June 01, 2010

Oh Gulf of Mexico, Never Really Been & I Don't Wanna Go

Not completely true: when my uncle worked for Nabisco, he lived in Galveston with my aunt and their three boys. We visited them in the summer, and I remember that the Gulf felt like a warm bath. My maternal grandmother could never get the name right; kept calling it "Galwestern," so it's just as well my uncle and family moved back to Arlington. That kind of confusion can get on your nerves after a few decades. And Jimmy Webb would have gotten nowhere writing a song about Galwestern.

before I dry the tears she's cryin',
before I watch your sea birds flyin'...
but all gucked up!
They're all f**ked up!

It does not appear that any method of capping the Deep Horizon well is going to work after all. One might note, if one tended toward the cynical, that British Petroleum chose their order of solutions in a way consistent with maximal commercial recovery of the spouting oil. There was the box, which clogged up with methane hydrates, but would have allowed BP a way to pump oil from the gusher to a surface ship. And then sell the oil. The "topkill" and "junkshot" approaches are end-of-the-line methods, seemingly easier, but with no oil-sale payoff.

Anyway, nothing worked, and that's not really surprising. This is a formidable gusher, rising with enough force to overcome water pressures of 1,700 pounds per square inch at the seabed. So - great news! - there must really be a lot of oil in that reservoir BP tapped into! So the race is on: will BP's relief well get there before the reservoir plays itself out? I imagine that someone on Wall Street is figuring out a credit default swap on that one so we can all wager.

It's difficult to find a consistent figure for the quantity of oil entering the Gulf of Mexico. The ranges I have read go from 5,000 barrels on the low side up to 70,000 barrels. Again, I would imagine there is a huge margin of error involved here; while it's easy to talk about fixing this thing, or measuring the flow, it's difficult, for me at least, to envision what it's like to try to operate machinery in an intricate manner, by remote control, in pitch blackness, at a depth 5,000 feet beneath the surface. It's a wonder they can even find the well.

A consensus guess puts the flow at 20,000 barrels. Figuring 55 gallons to the barrel, we're looking at 1.1 million gallons a day. To give myself some mental picture of what that number means, I looked up the cubic volume of an Olympic swimming pool 50 meters long, 25 meters wide and 2 meters deep. Such a pool holds about 660,000 gallons. So we're not far away (or maybe even over, if the higher end estimates of oil flow are more accurate) from two Olympic-sized pools full of black, gooey petroleum entering the seas off Galwestern on a daily basis, as has been the case for about the last 6 weeks. And which will continue, probably, until August, unless the "riser cut" approach pans out, which does not look promising. So looking at 120 days of this stuff, we will dump about 240 Oly-sized pools into the Gulf of Mexico before this thing is brought under control. Since oil has a lower specific gravity than water (at least at comparable temperatures), eventually all of this goo will get to the surface where it can coat everything and do maximal damage.

Sun's so hot, I forgot to go home, guess I'll have to go now...

As for Presidential "optics," I don't personally care whether President Obama spends every day on the beach in Louisiana or not. He's got the wardrobe part down pat, having watched other "hands-on" Presidents take their turn at natural disaster management. No tie, windbreaker, some kind of hokey shoes, like Timberlands. Bending over thoughtfully and picking up a tar ball. A dead pelican would be more like it, or even...an albatross, but it doesn't really matter. I assume that Obama has no independent expertise in plugging deep-water oil wells. Modern politicians specialize in photo-ops and image creation rather than substantive competence. They're more in the way than anything else, and while they're in town there must be so much trouble over "advance men," and making sure the right local political hacks are in the frame with the Head Man, and the right Moments of Empathy are caught on film that it's probably better if Obama stays in D.C., or Chicago, or wherever, and allows the other federal know-nothings to nod sagely as people who actually work in the field of oil drilling talk out loud about their next futile strategy.

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