Tuesday, June 08, 2010

BP Oil Catastrophe Day 50: Fight of the Flow Rate Dancers

Day 50 finds America in the third act of the catastrophic Gulf oil spill. The interminable spew will end when plugged from below by relief wells. Yet, government and BP actors replayed a tired scene.

Let me set the stage. Oil companies make their livelihood on flow and pressure. The government is in complete charge of the disaster response. Action!

BP publicly rejected the idea of using subsea equipment to measure the flow rate.

It says it is up to the flow-rate group itself to decide whether to undertake such a step. "We are fully cooperating with the Flow Rate Technical Group,” said Anne Kolton, a spokeswoman (hired gun) for BP. “We are working very closely with their experts.”

The head of the government's efforts weighed in:

Adm. Thad W. Allen said that as BP captured more of the oil, the government should be able to offer better estimates of the flow from the wellhead by tracking how much reaches the surface.

“That is the big unknown that we’re trying to hone in and get the exact numbers on,” Admiral Allen said. “And we’ll make those numbers known as we get them. We’re not trying to low-ball it or high-ball it. It is what it is.”

Actually, the big unknown is how much remains underwater in huge plumes.

Federal officials for the first time today confirmed the researchers' findings, although Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is leading the federal response to the spill, questioned the use of the term "plume" to describe that underwater oil.

"The term 'plume' has been used for quite awhile, [but] I think what we are talking about are concentrations," he said. "'Cloud' is a better term."

"Cloud" is where BP and the government seem to have their heads.

Other large unknowns are the projected upper bound of the spill and why a company with incredible expertise in flow & pressure, suddenly has no bloody clue!

Some scientists involved in the Flow Rate Technical Group say that they would like to produce a better estimate, but that they are frustrated by what they view as stonewalling on BP’s part, including tardiness in producing high-resolution video that could be subjected to computer analysis, as well as the company’s reluctance to permit a direct measurement of the flow rate.

One expert offered his assessment:

Dr. Leifer said in an interview on Monday that judging from the video, cutting the pipe might have led to a several-fold increase in the flow rate from the well.

“The well pipe clearly is fluxing way more than it did before,” said Dr. Leifer, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “By way more, I don’t mean 20 percent, I mean multiple factors.”

Yet, the public heard 49 days of excuses and finger pointing on the most basic element of disaster response, assessing the scope of the problem.

For those bored with the dance of flow rate estimators, President Obama talked about financial reform in an oil spew interview on The Today Show. Can he divert your attention from the latest catastrophe by bringing up an older one?

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