Once in place, a series of tests will be performed to determine the condition of the well's casing, which is the steel pipe that extends from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico down to the reservoir itself.

Last month, there was informed speculation that the well casing was damaged by the blowout, and that the well's integrity was very likely to have been compromised.  Dire predictions of a completely unrestricted and unstoppable flow of oil followed, until USCG's Admiral Thad Allen provided an update of sorts on what is and is not known about the casing system.  Essentially, we have had no idea if the well casing is compromised, but the informed speculation leaned heavily towards significant damage.  Sometime over the next day or so, we're gonna find out.

And what's discovered is important for two reasons.  First, it will allow engineers to determine something that a successful relief well killing would have obscured forever.  Once the well casing and bore are pumped with mud and sealed with cement, the entire well is sealed off thousands of feet below the sea floor, which is itself about a mile below the surface of the water.  Without the testing that will ensue over the next 24 to 48 hours, we would lose critical data that could lead to much safer drilling procedures in future deepwater exploration.

But secondly, and much more importantly for those of us who are sick and tired of not having the damned hole plugged, an undamaged well casing means that the new cap could conceivably be used to completely close off the flow.  The analysis consists of a series of pressure tests that will determine the degree of integrity of the casing system.  If these tests show that the casing is uncompromised, the new cap can turn off the well like you or I could turn off a free flowing hose by closing the spigot.  The flow of oil would be completely stopped until the relief well(s) kill(s) Macondo with drilling mud and the cement plugs. 

But if the casing system is compromised, engineers will reconnect the piping to the Discoverer Enterprise, the Q4000 and the Helix Producer, using a collection system designed to capture virtually all of the hydrocarbons flowing from the well.  That capture will continue until the relief well project concludes in the next several weeks.  So, one way or the other, the next few days are absolutely critical.  Not only are we going to learn a great deal about the down hole corners that were cut by BP, we're also likely to get control of the well for the first time since the deadly explosion, fire, and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon.

Extra Point: Of interest is the fact that none of the publicly viewable ROV "spillcams" are showing any of the process.

Gimme some feedback in the comments.

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