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MMS permits first new Gulf well since BP Disaster

June 2, 2010

MMS Permit may allow drilling to 5 miles below Gulf—high pressure / high temperature hazard

*with help from Keon Monroe

Today the embattled Mineral Management Service issued a permit to Bandon Oil & Gas for a new offshore oil well some 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. According to Interior Department officials, this well is being allowed because its in water that’s only 115 feet deep. The moratorium exempts operations in less than 500 feet of water. The story was posted first by AP reporter Mike Baker. The Bandon site is located about 200 miles to the west of the Deepwater site, south of Louisiana’s Rockefeller Wildlife & Game Preserve.

A dead sea turtle lies on the beach in Pass Christian, Miss., Sunday, May 2, 2010. Researchers from the Institute of Marine Mammal Sciences from Gulfport, Miss., collected a number of dead turtles and will examine them to determine the cause of death. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

What MMS isn’t talking about: the permit apparently will allow Bandon to drill to a maximum depth of 25,000 feet below the bottom of the Gulf. This figure is stated as the rated well depth in the company’s application form provided to me by Interior Department’s spokesperson Frank Quimby. It is clear that DOI’s focus and the terms of the moratorium focuses narrowly on water depth without considering the risk factors associated with drilling depth. Drilling depth was clearly a factor in BP’s Deepwater Horizon accident and its many failed efforts to stop the oil gush. See coverage of this blog post in SF Chronicle Column by Yobie Benjamin

Why is drilling depth a critical risk factor? The risk of a blowout (the cause of the BP disaster) increases with the depth of drilling. The deeper the oil is buried in the earth’s crust, the higher the pressure and the hotter the temperature. The greater the pressure and temperature of these fluids, the more difficult it is to control the the rate at which oil and gas is moving upward with drilling mud.

To make matters worse as the hot oil and gas rise there is a rapid pressure drop and gases expand and even small bubbles of gas grow to enormous size as they move up toward the surface.  For a good explanation see Popular Mechanics article. The article quotes Bill Marcus, VP for response of renowned well control company Boots and Coots.  “That’s the inherent danger of drilling deeper,”  “You have small gas influxes all the time, but in ultra deep they become radical.”  This problem may have contributed to the blowout and explosion at BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig.

Oil is scooped out of a marsh impacted by the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in Redfish Bay along the coast of Louisiana, Saturday, May 22, 2010. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

What is also stunning is that Bandon Oil and Gas applied for its permit in April after the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank and then received approval little more than a month later. In an excellent June 2  article by Yobie Benjamin, SF Chronicle points out that the permit was issued without any information to the public on the specific risk factors and measures employed to obtain this oil from 25,000 into the earth’s crust.

It’s also stunning that the sole focus on water depth as a criteria for permits and the administration’s highly touted moratorium does not extend to wells being drilled to depths where drilling is inherently risky and accidents difficult to control. Who’s in charge?


We also note that lots of blowouts occur in shallow water, as the following table illustrates:

Table taken from "Absence of fatalities in blowouts encouraging in MMS study of OCS incidents 1992-2006" authored by David Izon, E.P. Danenberger, Melinda Mayes of the Minerals Management Service

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 16, 2010 9:18 pm

    Hi Y’all,

    Just want to say I appreciate this article and believe it’s an important issue to cover. Thanks for getting the word out.
    Time is the only freedom and it is so scarce for many of us.

    We’re too busy keeping petrol in our cars and trying to get by. I know people who are converting to vegetable-oil run systems and it seems to be not too expensive, unless you’re living paycheck to paycheck. We’ll figure this out somehow but it’s going to take actual hammering out of solutions and I don’t see that people in general are actually able to make that happen, the current way of doing things is so entrenched and it seems almost hopeless sometimes. If demonstrations of hundreds of thousands against the Iraq War didn’t make a dent, what will?

    I don’t think anyone needs guns–they need the opposite–a meeting of minds. The violent talk is really starting to bother me.

    Sorry for the rant…thanks for the really great, thought-provoking article!

  2. June 3, 2010 10:12 am

    Sadly, this is a typical bureaucratic response to regulation: follow the letter of the law, not the spirit. Sounds like the bureaucrats in MMS are still technically brain-dead, which would stand to reason. That department had a decade to hire and coddle technically incompetent people, since they were expected to do nothing but co-operate with industry. It will take years to re-staff this, the process will be hampered by regulations protecting Civil servants who’ve been in-place and in a grade range for several years. Unless the Administration can create a dumping ground for these people, where they essentially get paid not to do more harm, it will be tough to find other departments willing to take such compromised civil servants.

    • Henry S. Cole, Ph.D. permalink*
      June 3, 2010 10:22 am

      Ed Lee, puts his finger on a serious problem. Under such circumstances those at very top have a responsibility to ensure the safety of the decisions being made by the MMS, an agency with a host of problems. To allow this permit without a serious opportunity for public and independent expert review is a travesty and those at the very top hold the responsibility.

      I further note that a large number of senators signed a letter recently asking the President to exempt wells in shallow water. Apparently, the exemption allowing this well is an outcome of the President’s unwillingness to take the stand that is necessary to protect the public. I feel terrible about this because President Obama is someone I supported enthusiastically and who still has a big place in my heart.

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