Don Van Nieuwenhuise, Ph.D., is currently Director of the Professional Geoscience Programs in the department of geosciences as well as Director of the Applied Sequence and Biostratigraphy Program at the University of Houston. His previous experience includes 18 years with AMOCO in stratigraphic research, stratigraphic applications, and management. His assignments included fields and prospects within the U.S. and in over 40 other countries. Prior to joining the AMOCO Research Center in Tulsa, he was a geologist for MOBIL in New Orleans where he successfully drilled more than 15 exploration, production, and blow-out kill wells. Nieuwenhuise gives us insight into the current efforts to stop the leaking well in the Gulf of Mexico.
Q: What do you know about BP's plan to place an underwater containment structure on the largest leak and pipe oil to a ship on the surface?
A: What they are trying to do is place, it's almost like a funnel, but an upside down funnel. ... If I were to have something like a cup and you turn it upside down like this, the oil is trying to fill that cup up. It's going to rise through the water column and try to fill that up. The biggest challenge is going to be to hold it steady and I don't know what kind of mechanisms they are going to use to do that, but hold it steady over the wellbore and capture the oil, and then they will also have a tube that comes out of it ... they will try to suck or pump the oil up through the pipe, that is at the top of it, and then collect and scour, clean the water out of it. ... This would be a stop-gap thing because it takes support vessels to maintain these things on position and the minute a hurricane or even a bad storm comes in they may have to shut-in operations ...I don't know the details but my guess would be they will have equipment that locks it into place or would anchor it into place.
Q: Has this type of plan been used before?
A: They've never tried it before, and if you were doing this in 60 feet of water it probably wouldn't be that hard to do. If you were doing it in 5,000 feet of water that creates a bigger problem because of the distance between the support vessel and where you actually have it.
Q: What is the best case scenario?
A: The best case scenario would be if they could actually capture somewhere between 80 to 95 percent of the oil by using this dome structure while its leaking and drill a kill well in three months or less.
Q: What risk does hurricane season pose to the operations?
A: The biggest problem with hurricanes is it takes a long time to drill the kill wells, it may slow them down. Because they are in an already unfortunate situation, and they know there is some pressure down there that may surprise them, they are going to be very careful when they are doing this.
It would be at least a week delay if a hurricane came though, as much as a month. The biggest fear I would think for the oil would be from the storm surge. It would push a lot of that oil onto shore, and maybe places further on shore you would want to see that pollution to get. When you look at the whole track record, the oil industry has done a really good job of maintaining the safety and environment with these rigs and also dealing with hurricanes.
Q: What are some of the challenges associated with offshore drilling?
A: The problem with drilling oil wells is the pressures and temperatures are extremely high and if you drill a deep well, as deep as they were drilling, the pressures and temperatures are phenomenal. You are talking about over 9,000 psi, if they have over pressure in the formation, and temperatures way over boiling, so it's hot and it's very high pressure. The crews that are out there are highly experienced.
Basically, whenever someone is out on the rig they are essentially putting their life on the line everyday to bring oil and gas to the shore for everybody. I don't think a lot of people realize that it is very dangerous and despite the dangers, the oil business has had an incredibly good track record. The rig that has exploded has built quite a number of large and deep wells in the Gulf of Mexico and other places without any type of accident at all.
Q: There is a lot of criticism regarding drilling for hydrocarbons as a result of this. What are your thoughts?
It's hard getting oil and gas out of the ground and some people will say that's the reason not to do it. Unfortunately, what we are stuck with is, we have a country that uses a lot of energy and oil and gas hydrocarbons and petroleum are going to be here at least another 50 years and play a major role in supplying that energy, mainly because it's relatively inexpensive. I do think all of the alternate sources are great ideas and ways to supplement things, but a lot of technology still needs to be improved because the cost is very high.