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How to suck up all that oil

BP has fast-tracked a plan to collect all the oil leaking out of its deep-sea well in the Gulf of Mexico by the end of the month - but this new plan isn't risk-free.

Last week, the oil company said it needed until mid-July to have all the ships and plumbing set up to deal with the daily flow of as much as 50,000 barrels of oil, gushing up from a broken well 5,000 feet beneath the surface of the Gulf. In response to orders from the Obama administration, BP came up with a way to shave two weeks off that schedule - basically by hooking up the plumbing to the spigots that are available now instead of taking the time to switch the pipes around.

Eventually, BP and its industrial partners will still have to do that extra pipe-switching. But in the short run, the revised plan should take care of all the oil and gas, assuming it works anywhere close to advertised.

BP's chief operating officer, Doug Suttles, laid out the details in a letter to the Coast Guard dated Sunday, but here's the breakdown in simple terms:

  • 1. Discoverer Enterprise, steady as she goes: The current system brings up about 15,000 barrels of oil to the Discoverer Enterprise drillship for processing, through a cap assembly that was installed over the sawed-off top of the well's blowout preventer earlier this month. That capture capability can be boosted to 18,000 barrels, but under the current system, the rest of the oil has to spew through the cap's ports into the Gulf.
  • 2. Q4000, for the burn: Another rig, known as the Q4000, was used last month in BP's unsuccessful "top-kill" attempt to close off the well. Now one of the two lines that was used in the top-kill try has been converted to reverse the flow. The collection system leading to the Q4000 could bring up another 5,000 to 10,000 barrels a day, starting as early as Tuesday. But there's no equipment onboard that rig to process and store that oil. Instead, the oil will have to be burned off, using an "environmentally friendly" piece of equipment known as the EverGreen Burner. Some question whether this arrangement is all that environmentally friendly. Clean or not, the burner might have to be used for the next month.
  • 3. Pulling a switch with two heavy-hitters: Last week's plan called for setting up another Q4000-type system by the end of the month, which would have accommodated another 10,000 barrels a day. The revised plan goes with a more ambitious operation to handle an additional 20,000 to 25,000 barrels a day. BP has just arranged to have two oil-processing ships sail to the oil-leak site. Either the Helix Producer I or the Toisa Pisces will be hooked up to the other line that was used during the top-kill operation. BP will go with whichever ship is ready first. These three simultaneous operations - the Deepwater Horizon, the Q4000 and one of the two heavy-hitter ships - should be able to handle up to 53,000 barrels of oil a day.
  • 4. Make the system more solid: Between the end of June and the middle of July, BP will fine-tune the system to make it more hurricane-proof. The company will also send down a new type of cap that will be sealed more securely on the top of the blowout preventer, with two attachments for riser lines. By mid-July, both of the heavy-hitting processing ships should be ready for service.
  • 5. Shift the plumbing: In the latter part of July, the line leading to the Q4000 will be switched over to the other big ship, which brings two big benefits. First, BP will no longer have to burn off hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil every day. Also, the daily processing capability using those two ships alone will balloon to between 40,000 and 50,000 barrels. The Discoverer Enterprise can still take care of 10,000 to 15,000 barrels a day, sucking up oil from the new, improved cap on the blowout preventer. Yet another ship, the Discoverer Clear Leader, can handle another 10,000 to 15,000 barrels flowing through a second line leading from the cap on the blowout preventer. The four simultaneous operations will have a daily capture capacity of 60,000 to 80,000 barrels - far more than the current worst-case estimates for flow from the oil leak.
  • 6. Relief wells, still the long-term fix: If the system works as planned, BP should be able to take care of all the leaking oil. But this system can only collect the oil. It can't do anything about controlling the flow or stopping the leak. BP still has to rely on a relief-well system for that part of the job. Right now the first two wells have reached depths of about 14,000 feet and 9,000 feet (including 5,000 feet of water), and they're expected to hit the required 18,000-foot mark by August. There's no guarantee that these first wells will do the trick, but if BP's system is sucking up all the oil by that time, it's not so crucial that the first relief wells are exactly on target.

This is the current best-case scenario, but Suttles' letter points out the potential risks as well. The top-kill lines that are currently connected to the blowout preventer (and figure so prominently in steps 2 through 5) were never designed to be used for continuous oil flow. There's a risk that those lines may erode - or they may get plugged up with the junk left behind by the top-kill attempt.

If a hurricane blows through the area, all the ships will have to disconnect from their lines, and oil will once again flow freely into the Gulf through those lines until the storm has passed and the ships can be reconnected.

Even if all the lines are working, the operations team will have to juggle four oil-processing operations simultaneously and safely. "Work is ongoing to confirm that this combination of four production vessels is indeed possible within appropriate safety parameters," he said.

"The risks of operating multiple facilities in close proximity must be carefully managed," Suttles said. "Several hundred people are working in a confined space with live hydrocarbons on up to four vessels. This is significantly beyond both BP and industry practice. We will continue to aggressively drive schedule to minimize the pollution, but we must not allow this drive to compromise our No. 1 priority, that being the health and safety of our people."

Any offshore oil operation requires workers to deal with lots of toxic materials and burn off the natural gas that comes up from the well along with the oil. A methane flare-up is thought to be the immediate cause of the April 20 oil-rig explosion that touched off this disaster. Suttles said the stepped-up oil-recovery operation could run the risk of a "major surface accident" - a scenario that one assumes might involve a flare-up from one ship sparking another explosion on a nearby ship.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. James Watson's written response to Suttle's letter, released today, noted BP's stepped-up efforts but held off from voicing explicit approval. "We have continuously demanded strategies and responses from BP that fit the realities of this catastrophic event, for which BP is responsible," he said. "We will continue to hold them accountable and bring every possible resource and innovation to bear."

BP spokesman David Nicholas told me that the team managing the comings and going of the ships converging on the epicenter of the Gulf oil spill will have to serve as "air traffic controllers" for what's shaping up as an unprecedented oil-processing operation. The most crucial two weeks of the response to the disaster in the Gulf may be just ahead. Is this the best BP can do? Are there ways to reduce the risks? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.


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