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Science

Time, patience are key to viewing BP disaster, geologist says

This week, the US demanded BP devise a clear plan for battling the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The action reflects growing public mistrust of the oil giant, and doubts about how much oil is still leaking into the Gulf.

Marine reef ecologist Scott Porter works to remove oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill off his hands, Monday, June 7, 2010, in the Gulf of Mexico south of Venice, La..

No one can yet be sure of the disaster's dimensions

The new pressure by the Obama administration sank BP's stock price further this week, and sparked loud debate over when, or whether, the company would get the disaster under control.

Last week BP placed a "top hat" containment system over the well some 50 miles (80 kilometers) off the coast of Louisiana, which has been spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico since it blew out in a deadly explosion on April 20.

The company says it is currently siphoning some 15,000 barrels of crude oil a day from the gusher into tankers; it expects a new reverse-pumping system to take in 10,000 more barrels daily. This would bring it above its daily processing capacity, however, and now BP says it may start burning off the excess captured oil until it can boost its ability to store and transport the crude.

Methods for gathering and disposing the oil collected from the seafloor gusher are becoming clearer, but estimates on how much oil is streaming out of the well - and therefore, of how much is eluding capture - continue to vary dramatically. Some put the flow as high as 100,000 barrels a day, meaning vast amounts of crude oil continue to contaminate the Gulf.

DW spoke with Hilmar Rempel, a geologist with Germany's Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BRG) in Hanover, to talk about the outlook for BP, the future of deep-sea drilling, and the true contours of the disaster.

Deutsche Welle: Can anyone say right now how much oil is really coming out of that well?

Hilmar Rempel: No one really knows exactly how much oil is coming out of there, because we don't have the ability to measure it right now. But experts are expected to make a new estimate on exactly how much oil is flowing out of the well (this week).

People are saying about half of the oil that is escaping is being pumped, and certainly if you look at the homepage from BP and see the images of the Enterprise, you see a lot of oil is certainly escaping into the Gulf of Mexico.

Exactly what is being done with the oil that they capture?

They are currently bringing the oil to the Discover Enterprise drill ship. From there it is put in tankers that bring it to the refinery. BP says it is pumping out 15,000 barrels of oil a day through these pipes, as well as 29.4 million cubic feet of natural gas, which is getting burned off.

Netting along the beach that is expected to keep oil off the shore

First oil is contained by nets and barriers, then vacuumed up by ships

They are having trouble disposing of all the oil, with getting tankers there quickly and getting the oil taken away. But on the other hand, BP is very motivated to capture the oil. 15,000 barrels a day times 70 dollars a barrel…

How well is the oil they extract from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico able to be used?

It can be used if it collected correctly, by the right ships. It is a little more difficult, because (some) particles tend to evaporate quickly at those temperatures. But oil can certainly be salvaged. In the end it has to be separated from water, but that is something that we can do - for example, with purifying waste water.

First the oil is trapped with barricades so it doesn't spread too far. Then vacuuming ships can suck up the topmost layer of water, with the oil. And the oil is then separated from the water because it will float to the top, and can be pumped off.

This situation is expected to continue until August, when BP will have finished drilling relief wells to release pressure on the current well. That's a long time … how can we start to imagine the scope of what is going on here?

The catastrophe will only continue to get worse for the next month. A lot of oil is going to keep flowing. If they are capturing just half of the oil, depending on what you read, then there are 30,000 barrels coming out of there … Now we need to recover as much oil as possible from the surface, but it won't all be successful. It will certainly be a while before all the oil has been removed.

An oil-covered wave in teh Gulf of Mexico

Organisms in the water will eventually 'eat' the oil

But it is important to remember that oil is a natural product. Over time, it will be replaced. There are bacteria that, you could say, 'eat' oil, and when the amount of oil in the environment rises, we expect the bacteria to increase accordingly. So they work to get rid of all the oil, over time.

Given those conditions, those high temperatures, I would expect that within one or two years all the oil that is released in the Gulf will have completely disappeared. It is an entirely natural process.

How is the future of deep-sea drilling looking right now?

Right now, this is a big problem for BP but it isn't just about them. It has an effect on all oil companies that take part in deep-sea drilling. Their image is seriously damaged and it appears likely that they won't be able to do this kind of drilling in the immediate future - or at least only in a limited way.

But it could also be that, given concerns about the future of oil supply, we need to continue investigating deep sea fields. They haven't been that well investigated and they seem to have a lot of potential supply.

So, there will be a short break, and then when people start to forget this disaster, it will start back up again?

At first, deep-sea drilling will be scaled back, and during that time people will think about what they need to do to prevent similar disasters from happening again. They will look at the factors that went into creating this disaster - in my opinion, a diverse package that runs from human error to sloppiness to technical error, not to mention fault on the part of lax regulators.

Then at some point people will start deep-sea drilling again, but hopefully first they will take more technical precautions and regulation will be strengthened. If you look at the Exxon Valdez disaster, it at least led to a rethinking of the way tankers are used. We went from using single-hulled to double-hulled tankers.

And what kind of future does BP have, given that it seems to have been so careless in this matter?

In principle, the well itself wasn't drilled by BP, but by Transocean, which is a subcontractor that builds platforms and does drilling. I think we may have a lot of legal disputes in store, over who is really responsible for all this - BP or Transocean, or the company that did the cementing … it's still open.

Interview: Jennifer Abramsohn
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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