Shell sets deepwater Gulf oil record at 9,627 feet

Simone Sebastian
Houston Chronicle

A well in the Gulf of Mexico has set a global record for oil production in deep water, Shell Oil Co. says.

Shell said Thursday that it is producing oil from a well 9,627 feet below the surface of the Gulf, a depth more than six times greater than the Empire State Building’s height. It exceeds by 271 feet the depth of the previous record-holder, also a Shell project in the Gulf.

Both wells operate through the Perdido drilling and production platform, 200 miles southwest of Houston. The new record-holder is in the Tobago Field, which Shell jointly owns with Chevron and Nexen, according to the company. The previous record-holding well was in the Silvertip field.

The Perdido platform is moored in 8,000 feet of water, which the company says makes it the world’s deepest-water drilling and production platform.

The company did not say how much the new well is producing, but said the daily capacity of the platform is 100,000 barrels of oil and 200 million cubic feet of natural gas.

The Tobago Field well is several miles away from the platform, and the oil flow must follow an incline along the sea floor before being pumped vertically to the platform, Shell spokesman Jaryl Strong said.

Low pressure

Besides the water’s depth, the project posed a challenge because of the reservoir’s low pressure, which necessitated special technology to push the oil nearly two miles up to the platform on the water’s surface.

Shell noted that it did not have the technological ability to produce oil at such depths in 1996 when it purchased the lease where Perdido operates.

Engineers developed a system of electrical pumps embedded in the seabed that help ship the oil to the surface platform, Strong said.

”The industry is moving into these depths,” he said. ”As the industry expands the frontier, it is going to have to come up with solutions like this.”

Equipment in the pro-ject included FMC Technologies’ enhanced vertical deep-water tree system and the five electrical pumps that help push the oil to surface, that Houston-based company said.

Shell is majority owner of the Perdido platform. BP and Chevron also have investment shares.

Perdido serves wells up to seven miles away, Shell said. The company began development drilling in 2007 and oil and gas was first produced in 2010.

Don Van Nieuwenhuise, director of petroleum geoscience programs at the University of Houston, said the achievement has global implications.

”They’ve brought that water depth into the realm of being technologically and economically viable,” Van Nieuwenhuise said.

He noted, however, that the industry is pushing into depths that challenge existing emergency well control systems. Well control equipment developed in the wake of last year’s disastrous Gulf oil spill are designed for use in up to 10,000 feet of water.

Limits to safety?

”They are getting real close to the limit of what we can do safely,” Van Nieuwenhuise said.

Strong said Shell has addressed the risks of producing oil in deep-water conditions.

”There are a number of safety innovations built into the Perdido platform to accommodate the environment it is in, in terms of the great depths and long distance from shore,” he said. ”Safety was the No. 1 priority.”

Chevron Oil Spill off Brazil – 10 Times Bigger Than Official Estimate?

Today’s Guest Blogger is John Amos, Sky Truth

Sky Truth promotes environmental awareness and protection using satellite remote sensing and digital mapping technology. They have been on the job in the Gulf of Mexico for the duration of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster and have been an invaluable source of information throughout for those working to study the ongoing crisis in the Gulf as it unfolds.

November 15, 2011

We’ve been tracking the oil spill reported off Brazil a few days ago, in the Frade field operated by Chevron in the Campos Basin, Brazil’s most productive area of offshore production, and a place where many deepwater technology milestones have been made for offshore oil production. Chevron claimed the oil slick was being caused by a natural oil seep on the seafloor, but they suspended drilling on a well in the field. Brazilian authorities quickly disputed that a natural seep was the cause. And yesterday Chevron admitted the possibility that something went wrong at their drillsite. According to today’s news release from Brazilian authorities, Chevron is trying to kill the well – indicating a loss of well control and blowout. 18 response vessels are on the scene, and Chevron reports the well is leaking about 8,400 – 13,860 gallons (200 -330 barrels) per day.

Based on Brazilian government data showing the locations of active drill rigs, provided to us by some of our very helpful followers on Twitter, we conclude that Chevron’s well was being drilled by the SEDCO 706 semisubmersible drill rig operated by – wait for it – Transocean. Yes, the same company that operated the doomed Deepwater Horizon rig for BP.

MODIS/Aqua satellite image shows growing oil slick in the deepwater Campos Basin off Brazil. Image taken around midday on November 12, 2011.

The MODIS/Aqua satellite image from NASA, above, was taken three days ago. It shows an apparent oil slick originating from the drilling location and extending over 2,379 square kilometers (the south end of the slick gets entrained in an interesting clockwise eddy in the ocean currents). At 1 micron thickness, that’s a volume of 628,000 gallons (14,954 barrels) of oil.

Assuming the spill began midday on November 8 (24 hours before we first observe it on satellite imagery), we estimate a spill rate of at least 157,000 gallons (3,738 barrels) per day. That’s more than 10 times larger than Chevron’s estimate of 330 barrels per day.

Macondo Mystery Deepens: Nine Large Vessels Spotted Working in Vicinity of Deepwater Horizon Site

Today’s Gulf of Mexico Report is from Guest Blogger,
Attorney Stuart Smith, Smith Stagg LLC, New Orleans, LA

The mystery continues to unfold at the site of last year’s massive oil spill. Flyover surveillance footage taken Nov. 12 reveals no fewer than nine large oil-related work vessels in the waters surrounding BP’s Macondo Prospect. Vast expanses of surface oil have been reported at the site since we broke the story here on this blog in mid-August, but both BP and the U.S. Coast Guard have been unable – or unwilling – to identify the source (see link to my breaking post below).

Credit: On Wings of Care

Here’s how On Wings of Care pilot Bonny Schumaker recounts the scene on the water in her Nov. 12 flyover report:

We saw lots of “work” vessels out in the Macondo today! And new orange buoys we hadn’t seen before. Our southeast-bound route took us past the platform “VK989″ at about N28°58′ W088°37′, and the first two orange buoys we saw were a little over 50 miles off shore to the east-southeast. Thence came a progression of oil-related (BP-contracted, we think) work vessels, some ROV-capable and more. These included the Meg L. Skandi, C. Chariot, Monica Ann, Normand Pacific, Sarah Bordelon, Deep Blue, HOS Iron Horse, Brooks McCall, and Holiday.

That’s a lot of vessels in a tight area of the Gulf of Mexico. We’re talking about a big operation – and an expensive one. For example, the Normand Pacific, flying under the flag of the United Kingdom, is equipped for diving and ROV operations (see file photo below). The vessel is well over a football field long.

According to the website Marine Traffic, the Holiday, flying under the American flag, departed out of Port Fourchon and arrived at a destination listed as “MC 252″ (the abbreviation for the location of the Macondo Prospect) on Nov. 5 at 9:00 a.m. (see file photo below).

My guess is the cost per day of operating a fleet of nine vessels like this has to be in the seven-figure range. You have to wonder what kind of alarming subsea scenario would demand that kind of expenditure.

Here is a map of Schumaker’s flight path. You can see the Deepwater Horizon site, marked by the black square labeled DWH. The other black squares signify the vessels in the area (see link to Bonny Schumaker’s On Wings of Care website below for full report, photos and video).

Credit to On Wings of Care

Schumaker’s first Gulf flyover since Sept. 25 not only confirmed the presence of a small fleet of vessels but also that oil continues to foul the area. At times over the last few months, slicks above the Macondo Prospect have extended for miles. More from Schumaker’s Nov. 12 report:

Only when we reached the Holiday was the visibility good enough for us to identify unequivocally a line of oil “globules,” and they were very near the Holiday. That vessel was almost stationary but there was quite a bit of exhaust coming out of a stack on it, as if it were running a pump or something. We saw several other such lines of sheen that did not resemble the usual wind-surface patches or lines, but we did not have time to fly over to them to inspect them closely.

So what does all this activity mean at a site where large oil slicks have been observed for months and a BP-Macondo fingerprint has been established? Based on Schumaker’s aerial observations, it would seem the vessels are out there for at least two reasons: (1) To identify the source of the surface oil through ROV footage; and (2) To recover leaking oil before it reaches the surface (and the prying eyes of the public).

I should note that the line of “oil globules” observed by Schumaker is in the vicinity of a known natural oil seep. But the current level of activity – punctuated by the presence of nine vessels – surrounding the Macondo Prosepect cannot be explained away by a natural seep, particularly one that has been known about for years.

More from Schumaker’s report:

There seems to be a great deal of work going on out there – well, a large number of work vessels out there, but we couldn’t see any work being done from above the water’s surface! Several vessels had cables going down, so they may have been working with ROVs or other equipment sub-surface. We did see the above-mentioned line of oil. Note that all of these vessels are in the same areas that we have documented signifcant quantities of surface oil since August and in particular on our flights dated Aug 30, Sep 10, Sep 11, and Sep 27. We saw no whales or whale sharks or dolphins or other large marine life for this entire flight. There was one other fixed-wing (multi-engine high-wing propeller) airplane that passed us at our altitude (about 800′) on our return, just north of the Holiday and the line of oil; we could not read its registration numbers.

As you can see from Schumaker’s footage (see link below), the Macondo Prospect has become a beehive of activity with a swarm of oil and vessels. Though both BP and the Coast Guard have been running from this escalating “situation” for months, it’s impossible to hide the severity of a problem that requires the presence of nine large, oil-related “work” vessels in a relatively tight area surrounding the Macondo wellsite.

In the absence of even a modicum of transparency or anything resembling leadership on the part of our federal government, Ms. Schumaker’s flights over the Gulf represent the public’s only regular access to the site of last year’s 200-million-gallon spill. We salute her relentless effort to uncover what’s really happening in the waters 60 miles off the Louisiana coast. And she continues her invaluable work in the face of an ongoing, aggressive campaign of obfuscation and misinformation executed by BP and our very own Coast Guard.

Bonny Schumaker is a hero of the Gulf Coast. She deserves a medal for her tireless pursuit of the truth. Please visit her site to see the amazing work her organization is doing – and to donate to the cause.

We will continue to bring you updates on this story as details emerge.

Read my post that broke the “new Macondo leak” story: The Stuart Smith Blog

Visit the On Wings of Care to see all activity (and the nine vessels) near the Macondo Prospect – and please donate to the cause: On Wings of Care

From the Oil Disaster Frontlines: Victory Up North as the Battle Rages in the Gulf

By Guest Blogger Rocky Kistner, NRDC

As Keystone XL protesters savor their victory to postpone the pipeline project, another oil policy decision this week did not turn out so well; a plan to expand drilling operations in the oil-damaged Gulf and pristine arctic. This is not good news for those who oppose the fossil fuel industry’s relentless march into more vulnerable ecosystems.

NRDC President Frances Beinecke, a member of the Presidential oil spill commission, explained the environmental concerns in a blog this week: Less than two years after the BP oil disaster and before Congress has passed one single law to make drilling safer, the Obama Administration has given a green light to expand offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic Ocean. Opening new areas to drilling before proper safeguards have been put in place is a reckless gamble. Oil companies are still using the same kind of blowout preventer that failed on the Deepwater Horizon rig. They are still relying on the same cleanup techniques used in the Exxon Valdez spill 22 years ago.

This week, the Mobile Press-Register reported that federal officials excluded the BP oil blowout from their economic risk calculations for future oil drilling operations in the Gulf. According to an economic analysis, BOEMRE, the federal agency responsible for drilling safety and oversight, focused on an earlier period of drilling in the Gulf, striking “a rough balance between the remote chance of another (Deepwater Horizon) event and the otherwise much safer performance” before the BP spill, the newspaper reported. The environmental community responded quickly, according to the Press Register: “By omitting the nation’s largest environmental disaster from its calculation of the environmental costs of drilling, BOEMRE continues to bury its head in the sand and pretend that the Deepwater Horizon accident never happened,” Catherine Wannamaker, with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in an emailed statement.

As I have blogged repeatedly, parts of the Gulf appear to be in the throes of an environmental collapse. Dolphins are dying in historic numbers, shrimp and crab catches are at all time lows, and people continue to complain of on-going health problems they blame on the BP oil disaster. Last week, residents of the Gulf traveled to Washington to join the massive KXL tar sands pipeline protest (see video here) and to raise awareness about the BP oil disaster that continues to roil their communities. After ringing the White House on Sunday, they joined another demonstration organized by Gulf Change and Operation People for Peace in the sun-laced streets of the Capitol. Protesters wore “Boycott BP” t-shirts as they marched in front of BP claims administrator Ken Feinberg’s towering offices on Pennsylvania Ave., a stone’s throw from an Occupy DC encampment.

Kindra Arnesen, a fisherman’s wife and mother of two from the Louisiana bayou, gave an impassioned speech about health problems in her fishing community that she says has received little financial support: “When Ken Feinberg took over the Gulf Coast Claims Facility he said he’d work for us, not BP…We believed him like a bunch of idiots,” the Times Picayune reported. Arnesen and others spoke repeatedly of loved ones sickened by oil and chemical dispersants, criticizing a government they say has abandoned them. “We have people that are still sick, we still are getting tar balls on our beaches, and many of our people haven’t been made whole,” said Rev. Anthony Thompson of Gulfport, MS. That’s a common complaint voiced by protesters over the past week. Across the country, there’s a rising anger with federal policies that turn a blind eye to protecting human health and the environment, from the fragile coastlines of the arctic to the mile-deep waters of the Gulf.

Many came away from these protests feeling empowered by a new human-powered energy, a movement building across the country. Activist Cherri Foytlin, a member of the United Houma Nation and a Louisiana oil worker’s wife and mother of six, summed it up in her blog on Bridgethegulf: Now is the time. Now is the time for a true communion of all areas affected by corporate manipulation of truth. Now is the time for a honest and sincere reconciliation with our past personal follies, with regards to the true purpose of our beings. Now is the time for a national and global revolution against the invented notion that we are powerless to our own demise.

Now is the time to call for and demand true accounting of the scientific and political facts regarding our future and that of our children. And it is time to combine the voices of those affected by mountain top removal, fracking, toxic waste dumps, chemical exposure, global climate change, oil spills, etc, into one unified voice for effective and morally observant change. It is, after all, the clearest and most basic form of truth that clean air, water and soil are human rights, and ANY denial of such is a human rights violation against us all. These are words that should bring hope to us all, words of a movement created by the country’s worst oil disaster. It’s proof that out of adversity and despair new voices and opportunities can emerge.

NRDC’s John Adams nailed it in his blog after the tar sands protest on Sunday: I believe Sunday’s Keystone XL pipeline protest will mark a turning point in environmental history. Our movement has wrapped its arms around dirty fuels, and we won’t let go until we break their hold on our nation. Energy companies are chasing oil to the ends of the Earth. They’ve already taken the easy stuff. Now they are going after the places we live in, the places we love. And they are doing it with the most destructive practices imaginable: deepwater drilling, mountaintop removal mining, fracking, tar sands strip mining.

I believe change happens in waves, and I think the tide is turning against dirty fuels….a rejuvenated environmental movement will join with all those Americans who know our future will be built on clean innovation, not dirty destruction.  Those are prescient words, if the Keystone XL pipeline decision is any indication. Politicians are beginning to pay attention to that message. From ranchers on the farmlands of Nebraska to fishermen in the bayous of the Gulf, people are joining together to defeat dangerous policies of the past and push for a healthy energy future. Politicians and the fossil fuel polluters would be wise to listen to their demands. They are just some of the 99 percenters demanding change, and they are getting stronger every day.

Whale, Dolphin Deaths Twice Normal in Gulf

Stranded spinner dolphin.: Credit: qnr via Flickr.Stranded spinner dolphin.: Credit: qnr via Flickr. The latest NOAA report on unusual strandings of whales and dolphins in the northern Gulf of Mexico finds they’re still dying at twice the normal rate 18 months after BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Map of strandings in relation to Deepwater Horizon well.: Predicted heat index for Friday, 22 July, 2011. Credit: NOAA.

Map of strandings in relation to Deepwater Horizon well. Credit: NOAA.

As you can see in the map above, the most heavily oiled shoreline still corresponds with the most dead whales and dolphins. Bottlenose dolphins are shown as circles and other species as squares. Premature, stillborn, or neonatal bottlenose dolphins (with actual or estimated lengths of less than 115 cm/45 inches) are shown as a circle with a black dot inside. Pink points mark the most recent week of data. Green points mark are all other cases since 1 January 2011.

All stranded cetaceans (dolphins and whales) from Franklin County, FL to the Texas/ Louisiana border.: Credit: NOAA.

All stranded cetaceans (dolphins and whales) from Franklin County, FL to the Texas/ Louisiana border.: Credit: NOAA.

Here you can see how the numbers of strandings have not yet stabilized or even begun to decline. In some cases they’re still growing. The magenta-colored bars mark strandings per month in the year 2010. The ivory-colored bars mark strandings per month so far this year.

In my Mother Jones article The BP Cover-Up last year, I wrote about the kind of long-term problems the Gulf might face not just from oil but from extreme quantities of oil in very deep water, as well as from chemical dispersant, including dispersant injected into very deep water.

Sadly, it seems that cetaceans—past, present, and future—may be bearing some of those burdens.