The BP Oil Spill Response “Plan”

The BP Oil Spill Regional Plan (BP Regional Plan) is online here. This document is relied on and incorporated in the Exploration Plan for the Macondo site (online here) via the following certification:

since BP Exploration & Production Inc has the capability to respond to the appropriate worst case spill scenario included in its regional OSRP approved on November 14, 2008 and since the worst-case scenario determined for our Exploration Plan does not replace the appropriate worst-case scenario in our regional OSRP, I hereby certify that BP Exploration & Production Inc has the capability to respond to the maximum extent practicable to a worst-case discharge …resulting from the activities proposed in our Exploration Plan.

The BP Regional Plan was prepared by The Response Group, 13231 Champion Forest Dr., Suite #310, Houston, TX 77069 281-880-5000 url. They appear to be an American group – as are the drilling contractor (Transocean) and major suppliers such as Haliburton.

In light of recent events, some surprising aspects of the BP Regional Plan have attracted little to no comment thus far despite the massive coverage.

First and perhaps most surprisingly, the scale of the blowout (even if 20,000 barrels per day) is an order of magnitude lower than the “Worst Case Scenario” contemplated in the BP Regional Plan. On page 509, the Worst Case Scenario for an offshore blowout of an exploratory well is said to be 250,000 barrels per day.

Given the anticipated reservoir thickness and historical productivity index for the Miocene, worst case discharge is expected to be 250,000 barrels of crude oil per day. Calculations are based on formulas defined by MMS regulations.

In addition, the pro forma location of such a blow out in the regional plan (28° 30’ 47.42” N, 88° 52’ 40.84” W, Distance to Shore: 33 miles ) is a reasonable pro forma location for Macondo. The Response Plan even shows Plaquemines Parish as the landfall most likely to be affected by an unabated spill, so Billy Nungasser’s problems were not exactly unanticipated.

Although the Response Plan is 583 pages in total, there are only a couple of pages (see 509 ff) that say what they will do in the event of an offshore blow out. And these couple of pages say little more than that they have standing contracts with regional responders (Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRC) and the National Response Corporation (NRC) ) who are said to have more than sufficient skimming capacity to deal with the Worst Case Scenario of a 250,000 barrel/day blow out. (I presume that the BP Oil Spill Response Plan is more or less similar to Response Plans by other operators in the region.)

Here are the salient paragraphs:

BP will make every effort to respond to the Worst Case Discharge as effectively as possible. BP has contracted with Clean Caribbean & Americas (CCA), Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRC) and the National Response Corporation (NRC) as primary Oil Spill Removal Organizations. Contact information for the OSROs can be found in Figure 7-6A. Upon notification of the spill, BP would request a partial or full mobilization of the resources identified in the attached Appendix E, including, but not limited to, dispersant aircraft from CCA, ASI & MSRC and NRC & MSRC skimming vessels.

Offshore response strategies may include attempting to skim utilizing MSRC &NRC’s Oil Spill Response Vessels (OSRVs), Oil Spill Response Barges (OSRBs), ID Boats, and Quick Strike OSRVs, which have a combined derated recovery rate of 491,721 barrels/day. Temporary storage associated with the identified skimming and temporary storage equipment equals 299,066 barrels.

The Plan has a short discussion of dispersants – a discussion that shows that dispersion capacity of 6-7,000 barrels/day is far short of Worst Case requirements – though not the original discharge estimates. Corexit is specified as the dispersant, so this should not have been a surprise to regulators and environmental organizations.

Plaquemines Parish is mentioned as the most likely area to be affected. However, the Response Plan contains nothing specific to Plaquemines Parish – only B-school generalities e.g. the following:

If the spill went unabated, shoreline impact would depend upon existing environmental conditions. Nearshore response may include the deployment of shoreline boom on beach areas, or protection and sorbent boom on vegetated areas. Strategies would be based upon surveillance and real time trajectories provided by the Response Group that depict areas of potential impact given actual sea and weather conditions. Strategies from the Area Contingency Plan, The Response Group and Unified Command would be consulted to ensure that environmental and special economic resources would be correctly identified and prioritized to ensure optimal protection. The Response Group shoreline response guides depict the protection response modes applicable for oil spill clean-up operations. Each response mode is schematically represented to show optimum deployment and operation of the equipment in areas of environmental concern. Supervisory personnel have the option to modify the deployment and operation of equipment allowing a more effective response to site-specific circumstances. (For information on resource identification, see Section 11; for more information on resource protection methods, see Section 13.)

Overall, the “plan” for a Worst Case blow out of an exploratory well is extraordinarily cursory (though elsewhere the Plan is remarkably specific. For example, they specify that the center for public relations should have a podium and a wall clock.)

It seems to me that the response problem is a little different than characterized by commentators to date.

The blow out is “only” 20,000 barrels/day or so, while the Regional Plan says that the various response organizations have a skimming capacity of 491,721 barrels/day.

It’s not that the Response Plans didn’t contemplate a Worst Case as bad as the present blow out (they contemplated much worse scenarios). The problem seems to be that the effective skimming capacity seems to be vastly less than the rated capacity.

Obvious questions: how real is the rated capacity of 491,721 barrels/day? Is this apples and apples relative to a point discharge of 20,000 barrels/day? Does a larger dispersion cone reduce the effective capacity of the skimmers by a couple of orders of magnitude? Or is there some elementary mismatch between the apparent skimmer capacity and the job that needs to be done?

I have no personal knowledge of the technologies and am more or less throwing the topic up for discussion by readers more knowledgeable than me.

Another point. I also presume that the BP Oil Spill Response Plan (including prior editions) and Response Plans of other operators have been available not merely to regulators, but to environmental organizations for many years (I don’t know this, I am presuming it.) If effective skimming capacity is insufficient to deal with the present blow out – or whatever else is missing in the remediation capacity – shouldn’t this have been apparent to someone in the environmental movements? Has this been an ongoing topic of controversy for environmental organizations over the past 10 years? Not just in the abstract way of condemning all offshore drilling, but in the practical way of pointing out potential shortfalls in skimming capacity (or other practical defects in the Response Plan)? Just asking.


  1. Scott Brim
    Posted May 30, 2010 at 10:15 PM | Permalink

    It would appear that all parties to the disaster viewed the response plan as merely a paper exercise. In the nuclear industry, we don’t get away with that kind of attitude.

  2. David Smith
    Posted May 30, 2010 at 10:16 PM | Permalink

    Steve, I wonder if spill thickness, which affects recovery efficiency, plays a role. The BP plan may have assumed that some fraction of an open-sea spill would escape. They could capture, for example, 240,000 bbls/day of a 250,000 bbl/day spill but the other 10,000 bbls/day would escape.

    I suspect that 100% recovery is quite difficult on the open ocean, even for smaller spills, with sheens and some heavier material escaping.

    • Posted May 31, 2010 at 4:57 PM | Permalink

      David’s comment is correct. You cannot pick up a sheen, (i.e. the colours of the rainbow)with any skimmer because the sheen thickness is only of the order of a wavelength of light. The efficiency of recovery by skimming depends on a number of factors, such as wave action, API gravity etc. I have known spills of heavy oil where the slick sank in cooler temperatures at night and rose during higher day temperatures. In those cases the density of the oil is close to that of water. A 100% skimming efficiency is a pipe-dream in even the most favourable cases.

      • Michael Jankowski
        Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 12:44 AM | Permalink

        I’ve seen it discussed where the skimming efficiency was assumed to be 10% in the BP plan. Not sure if this is true or not.

  3. pjm
    Posted May 30, 2010 at 10:17 PM | Permalink

    The environmental groups are all too hung up on climate and carbon dioxide. I emailed Greenpeace Australia back in 2001, when I was starting to get interested in the topic (thanks to the late John Daly’s website).

    > ( preamble explaining what I was on about )
    > What steps is greenpeace taking to protect our wildlife against
    > the contingency that human-caused global warming is not occurring
    > and that reducing greenhouse emissions has no significant effect?

    After 2 tries (the first said they were working on climate change, which missed the point) I got the following

    We don’t have a contingency plan in case climate change turns out
    not to be significantly influenced by humans. To follow is a note
    from our climate change campaigner … ( which exhorted me to take action to reduce climate change ).

    Even if they had said they were continuing to campaign on a case by case basis that would have been something.

    • Sean
      Posted Jun 1, 2010 at 9:26 AM | Permalink

      This is interesting but very off topic.

  4. justbeau
    Posted May 30, 2010 at 10:30 PM | Permalink

    It seems like the plan was mindless blah-blah. The MMS needed a plan and apparently nobody cared what it said. That needs to change, in fundamental ways.

    Environmental groups work on promoting their causes. Causes can be not very realistic, like AGW. NGOs may prefer to wish away coal and petroleum, not champion improvements to their operations.

    Its amazing that this horrible blowout is still tiny in relation to the worst case plan.

  5. Gerald Machnee
    Posted May 30, 2010 at 10:56 PM | Permalink

    Obama’s response will also be interesting. He said he is responsible. Did he have a plan.

  6. EdeF
    Posted May 30, 2010 at 11:05 PM | Permalink

    As of May 28 BP says they have over 1,300 vessels working on containing and
    collecting the spill and 274k barrels of oily liquid have been recovered.
    That works out to somewhat less than 10k barrels per day over the last month.
    Remember, that’s not all oil, “oily liquid”. Some fraction of the oil leak was collected by the RITT pipe, estimates of between 1,300 and 3,000 barrels a
    day. In addition, an unknown quantity of oil has been burned on the surface
    and dispersents have effectively reduced some amount. I am finding it hard to
    find any good numbers on the equivalent number of barrels of oil that 274k
    number equates to. It does appear that the oil skimming capability is orders
    of magnitude less in practice than what is stated in the plan, and I don’t think we are reading that wrong. In addition to the commercial recovery companies stated in the plan above, 75 Coast Guard ships have been activated and some unknown number of fishing vessels. The problem is that
    no one would want to pay for an adequate number of clean up vessels on call
    24/7 to be able to clean up a 200k barrel/day spill, much less a 20k barrel/day spill it seems. There is some level of baseline capability that
    exists in the Gulf that responds to day to day accidents, which operates at a much smaller basis than that required in an emergency. How about placing a bounty on spilled oil? In a spill, you get to keep any oil you recover.

  7. Jeremy Tonks
    Posted May 31, 2010 at 12:18 AM | Permalink

    I haven’t waded through the 593 pages but what do they say about actually plugging a leak rather than just cleaning up afterwards?

  8. Doug in Seattle
    Posted May 31, 2010 at 1:35 AM | Permalink

    “BP has contracted with Clean Caribbean & Americas (CCA), Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRC) and the National Response Corporation (NRC) as primary Oil Spill Removal Organizations.”

    Who are these organizations? What I get from their scant web sites is that these are paid for by money collected from the oil companies – sort of like insurance for spills.

    From what we have seen in last month and half, it looks like these folks were collecting the money and not investing in the clean up equipment. Certainly not enough to handle 400K, or even 20K bbls of oil per day.

    It’ll be interesting to see how post incident audit shakes out for these folks.

    • Sadie
      Posted Jun 1, 2010 at 12:59 PM | Permalink

      Your comment raises another question. If the two organizations serve as an insurance company for spills..

      Why did the House just pass legislation to quadruple taxes on petroleum over the next 10 years. Supposedly, it was to increase the current $75 million lid.

  9. Joe in Kansas
    Posted May 31, 2010 at 2:00 AM | Permalink

    I have been researching the issues raised by this post and subsequent comments, and I’m amazed as to where I have found the most insightful commentary; who would have guessed that the comments on a blog normally dedicated to climate issues contains the information I have been searching the net for, for the past 2 hours.

    I’m glad I have you on my subscribed RSS feeds, I would never have found this detail about the contingency plans if that were not the case.

    I always felt this blog had a higher caliber of readers/posters than on the left leaning climate sites.

    So I just wanted to say thank you, I’m sorry I’m not educated enough to contribute to most post on this blog…it really feels like true “scientists” are the only ones who comment/post on this blog. And alas, a Computer Science degree really doesn’t qualify me as a climate scientist. So I’ll leave you all be, but again I just wanted to say “thank you” all for taking the time to care and post.

    • Robert
      Posted May 31, 2010 at 3:57 AM | Permalink

      Joe – please continue to contribute. You have all that the world could possibly ask for – an open mind and thoughtfulness – Robert

  10. John Coochey
    Posted May 31, 2010 at 4:38 AM | Permalink

    There is another way to solve the problem which is very simple and relatively innexpensive. Drive a parallel hole (I worked on the oilfields in the 70’s, and detonate a charge to collapse the hole, I have also worked as a shotfirer ( powder monkey) would you like to know the charge factor?

    • EdeF
      Posted May 31, 2010 at 9:46 PM | Permalink

      This is a great idea if you want to permanently close-off that well head. On the other hand, if you want to just get the well under control and temporarily cap it off for future use, not so good. They put in a lot of money to put that well in in the first place, and with the potential oil revenues it must be a hard decision to collapse the hole. But after 5 failed attempts and August until the relief hole can be completed, this is looking more attractive. This is an idea that could have been done in parallel from the first.

      • QBeamus
        Posted Jun 1, 2010 at 2:05 PM | Permalink

        Actually, I infer from what I’ve read that the well in question was an exploration well, not a production well–the plan was
        to cap and abandon the well, though with the thought that it might be re-opened later as part of the production plan.

        I believe the real reason this hasn’t been part of the plan is that it would have taken too long to implement. In retrospect, given the failure of the other plans, it might have been a good idea after all, but the drilling process would have taken weeks, even after they’d gotten a drill ship in position. And at perhaps $100,000 per hour, that would have been a VERY expensive to undertake solely as a contingency plan.

  11. Craig B
    Posted May 31, 2010 at 5:42 AM | Permalink

    Here’s a good website showing off all the stuff going on (sorry if it’s already been posted):

    • Craig B
      Posted May 31, 2010 at 5:52 AM | Permalink

      Just to add… err.. cause re-reading my post i see it’s pretty much meaningless without actually clicking on the link. Well i’ve linked to a BP quick presentation that shows all the different options that they are currently pursuing and all the equipment in place and how complex the problem is in a very simplified and easy to understand way. It really helps to get across the issues of scale and complexity that simply don’t always get across in mainstream media. My original prediction when i first heard what happened was that it’d take 2 months to fix…. so far on track for that.

  12. Ralph B
    Posted May 31, 2010 at 5:47 AM | Permalink

    This tragic accident was caused by complacency. You can see it started years before when applications were filed with no realistic contingency plans. Regulators rubber stamped them without reading. BP documents show engineers raised concerns over the well casement and were rebuffed. There were problems with the BOP back in March, again regulators didn’t give it a second look. Indicators were there that gas had been collecting in the well yet nothing was done.
    Maybe things like this have happened many times in the past and nothing happened, so those in charge pushed on worrying more about the bottom line than the big picture. I have read many, many times how good a record offshore drilling had. Notice that is past tense…they had it. As BP has found out, laurels do not make a good mattress.

    • Adam in Vancouver
      Posted May 31, 2010 at 6:07 PM | Permalink

      I’d wholeheartedly agree with that. We haven’t had much in the way of oil spills in North America for mnay, many years. Tehre was na extensive regulatory scheme in place (courtesy of teh Exxon Valdez) but the industry went around this the way a creek will go around a large boulder that falls in its course.

      There were plenty of folks concerned of course, but the fickle eye of the media concentrates on the here and, two months ago, who wanted to hear about oil spills–they were so 1989.

      And now the response is to try to “stick it” to someone–BP or Obama. Find someone to blame. Find a single repository for all our fear and loathing on the issue, and ignore the myriad other factors–complacency, a regulator captured by the industry, the lure of easy money and the myths that Americans hold about energy (“energy independence”, the idea that, if it weren’t for ouil, we’d all be frolicking in the meadows, the denial of the essentiality of oil for our prosperity).

  13. bold'un
    Posted May 31, 2010 at 6:12 AM | Permalink

    BP’s response plan probably assumed that the drilling vessel was not lost. A riser plus a rig surely make it easier to collect the gusher at the sea surface instead of at the sea bed. The Mexican Ixctoc disaster also involved the loss of the rig…

  14. L Nettles
    Posted May 31, 2010 at 6:13 AM | Permalink

    New Orleans had a hurricane preparedness plan. School buses were to be used to evacuate the city. Instead we were left with the iconic photographs of hundreds of buses abandoned to the floodwater. A plan without leadership is just so much paper.

  15. Daved
    Posted May 31, 2010 at 6:56 AM | Permalink

    I agree with Ralph B that this problem was caused by complacency.

    President Obama has told us repeatedly how angry he is and in his situation this is understandable.

    However considering that Government pockets about 80% of the net revenue arising from oil industry activities shouldn’t his anger be tinged with guilt.

    If one pays one’s municipal taxes, the least one can expect after a fire is that the municipality will be able to field a fire engine.

    The US government was as well aware of the risk that oil drilling posed for adjacent coasts as was the oil industry but it appears to have done very little if anything to prepare for it.

  16. ralph soames
    Posted May 31, 2010 at 7:28 AM | Permalink

    the article on has got it about right. Surely its been folly to try to engineer in a mile of water ?

  17. Sean
    Posted May 31, 2010 at 8:07 AM | Permalink

    I was wondering if anyone might be able to put the BP plan in perspective. BP has a reputation of being one of the worst oil companies with repsect to maintenance and contigency planning. Exxon on the other hand is one of the best. Is anyone aware of the availability of an Exxon plan for dealing with a blow-out in the gulf? It could be an interesting comparison. Additionally, a poll taken just before the spill found that BP was considered one of the most environmentally progressive companies. I don’t know where Exxon ranked but I don’t think public perception would have been very high.

    • QBeamus
      Posted Jun 1, 2010 at 2:15 PM | Permalink

      Actually, BP has the reputation of being an extremely cautious company. My own experience working with them, when I was with Schlumberger, working in the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico, convinced me they were more careful and took a longer view than any of the other companies I worked with in the Gulf.

      Obviously, in this case several incautious decisions were made. I’m especially perplexed by the decision to rely on sea water rather than mud at this depth. And BP employees made some of those decisions. But it’s every bit as counterproductive to lurch off assuming it must be because BP has a reckless culture as it is to assume every hurricane is caused by global warming.

  18. Mesa
    Posted May 31, 2010 at 8:56 AM | Permalink

    This isn’t the first oil spill by a long shot, and I don’t think it’s particularly unusual in a lot of ways except for the proximity to the US coastline. There must be plenty of real world experience with cleaning up oil spills around the globe that could have been used by oil companies and more importantly regulators to formulate plausible cleanup recovery plans. If there wasn’t a plausible clean-up plan for a moderate to large leak like this, that should have been advertised ahead of time as one of the risks of proceeding with this type of exercise.

    Since neither the oil companies nor the regulators seem to have done their job here at all, it’s reasonable to curtail offshore activity until more realistic assessments of risk involved are obtained.

    I don’t see how it was the responsibility of environmental watchdog groups to identify effective skimming capacity – perhaps you didn’t mean to imply that.

    • Matto
      Posted May 31, 2010 at 10:36 AM | Permalink

      While environmental watchdog groups are free to focus on any issue they see fit, perhaps they would be better received (and better serve society) by focusing on pragmatic oversight of environment sensitive industries instead of being driven by over-emotive apocalypse fetishism.

  19. dearieme
    Posted May 31, 2010 at 9:55 AM | Permalink

    “they specify that the center for public relations should have a podium and a wall clock”: it’s the way you tell ’em, Steve.

  20. harrywr2
    Posted May 31, 2010 at 10:46 AM | Permalink

    “effective skimming capacity”

    What is the definition of ‘effective’?
    There is a world of difference between a plan to minimize damage and a plan to insure no damage occurs.
    All automobiles are certified to be ‘safe’, yet 10’s of thousands of people are killed in automobile accidents.

    Steve – DOn’t ask me. Ask them. If the “effective” skimming capacity was 490,000 barrels/day as stated in the BP Response Plan, then 20,000 barrels/day shouldn’t have been such a big problem.

  21. EdeF
    Posted May 31, 2010 at 10:57 AM | Permalink

    They planned for the worst……..and boy did they get it.

  22. Steve McIntyre
    Posted May 31, 2010 at 11:03 AM | Permalink

    Mesa at 8:56 am writes:

    I don’t see how it was the responsibility of environmental watchdog groups to identify effective skimming capacity – perhaps you didn’t mean to imply that.

    “Responsibility” is a word that is at the core of much tort law and has many nuances.

    Consider – as an analogy – Enron or Bre-X (previously discussed at CA). The responsibility for proper financial disclosure lies first with the company, then with the auditors and regulators. However, interesting tort issues arose in considering the duties of analysts with brokerage companies, who were not “responsible” for the original improper financial disclosure, but presumably had some responsibility for a certain amount of due diligence. Not easy to define what “responsibility” that they had – tort law is complicated.

    The trouble with analogies is that people all too often debate the analogy.

    In the case at hand, the “responsibility” for warranting effective skimming capacity obviously lies first and foremost with the industry. One expects a certain amount of due diligence from regulators (just as one expects due diligence from auditors – Arthur Andersen, Enron’s auditors – disappeared as a business in the wake of Enron). Environmental organizations receive hundreds of millions of dollars of funding. Obviously I doubt that a tort claim against environmental organizations for failing to do proper due diligence on offshore Oil Spill Response Plans would succeed, but equally it seems fair to me to observe that it wasn’t just regulators that (apparently) failed to question the effectiveness of skimming capacity, but environmental organizations – some of whom were actively lobbying against offshore drilling. (Again I am unfamiliar with the sources and, if environmental organizations did in fact draw attention to the effectiveness of skimming capacity, I will note this up if such documents are drawn to my attention.)

    • Posted Jun 1, 2010 at 2:44 AM | Permalink

      Your digging and reflections are not only important in their own right, there are delicious connections to Muir Russell and Edinburgh to come back to. Once Enron and Bre-X are in the frame it feels as if you’re on a home run (I do wish I knew what these American sports analogies meant!) The crowd, first baffled, starts to roar its approval. The fossil fuel funding smear looks as plausible now as a robot a mile under water in the Gulf of Mexico. Mr Audit becomes Mr Cleanup. Respect.

      • Jim
        Posted Jun 1, 2010 at 4:53 PM | Permalink

        Try this.
        Home run isn’t that extraordinary; it’s the only way that you actually get points. The term for something extraordinary is the “grand slam”, where one well-placed hit can get four points.

  23. bender
    Posted May 31, 2010 at 3:46 PM | Permalink

    Dig anywhere. Dig everywhere. Interesting stuff not covered in mainstream media.

  24. CJB
    Posted May 31, 2010 at 4:00 PM | Permalink

    The application of extreme pressures to block the oil well at the bottom of the Gulf with mud and other materials has failed. Would it be possible, by applying a vacuum to a wide diameter cylinder, to “syphon” the oil up to the surface and into floating reservoirs?
    Intuitively, a weak vacuum could be applied to direct, or steer, the cylinder to near the site of the leak. Then, as strong a vacuum as possible could be generated, perhaps creating some kind of seal between the cylinder and the surrounding ocean floor, thus maximizing the retrieval of the leaking oil.

    • Adam in Vancouver
      Posted May 31, 2010 at 6:10 PM | Permalink

      Not sure of the technical merits offhand, but BP does have a spot on their website to submit proposed technical solutions.

  25. EdeF
    Posted May 31, 2010 at 5:35 PM | Permalink

    Tory-graph picks up story:

    Steve: Obviously they could have spotted the point independently. On the other hand, they hadn’t done so prior to it being mentioned here. I wonder if they picked this issue up directly or indirectly from CA.

    • bender
      Posted May 31, 2010 at 5:56 PM | Permalink

      From that paper:

      “The spill is like the 1,000-year flood: it’s the worst-case scenario,” said Brian Youngberg, an analyst with Edward Jones. “It’s hard to prepare for those extreme situations.”

      Apparently, the Edward Jones rep has not done his homework – if the spill is actually only a fraction the size of a plausible worse-case scenario. Although it is hard to prepare for “extreme situations”, that is no excuse in this case, as it appears BP claimed to be prepared for much worse. What does “Edward Jones” (or other such firms) actually know about risk analysis? And what does this say about their judgement in investment decision making?

    • Michael Jankowski
      Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 12:55 AM | Permalink

      There have been articles discussing BP’s response plan for weeks.

      I think the first time where I saw it reported that BP’s cleanup claim was bunk was this Alabama news site on May 19.

  26. Mesa
    Posted May 31, 2010 at 5:41 PM | Permalink

    So, if these issues can only be understood by the companies involved – ie not by regulators and gadfly groups, then the only way tort law can be successful in preventing this type of problem is if senor executives face financial penalties in excess of their equity holding in the company. Otherwise the executives get to write a “free put” – ie raise public capital, take outsize risks, reap financial rewards, and if the company goes bust because of a liability issue, they keep the money. This is the same issue with the recent financial crisis I think.

    The other idea would be to require that the companies hold insurance to pay for clean up scenarios. then the insurance companies would be highly incentivized to understand the issues.

    If executives didn’t want to work in such an industry if they faced personal penalties and/or insurance companies wouldn’t write cleanup insurance, then it’s a good argument that the activity should not be undertaken, at least by private enterprise.

    Steve: I, for one, did not say (nor do I believe) that the issues can “only be understood by the companies involved”. Nor do I think that the comparison to the financial companies is particularly apt here. BP executives are well-paid but they are not looting shareholder capital in the way that Wall St financial executives were. BP has lots of financial resources to pay for this and in that sense is self-insured. There’s a lot to be said for dealing with BP itself rather than an insurance company. The oil spill response organizations are also a type of collective response – nothing wrong with the concept if the effective skimming capacity is sufficient to deal with the actual problem.

    Your points here are becoming too political -which are interesting but generally just argumentative. I’d rather that we deal with narrower issues of effective skimming capacity and the like.

    • bender
      Posted May 31, 2010 at 7:31 PM | Permalink

      “… a combined derated recovery rate of 491,721 barrels/day”

      What? Not 491,720 barrels/day? False precision often implies shallow analysis, although not necessarily in this case.

      • Sean
        Posted Jun 1, 2010 at 10:42 AM | Permalink

        Good point. Their projection is supposed to be accurate to within two one hundredths of a hundredth of a percent. No scientist or engineer with even a high school level knowledge of significant digits could possibly have been involved in perparing that projection.

    • Sean
      Posted Jun 1, 2010 at 11:08 AM | Permalink

      “So, if these issues can only be understood by the companies involved – ie not by regulators and gadfly groups …”

      In that sentece, what does the word “So” refer to? The point that follows is the exact opposite of the supposition in Steve’s post: “If effective skimming capacity is insufficient to deal with the present blow out … shouldn’t this have been apparent to someone in the environmental movements?

  27. Bill
    Posted Jun 1, 2010 at 10:09 AM | Permalink

    I remember early on the Coast Guard was going to use devices to round up the oil and burn. Unable to find any info about this, it’s suppose to be part of the federal response.

  28. Dave
    Posted Jun 1, 2010 at 12:48 PM | Permalink

    As I understand it, the disparity between the rated and actual skimming rates is to do with practical applications. If there was a square mile of thick oil on the ocean, the skimmers could pick it up easily, and operate at max efficiency 24/7. Even if it’s a bit thinner, they can still work flat-out, although they might get more water in the mix they pick up.

    What we have here, though, is a whole bunch of relatively tiny patches of oil that have to be spotted, chased down, and then as much of it as possible skimmed off.

    I think the long-term lesson that has to be learnt here is that for seriously deep water, the additional costs of drilling a second, parallel shaft from the same rig in the first place is probably small compared to the contingency costs.

    • QBeamus
      Posted Jun 1, 2010 at 2:29 PM | Permalink

      You might be right, but it still seems to me that there are a number of other options that would be a lot less expensive. For a starter, it seems none of this would have happened if blowout preventers didn’t require an affirmative signal to set off–use a “dead-man’s switch,” instead. (And that would assure the proper incentives for the oil company to make sure it’s working properly, you can be sure…)

      Using proper drilling mud would also have prevented this blowout…as it has in hundreds of other wells in the past few decades. (Interesting trivia: drilling mud costs more per barrel than the oil they’re drilling for.)

      I don’t know any of the details, but I’ve also read that there were indications that gas had accumulated in the well, which should have triggered some response other than business as usual.

      Any of these would have provided a response to avoid the blowout that would have been far, far less costly than drilling a second well for contingency operations. Please recall, 11 men died in this blowout, and no contingency plan is going to fix that.

      • Dave
        Posted Jun 1, 2010 at 6:30 PM | Permalink

        Well, if we’re changing the past, why the hell doesn’t the BOP have a tap connected to a whacking great ball-valve that can be turned by an ROV to shut off the flow in a situation like this?

        What really worries me is how much worse this could have been. Basically, we stuck a hollow tube into the seabed and oil came spurting out. We’re quite lucky that it actually isn’t coming out as fast as it might in a really catastrophic scenario, so we have a little time to work on it – but what if it was really gushing? There needs to be some system for collecting a gusher at source under a mile of water. Problem solved, it’s all just details from here 🙂

  29. Harry Eagar
    Posted Jun 1, 2010 at 3:50 PM | Permalink

    I am puzzled about what would be the origin of a spill of close to 500K bbl/day, let alone how you would mop it up.

    What — short of Saddam’s sabotaging of a whole oil province — could produce a spill of that magnitude?

    To go back to Steve’s original query about what could come through a hole of the size drilled, how big a borehole at what kind of pressure would spew out 500,000 bbls/day?

  30. David Smith
    Posted Jun 1, 2010 at 9:40 PM | Permalink

    One interesting (to me) side story is the large amount of help BP is getting from other oil companies. The help includes both equipment and expertise. My impression is that the oil industry sounded a general-quarters alarm and are helping BP in any way they can. This is a disaster for BP and, by implication, for the others too.

    Another side story is BP’s abysmal public relations job in this disaster. They would have been better-served if, during top kill, they provided technical hour-by-hour descriptions of their work and their frank assessments of the progress. It’s as if NASA, during the Apollo 13 recovery, had decided to issue little information on the situation and their actions. BP’s bumbling is mystifying and makes me wonder if BP lawyers are calling the shots.

  31. bender
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 9:33 AM | Permalink

    Does a larger dispersion cone reduce the effective capacity of the skimmers by a couple of orders of magnitude?

    I have no personal knowledge of the technologies and am more or less throwing the topic up for discussion by readers more knowledgeable than me.

    I do not presume to be more knowledgeable than Steve on this topic. But a cursory examination of the relevant literature suggests there are lots of models of oil dispersion dynamics from a surface point source (e.g. Valdez), and not a lot dealing with dispersion from a deep ocean source. It’s worth a deeper dig. I would assume that at some depth the dispersion “cone” stops being cone-shaped – that the dispersion pattern goes fractal and the oil becomes basically unrecoverable. Where are the math-physics-engineering guys when you need them? What’s Lubos say?

  32. bender
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 9:56 AM | Permalink

    For $42.50 you could have a read of “Oil in the Sea III: Inputs, Fates, and Effects”, which, apparently, discusses plume dispersion during a deep water blowout. Also, there does appear to be a Deepwater Horizon “Plume Modeling Team”. So perhaps someone from the team could comment? (Unless the lawyers have told them to keep quiet.)

  33. Steve McIntyre
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 9:58 AM | Permalink

    Hi, bender.

    Although the analogy may not be immediately obvious, “oil skimming” in a low-concentration (dispersed) setting is a sort of mineral-concentration problem of the sort faced by mining industries. Modern mining depends on the ability to concentrate sulphides from low-grade ores.

    Some skimmers rely on oleophilic surfaces to separate oil and water – froth flotation as used in concentrators relies on surface properties as well. You get some very large concentrators in mines.

    There’s no intuitive reason why you couldn’t have really high throughput skimmers. I don’t see why 1% oily water would be problematic or even 0.1% oily water – you should be able to produce a “concentrate” that is 75% oil or even more.

    I’ve been looking for information on the “grade” of oily water that they are encountering. It makes sense that the grade would go down as the cone got larger, but you should be able to throw larger equipment at the problem.

    I wouldn’t worry too much about fractal thingees. At one level, you probably get fractals in mines, but it comes out in the average.

    My own sense as to what was needed is very large skimmers – the scale of equipment like you’d see at Chuquicamata or a big open pit mine – and what they have are toys in comparison.

    Approached in mining terms, the scales are large, but not impossible. 20,000 BBl/day is about 3000 MT/day. If you’re dealing with 1% oily water as input, then you need to be able to handle 300,000 MT /day – which is a very large open pit mine scale. But it’s way easier processing a ton of oily water than a grinding and floating a tonne of rock.

    I’d like to see some information on skimmer capacity in which both input and output is specified.

  34. bender
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 10:08 AM | Permalink

    Hi Steve,
    You say not to worry about fractal “thingies”. But if the plume breaks up in such a way that the skimming units can’t track all those “thingies”, then those thingies (tarballs etc.) are a problem. High-throughput is fine … if you can be everywhere at once. Seems to me the skimming model may be assuming a relatively undispersed “cone”.

    But let’s not guess. Let’s check the auhtoritative literature.

    A brief 4p summary of that “Oil in the Sea” document:

    Click to access reportbrief.pdf

    suggests that one can contact Dan Walker for more information.

  35. bender
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 10:19 AM | Permalink

    IXTOC I in the Gulf of Mexico was two miles deep, and when it blew out in 1979 released ~20000 bpd for almost 10 months before it was capped. Shall we audit the plume modeling and skimming response of that incident, and compare what we’ve learned in the 30 years since?

  36. Steve McIntyre
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 10:40 AM | Permalink

    bender, my point is a very simple one. The starting point in thinking about skimming capacity is the “grade” of the oil in the water over various square km blocks. If you have larger equipment, you can handle “lower grade” dispersion.

    In the case at hand, it looks like they were under-equipped for the problem at hand. One possibility is that the skimming fleet was originally designed for shallow-water wells and narrow cones and did not keep pace with the movement of wells to deeper water. My own sense is that you could design a very large skimmer that could handle very large areas, going up and back in furrows. But I’m just guessing.

    • bender
      Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 11:14 AM | Permalink

      I get your point, and FWIW I think your guess – that skimming response technology did not keep pace with drilling technology & ambition – is a good one. Not being one for guessing outside my field, my first instinct is to read, talk, and attempt to provoke further discussion – to see what others think.

      When I ask if these things need auditing, I hope the obvious answer is “yes”. The problem, Steve, is the culture of denial surrounding the group-thinking, frontier-pushing drillers that believe nothing can go wrong and that emergency response and contingency plans are sufficient should the unlikely happen. The sufficiency assumption is false. Look at the data.

      Nimble entrepreneurs and dinosaur-like regulators & responders. Who is well-served by this model? Am I hyper-ventilating yet? No?

      Was Katrina Bush’s fault? There’s a reason why regulatory and response bodies – the risk-responders – always lag behind the risk-makers. Why are entrepreneurs called “entrepeneurs” when the game is NOT to undertake risk, but to offload it onto an unsuspecting public? Who is BP blaming now? A JV partner? What does this say about the wisdom of JV partnering? Who is well-served by that model? Who pays? Around it goes. The public purse is raided and the lawyers get rich.

      hypervantion rant /off

  37. Steve McIntyre
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 11:54 AM | Permalink

    Can someone give me some ballpark estimates for the color code below (NOAA) –

    what would these things convert to in % oil in water? And how deep would the concentration hold up to – is it 1-2 cm? Or 1 m? or what?

  38. Harry Eagar
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 12:23 PM | Permalink

    Rant or not, well said, bender.

    I still think that ‘491,721’ is not only too big to be real, but also too precise.

    It sounds like somebody was just making up numbers, as happened, eg, with risk fractions on tranches of loan securities.

    • bender
      Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 12:29 PM | Permalink

      Maybe the false precision is caused by a metric conversion? 🙂 What’s 491,721 barrels/day in barrels/dog-year?

      Steve: It appears to be the sum of the rated capacity of vessels listed in the document. It’s unclear exactly what this capacity represents – is it input barrels of oily water? or output barrels? If input barrels and the representative feed is (say) .5% oily water, then the capacity would be inadequate on its face. Something that any specialist handling the documents should have spotted. (We don’t yet know what the anticipated and realistic feed inputs are).

  39. Posted Jun 4, 2010 at 2:54 AM | Permalink

    Yeah, Their projection is supposed to be accurate to within two one hundredths of a hundredth of a percent.

  40. Posted Jun 8, 2010 at 12:26 PM | Permalink

    This is terrible, I feel this is going to have a lasting effect on this ocean for years to come. There is already reports of marine life dying far away from the oil spill due to the disperant possibly, which is causing nearly as many problems as the oil itself.
    More info on nalco BP and corexit on my blog.

  41. Howard Wiseman
    Posted Jun 9, 2010 at 4:39 PM | Permalink

    I appears from what I have read that these guys took shallow-water technology and used it in deep water with little regard for the additional risks of drilling a mile underwater. How about fail-safe or some form of redundancy in the shut off system? Nope. How about an operating procedure that accounts for variations in well pressure? Apparently not. Critical decisions were made about mud/cement/seawater on the basis of on-the-spot analysis. No engineering double check, just do it. 11 Men are dead, the Gulf is a pretty good mess. I used to have a reasonable amount of faith in corporate America. That evaporated with the $450 bank bill my daughter received for 5 or 6 $20 dollar ATM withdrawals. I will be shocked if someone goes to jail for this, but it sounds like manslaughter to me.

  42. J Gibbons
    Posted Jun 10, 2010 at 12:37 AM | Permalink

    I was wondering about their projected high flow value of 491,721 barrels/day (14,342 gal/minute) and the estimated flow today (June 9) of 30,000 (630,000 gal recovered / 42 gal/barrel x 2 for unrecovered = 876 gal/min). The well casing varies from about 9 inches to 36 at the sea floor. This table indicates that water flows at their high range are possible with this size pipe.

    Assuming about 6 psi drop per 100 ft, they have a 600 psi drop from the bottom to the top of the casing. Considering oil has more friction than water, I would assume the pressure drop would be much greater for oil. It would seem that the low reported flow (876 gpm vs 14342) may be suspect unless the pressure differential from the reservoir to the sea floor isn’t as great as expected.

  43. Hu McCulloch
    Posted Jun 10, 2010 at 9:32 AM | Permalink

    This 5/30 post was “ripped from today’s headlines”:

    BP’S PLAN FOR SPILL READS LIKE FICTION — Associated Press Analysis by Justin Pritchard, Tamara Lush and Holbrook Mohr. Front page, Columbus (OH) Dispatch, 6/10/10. Subtitle: Names, Numbers of Experts, Facts about Gulf — All wrong.

    Looks like Gavin isn’t the only one who reads CA!

  44. Phil
    Posted Jun 15, 2010 at 1:09 AM | Permalink

  45. dave
    Posted Sep 28, 2010 at 12:09 PM | Permalink

    One question I have is in regard to the OSRP (Oil Spill Response Plan) and what role, if any, the US Govt had in that. Criticism has been leveled at the government for not being prepared in terms of planning, implementing and equipment.

    But was not BP responsible for lining all these ducks up beforehand? The govt is responsible to the people for the cleanup. But didn’t it basically subcontract all of that out to BP in the OSRP? Didn’t BP own not only the planning but the implementation of the entier cleanup?

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