Over the last several weeks, many have become concerned based on reports of oil on the surface of the water near BP's now P&A'd (plugged and abandoned) Macondo Well, and concern has been growing that the well is now leaking oil. I have been skeptical of such an occurrence, since properly plugged wells don't do that, but reports have become so frantic that BP actually responded in a press release that this is simply not the case. The press release asserted that a subsea inspection with ROVs was conducted, witnessed by the Gulf Coast Incident Management Team, which is the successor organization to the old Unified Command that was organized last year to respond to the growing disaster. BP did not, to my knowledge, provide the public with a video of the inspections, which would have dispelled the rumors (or at least decreased them).
The story started in August with reports of oil on the surface from the Mobile Press Register along with video of oil sheen close to the Macondo location. Aerial photos of the area were then posted by the Gulf Restoration Network and On Wings of Care of overflights showing large areas of sheen. Since then, I've been getting lots of inquiries, both from environmental groups and individuals. The Coast Guard asserts that they've found no sheen in the area, which is a little surprising based on photos and videos that I've seen, unless those are just doctored.
You'll recall that during the crisis, I was very concerned about a number of decisions BP was making, including application of massive amounts of dispersant on the sea floor, something that had never been done before. I was also concerned about what I considered poor risk management, especially when they shut in the well with the capping stack during the surprise "well integrity test", even though anticipated shut in pressures exceeded the design limitations of components that remained in the ram stack on the well. The other concern (not just mine) was the suspected damage to the tubulars relatively close to the surface that increased shut in pressures could have damaged further, allowing well bore fluids to flow to the surface around the wellbore. They got away with the "well integrity test," which actually became the permanent shut in of the well, and they successfully P&A'd MC252 in November 2010. You might also recall that BP did this while avoiding actually capturing (measuring) the total flow from the well. Because the total flow was never measured, BP has contended that the flow from the well was far less than any other independent expert has estimated, a key tactic in defending themselves from liability claims.
So. Where is this oil sheen that's been observed coming from? I don't think that reporters from the Times-Picayune and the Press Register are just making all this up, but I also don't believe that the well is flowing oil. A point to remember here: Deepwater tests demonstrated in both 2000 and 2010, that over 90% of oil introduced into the deepwater never comes to the surface. It's my opinion that if the well was flowing oil, you would be seeing masses of oil similar to what I personally observed when I was on location at Macondo in July 2010. During that time, we weren't seeing so much a fine sheen as the heavy oil that remains after lighter hydrocarbon components in the oil "flash off" or evaporate. If the well was flowing, I believe that we'd be seeing heavier oil at the surface rather than a fine sheen.
I believe Occam's Razor is in play here and what witnesses are observing is residual oil from the blowout. Keep in mind that BP put an estimated 5 million barrels of oil into the deepwater column at that location. Since very little came to the surface, is this sheen residual that is coming to the top now? Probably. It could also be residual oil coming from the sunken rig and wrecked riser that is lying on the bottom. It could also be a natural oil seep, but that seems awfully coincidental at this precise location. Unlike government contention last year claiming that all of the oil was magically gone, we really don't know how much of the oil actually degraded, especially since very little conclusive research has been done in deep, cold, low oxygen environments. So, some oil could still be coming to the surface. I believe that if the well was actually flowing, BP and the government would be all over it; that would be hard to keep under wraps.
Of course, BP and the government have not been very forthcoming about operations since they shut off the ROV cameras. Observers regularly report activity around the old MC252 well location, and BP never really revealed what operations were conducted when the well was finally plugged last November. In this particular case, if they just released the video of the well proving that is secure, most would accept it as the case.
Bob Cavnar, a 30-year veteran of the oil and gas industry, is the author of Disaster on the Horizon: High Stakes, High Risks, and the Story Behind the Deepwater Well Blowout
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