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Chris Bentley and Lindsey Valich/MEDILL

The BP Deepwater Horizon Macondo well explosion was one of the worst environmental disasters in recent memory. Arnold Stancell co-authored a report by the National Academy of Engineering examining the causes of the spill.

New device tames wild wells

by Chris Bentley and Lindsey Valich
Feb 25, 2011

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Chris Bentley/MEDILL

Arnold Stancell was vice president of the international exploration and production at Mobil Oil when he retired in 1993.

A group of oil companies led by Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil Corp. unveiled a capping system earlier this month that can quickly stop undersea oil spills within weeks.

This effort is a response to last April’s Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill that killed 11 people and released more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over 85 days.

In a lecture Thursday at the Illinois Institute of Technology, sponsored by the Chicago Council on Science and Technology, former Mobil Oil senior executive Arnold Stancell touted this new blowout prevention capping system as a key part of the oil industry’s $1 billion spill-prevention investment program.

“Should a well go wild, this device would go out,” Stancell said of the new capping system. “This is the well containment system that did not exist before.”

Through the new protocol, a network of on-call ships and workers in the Gulf area will be alerted when a spill occurs and will dispatch the capping system.

The system includes a capping device, made up of a network of pipes that can plug the well and/or funnel oil to the surface for oil tankers sent to the site to collect. It also includes devices for dispersing chemicals that can break up oil below the surface.

Other preventive measures are included in the National Academy of Engineering report released in November that Stancell co-authored. The report investigated the causes of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blowout and offered strategies to avoid another Deepwater Horizon disaster.

“This is the first instance where we’ve had a massive spill,” Stancell said. In the last 39 years, only 1,800 barrels of oil have spilled in the Gulf of Mexico compared to 4.5 million barrels in just three months after the Deepwater Horizon blowout between April 20 to July 15 last year.

The U.S. Government found U.K-based oil company BP plc responsible for the spill.

As stated in the report, some of the principal causes of the spill included “major errors” in misreading the pressure tests of the well, failure of both backup systems (One of the back-up system’s battery’s did not have a charge.), and uncertain cement strength in the well itself.

There was also an “inordinate rush to complete” the well, Stancell said, as the drilling was behind schedule, costing BP $1.5 million per day.

“The event itself really clearly was the result of a cascading series of errors that in retrospect should not have taken place,” said Alan Schriesheim, former director of the Argonne National Laboratory and co-founder and president of C2ST. “After the event, they should have been ready to handle a catastrophic event.”

The new capping system will be one such method of containing oil after a spill occurs.

As for preventive measures, Stancell said there should be cement bond laws in place so that the well’s walls are more closely regulated. He also said blowout preventers should have two sets of rams to slice across the well, stopping the oil from spewing upwards.

A ram-style blowout preventer works when two steel plungers on opposite sides of the drill pipe come together in the center and press against each other to restrict oil flow.

These methods and the new capping device may help in fully resuming deep-water drilling in the Gulf, as there is currently a slower pace of offshore drilling expansion, Stancell said. Gulf of Mexico oil production constitutes 8 percent of the total demand in the United States and provides 1.5 million barrels of oil per day, he said.

The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement has not issued any new deep-water drilling permits since last April’s spill.

During this time, oil companies have already begun to police themselves with regard to  stricter  internal drilling regulations, Stancell said.

Because of this, Schriesheim said he believes a reoccurrence of an event like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will be rare.

“The regulators will do a better job of regulating. The industry will do a better job of inculcating a safety culture,” Schriesheim said. “It almost bankrupted BP, and the other companies have learned that. I think it’s remote.”