On May 1st, I warned that the amount of oil spilling into the Gulf was much higher than either the government or BP were admitting:
As a story in the Christian Science Monitor shows, the Gulf oil spill is much worse than we’ve been told:
It’s now likely that the actual amount of the oil spill dwarfs the Coast Guard’s figure of 5,000 barrels, or 210,000 gallons, a day.
Independent scientists estimate that the renegade wellhead at the bottom of the Gulf could be spewing up to 25,000 barrels a day. If chokeholds on the riser pipe break down further, up to 50,000 barrels a day could be released, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration memo obtained by the Mobile, Ala., Press-Register.
As estimates of the spill increase, questions about the government’s honesty in assessing the spill are emerging.
“The following is not public,” reads National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Emergency Response document dated April 28, according to the Press-Register [see this]. “Two additional release points were found today. If the riser pipe deteriorates further, the flow could become unchecked resulting in a release volume an order of magnitude higher than previously thought.”
An order of magnitude is a factor of 10.
The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that John Amos, an oil industry consultant, said that NOAA revised its original estimate of 1,000 barrels after he published calculations based on satellite data that showed a larger flow.
The 5,000 barrels a day is the “extremely low end” of estimates, Mr. Amos told the Journal.
CNN quotes the lead government official responding to the spill – the commandant of the Coast Guard, Admiral Thad Allen – as stating:
If we lost a total well head, it could be 100,000 barrels or more a day.
Indeed, an environmental document filed by BP estimates the maximum as 162,000 barrels a day:
In an exploration plan and environmental impact analysis filed with the federal government in February 2009, BP said it had the capability to handle a “worst-case scenario” at the Deepwater Horizon site, which the document described as a leak of 162,000 barrels per day from an uncontrolled blowout — 6.8 million gallons each day.
Now, I am warning that the amount of oil still in the reservoir might be much bigger than BP is admitting.
Specifically, BP claims that there are 50 million barrels worth of oil in the reservoir underneath the leaking spill site.
But the Guardian noted Friday:
But the 50m figure cited by Hayward took some industry insiders by surprise. There have been reports the reservoir held up to 500m barrels – the figure quoted by Hayward’s questioner, Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas.
“I would assume that 500m barrels would be a more likely estimate,” said Tadeusz Patzek, the chairman of the department of petroleum and geosystems engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. “I don’t think you would be going after a 50mbarrel reservoir so quickly. This is just simply not enough oil to go after.”
Indeed, Wolf Blitzer said:
One — one expert said to me — and I don’t know if this is overblown or not — that they’re still really concerned about the structural base of this whole operation, if the rocks get moved, this thing could really explode and they’re sitting, what, on — on a billion potential barrels of oil at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
The ruptured well may hold as much as 1 billion barrels, the Times reported, citing Rick Mueller, an analyst at Energy Security Analysis in Massachusetts.
Oil industry expert Matthew Simmons also puts the number above one billion barrels (see this Bloomberg interview, for example, where he says that – unless stopped – 120,000 barrels a day will leak for 25-30 years; that adds up to 1,095,000,000 to 1,314,000,000 barrels).
And Rob Kall claims that a source inside BP tells him:
Size of reservoir – estimated by BP and its partner, Andarko to be between 2.5B and 10B bbl. (that’s 100,000,000,000 gallons and 400,000,000,000 gallons).
Yes – all of those numbers are BILLIONS.
Given that BP’s nearby Tiber and Kaskida wells each contain at least 3 billion barrels of oil (see this, this, this and this), estimates of more than a billion barrels for the leaking Macondo reservoir are not unreasonable.
Why the Size of the Reservoir Matters
The size of the reservoir is important for several reasons. Specifically, the more oil in the Macondo reservoir, the longer the oil leak will flow if the efforts to cap it fail.
Moreover, higher volumes of oil and gas might change the pressure of materials gushing out of the leaking well. As CBS notes:
The oil emanating from the seafloor contains about 40 percent methane, compared with about 5 percent found in typical oil deposits, said John Kessler, a Texas A&M University oceanographer who is studying the impact of methane from the spill.
I will leave it to the scientists to calculate what a larger volume of oil (with 40% methane) would mean for pressure. Higher pressure may make it harder to cap the leak, and may wear out the casing quicker by speeding up the rate at which sand and other small particles in the oil abrade the metal. Lower pressure would ease both problems.