20,000 Leaks Under the Sea
The insanity of deepwater oil wells.
Read Slate's complete coverage of the BP oil spill.
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.
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.
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.
The ROVs' clumsiness isn't their fault. It's ours. Watch the BP video. Around two minutes in, it shows an ROV pilot in training. Look at the device he's been given to operate the machine. It can't possibly mimic the dexterity of a hand.
BP treats the awkwardness of this technology as an excuse for its difficulties. "Five thousand feet of water, no humans could go down there," the company's managing director, Robert Dudley, pleaded last week on Meet the Press. "We're reliant on the robots. These guys that are working offshore are incredibly skilled at this. We've been asking them to do the equivalent of open heart surgery on television."
But if this is heart surgery, the wound that made it necessary was inflicted by the surgeons themselves. BP drilled the well. It did so knowing that its robots couldn't handle a blowout and its people couldn't get there. If a surgeon did that—if he opened a hole he couldn't reach to stop the hemorrhage—he'd lose his license.
Of all the lessons we can learn from the BP fiasco, the simplest, and the first we should apply to offshore-drilling laws, is this: Don't open any holes you can't close. If the well site is too deep for humans to reach, drill a simultaneous relief well so you can plug a blowout promptly. If a relief well is too expensive, don't drill at all. Or you can keep robots on hand to shut down leaks. But they'll have to be better robots than the ones we're now watching.
Today's laws don't come anywhere near this standard. Two years ago, the government narrowed the conditions under which oil companies had to prepare for blowouts. Last year, when BP filed its exploration plan for the site of the ill-fated well, it claimed, "A scenario for a potential blowout of the well from which BP would expect to have the highest volume of liquid hydrocarbons is not required." The government agreed and approved the plan. Since the blowout, the government has granted environmental waivers to six projects that would drill in even deeper water, including four wells at more than 9,000 feet. And the government's only requirement for ROVs is that they be armed to activate the blowout preventer. Once the preventer has conclusively failed, nothing more is expected of them.
"If something like this happened in a shallow-water well, then folks would just get up on the platform and they would start fixing it and it would be shut down fairly quickly," President Obama observed yesterday. "What we don't have right now is an assurance that in these incredible depths—a mile down, and then they're drilling another three miles down to get to oil—that we can actually handle a crisis like this." That's exactly right. The problem isn't just that a blowout preventer failed. It's that we have no way to repair the next blowout. And until we do, we're fools to keep drilling in the deep.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of the BP oil spill by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.