When it comes to the Hot Topic’s of the moment in world affairs, one can hardly escape the chaos and carnage caused by the BP oil spill crisis. And this is a subject that appears to be generating a lot of interest for the industrial gas community too.

With the spill in the Gulf of Mexico reportedly costing BP up to $2.65bn so far, not to mention the unquantifiable environmental cost, there’s plenty of questions being asked right now. Undoubtedly the biggest question still remains unanswered – how do we stop the spill?

Conjecture continues as to whether this is a question to be answered by the industrial gas community, such is the portfolio of provisions that industrial gas & equipment is able to apply across almost every walk of life. So is industrial gas the answer? Or is this a solution too far for our industry?

The crisis
According to reports in the mainstream media, and BBC news for example, BP has said that the cost of cleaning up the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico has now reached $3.12bn*.

Calculated at an average of around $100m per day since the spill began, this is thought to include the cost of the spill response, containment, relief well drilling, and grants and other claims paid.

Oil had been free-flowing into the ocean at a rate suggested to be around 30-60,000 barrels per day since the explosion on the BP-contracted Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig on 20th April 2010. As well as the tragic loss of eleven workers’ lives that day, the torrent of oil flooding the ocean has wreaked untold hazard to wildlife and the local communities.

After several innovative-yet-failed attempts to stop the spill, BP did succeed in fitting a containment cap on the blown-out well, a cap that has already been replaced once itself following an accident. The cap has proved relatively effective, as it has partially contained the erupting oil and diverted some of it to a surface ship for collection.

But could there have been a more effective, permanent solution courtesy of technology pioneered by the industrial gas fraternity? That’s a question that’s been attracting considerable debate in the Industrial Gas Professionals forum on social networking site LinkedIn.

Industrial gas – The solution?
A number of professionals working in the industrial gas business have considered whether the BP oil spill could be closed via freezing with dry ice or other cryogenic gases.

But with the leak originating at the bottom of the sea floor, some 5,000 feet (1.5km) below the water’s surface, the pressure at such a local depth might render any industrial gas solution as extremely difficult to implement.

With the flow of oil thought to be originating from a source deep in the bowels of the Earth as Wil Ferch, Principal at Nordstern Associates LLC, points out, this is a characteristic that has proved particularly problematic too.

In fact, many of the tried and tested methods deployed elsewhere around the world have failed to plug the Deepwater Horizon oil well leak, probably largely due to the sheer depth of this particular disaster.

Many of those taking part in the LinkedIn debate are actually of the opinion that little can be achieved from an industrial gas perspective, citing the depth, pressure, heat loss factors during delivery and maintenance, and any health & safety concerns as significant stumbling blocks.

While others are begging the question, surely there’s something the industrial gas companies could offer?

With BP having announced that two relief wells are currently being drilled to stop the leak, it’s likely that there was little the gas community could do to plug the leak in the short space of time before those wells are completed at the end of August anyway.

The Deepwater horizon explosion is an extreme case in point, but should one be better prepared for such disasters? And could the gases business hold the key to future technologies and solutions? The debate goes on.

Unchartered territory
When asked those very questions, Nordstern’s Wil Ferch was optimistic about the role of the industrial gas companies and told gasworld, “Certainly, the composite knowledge within the broader industrial gas community is fairly vast and well developed. Also, the industry services many other end-clients who themselves hold very specific skill sets of knowledge and technologies that perhaps also can be brought to bear in some sort of combined effort with the industrial gas technologies.”

“If the leak is emanating from one place, this might still be a viable option to pursue.”

The problem is, cases such as the Deepwater Horizon leak are relatively unchartered territory for the oil & gas community and beyond.

“My over-riding fear however, is that before a meaningful dialogue can be opened up as to the solutions that may be implemented, the very basic problem of a technical  ‘problem definition’ still seems to escape us,” Ferch explains.

“What is the problem we are trying to solve (besides the obvious of stemming the flow), as stated in numerical, technical terms? What is the flow? What is the pressure ( local water pressure alone is in excess of 2000 psig)? What is the constituency of the flowing material?”

“And perhaps most importantly.....is there actually more geological damage in-play that has not been readily identified in the mass media?”

Answers to these questions are probably unlikely to see the full light of day in the public domain, reasons permitting. But with the right knowledge and insight, it’s not inconceivable that our industrial gas & equipment industry, and the technologies and innovations it pioneers, could have a significant role to play in similar circumstances in the future.

Industrial gases are used in an array of applications and could yet prove fundamental to another aspect of the oil & gas processing industry – potentially avoiding even further cost and environmental implications.

Ferch concluded, “Some reports indicate that the source of the ‘leak’ is only the damaged well-head BOP (Blow-Out-Preventer). Still others have suggested that the sea floor is showing evidence of multiple locations where the oil leak is originating, suggesting an unwanted fracture of the Earth’s crust or ‘cap’ in the local area, over a several square-mile area.”

“If the latter is the case, then the problem is much larger and has not been satisfactorily defined as to the possible solutions that can be rendered.”

“Once this step is overcome,” he enthuses, “I believe the industrial gas community, either alone or working with end-client partners, is as capable as anyone to solve this.”

* Figure correct as of report dated 5th July 2010

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