NASA satellite image of spreading oil slick near the Mississippi River Delta, 250m resolution captured May 24th. Click here for a time-lapse video and links to more images. (For perspective, that's Lake Pontchartrain in the upper left. It's 40 miles long by 24 miles wide, and covers 630 sq. miles.)
• Oil flow estimate: The Interior Dept. released a new "best estimate" of the oil flow from the leak. The new estimate is 12,000 to 19,000 barrels per day.
This is in sharp contrast to BP's original estimate of 1,000 bpd and their revised 5,000 bpd estimate. Why does this matter to BP? The Clean Water Act exposes BP to fines of up to $4300 per barrel per day. So depending on whose estimates you (or the courts) believe, BP is looking at anywhere from $4.3 million (BP's low estimate) to $81.7 million (the government's high estimate) PER DAY in fines - a huge difference.
Scientists working on the estimates claim that BP is providing "low-quality data" making it "irresponsible and unscientific to estimate an upper bound to the emission." Industry experts say independent estimates of up to 100,000 bpd are unlikely, as the record output of a Gulf oil well is a little over 40,000 bpd.
• Capping the leak: BP continues the "top kill" effort and has also executed a "junk shot" in an attempt to clog numerous leaks from the blow out preventer and the riser. They are also making preparations for a "plan c" (or is it "d" or "e" now?) of installing a second blow out preventer on top of the failed BOP.
BP has suspended drilling operations on the second relief well so the Transocean Development Driller II can position its BOP for the kill effort instead. This high risk calculation suggests that a) BP does not have a high level of confidence in the current "top kill" effort, and b) they believe "stabbing" a new BOP on top of the existing one is doable at depths never before attempted. The risk is that it leaves only one active relief well drilling operation in progress for now. Critics say there should be multiple parallel relief well efforts to maximize the chances of hitting the failed well bore. That would, of course, require deploying more drilling rigs at a cost of approx. $1 million per day per rig.
UPDATE: BP announced this afternoon that "top kill" has failed to stop the leak, and they are now going to attempt installation of a "lower marine riser package containment cap" atop the failed BOP to capture the flow. From their press release:
The Government, together with BP, have therefore decided to move to the next step in the subsea operations, the deployment of the Lower Marine Riser Package (LMRP) Cap Containment System.
The operational plan first involves cutting and then removing the damaged riser from the top of the failed Blow-Out Preventer (BOP) to leave a cleanly-cut pipe at the top of the BOP’s LMRP. The cap is designed to be connected to a riser from the Discoverer Enterprise drillship and placed over the LMRP with the intention of capturing most of the oil and gas flowing from the well. The LMRP cap is already on site and it is currently anticipated that it will be connected in about four days.
This operation has not been previously carried out in 5,000 feet of water and the successful deployment of the containment system cannot be assured.
Drilling of the first relief well continues and is currently at 12,090 feet. Drilling of the second relief well is temporarily suspended and is expected to recommence shortly from 8,576 feet.
So it appears they have abandoned the second BOP option, possibly out of concern that cutting the flow will increase pressure on the damaged BOP to dangerous levels.
The temporary risk with the LMRP cap or a second BOP is that once they cut off the top of the riser there will be unrestricted flow of oil into the ocean from the blown out well until they can attach the LMRP cap and new riser. The Coast Guard says they will use undersea dispersants (which some critics say cause more problems than they solve) for the expected temporay gusher. They will likely have to continue using them after the LMRP cap is installed because it is not expected to fully seal and will still leak.
It can take up to three months or longer to drill a relief well. BP says the first relief well, started May 4th, is slightly ahead of schedule and that the Transocean Development Driller III has reached 11,000 feet below the sea floor as of Friday. According to the Orlando Sentinel, it took ten relief well attempts to stop a 1970 blowout in the Gulf near Louisiana that was in 60 feet of water. It took two relief wells to stop a 1979 Mexican Gulf blowout in 165 feet of water. The technology has advanced considerably since then, but it still took five attempts last year to stop an Australian blowout in 260 feet of water.
• Federal government response: President Obama has ordered the Coast Guard to "triple the manpower in the places where oil has hit the shore or is within 24 hours of impact." The Interior Dept. has declared a six month moratorium on deepwater drilling, canceled offshore leases in Virginia and off the Gulf coast of Florida, and ordered re-inspection and re-certification of all blow out preventers. Incident commander Adm. Thad Allen has approved a prototype berm to prevent oil from reaching wetlands around Louisiana's Barataria Bay.
Containment and cleanup efforts continue to employ burning, dispersants, booms, and skimming. The government says 11.8 million gallons of oil-water mix have been recovered. Based on flow estimates, up to 39 million gallons of oil may have already spilled. If it takes three months to drill a relief well to stop the leak, that number could exceed 100 million gallons. The Exxon Valdez spill was 11 million gallons.
President Obama visited the region yesterday to meet with federal, state, and local officials on the scene. A Jefferson Parish official said BP bussed in 400 temporary cleanup workers as a "PR stunt" during Obama's visit and that they "all but vanished" after Obama's departure.
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