Plug That Damn Hole

Jim Brown
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This was President Obama's direction during a session in the Oval Office. The president expressed his frustration with the inability of BP to fix the problem and he vented his frustration to the aides present saying, "Plug the damn hole."

It is a little harder than that as BP is finding out. It is one thing to be the most powerful man in the world and able to command armies, shutter space programs and stifle critics. However, when faced with the laws of nature those commands go unheeded.

Working a mile underwater where water pressure is roughly 2,165 pounds per square inch everything has to be done by robot sub. There are limits to what they can do and what they can lift. The pressure at the bottom of the well is 17,000 psi. As compressed gas and oil makes its way up the pipe it expands aggressively as the pressure decreases. These are monster pressures and you can't just stick a cork in the hole.

I am sure the president is frustrated that he can't command the well to stop flowing. BP is also frustrated and on the hook for as much as $25 billion in cleanup costs. Analysts this week have raised the upper estimates to between $20-$25 billion. Add in the fine that will be levied against BP and it rapidly becomes a very large number.

Since BP has now admitted they screwed up when they ignored the problems in not one but two pressure tests just prior to the explosion it appears they are squarely in the government's sights. The fine to "remove" the oil from the water, beaches, marshland, etc could be as much as $4300 per barrel of oil spilled. Originally BP said the well was leaking 5,000 bpd. That was bumped to 8,000 bpd later and now there are estimates of as much as 14,000 bpd. The accident occurred on April 20th. Assuming a 10,000 bpd spill that is $1.55 billion in fines if the spill was shutoff today. If the top kill process fails and BP has to wait another month for the first relief well to reach the 18,800 depth of the original well then that fine will double to more than $3 billion.

The top kill process began at 2:PM on Wednesday and BP is using 30,000 horsepower pumps to inject super heavy drilling mud into the well via the blow out preventer. How much of that mud is staying in the well is unknown but there is clearly some mud making its way out the various cracks in the BOP and riser. BP hopes enough of the mud will sink into the well to provide a plug heavy enough to halt the flow of oil and gas to the surface. If the mud process is successful BP will then cap the well with cement and begin cleanup and removal of all the items that collected on the sea floor like failed collection domes, top hats, insertion pipes, manifolds, riser pipe and finally the failed blow out preventer so that an autopsy can be preformed to determine why it did not seal off the well.

Eventually sealing the well will provide BP some relief but only begin the next phase of the disaster, which will involve tens of thousands of hours of court testimony, legal dispositions, postponements and delays that could stretch for years before BP's final penalty is determined. The fact that it might take ten years to resolve all the cases is the only positive part of BP's sentence. Even if they end up paying $20 billion for damages and cleanup if you amortize it out over 10 years that is only about 10% of their profits.

I am not saying BP can write a check and make this go away but the eventual check writing to all the claimants will likely be the least painful part of the process.

Jim Brown

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