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BP, Shell and the Design of Deep Wells


July 15, 2010, 5:31 pm


You’ve doubtless heard that BP has, on the 87th day of the oil gusher and in its 10th try, apparently stopped the flow of oil from its Macondo well (the current stoppage is a test of the new system). That’s great news, of course, presuming the tests show that the well, from top to bottom, can hold the immense pressure of the gas and oil still pressing upward from deep in the earth. Otherwise, the process could lead to new leaks beneath the seabed, just as turning off the nozzle on a damaged garden hose causes leaks to spring elsewhere.

This is a good time to review how the company, the country and the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico ended up in this situation. It’s already clear that BP made bad decisions at many junctures. One could well be the way it chose the basic design of the well — not just the infamous failed blowout preventer on the top, but the entire system from the seabed to the oil source deep below.

To gauge this possibility, watch the video above of a presentation given last week by Joe Leimkuhler and John Hollowell, two Shell drilling specialists, in which they described in detail the differences between the two company’s approaches to deep-sea oil drilling. Make sure to pay close attention when they refer to the slides showing a side-by-side comparison of the designs favored by Shell and BP.

Keeping in mind, of course that Shell was one of many corporate sponsors of the Aspen Ideas Festival, the presentation is unusually informative and straightforward and the question period unconstrained. I agree with James Fallows, who blogged a couple of times at The Atlantic Online on the Shell presentation, when he said the following, taking into account the caveat:

With that noted, the presentation was different from anything I had seen before, in laying out step-by-step the differences in how you could design a deepwater well, with multiple, redundant fail-safe points and blowout-prevention systems (which is what Shell says it does), and how, according to Leimkuhler, BP did design and drill the well that has so catastrophically failed in the Gulf. On one side of his chart, Leimkuhler showed the multiple check points and controls on one of his wells; on the other side, the BP well with most of those controls and fail-safe points omitted.

As the investigations play out, watch to see which well components could have been different. The entire video is fascinating. It includes Shell’s defense of the oil industry’s assertion that more deep-sea drilling is okay even as the BP investigation unfolds.


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