BP, which used to stand for British Petroleum, and in their dreams “Beyond Petroleum,” now stands for “Broken Planet.”
In 1955, astronomer Thomas Gold proposed that while many of the liquid hydrocarbons being pumped up and refined for energy and petrochemicals were of fossil origin, deeper down in the Earth there were vast reservoirs of hydrocarbons of abiogenic origin, compounds that have been there since our blue glob of molten star first coalesced and cooled.
Gold proposed that "biology is just a branch of thermodynamics" and that the history of life is just a "a gradual systematic development toward more efficient ways of degrading energy." Since petroleum and its component hydrocarbons are present across the entire universe, as evidenced by spectrographic signature, there was no reason to believe "that on Earth they must be biological in origin."
Gold pointed out that all the major oil fields occur along rift zones, where deep methane, finding a path to the surface, could explain at least in part how oil and gas deposits evolve. A helium signature in crude deposits from some of the world richest provinces seemed to bolster his theory.
In 1979, at the peak of the OPEC oil crisis, Gold proposed that the Earth may possess a virtually endless supply of hydrocarbons including "at least 500 million years' worth of gas." A decade later he succeeded in obtaining financing to sink a test well deep into a crater in Sweden formed by a meteorite impact about 370 million years ago. The drill ran into technical problems and was stopped at a depth of 6.8 kilometers (4.2 mi) but recovered about 80 barrels of deep oil. The oil contained living microbes and so Gold’s proof remained elusive. According to Gold, who died in 2004, hydrocarbons are not biology reworked by geology (as traditional view would hold), but rather geology reworked by biology, and in particular, extreme thermophylic bacteria.
Flash forward another 20 years to the BP Deepwater Horizon. In the desperate hunt for the last drops of ancient sunlight, BP invested billions of dollars to develop the "Macondo Prospect" deep Gulf oil field, a.k.a. Mississippi Canyon Block 252, 41 miles from the Louisiana coast. It leased the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig from Transocean Ltd., and took it out for a cruise of deep ocean prospecting. DH was a fifth generation, ultra-deepwater, dynamically positioned, column-stabilized, semi-submersible mobile offshore drilling unit (MODU) of South Korean (Hyundai) construction, flying a Marshall Islands flag to get away with the least regulation possible.
Drilling through the first 1500 meters (1 mile) was easy. Nothing but seawater. Then came the harder part, 18,000 feet (3 miles) of rock, which was overlain by suspicious, and energy rich, frozen methane clathrates, a kind of deep ocean permafrost of natural gas crystals. The oil vein was found, the pipe laid, and Halliburton contractors sealed the wellhead in cement. To get the cement to set, they heated it, and in heating the cement, they also heated the surrounding clathrates.
The Deepwater Horizon exploded at 9:45 p.m. CST on April 20, 2010, killing 11 BP drillers and sinking the rig. Apparently, the blowout was triggered by a bubble of pressurized methane that escaped from the well and shot up the drill column, expanding quickly as it burst through several seals and barriers before reaching the air intake for DH's deck engines and causing them to surge, bursting light bulbs all over the platform.
Venting gas under pressure through the casing was easy. At least one main seal on the blowout protector was destroyed some weeks earlier when it was penetrated by a drill bit while in its closed position. After that, BP had opted to test the pipe pressurization at no more than ambient ocean pressures (6500 psi) rather than the required test pressure (12000 psi), in order to prevent a test failure that would have shut them down until they replaced the damaged BOP.
Once the deep cavern was tapped, with its enormous gas pressures, the "accident" became inevitable. After revving the engines, the methane found an ignition source and blew, with an explosion that killed some of the 11 workers instantly.
What came next has been of continuing concern to petroleum geologists, who always considered Thomas Gold a kook, but not by anyone who had studied Gold’s theories. DH had gone just slightly deeper than Gold’s borehole into the meteor crater in Sweden. Submersibles monitoring the escaping oil from the Gulf seabed displayed the eruption of oil from a deposit now estimated to be around the size of Mount Everest.
Trying to contain the story, the White House initially refused access to NASA images by the Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, the Coast Guard and other responders. However, National Geographic managed to obtain foreign satellite imagery of the extent of the disaster and posted it to their web site.
The numbers put forward by BP and parroted from the White House communications podium and by CNN, MSNBC and others began with 1000 barrels per day and climbed to 5000 barrels per day. Coast Guard sources at first suggested 210,000 gallons per day (5000 barrels). Once the live video feed from the ocean floor went public, those estimates were seen to be laughably disingenuous. Recent estimates have put the discharge at 12,000 to 19,000 bpd but a short-lived attempt to capture a portion of the flow through a smaller pipe inserted into the damaged BOP valve yielded 22,000 barrels in less than a day. There are 42 gallons per barrel, so 22,000 bpd would be more than 924,000 gallons discharging daily. Satellite and submarine imagery suggests 20,000 to 60,000 barrels per day might be the possible discharge rate.
Early into the accident, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, interviewed by CBS, when specifically asked how much oil was emanating from the ocean floor wellhead or the broken pipes or risers, stated that no oil was emanating from either. On another TV interview the same day, Landry stated, "The fact that there is no oil spilled other than that small amount we were able to work with, that's a good thing," and expressed "cautious optimism" of zero environmental impact. Later, when the full size of the flow could not be hid, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow asked if it was possible that it would not stop until the reservoir was drained, and was told that was a distinct possibility.
The thing is that a rich creamy nougat reservoir of abiogenic origins is infinite by fossil fuel standards. Nobody knows what is down there, or how deep it goes.
As the slick drifts to the east, the biggest immediate threat is to Florida's Everglades, which could be turned into a "dead zone." There are 2,276 miles of tidal shoreline in the state of Florida. From there the slick follows the Gulf stream loop current up the eastern seaboard of the United States, potentially fouling beaches and estuaries like Hilton Head and the Chesapeake Bay, maybe even wafting toxic gas inland over Washington, New York and Boston, and tarring swordfish in the Grand Banks off Newfoundland before moving across the Atlantic to Ireland and Iceland.
We don’t know and we can’t predict how this will come out. Maybe some bright BP engineer will come up with an ingenious cap, or a phenomenally large relief well will stop the volcanic eruption, who can say?
BP has screwed the pooch. The pooch will not be unscrewed. All the rest is public relations disaster containment and finger pointing. Gold is in his grave, but his theory survives.