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Thursday, June 3,2010

What hath BP found?

By Paul Danish

On Jan. 10, 1901, roughnecks working on a 1,020-foot-deep oil well near Beaumont, Texas, were lowering the drill string back into their well when, without warning, the drilling mud began furiously bubbling back out of the hole.

Alarmed, the crew ran for it. This proved to be a wise decision, because minutes later the drill string, about 700 feet of 20-foot-long steel tubes, collectively weighing several tons, came flying out of the hole.

Then, after a pause, a sound “like a cannon shot” came from the well, followed by the ejection of the drilling mud, a belch of gas, and a great geyser of oil that shot 150 feet into the air.

For the next nine days, oil spewed into the sky at the rate of 100,000 barrels a day — which was more than the combined production of all the other oil wells in the United States at the time. The crew worked furiously to contain the mess, building berms to contain the pools of crude that formed around the rig, and then additional berms when the first pools overflowed. When the placement of a hastily improvised cap consisting of heavy timbers, railway rails, and a Christmas tree of valves finally stopped the blowout on Jan. 19, the well was surrounded by a lake of oil and a mob of investors, speculators and oil baron wannabes.

And that’s how the Spindletop oil field, the great oil-strike that launched the modern petroleum industry and several giant oil companies, was discovered — with a blowout of massive proportions.

To return to the present: For the better part of a month, British Petroleum maintained that its Macondo oil well — that’s the formal name of the well that blew out on April 20 and sank the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig — was leaking 5,000 barrels a day of oil.

Could it be that BP found a much bigger oil deposit than it expected to?

Academic experts, basing their judgments on underwater video of the leak, maintained it was a lot larger — 25,000, 50,000 or even 100,000 barrels a day. The academic estimates gained plausibility after BP inserted a siphon into the end of the ruptured pipe from which the oil is flowing and began recovering 2,000 to 5,000 barrels a day — with no visible impact on the size of the plume bubbling into the sea.

They gained even more plausibility after the federal government raised its estimates of the size of the leak to 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day — and after BP’s attempt to plug the well with a “top kill” — by forcing drilling mud into it — failed. Most of the mud was promptly forced back out of the well as fast as BP pumped it in — and BP was using a 30,000 horsepower pump.

All of which suggests that the well may be flowing at a rate substantially higher than even the government’s upwardly revised estimate.

And that in turn raises a question:

What has BP found?

Oil companies don’t drill for oil in 5,000 feet of water unless they expect to find lots of it — and in the past few years there have been a number of rich strikes in the area where BP was drilling.

To be sure, there’s mounting evidence that BP took risks and cut corners, and that may be the explanation for the blow-out. Oil companies have a long history of taking risks and cutting corners — the history of the industry is a history of calculated risk-taking. But BP also had to have made some assumptions about the size and content of the geological structure it was drilling into, and it may be that those assumptions turned out to be spectacularly wrong.

Could it be that BP found a much bigger oil deposit than it expected to?

Is it possible that for the past month we’ve been looking at a Spindletop-size gusher on the ocean floor?

Just how large an oil field was BP expecting to find, and how large does it think it is in light of the blowout?

Taken together with other recent oil strikes in the vicinity, is it possible that there is, say, an underwater Kuwait off the coast of Louisiana? If there is, what are the implications for American energy independence and the price of oil?

And more darkly, is it possible that BP has been low-balling the size of its Macondo find, not in order to minimize the size of the environmental impact of the spill, but in order to keep the find from influencing the global price of oil?

No one seems to have thought to ask.

The press covering the disaster is more interested in finding fault than finding oil, so it is failing to ask questions that go beyond the disaster and who’s to blame for it. But there may be more to the story than that.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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Paul missed TWO darker possibilities if BP struck a really huge find:

1. Nobody knows how big and how pressurized the find is. What if the relief wells also blow out because it's the highest-pressure find ever? "Oillicanes" and toxic rain -reported in Central Texas and Florida- could devastate large portions of the country

2. If it drives down the cost of gas in the U.S. then people will drive like crazy, driving climate change even faster. Right after Drill Baby Drill comes Burn Baby Burn.

I doubt a huge find would end the oil wars, though. Many have observed it's not so much that we want extra oil in Iraq and Afghanistan as the power over it to control China, India, etc.