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BP disaster

Oil industry ‘fix’ fails, spill spreads

Published May 16, 2010 10:10 PM

Seven British Petroleum executives gathered on the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20 to “celebrate the project’s safety record.” Considering the dismal past safety performance of BP, the rig’s owner, this would seem to have been a hollow exercise. Several miles below them, natural forces were preparing to spoil their party in a deadly way.

A University of California Berkeley professor, Robert Bea, who worked for Shell Oil in the 1960s during the last big northern Gulf of Mexico oil well blowout, has revealed details of what happened in the disaster. Far below, workers were converting the drilling rig from an exploration well to a production well.

In an attempt to set a concrete seal around the wellhead, the workers applied heat and reduced pressure on the drilling pipe. This process allowed a giant methane gas bubble to form. Deep beneath the seafloor, methane gas is in a slushy, crystalline form. But as the bubble rose up the drill column to the shallows, the greatly decreased pressure allowed the bubble to grow and intensify. A giant cloud of gas enveloped the platform. Engines on the drilling platform raced and exploded, creating giant fireballs which capsized and destroyed the rig.

The seven executives were rescued, but 11 workers lost their lives. Since then, an estimated 3 million gallons of crude oil has gushed into the Gulf of Mexico. Oil industry officials stated that they knew about the methane crystals and have often encountered them in underwater drilling operations.

A long shot fails

On May 8, BP chief operations officer Doug Suttles announced that a desperate operation designed to stem the flow of oil had suffered a “setback.”

Workers had lowered a huge concrete and steel “containment box” over the wellhead, which is a mile below the surface. However, a buildup of the same methane crystals that were involved in the initial disaster coated the sides of the containment box and clogged the opening out of which the oil was to have been funneled. Workers had to lift the containment box and set it to one side, while the company decides what to do next.

“I wouldn’t say it’s failed yet,” Suttles said. “What I would say is what we attempted to do last night didn’t work.”

Meanwhile the huge, gooey, toxic mass of oil released by the disaster has continued to spread. Floating tar balls have washed up on some of the Louisiana barrier islands, just three miles from the coastline. An oily sheen already covers many beaches and saltwater marshes. Experts expect that this spill will become the worst in U.S. history.

Halliburton ... again!

One of the largest energy services companies in the world, Halliburton, has been found to have had a part in the current catastrophe. The giant company, once led by former Vice President Dick Cheney, became infamous as one of most egregious Iraq War contractors, which ripped off millions of dollars in no-bid contracts and put thousands of their workers at risk of their lives. It had largely faded from public view since President Obama entered office — until now.

As the provider of crucial cementing services on the oil rig that exploded and set off the massive spill in the Gulf, Halliburton finds itself under scrutiny once again. The company says it had four workers on the doomed oil platform at the time of the explosion.

The Wall Street Journal last week highlighted the possible role of cementing in the April 20 accident:

“In the case of the Deepwater Horizon, workers had finished pumping cement to fill the space between the pipe and the sides of the hole and had begun temporarily plugging the well with cement; it isn’t known whether they had completed the plugging process before the blast.

Regulators have previously identified problems in the cementing process as a leading cause of well blowouts, in which oil and natural gas surge out of a well with explosive force. When cement develops cracks or doesn’t set properly, oil and gas can escape, ultimately flowing out of control.”

A 2007 Minerals Management Services study found that “cementing problems were associated with 18 of 39 [oil rig] blowouts between 1992 and 2006.”

It seems that as with the current economic depression, it is the working class which is forced to pay the price for environmental disasters, as with capitalist crises. It is remarkable that two giant energy industries, coal mining and oil drilling, have managed to not only befoul the environment, but also to kill and maim workers, most recently with deadly methane gas explosions at the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, which occurred on April 5 at Massey Energy’s coal mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia, and the April 20 Horizon Deepwater disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.