Oil spill cause awaits ‘autopsy’



May 4, 2010 - 12:00 AM

Iolan Mark Burris, an oil production player worldwide, compared the oil drilling platform accident in the Gulf of Mexico, and ensuing oil spill, to an airplane crash.
“Now isn’t the time to point fingers and make accusations,” he said. “No one will know for sure what happened until all the information is gathered and analyzed. It may have been just a catastrophic and unpreventable accident, or it may have been from human error.”
An explosion on the rig, drilling down 5,000 feet of water, left 11 workers unaccounted for and presumed dead.
“They very likely were at the well base (on the platform ship) and were killed instantly,” Burris opined.
While the cause of the accident, which is endangering a wide range of sea and coastal environments, is unknown, Burris described what occurred.
“When you stick your finger in a full glass of water, the water runs over the side,” he said. “That’s what happened at the well. Mud is injected to hold back gas around the casing (the pipe extending into the oil reservoir) and apparently it wasn’t weighted properly, which let it blow out.
“Or, they might have hit a gas pocket they weren’t prepared for. That area has been well explored, but sometimes there are surprises.”
Determining extent of leakage from the well bottom initially was difficult, he added, because when the accident occurred the 5,000 feet of pipe, 10 inches or more in diameter, fell aside. The oil contained in the pipe began to leak along with that from the sea bottom. Also, he said, the volume of the leak was distorted by wave action and other natural forces.
“Even a drop of oil on water looks a lot bigger than it is,” he said.

WHILE NOT understating the severity of the accident and ensuing problems — “I like raw oysters, too” — Burris said no one was more interested in resolving problems than BP (British Petroleum) and the other companies involved.
At least two primary means of stopping the leak have been advanced.
One is drilling a relief well.
“That’s kind of like sticking more than one hole in a balloon,” Burris said. “The more you stick in it, the quicker the pressure is released.
“The problem is that a new well can’t be drilled in a day or two. Remember the recent mine accident, when they wanted to drill a well to get air in the mine? That took three or four days, at 1,000 or so feet on dry land. With this you’re working in 5,000 feet of water and there aren’t rigs readily available.”
Another approach being considered is to drop a steel and concrete dome over the well head to trap escaping oil and pump it to barges. That, too, takes time to build and position, Burris said.

THE SPILL isn’t unique.
“In 1975 we had 200 ocean spills due to exploration,” Burris said. “Last year there were 25, and most of them were from tankers carrying foreign oil here.”
A report said there were 30,000 platforms operating in the Gulf and there are thousands more worldwide, from older ones in the North Sea to off the coast of Africa and in the China Sea.
“Oil production is my livelihood — has been since I was a kid on a little drilling rig here — and my passion,” Burris said. “I’ve been on offshore rigs and the safety precautions are amazing. I was on one in the South China Sea and the first thing they did when I got off the helicopter was give me a long lesson in safety. If you’re working on one and you have any reason to think there’s a problem, you can shut down operations immediately.”
Burris, who founded Precision Pump and last year sold it to Cameron, an oil field equipment manufacturer, said no Cameron employees were on the ill-fated platform, but that some of the company’s equipment likely was.
The interview for this story was done this morning by telephone while Burris was on his way to Kansas City International to fly to Houston for an offshore oil production conference, “the largest one in the world and a topic will be what happened in the Gulf.”
“But,” he added, “there is no way of knowing why the safeguards — to prevent the blowout — failed and that won’t be known until the autopsy is done. It is amazing to me that it happened in a part of the Gulf that is so well known.
“Drilling in 5,000 feet might have been pushing technology 10 years ago, but it isn’t now,” he said. “It’s done all the time all over the world. Some offshore wells are in 6,000 and 7,000 feet of water today.”

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