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Offshore drilling's high tech image at odds with wildcat ways

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Filed: Country: Philippines

By Curtis Morgan and Scott Hiaasen | Miami Herald

Just weeks before exploding in the Gulf of Mexico, the Deepwater Horizon's drill struck a hidden pocket of natural gas, rocking the massive rig with what drillers call a "kick."

Gas surged up the pipe, so strong operators ordered an emergency shutdown, fearing any spark might ignite the floating $560 million platform.

A close call, but not all that rare.

"Everybody took a deep breath and said, 'Now, let's get back to making a well because this rig is costing a million dollars a day,' '' said Robert Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

The oil and gas industry spent years and tens of millions of dollars polishing the image of deep shelf exploration, making it sound as safe as boarding a flight to Orlando.

But the no-worries message industry regulators, executives and ad campaigns — persuasively pitched to Congress, the Obama administration and the public — contrasted sharply with work-a-day reality of deep shelf drilling.

Unlike commercial aviation or nuclear power, the offshore energy industry retains -- even takes great pride in -- the high-risk, high-reward ethic of its "wildcat'' heritage.

"The term is petroleum cowboys," said Richard Charter, a senior policy advisor for Defenders of Wildlife who has monitored offshore practices for 40 years. "It really is a sort of cultural fast forward from the Texas wildcatters. The idea is you can go out and get this black gold and beat the other guys to it. There's a kind of bravado."

That "can-do'' drive has produced impressive high-tech advances in pinpointing and extracting deposits but it hasn't eliminated daunting, dangerous challenges.

Industry engineers and scientists liken the complex job of boring a hole miles deep below the seafloor to "walking a tightrope." It's not a slogan likely to be adopted in the next American Petroleum Institute marketing campaign.

For critics, the vast dollars at stake have tempted the industry into minimizing its risks. Leasing a rig like the Horizon can cost an oil firm $600,000 a day but some of the first deep wells have proved immensely productive, producing payoffs that can easily reach into the hundreds of millions.

"We are taking risks we don't understand," said Bea, who has reviewed numerous crew accounts and internal documents about the blowout. "It's that simple."


Extreme pressures and temperatures squeeze safety margins and push not-always reliable gear to design limits.

"Kicks," which can blow out wells and damage rigs if crews don't act fast to tamp them down, are common. The deep continental shelf is a partially mapped minefield of "geohazards'' such as ancient sand deposits loaded with highly pressurized gas or formations of ice-like methane hydrate so volatile scientists dubbed it "burning snowballs."

"This is one hellaciously risky business," said Bea, who has worked more than five decades in the offshore business and been employed by both Shell Oil and BP.

Read more: http://www.mcclatchy...l#ixzz0nwMnal4f

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Filed: Citizen (apr) Country: Brazil

this story makes me appreciate the dangerous work peejay does. :thumbs:

* ~ * Charles * ~ *

I carry a gun because a cop is too heavy.



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