Prolonged Process of Elimination: Sunken Rig Is Not the Source of Oil Surfacing at Deepwater Horizon Site


It remains a mystery: Where is the oil coming from that is surfacing at the site of last year’s 200-million-gallon spill? Nobody can seem to answer that urgent question – not BP, not Transocean, not NOAA, not the U.S. Coast Guard, nobody. The problem is, there’s no incentive to find the source, only to cover one’s ass.

In a lethargic two-month process of elimination that began when we broke the “new leak” story here on Aug. 17, the U.S. Coast Guard has confirmed that the sunken wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon is not the source of the fresh oil (see link to my Aug. 17 post below). Transocean, the owner of the rig, dispatched an ROV to the seafloor last week to inspect the wreckage and reportedly observed nothing suspicious. According to the official Coast Guard statement: “No discharge or leaking from the riser or the wreckage was observed. The cause of the sheens remains under investigation.”

So now – more than two months after we broke the story – the Coast Guard can finally remove another suspect from the list. Hair-pulling frustration aside, it seems we are no closer to finding the actual source than we were seven weeks ago. Progress has been ridiculously slow, and all the while, oil continues to leak into the Gulf.

As you may recall, back in late August, BP lowered an ROV down to inspect the Macondo wellhead. The video feed, viewed by federal officials in New Orleans, confirmed that the well itself isn’t leaking. Although I’d like to see that video released to the public (to assuage the cynics), for now I’ll take the feds at their word.

If the riser, the rig and the wellhead aren’t leaking oil, where is it all coming from? As I and others have suggested before, the oil may be seeping through cracks and fissures on the seafloor. Remember, BP was banging around down there with heavy machinery and massive pieces of equipment during its many unsuccessful attempts to stem the flow of oil. One of the containment domes BP lowered over top the gushing well last year was four stories high and weighed more than 70 tons. That’s a lot of weight and stress being applied.

The truly frightening part of the “seafloor scenario” is that kind of leakage can’t be stopped, ever. Consider this from my Aug. 29 post, The Second Coming of Macondo: How Long Has Oil Been Leaking from BP’s Deepwater Horizon Site – This Time?:

In January 2011, a prominent “geohazards specialist” wrote an urgent letter to two members of Congress – U.S. Reps. Fred Upton, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and John Shimkus, chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment and Economy – suggesting that the Macondo site is leaking oil like a sieve. Here’s an excerpt from that letter:

There is no question that the oil seepages, gas columns, fissures and blowout craters in the seafloor around the Macondo wellhead…have been the direct result of indiscriminate drilling, grouting, injection of dispersant and other undisclosed recover activities. As the rogue well had not been successfully cemented and plugged at the base of the well by the relief wells, unknown quantities of hydrocarbons are still l leaking out from the reservoir at high pressure and are seeping through multiple fault lines to the seabed. It is not possible to cap this oil leakage.

BK Lim, the letter’s author, has more than 30 years of experience working inside the oil and gas industry for companies like Shell, Petronas and Pearl Oil.

More from Mr. Lim’s letter:

The continuing hydrocarbon seepage would have long term, irreversible and potentially dire consequences in the GOM (Gulf of Mexico)

Well, no kidding. It’s high time the feds stepped up and demanded an answer. We don’t want to know where the oil isn’t coming from, we want to know where it is coming from. Sitting idly by while the responsible parties engage in this protracted process of elimination is unforgivable. And all the while, more oil is leaking from…well, somewhere.

Listen, there’s an easy way to get to the bottom of all this: Deploy a piece of equipment known as a “sniffer,” which can trace oil in the water column from the surface all the way down to the seafloor. Robert Bea, a petroleum engineer at the University of California, publicly suggested this solution weeks ago. “There are instruments that can be deployed to detect the hydrocarbons,” he said. “The oil companies use subsea-towed ’sniffers’ for this purpose.”

What are we waiting for?

See how much oil is surfacing at the Deepwater Horizon site:

Read up on the latest Coast Guard announcement at Fuel Fix:

Read how the story broke on Aug. 17:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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