BP's Containment Dome Failed. Can Garbage Injections Stop up the Leaks?

By Andrew Moseman | May 10, 2010 9:48 am

NOAAMay9As BP built its 100-ton  containment dome and slowly towed it out to the site of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, company representatives warned that it was no certainty the technique would be able to stem the flow of oil 5,000 feet below the water’s surface. Unfortunately, those warnings were correct. On Saturday, ice-like gas hydrates built up on the steel-and-concrete containment box and prevented the box from getting a seal on the leak. The big question is: Now what?

The idea behind the containment dome was that once placed on top of the leaks, it would pump oil up a pipe to a tanker on the surface and keep more oil from getting into the Gulf, BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles says.

The icy buildup on the containment box made it too buoyant and clogged it up, BP’s Suttles said. Workers who had carefully lowered the massive box over the leak nearly a mile below the surface had to lift it and move it some 600 feet to the side. If it had worked, authorities had said it would reduce the flow by about 85 percent [MSNBC].

On Sunday, after that failure, Suttles said that BP responders wouldn’t give up on the containment box idea. Raising it back up would warm the structure enough to clear off the buildup, but they need a way to stop them from reforming when the box descends again. Pumping the box with methanol or warm water to keep its temperature higher is one option. Suttles says there are a few more alternatives on the table, too:

“One is a smaller dome – we call it the ‘top hat’, and the second is to try to find a way to tap into the riser, the piece of pipe the oil is flowing through, and take it directly from that pipe up to the ship on the surface.” The smaller containment dome would theoretically be less likely to get blocked by hydrates because it would contain less water. It could be ready to deploy on Tuesday or Wednesday [BBC News].

And BP is preparing one other method to stop the leak: garbage. By injecting the leaking area with a so-called “junk shot” made of tires, golf balls, and other debris, Suttles says it’s possible to plug up the leak.

“We have some pipe work on the blowout preventer, and if we can open certain valves on that we could inject basically just rubber and other type of material into [it] to plug it up, not much different to the way you might plug up a toilet,” he said [BBC News].

Through it all, the oil company is still working on a relief well that would be a much better and more permanent solution than funneling the leak to a tanker on the surface. But that’s a three-month process, and despite the fact that it feels like the Deepwater Horizon leak has been pouring oil into the Gulf perpetually, still not three weeks have passed since the explosion that killed 11 and eventually caused the rig to sink.

Thus far fortunate weather patterns have kept the slick mostly out to sea and away from the Gulf Coast, but that luck could be changing. Tar balls—pieces of hardened oil—showed up on Alabama shores over the weekend. Responders can’t say for sure yet whether they’re from the BP oil spill, but it’s a good bet.

Previous posts on the BP oil spill:
80beats: 5 Offshore Oil Hotspots Beyond the Gulf That Could Boom—Or Go Boom
80beats: Gulf Oil Spill: Do Chemical Dispersants Pose Their Own Environmental Risk?
80beats: Gulf Oil Spill: Fisheries Closed; Louisiana Wetlands Now in Jeopardy
80beats: Gulf Oil Spill Reaches U.S. Coast; New Orleans Reeks of “Pungent Fuel Smell”
80beats: Uh-Oh: Gulf Oil Spill May Be 5 Times Worse Than Previously Thought
80beats: Coast Guard’s New Plan To Contain Gulf Oil Spill: Light It on Fire

Image: NOAA, the 72-hour projection as of May 9

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment
  • m

    i’m starting to think nothing short of divine intervention is going to stop this.

    this is not going to end well.

  • Bob Dining

    I know that setting on this side of the fence things look much easyer, but from what I find on the inter-net : If they can cut the casing string off above the BOP and run another string of casing with and out side packer (with a seal and jaws that bite the casing as a strain is taken on it, the oil should flow to the surface through the casing. Or the well could be plugged with cement down the casing. Good luck.

  • http://aol Bobby

    why cant they use a nitro glyceryn bomb to stop flow?

  • http://aol Bobby

    I fill that those in charge are now using any critical thinking, and if they were they would have more than 2 ideas for containment.

  • Scott Finnell

    What a disaster. This company should pay dearly for this crisis. They could have had an emergency plan already ready to go in case this happened. What I fear the most is the long term damage to marine animals, and the economy to fishermen. We could have a contaminated food chain, not to mention the Emerald coast and other coastlines that can be damaged. This could also be an economic disaster for tourism in the Gulf Coast states. One can almost hear the stampede, a stampede of lawyers lining up to cash in on this disaster.

  • Sara

    Drill baby drill! I mean, uh, well, my spokesman told me to say that. Anyway, this is just a smokescreen to hide the FEMA deathcamp under the sea.

  • jumblepudding

    May this useless, giant, steel box stand on the bottom of the gulf for future civilizations to marvel at.

  • http://discovermagazine.com Vinnie

    We have bacteria that consume hyhdrocarbons and have been created specifically for oil spills, so it is funny how noone is talking about them at least as a possible mitigator for this situation, if not, of course, a solution.

  • Barbara Campbell

    I have a suggestion for stopping the oil spill.
    Caramel. It is very thick and perhaps even thicker than the oil. I think if they poured it over the leak it would stop it. What do you think.

  • Dan

    Blanket the area over the leak with cement weghed blanket that has several buoy hoses from blanket to surface for extraction–Simple Plan that would work

  • http://craig.melville@univarusa.com Craig Melville

    Why are they NOT using more suction tubes & pumping the seawater & oil slime to waiting tankers to deal w/the mess???
    Keep adding tubes until the the suck more than’s coming out !!!!
    This operation is an absolute JOKE……they can drill holes, add piping but they can’t vacuum the leak…….the engineers in charge must be incompetent.
    WHY arent there HUGE tankers skimming the oil in tandem at the source area ??????
    All I see are little 50 foot boats skimming minisule amts…..its a joke

  • CODY freelander

    i had the same idea for a concrete or steel dome myself. maybe it needs to be heavier or made of lead. perhaps a very powerful electromagnet placed lower on the pipe that could draw metal balls into the pipe might work.

  • Trena Boole

    Joel, good point. I think any blurp out of the FDA in regards to OPTR in the briefing documents that can be seen as negative may reduce share price before the panel. I may short right before the B.D>’s are released and hedge with calls.

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