Paul Noel: „If the sea floor collapses we could have a much bigger problem“
In the following interview Paul provided us with a lot of detailed information on the leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. As Paul points out the amount of oil currently flowing out of the well and other parts of the sea floor should be much higher than the 60,000 barrels per day (BPD) which were recently estimated by the US government. A much bigger problem for the Southern region in the USA could arise, if the sea floor eventually collapsed. Such an event could trigger a tsunami or even more likely an earth quake what again would lead to a situation in which more oil would flood the Gulf of Mexico. Such an event doesn´t have to happen but if it happened it could make the problems much worse.
Thanks a lot for your cooperation and your willingness to take your time for providing us with so many detailed and interesting information on the leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. What we will do as soon as possible is to translate the following interview into German, too for making sure that all our German, Austrian and Swiss readers get those information in the right way as well!!!
wirtschaftsfacts.de: Surviving members of the Deepwater Horizon Crew explained that a huge methan bubble had come up through the pipe before the oil platform exploded. This methan bubble led to the explosion of the platform. Did the drilling device dig into a layer of methan hydrates on the ground of the deep sea? Did it cause the sinking of the platform?
Paul Noel: Methane Ices: Methane Hydrates begin formation as the water temperature approaches the freezing level and the water pressure elevates. North Sea Methane hydrates are something Europeans will be somewhat familiar with. These typically form in areas where methane is migrating upwards through the rock and it encounters cold high pressure water. Oil Industry problems with methane hydrates are legendary and include many such events. They are often known as ß?Shallow Gasß?. As the drill drives down usually less than 1.000 meters of depth this may cause methane to explode upwards. This surrounds the rig in a cloud of methane causing fires, explosions and as it bubbles through the sea, a loss of buoyancy by the rig if it is floating. This was not the failure in the case of the Deep Sea Horizon rig. They suffered another failure entirely.
The Deep Sea Horizon rig lost control of the pressures in the drill casing. They had a very high pressure well per BP numbers about 20,000 PSI (137,000 kPa). This is not at all exception in the area and in fact may be a bit low for the region. Pressures upwards of 65,000 PSI are common nearby. The well was one prone to severe pressure fluctuations. The pressure is controlled by weighting down the drill mud in the well until its weight matches the well pressure. Methane hydrates may account for much of the instability of this well but in fact drilling was not in progress when the well failed.
According to testimony before the Rep. Markey (US House) Halliburton Corp, the placement of several more concrete plugs in the well than BP wanted installed. BP also demanded that the counterweight mud be removed from the well before Halliburton staff believed it was safe to do so. The resulting situation cause a massive methane bubble to form in the well and it drove out the mud and the other content of the well leaving an open hole to the sea floor.
One might think that the Blowout Preventer (BOP) could be shut and stop this problem. BP had cut corners and the BOP is just resting on top of the well. It is not locked down and cannot be used for this purpose. This is also from Rep. Markey sources. As such the device is nearly useless. The upwards thrust of the well onto the BOP if it were shut off (using BP numbers) is approximately 15,000 long tons. This means that the BOP is useless. Even if it were secured, it is likely that the pressures in the well could eject the casing and the BOP very violently from the well.
Rep. Markey reported that BP had put in 3 concentricity devices when Halliburton asked to put in 28. This is serious because it suggests that the well even with the casing plugged is unstable and dangerous. These devices are installed because as a drill goes deep into the earth the pressure on the rock is very high. As the drill relieves the pressure the rock explodes inward and makes the well grow quite a bit larger than the bit cuts. This makes the well casing hang in open space and unable to block methane and oil from erupting around the casing. With only 3 such devices installed the well is always dangerous. If any of these fails, the well is subject to blowing out around the sides. BP also used cheaper steel which is subject to pressure failures and corrosion. The only description of this well is that is trouble.
wirtschaftsfacts.de: Are you able to provide us with detailed information on the structure of the methan hydrates on the ground of the Gulf of Mexico? What kind of dangers is associated with those structures in the current situation?
Paul Noel: Nearly the entire region of the Gulf of Mexico below about 3,000 feet contains large quantities of methane hydrates. Above that depth the deposits are not always there but do occur frequently. The exact quantities vary but are something in the order of 10 meters deep of near pure hydrate over much of the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Methane hydrates are unstable if the temperature or pressure on them changes. These deep deposits are very stable because the temperature and pressure are not unstable at these locations.
The reason the methane hydrates are so common here is that the region produces massive seeps of methane and oil. The natural leak rate for the Gulf of Mexico in Petroleum Distillate is about 50,000 BPD. The Gulf of Mexico is so adapted to this leak rate that massive quantities of biologic organisms exist and eat this oil almost immediately. With a modest population increase in these organisms which include Bacteria up to very large creatures on the sea floor, the Gulf of Mexico could easily see another 50,000 BPD eaten. Methane seeps are massive and very frequent in the depths of the Gulf of Mexico. I donß?t have quantitative data on the amounts of Methane Seepage. It is just a lot.
The Methane Hydrates are primarily a dangerous feature in fairly shallow areas. This is because temperatures can change and pressures can change there. Deep areas do not see Methane Hydrates posing these dangers. Deep oil is quite hot, if the deep oil comes up and heats the surrounding rock it could trigger problems. These would manifest as Methane releases outside of the well casing.
wirtschaftsfacts.de: What will be the long-term consequences for the whole region? The American scientist James P. Wickstrom recently warned that a tsunami might hit the southern coast of the US. You think so, too?
Paul Noel: Tsunami Risks: The problem of tsunami is largely a product of landform shifts in shallow water. Deeper water does not see this risk as much however; there is a real risk if a major land form shift occurs that such could happen. The whole risk set associated with an oil well at this location surrounds what happens if the earth shifts to compensate for the release of material supporting it or not. At Petronious (a Gas field) about 15 miles from this Macondo Well, during well prove in processes earthquakes up to 4.5 have been triggered. Such events are big enough to risk tsunami.
The volume of oil removed from the formation at this time can be measured as a very significant amount. There is a genuine risk of tsunami though I think that the risk at least for now is fairly low. It is simply a matter of time until something has to shift. The issue is how it will shift and what happens when it shifts. It is probably a much greater risk that the sea floor will crack and release even more oil. That risk has been reported to be actually happening from oil industry sources. However, I have not been able to get quantitative data on exactly how much has happened. One Oil industry analyst has reported that the releases of these cracks are actually at this time higher than the original spill. Again the data is not entirely in on this.
(1) Tourism: Tourism is a very large industry along the pretty white sand beaches of Alabama, and Florida. These are essentially out of business now for an extended period. This period will extend for several years after the oil stops. In Alabama this is about $50 Billion a year. In North Florida it is above $100 Billion a year. Fishing is a core part of the food industry in the area and also a core part of the tourist business. This is going to be severely damaged for about 10 years and lesser damage will be seen up to 25 years or so.
(2) Fish Stocks: The sea food industry is massive in the area. Due to over fishing elsewhere on earth most fishing grounds are in severe decline. This area was a bright spot. It was well managed and continuing stable production. The percentage of the world supply cut off here is about 20%. This will put strong market pressure on the already over fished grounds around the world. This area being out of action even for a year or two will cause large numbers of people in the region of Africa and Southern Asia to seek new homes due to the shortage of sea foods. Sea food stocks will be damaged to unusable levels for about a year or two after the well is shut in. Then gradually more and more stocks will return. Some species of fishes will take nearly 50 years to be fully back into ß?normalß? populations. This owes not to fish kills but to massive amounts of damage to the breeding grounds in tidal estuary regions and to young fish stocks being damaged near shore.
(3) Trade: There is a severe limitation on the functionality of the Port at New Orleans, Louisiana Pascagoula, Mississippi and Mobile, Alabama. This is going to impact European and Asia trade as these 3 ports account for over 50% of US foreign trade. The economic impacts will be massive on all parties. Pascagoula is an automated containerized port. The Port of New Orleans and the mouth of the Mississippi River there represent the entrance a series of deep river ports that can take ocean going freighters up to Memphis, Tennessee. While none of these ports individually rivals Rotterdam, Netherlands the combined port on the Mississippi river is much larger than in trade than any port in the European Union.
(4) Environmental: The spill as of this date is only beginning to cause its final damage. Marshes and wetlands inundated with oil are severely damaged with one oil exposure but they recover. Repeated exposure leaves them about as lifeless as a modern roadway. These marshes and wetlands are the breeding grounds for much of the sea life in the region. The effects extend up to Europe in the North Sea region as the Gulf Stream which originates in the area goes to that area. The migrations of many types of fishes and birds extend to the Arctic and further south through these waters. This location is a nexus or connection point for their travels and breeding. In the Americaß?s large amounts of migratory birds cross this area in the fall and spring time. Little is known about the interaction of these birds and the sea but it cannot be insignificant. We even have butterflies (Monarch) that migrate across this region. During the migrations these birds are so concentrated on these marshes as their final preparation point for their over sea flights the effects cannot be minor. The number of birds is so high that they literally block the function of coastal Radar used for weather detection. A very high percentage of whales and dauphins lives in this area. Reports are that about 80% of the world dauphin population lives in this spill area. Many types of larger whales migrate through the region and have their babies there.
(5) Sea Birds: Specifically there are large populations of sea birds such as Pelicans and others which will be severely impacted. These will take many decades to fully recover. There are birds that spend most of their life on the water near the coast. These birds are most certainly dead.
wirtschaftsfacts.de: What would trigger such a tsunami? Or perhaps earth quake? James P. Wickstrom explained that the huge pressure in the cavity that forms under the earthß?s crust due to the leaking oil will eventually lift the deep sea floor which would inevitably lead to the catastrophe. Does he dramatize?
Paul Noel: More specifically the sea floor will collapse. The collapse is absolutely certain. The only question is how it will collapse. As the oil escapes the deposit several types of collapse are possible. A simple subsidence would allow this to happen safely. If the canyon where they have drilled subsides in the wrong place, you could see the effect of a land slide under the sea. This is the Tsunami cause event more than any other with the most potential. This shifts massive quantities of water. The canyon is about 2 miles deep. The well is on a mesa about half way down the slope of the canyon. If the earth merely cracks and slides a little this might seem a minor event. Unfortunately the event could let oil escape catastrophically and in an uncontrolled release this has real danger to even the people of Europe.
I would not want anyone to think that I am projecting this as a certain event. It is a possible event. The deposit of oil in the central Gulf of Mexico is several orders of magnitude larger than those in the Saudi Arabian deposits. It is also massively higher pressure. The Saudi and Kuwaiti fields are much less pressure than this deposit. A lot depends on the connection between the Macondo well and the deeper in the center of the Gulf of Mexico. A catastrophic failure of the canyon wall under subsidence events that are possible could bring up such a massive quantity of oil that it would not only soil the US Gulf of Mexico and the US Atlantic coast, it would dump oil onto the European shores as well.
wirtschaftsfacts.de: Could the situation get worse, if the methan hydrates on the deep sea floor release further?
Paul Noel: The Methane Hydrates could get involved in this if the warm oil from deep in the earth begins to rise and this could cause an ß?explosiveß? failure of the canyon walls. Yes things could get a lot worse. Hopefully they will not. It is not impossible but it is also a fairly remote possibility that this would happen.
wirtschaftsfacts.de: A tsunami or earth quake would contaminate the entire coastal area in the southern states. The US-government keeps silent and passive. Is there anything that Mr. Obama could do? Evacuate the region for example.
Paul Noel: I wouldnß?t worry about contamination of the land if you have tsunami. The real issue would be the damage of the wave at that point. The shallow nature of the area and the long slope of the coast without high land means such would carry quite a distance inland. The storm surge from Hurricane Katrina carried about 60 km inland in places along the coast. I do not see the government doing any kind of evacuation because of dangers. We already have great dangers and all the government is doing is denying what is going on. The best illustration I can give here is in the spill volume estimates. Their first estimate was 1,000 BPD. I have a water well on my property with a 0.75 HP pump and a 3cm outlet pipe. I can throw a stream of water out of my pump that is 1.440 BPD. That should make the claims into lies. Then they decided to throw out 5,000 BPD. Now they are up to 60,000 BPD. An irrigation pump with about 10 PSI output and 41 cm outlet powered by a tractor PTO can throw 377,000 BPD. The well has a pressure differential to the sea of about 400 PSI and nearly twice the cross section of that pump. Anyone who knows pumps and pipes knows that the well is doing well above the Government estimates.
wirtschaftsfacts.de: In this context, what do you think about introducing dispersants and other chemicals into the Gulf of Mexico? Will there still exist fish or an underwater world in the region? How would it affect the world-wide oceans?
Paul Noel: The dispersants are really a trivial local issue. They do damage to the fisheries locally by making the oil spread out even more inside the water columns but they are not really very significant either in quantity or effect. The spill at 60,000 BPD (US Government current estimate) is for just one day about 2 times the chemical they have used over 60 days or about 1/120th. The effect of these chemicals is a problem but probably isnß?t that significant to the whole situation.
wirtschaftsfacts.de: Some American energy experts had the idea to trigger a nuclear bomb on the deep sea floor in order to close the hole. Isnß?t that the choice between the devil and the deep blue sea to have either a tsunami or an atomic bomb off the coast? And would it be safe and reliable that the bomb closed the hole?
Paul Noel: The Russians have done this 5 times. I donß?t know that they ever did it in the sea. I am a bit scared of the nuclear option because it could cause the sudden catastrophic collapse of the formation. At the same time it could solve the problem. It certainly is a difficult choice to make. I would say if it is going to be used, waiting to do it makes no sense. The actual detonation damage would be quite trivial compared to the effect of subsidence etc. that is ongoing. The 4.5 earthquake at Petronius is nearly equal in force to a good sized bomb (20KT) . If a catastrophic failure happened on land it might be serious but likely it could be contained. Under sea as we have seen makes things a lot harder.
wirtschaftsfacts.de: How long will the oil take to disperse? Will that become a global problem?
Paul Noel: This is where the good news comes in. Shocking as it may be to say it, the Gulf of Mexico is the best place on earth to hold an oil spill for this very issue. The Gulf of Mexico is the warmest of the big ocean bodies. (Only the Red Sea is warmer). It is also the saltiest. This makes oil dissipate the fastest anywhere on earth. It is also home to the Gulf Stream. (Recent discussions of the Loop Current are about this). The Gulf Stream is 30 million cubic meters per second flow. That could dilute out a lot more than is going on right now. At 60,000 BPD that would be less than 4 parts per billion. Naturally the distribution isnß?t quite as good as these numbers but the point is that most of the oil will be broken up and such in the next 60 to 90 days. This applies to what is already out. We are already starting to see lots of ß?weathered oilß? in the region. This does mean that Europe is likely to see a small amount of oil and occasional patches but not a significant amount.
Another feature of the Gulf of Mexico is that it seeps naturally about 50,000 BPD. That means that the place is home to a lot of creatures that eat oil. It naturally eats about 50,000 BPD every day and has done so for thousands of years. Only if the spill gets a lot worse will the damage outside the USA become seriously significant. Such is possible but it is a remote possibility.
wirtschaftsfacts.de: When will the oil reach Europeß?s coasts? And what atmospheric disturbances will be the result?
Paul Noel: I suspect that the atmospheric effects have already hit Europe and they certainly have hit the USA. We are experiencing excessive temperatures and nearly catastrophic rainfall events. These happen naturally but this current event set is in line with the effect of heating the ocean more. Europe will see some of this oil but it is likely to arrive as a highly weathered substance and be more of an unusual event than something in quantity. It will be an occasional tar ball or some similar occurrence.
wirtschaftsfacts.de: Could this catastrophe lead to the collapse of the ecological balance on our planet?
Paul Noel: Not at its current level but if the deposit becomes unstable the out end danger is very real of severe worldwide damage. The scale of what is happening at this time is pretty bad. It isnß?t of a scale to alter the whole ecological system except as other human effects may multiply it. It will be a pretty severe hit to the US Gulf Coastal region for a period.
wirtschaftsfacts.de: What is going to happen to the oil giant BP? Didnß?t they try to hush up the dimension of the catastrophe from the beginning on? How could they have used the time better with doing what?
Paul Noel: I have no idea what is going to happen to BP. They definitely did and are still hushing up what is going on. They are harassing press people in the region and they are even pushing for preventing aircraft to fly over and show what is going on. They are making even their day labor sign to not say anything to the press.
I would compare this situation to Chernobyl events. BP would have done far better to come clean from the start than to lie. Everything will look worse than it is if they keep doing what they are doing. The parallels here are striking. The situation is livable but failing to discuss or to rationally deal with the situation makes it get worse. BP has done a great disservice to itself in trying to associate itself as if Americans were anti-English in being angry. US Citizens are definitely mad at BP but there is no anti English or anti EU thought here. Every day that BP uses forceful tactics on the US Gulf Coastal people makes for them enemies of the people who are most disposed to be allies of the Oil industry.
wirtschaftsfacts.de: Even if the world had run out of oil and we went in the direction of peak oil. Should governments continue to hand out drilling licences for deep water drillings to companies like BP?
Paul Noel: Peak oil makes sense in terms of the cost, not by supply. Development of the Macondo well alone cost something in the order of $3 Billion. That takes a lot of money to pay back. The risks obviously were very high. The risks are getting higher and the costs are getting higher for oil every day. The choice of the price of oil is fast becoming one that any rational person would say that the cost is too high. We must go another way.
wirtschaftsfacts.de: What do you think about this: http://atomicnewsreview.org/2010/05/29/toxic-oil-spill-rains-warned-could-destroy-north-america/
Paul Noel: I suspect that the Russians are more aware of this compound than I was before I saw the article. However; the warmth of the region will oxidize the material quite rapidly as well. I did see this AM a photo chemical smog from the spill in Huntsville, Alabama. Huntsville, Alabama is equal distant from the Gulf of Mexico and to Canada. This effect is coming inland.
wirtschaftsfacts.de: How much oil is currently flowing out of the well?
Paul Noel: The US Government is now estimating 60,000 BPD. This AM BP announced that they had contained almost 30,000 BPD into ships or burners. Observing SpillCam on the internet no noticeable difference has occurred in the discharge. Using the example of the irrigation pump which discharges 377,000 BPD the well would surely be doing at least equal to it. This makes the current pickup equal to a possible 7% of the spill. No wonder it doesnß?t show any change on camera. It will take 2 or 3 times that amount to affect the spill visually.
It is important to say that this is not an Oil Well. It is a natural gas well with some oil blowing. So the actual volume may be somewhat less than a solid stream. Compared to the Water Pump, the output would be well able to be 350,000 BPD even if the Gas is displacing much of the oil volume. The Well volume and pressures also say that there could be a lot more than I am saying but I am reluctant to go over this number without more data. The well could be a lot more than I have suggested in this comparison. The cap over the well is massive and it is completely obscured by the oil. The well is most certainly not blowing 60,000 BPD. It is dramatically larger and could be a full order of magnitude or so larger. Again I am not willing to say exactly how much but it is massive.
wirtschaftsfacts.de: Could the drilling of a relief well improve the situation?
Paul Noel: The oil industry says that this is the only real solution. The problems with this solution are all the same as with the original well. At the Ixtoc 1 well in 1979 several such relief wells failed as well before the eventual success happened. This is a dangerous and risky solution. It probably is the only good possibility. The risks are very high including another blowout.
wirtschaftsfacts.de: Do you know anything about the pressure in and surrounding the leaking whole?
Paul Noel: My latest data says that the differential pressure between the BOP and the sea around it is about 400 PSI. The well itself if it were sealed up would reach about 20,000 PSI per BPß?s numbers and there is considerable evidence that this is a low number. It really doesnß?t matter how high it is. It is too high for the devices to control. Pressures in wells of this type arise from 2 features. The first is simply the weight of material on top of the formation. In an oil well this is typically about 1.5 PSI per meter of well in water. In Rock the pressure is about 4 PSI per meter rise. The second factor is if the area is attached to a higher pressure deposit or has some other feature that can drive up the pressure. This well may well have both factors in play.
wirtschaftsfacts.de: What about the temperatures?
Paul Noel: The temperature at the sea floor is about -4 C. At 2,500 PSI this is equivalent as far as the temperature and pressure effects on matter of about 2,000 C. Oil rising through this depth distills in the saltwater column and this is what has given rise to the plumes. Because of the natural gas content it also does similar to the spraying of liquefied Carbon Dioxide where the result is both Gas and Solid Carbon Dioxide. This is causing many effects including the extreme disbursal of the oil into very tiny droplets in the water column. It is also causing only a tiny fraction of the oil to reach the surface of the sea.
The oil coming out of the well is very hot. It is about 65 C. The natural gas emitted from the well expands 2000 time by reaching of the sea surface. This causes a freezing effect on the oil that also causes more of the disbursement effects. It is very important to understand this in terms of the Gas Laws if one is studying this carefully. The oil is frozen then exploded in the water column coming up.
There are a lot of other issues involving this oil.
The oil is a reddish brown material containing a very high volatile fraction set. Compounds of Benzene, Xylene, toluene, naphtha, ether and other compounds are there in vast quantities. The mix is a very dangerous one and may well render the Corexit into a minor problem. Benzene is a class 1 Carcinogen and causes Leukemia. At 1 part per million, Benzene is unsafe. Penetrations of Benzene are possible quite far inland.