Fracturing and a complete bleed-out are already underway

I think easily the most sobering thing I’ve read in a long time is that the BP Gulf oil spill might now be unstoppable.

It’s never the best editorial practice in a situation like this to laminate comments on top of comments on top of comments, but the internet is a-riot tonight with a chain of frankly terrifying speculation that boils down to one anonymous note posted on The Oil Drum earlier this week (which you can read in full through that link). In a nutshell, “the well bore structure is compromised ‘down hole’,” we read, leading to “one inescapable conclusion. The well pipes below the sea floor are broken and leaking.” This means that no surface capping will ever, at this point, work; the well is leaking in too many places, and the seabed itself is now beginning to show signs of collapse.

Indeed, the comment immediately following suggests that “a massive collapse of the Gulf floor itself is in the making,” and that “fracturing and a complete bleed-out are already underway”—meaning that no fewer than 2 billion barrels of oil could leak into the Gulf before the reservoir has fully depleted itself. That’s two billion.

Again: this is all rumors, anonymous comments, and geological speculation, but it’s also the most chilling scenario I’ve read yet for what is already an ecological disaster. The consequences of an unstoppable, multi-billion-barrel oil spill in the Gulf are truly unimaginable.

Read the Oil Drum comment and feel free to join one of the numerous threads discussing it.

(Spotted via @stevesilberman).

15 thoughts on “Fracturing and a complete bleed-out are already underway”

  1. It's a race to the bottom and the runaway well bore is winning by miles.
    If the chamber doesn't simply collapse from depletion then guess what happens when significant seawater displaces the oil and contacts the 400+F chamber strata? How about a ginormous steam explosion, roof collapse and tsunami? The oil damage to the environment is the least of problems in a scenario where the state of Florida vanishes with all souls on board.

  2. It is an incredibly scary scenario and rather sad that a corporation could be so irresponsible. Perhaps, BP will cease to exist and some clean energy companies will rise to take its place. Of course that doesn't make up for the damages that will continue to plague the gulf for the rest of our lifetime.

  3. In fact, now that I think about it some more, dougr's "sinkhole" scenario is actually impossible, as even if 7000ft of rock were to collapse on itself, it would have nowhere to collapse to. Alot of people think of oil reserves as massive "oceans" of the stuff sitting in pockets or caves in the earth's crust. This is actually wrong. Oil deposits exist in the rock itself. Its hard to describe how stone can contain a fluid, but anybody who has ever noticed cliff faces "weeping" ground water through pores can understand how its possible that oil can be impregnated in rock. In fact, as architects, we deal with weeping rock all the time when building foundations and retaining walls because its the reason we have to apply waterproofing to the outside of these structures even if they are abutting stone.

    Oil deposits form when decaying organic matter creates hydrocarbons (raw oil) that are then trapped by layers of sediment. The oil is prevented from escaping through said sediment by a dome of salt. It is only by penetrating the salt dome are we able to extract oil from the deposits.

    Bottom line is, even if somehow this leaking well managed to erode out some 7000ft of rock and cause a sink-hole like collapse the collapsing rock would wind up just collapsing on more rock- the rock that contains the oil deposit. I will concede however it is possible that over a long period of time an extensive network of cracks could form in the rock surrounding the well due to erosion from the oil and that could give the oil more openings to escape through, perhaps increasing the volume of oil. To reiterate however, a collapse of the sea floor into the oil deposit is simply impossible because there is nothing for it- no empty space- to collapse into.

  4. I've never posted on BLDGBLOG before, but something major I think is being lost here in this man's/woman's post on TOD, and that is an issue of structure.

    I'm not denying that it is entirely plausible that the Backflow Preventer (BFP) and its support structure could fail and therefore widen the well head with the resulting hole, but I fail to see how this would increase the volume of oil leaking from the well. Let me explain:

    The crux of this man's claim is that pressure and abrasives in the oil will erode out the entire well and the surrounding rock. From what I read he seems to state that the oil will penetrate out from the well into the surrounding rock, erode it, and when the BFP collapses it will cause basically a massive sink hole all the way down to the oil reserves thereby making the leak much worse. I think he's failing to realize the sheer bulk and resilience of the rock structures sitting above the oil reserves.

    If the well terminus is 12,000ft below the surface of the ocean deep in the rock, and the seabed at the site is 5000ft below the surface of the ocean. So that means we're talking about 7000ft of solid rock that the oil would have to "eat" it's way through thereby causing enough structural damage (i.e. cracks) in a matter of months so as to cause a collapse of the seabed and an increase in the total well diameter, therefore creating the sinkhole effect dougr describes. I also doubt that the collapse of the BFP would accelerate this erosion by widening out the well head. As an analogy, think about a garden hose flowing at a constant rate with your finger on it. If you increase the diameter of the nozzle by removing your finger from the opening, it won't increase the volume of water and would actually reduce the velocity of the flow coming out of the hose. I hope this analogy makes sense, but what this guy is describing to me sounds like saying a small crack in the three-gorges damn will cause a total structural failure in a matter of minutes. From a mechanics standpoint, the BFP collapsing would actually decrease pressure in the well by widening the opening, thereby reducing the amount of erosion the well is experiencing (as I'm sure there is some, there always is) and reducing the already very slim chance of a complete structural failure of the sea floor.

    His post is well researched, and he makes some strong points but he addresses nothing about the geology of the ocean floor and why it is vulnerable to collapse from a well some 16" in diameter that has formed some cracks/leaks in its concrete lining. Just think about it, in order for his theory to work, oil, albeit with some sand/abrasives in it, would have to penetrate concrete and stone, erode out cracks and cause enough structural damage over 7000ft of solid rock, much of it at much higher compression pressure than the oil itself, to cause a huge collapse of the seabed all the way down to the reserve, and it would have to do all that by Christmas.

    I will be the first person at Tony Hayward's public execution, but even I gotta say dougr's claim is dubious.

  5. Indeed, a very sad but true possibility.

    A guy named Lindsey Williams reports that BP attempted to drill a so-called "superdeep well" from the Deepwater Horizon rig (like the Russians did in the 70' & 80'). Unfortunately the strata of oil they hit is under such massive pressure that no human technology is able to contain it to this day.

    [Usual wellheads by the way (around 5.000 ft deep) have pressures of around 1.000-1.500 psi whereas the one we are talking about (supposedly 30.000 ft below the ocead bed!) gushes at 60.000 psi (or even more).]

    Maybe someone should take a look at Herman Soergel's plans of Atlantropa and use the entire gulf of Mexico to contain the oil by building a gigantic dam from Florida to Mexico (via Cuba) instead of producing continuous failures.

    Furthermore, the EPA's numbers on toxic gas levels in the atmosphere are also extremely frightening though (no wonder there were reports of sick fishermen returning home after a good inhalation of hydrogen sulfide or benzene). Once absorbed into a hurricane however, they can travel all the way up to the east coast and sprinkle some toxic rain on the toxic assets of Wall Street.

  6. apurimac – you seem to believe that you have sufficient geological knowledge as an architect to make this long winded critique of a theory by an oil professional. Typically arrogant architect behavior, if you don't mind me sayin, but perhaps another reading of his explanation would clarify for you that there isn't 7000 ft of rock, but sandy sediment which is barely structural and allows liquid & gas to spread through it – much more purous the rock. Also, get a clue – 200,000 million barels of oil do reside in a cave like pocket, not in the rock itself, otherwise why not drill somewhere else? Respect.

  7. From wikipedia: Three conditions must be present for oil reservoirs to form: a source rock that is rich in hydrocarbon material buried deep enough for subterranean heat to cook it into oil; a porous and permeable reservoir rock for it to accumulate in. There a rock cap (seal) prevents it from escaping towards the surface.

    Emunit, there's nothing indicating that dougr is an "oil professional", he even states at the end of his post that he is a "journalist working in energy in texas", not the same thing as an oil professional IMO. BTW, I know that oil reserves are located in rock, not caves, because I asked the same question to a geophysicist that works at shell oil- not because I'm a know-it-all architect. I know its hard to imagine how rocks, things that are very dense, could contain fluid, but it happens all the time. Certain rocks are very porous, allowing fluids to enter and move through them. So its basically impossible for the floor of the ocean to collapse in the way dougr describes, because there's no empty space for it to collapse into.

    If you also honestly believe that the entirety of the ocean floor in the Gulf of Mexico is just sandy sediment then how do you expect sand to react under thousands of feet worth of compressive pressure? Any 3rd grade science student knows that under pressure, sediment forms into sedimentary rock – i.e. sandstone. There's no way its nothing but silt all the way down to the oil reserve. You pile up 7000ft of sand, a good bit of it will compress into sandstone. I will concede that there is a large amount of sediment on the bottom of the ocean floor, perhaps even a few thousand feet worth, but eventually your going to hit rock and if that rock doesn't have the ability to withstand the pressure from a simple 16" diameter hole spewing oil at a few thousand psi than it wouldn't be able to withstand the upward pressure of the oil in the first place.

  8. Typically arrogant architect behavior, if you don't mind me sayin

    There's no reason to launch into commenter-vs-commenter warfare here, as I think the nature of this situation, for better or for worse, actually inspires the kind of projective speculation that dougr, apurimac, emunit, and many more are now engaging in. The Oil Drum says it best, though, when they point out that, "were the US government and BP more forthcoming with information and details [about the spill], the situation would not be giving rise to so much speculation about what is actually going on in the Gulf" right now.

    Even the geological nature of the seabed in the immediate vicinity of the well is up for grabs, as structural scans of the region are considered proprietary information. So—especially in the context of an architecture blog and its reader base—there's just really no real way to know.

    But the full implication of a "complete bleed-out" of this oil reservoir is something I don't think anyone is adequately prepared to face. The more I read about this, to be honest, the less likely a "complete bleed-out" sounds (and, in some ways, I'm a bit embarrassed to have been so upset by this as to write a post about it); but a "complete bleed-out" would be a Chernobyl-level event with international repercussions lasting generations, at best.

  9. When will people start to consider this as a crime against humanity (and not just that)?. Who's going to prison?

    The only thing is that the damage is already done, and there's really not much we can do than wait and see. And pray.

    This could easily have global consequences.

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