The insanity of deepwater oil wells.

Science, technology, and life.
June 9 2010 8:04 AM

20,000 Leaks Under the Sea

The insanity of deepwater oil wells.

Read Slate's complete coverage of the BP oil spill. 

Oil spill. Click image to expand.
The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico

From the comfort of your home or office, through the magic of Web video, you can watch the disaster unfolding on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. What you're seeing—a leak that has spewed more than 36 million gallons of oil into the Gulf since April 20—is taking place a mile below the water's surface. The temperature there is just above freezing. The pressure is 2,300 pounds per square inch.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

No human being could survive there. Everything at the scene—pipes, valves, hydraulic systems—has been remotely installed, through cables, by machines floating on the water's surface. So has the well, which plunges from the sea bed through another 2.5 miles of earth to the oil deposit below.

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If nobody's down there, how are you seeing this? Through the eyes of remotely operated vehicles. For six weeks, these undersea drones, built to withstand seawater and crushing weight, have been busy around the leak, trying to shut it down. They've twisted valves, clipped hoses, sprayed dispersant, and poked at the well's unresponsive "blowout preventer." Nothing has stopped the leak. It will go on hemorrhaging oil until an 18,000-foot relief well reaches its source, probably in August.

You can see the spewing oil pipe, but you can't touch it. None of us can. We can't reach it. We've opened a hole in the earth that we can't close.

I'm not talking about the blowout. I'm talking about the well. Every month, we punch more holes in the bottom of the sea. Driven by high gas prices and the depletion of accessible oil fields, drillers are venturing farther offshore and deeper into the earth. Thirty years ago, the record water depth for a functioning rig was less than 5,000 feet. Now it's more than 10,000 feet. One well runs through 4,000 feet of water and another 35,000 feet of earth. Another has been proposed to go through two miles of water and seven miles of earth. Nearly 10 percent  of today's oil comes from deepwater wells.

The wells have blowout preventers. But if the preventers fail, as this one did, there's no known way to plug them. Safety regulations generally prohibit diving below 300 feet. The lowest depth attained by a human diver is 2,000 feet, and that was in a suit that makes activity impossible. In deep water, we're at the mercy of ROVs.

ROVs do amazing things. On BP's Web site, you can watch a video about them. (You can even select one of the ROVs near the well, click on it, and see what it's seeing.) They can function at depths of 10,000 feet or greater. They can swim, dig trenches, and install undersea cables. With multiple-jointed manipulators, they can clamp pipes, drill holes, and cut wires. The Marine Technology Society  says "a telerobotic manipulator is the mechanical equivalent of human arms and hands."

But it isn't. For weeks, BP's ROVs have fumbled with tools and cables. The high-tech saw they brought to sever the leaking pipe failed, got stuck, and took hours to extract. On Friday, Tony Hayward, the company's CEO, apologized for the inherent slowness of remotely orchestrating operations that would be simple and fast for a human. And on Monday, when a reporter suggested that more ROVs might fix the leak, Adm. Thad Allen, the government's spill-control commander, answered him with an embarrassing story:

When we were using the riser insertion tool … they had to stop and reinsert it. The reason they had to do that was the ROVs that were doing the subsea dispersant application and the ROVs that were working the insertion tube actually bumped into each other, and it caused the tube to be dislodged, and they had to do it again.

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