Changes in the World and Their Effect on Energy

Everywhere we look things are always changing.  Now that winter is leaving, spring has sprung.  In Houston we’re back up to the mid 70’s and we hope that lasts a long time.  While we may not be able to see some of the changes, like the movement of the stars, the changing face of the planet, or the shrinking of my book collection as I slowly switch everything over to the Kindle, other things are more apparent.  The birth of a baby bird or the emptying of a glass of a pleasant draught on a warm winter day, or the regime change of a country are all easy to see.

Lots has happened recently throughout the world.  Southern Sudan has seceded from the rest of the country.  Egypt and Libya have experienced popular uprisings, and other countries in the region are holding their breath to see what happens next.

You might be asking yourself, “why is he talking about this in an energy blog?” or “how can it possibly affect me?” This is a perfect time to talk about how events in other countries can affect the energy polices at home.

Egypt has a long history.  It has kept our imagination for centuries. From Herodotus to Sadat, from Alexander to Cleopatra, the great names associated with Egypt are innumerable.  The entire world can identify the famous objects from the land of the Nile (even when they’re in other countries).

Suez Canal as seen from Earth’s orbit

Modern Egypt produces about 660 thousand barrels of oil a day. In recent years it has grown its natural gas industry and has the third largest reserve of natural gas in Africa. Egypt is very important in the energy field for a different reason, the Suez Canal. While the largest hydrocarbon tankers are too large to pass through, 20% of the shipping that goes through the canal is hydrocarbon transportation.  If the canal were to shut down it would add a week or two to time to transport the hydrocarbons to their destination.  If that happen the increased transportation cost would make the cost of crude oil rise.  That’s why I’m talking about Egypt in an energy blog.

Libya has always been at the center of trade.  Under both the Phoenician and the Romans it prospered.  It was a major and power trade location in the 19th century as well.  It was an Italian colony during World War I and administer by the British after World War II.  After gaining independence in 1951, its current government came to power in 1969.  Currently there are large protests occurring across the country.

Again you may ask, “how does this affect me?’

Libya is a member of OPEC and has the largest oil reserves in Africa (44.3 billion barrels).  They produce about 1.4 million barrels a day.  The profit of the oil exports accounts for 80% of their revenue.  If all oil production in Libya stopped, Saudi Arabia might be able to use its excess capacity to keep global oil production levels stable.  But that’s assuming nothing else happens.   And the longer Libya is not producing, the more likely something else would happen.  In any of these events, the price of crude oil would climb, and with that the cost of gasoline and other petro products would go up (the cost of crude oil has leapt up to $99 over the past couple of days as a response to the protests).

back alley
Creative Commons License photo credit: tvol

As you can see, events throughout the world can affect you.  Therefore you should pay attention to what’s going on around you (if you walk with your head down you might run into that new shelves they have at Half Price Books).  Thankfully not all of it is as confusing as complexity theory.

Where do we go from here

“The battle’s done and we kinda won, so we’ll sound our victory cheer. Where do we go from here” – Joss Whedon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Oct 13, 2010 – The Deepwater oil ban was lifted by the President, but what does it mean? On the surface, it would seem that deepwater drilling off the Gulf would get back to normal. As always, reality is far different. A number of different environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club, think it’s too soon to lift the ban. Some drilling companies fear that even though the ban has been lifted, the new regulations and red tape will prevent them from being able to drill. So what does the lifting of the ban and the new regulations really mean?

On April 30th, the President issued a moratorium on offshore drilling based open depth, meaning that companies could not drill new wells at depths greater than 500 feet. This did not stop the wells that were already producing. It also did not stop new wells or modification of existing wells that had obtained their permits before the moratorium went into effect. What happened next is what almost happens with every new law, it was challenged in court. Judge Feldman ruled that the moratorium was overly broad and would harm the Gulf Economy.

A 2nd offshore drilling moratorium was put into place. This time it applied to any deep water facilities with drilling capabilities. And again, as soon as the law was in place it was challenged in court. The 2nd moratorium was to be in effect till November 30, but it was listed October 12, nearly 7 weeks early.

Does that mean that offshore drilling has taken off? No. No it does not. Now there are new regulations that must be met. Some of the new regulations include making the CEO responsible for making sure the well has met all the safety requirements and having equipment on site to help contain a blowout, if one should occur. Companies are waiting for a final list of the new regulations. Some environmental organizations are unhappy with how quickly the moratorium has been lifted, but some congressmen are unhappy about the moratorium effect’s on the jobs in the Gulf. Many of the offshore drilling platforms have left the Gulf for more profitable waters.


Deepwater Update

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is finally coming to an end. After over 100 days, it seems that a cap, a static kill and the relief well will finally stop oil from pouring into the sea.

The estimate for the flow of the well has changed many times over the past 3 months. It seems to be topping out at around 62,000 barrels a day. This is much higher than the original estimates, but how do they calculate the flow? The USGS used video of the oil spill, mass balance calculations and remote sensors to determine how much crude oil was flowing out of the break.

Chandeleur Islands - May 9, 2010
Creative Commons License photo credit: lagohsep

So what has happened to all the oil? Well, the White House says that 75% has been dispersed, collected, burned off or evaporated. Other reports have different numbers. In July the old cap on the well was replaced with a new and better one that captured most of the oil. Then a static kill, which uses mud to force pressure down in the well, helped to stanch the flow. The relief wells have been drilled and there seems to be no seeping. All of that means that the oil spill is over. 4.9 million barrels was pumped out in the Gulf, making this the largest oil spill in the Gulf and the third largest oil spill in history.

BP is waiting on a pressure test to see if they need to initiate a bottom kill. A bottom kill is when they drill to the bottom of the well and pump in mud and cement through the bottom of the well.

The spill has caused a lot of things to change. A moratorium on offshore drilling in the Gulf was put into effect. There have been several challenges to this.

Transocean's Development Driller III
Creative Commons License photo credit: uscgd8

Also the Mineral Management Services (MMS) has been broken up into the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The MMS was responsible for conservation and environmental protection on federal land used by energy companies as well as collecting royalties and enforcing regulations on companies that used federal lands to produce crude oil and natural gas. They were plagued with accusations of corruption and ineptitude. The new Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or Bureau of Ocean Energy, has been subdivided into the Offshore Energy and Minerals Management and Minerals Revenue Management. This means that the people who enforce the regulation are not the same people who collect the revenue.

The 4.9 million barrels that were pumped out into the ocean will have long reaching environmental consequences. Some scientists worry that all the natural bacteria that ate the oil will help to form an area that is low in oxygen. However, a mass killing of fish does not require an oil disaster. Numerous beaches were closed to tourists and locals alike. Also some areas set aside for fishing (and shrimping) were closed because of the oil spill. Unfortunately, it will take a long time to see what the real lasting effects of the spill are. In fact, it will take years to determine the true effects. Most of the beaches and fishing areas have been reopened.

Waking up on April 20, no one would have thought that we would be dealing with an unprecedented disaster in the Gulf. No one thought that such a disaster would be linked with how we perceive the modern world or our every day life. Will we take steps to prevent the next one?

Deepwater

100421-G-XXXXL-_003_-_Deepwater_Horizon_fire
Creative Commons License photo credit: uscgd8

On April 20, 2010 the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven people were lost and over 5,000 barrels of oil a day have been pumped into the gulf. It is a tragedy and one of the worst environmental disasters of all time.

This blog will help to explain why there is oil offshore, what an offshore oil rig is, what cementing and containment domes are and how we can help.

Crude oil is made form the desiccated remains of microscopic organisms that plied the water ways millions of years ago. They died (the very theme of nature), fell to the bottom of the ocean and were covered by layers of rock, sand and other debris. Through compression and temperature they were converted into hydrocarbons (crude oil and natural gas). Thanks to plate tectonics, many of these hydrocarbon reservoirs have ended up on land, but there are also many that are still under the ocean floor.

Colorful Old Oil Barrels
Creative Commons License photo credit: Magnera

The Mineral Management Service has estimated that there are 17.8 billion barrels of oil off the cost of America (for comparison the Ghawar field is Saudi Arabia has 60 billion barrels). So why do we drill for oil offshore?  Here are a few numbers that will help explain.  America uses 21 million barrels of crude oil each day (most have been refined into gasoline), but we only produce 9 million barrels a day.

The two countries that we import most of our oil from, Canada and Mexico, also have large offshore oil projects. Canada produces around 368 thousand barrels a day and Mexico produces 2.2 million barrels form their offshore wells. Other counties such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia also have offshore production.

So what are offshore platforms? An offshore oil rig is like an extreme onshore rig. Not only does the rig have to drill thousands of feet through the earth, there is also have hundreds of feet of water on top of the drilling site. The rigs must also survive whatever the sea can toss at them, whether it be waves, hurricanes or tsunamis. There are many different types of offshore oil rigs. Deepwater Horizon was a semi-submersible rig, meaning that there were large tanks that would fill with water to submerse some of the oil rig, so that it would not move off the site it was drilling at. It can be put in water depth from 200 to 10,000 feet. A fixed platform is fixed in place by cement or steel legs and can go up to 1700 ft. A jacked up platform can use their legs to jack the platform up till it is above the water level, and then jack back down to move to a new location. They usually operate in up to 400 ft of water. A drillship is not a platform at all but a ship that can be used to drill wells. Its uses a series of thrusters to maintain position and it can operate in up to 13,000 feet of water.

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Semi-submersible rig
Creative Commons License photo credit: roger_melb

So which one is the best one? Because all the different offshore options can operate in varying depths and environments, it really is dependent on the location.

Cementing has come up a lot in the news recently. Most people may not know what that means. After a well is drilled and the casing is laid in, a special mixture of cement can be poured down to help support the well. It can help to keep the pressure constant, to reinforce the well walls or to plug up a well that is no longer producing. The cement used for the wells very from well to well. The mixture is based on the rock in the well and other variables such as the pressure at different depths.

If the pressure becomes too much an uncontrolled release can occur called a blowout. It can be oil, natural gas, water or a combination of two or three of those. One the most iconic examples of a blowout is Spindletop. No one wants a blow out. Not only does can it cause environmental damage but it can threaten the very lives of the people who work on rigs. To stop this there are automated measures and human control methods. For example, an operator could notice a change in pressure in the drilling mud. He would then try to relieve the pressure in a controlled method. If all else fails a blow out preventer can be used. A blow out preventer is a device that physically plugs the well so nothing can escape.

So if a blowout happens, then what? What happens when an offshore oil rig can’t stop producing such as Piper Alpha or Deepwater Horizon? Remote operated vehicles (ROVs) can be sent down to assess the situation and try to stanch the flow. A remotely operated vehicle is just that, a vehicle that is operated remotely by a person. If the ROVs can not stop the well a containment dome can be lowered down to cover the leak. A containment dome works by covering the area and then channeling the pressure off, and in this case to collect the crude oil. The first containment dome lowered down on the Deepwater Horizon was unsuccessful due to a build up of methane hydrates (or fire ice) on the dome. There are plans to drop a smaller dome, which would be easier to heat up if methane hydrates forms.

There are also efforts to contain and remove the oil that has come up. One of the choices is to burn off the crude oil. This can only be done under certain conditions, such as low winds, calm seas, and can not work on every spill. Another way is to put a boom around the spill to contain it and reclaim it. If the oil is on the surface, a skimmer can be used to gather and separate the oil. Chemicals can be sprayed on the oil spill to make the oil disperse or to clump together. Two types of dispersants have been spread on the Deepwater Horizon spill to help disperse it.

Another way to try and stop the oil that is coming out of the well is to drill a relief well. This would take the pressure off the well hole (it is like opening another hole in a shaken coke bottle to take the pressure off the main hole).

So what can we do? The national wildlife federation has created a page to help with that. Check with your barber or hair stylist to see if you can donate hair to make a boom. The best thing you can do is become energy aware. To understand where we get our energy from and how much of it you use. That is the first step to true energy independence.