Time to stop calling the BP-Halliburton oil disaster a ‘leak’ or a ‘spill’ — Try ‘an undersea volcano of oil’

The problem with the April 20 spill is that it isn’t really a spill: It’s a gush, like an underwater oil volcano. A hot column of oil and gas is spurting into freezing, black waters nearly a mile down, where the pressure nears a ton per inch, impossible for divers to endure. Experts call it a continuous, round-the-clock calamity, unlike a leaking tanker, which might empty in hours or days.

One thing I’m noticing about the media coverage is that it’s like the blind people describing the elephant.  Different media outlets are getting different pieces of the story right — and some pieces wrong.  But unless you survey the entire coverage, you will definitely get a misimpression of what’s going on.

The Wall Street Journal, for instance, has been doing some good reporting, but perhaps because it’s behind a firewall, much of it has been slow to leak out and get the attention it deserves for, say, Halliburton’s crucial role or the remote-control shutoff switch that BP couldn’t be bothered to spend $500,000 on.

I will try on CP to find the best stories — as well as the stuff the media isn’t covering.  Please send me anything you think hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.

Most of the media is calling the undersea volcano of oil a “leak” or “spill, which creates a serious misimpression of what BP and the government are up against.  Indeed, it feeds frustration as to why it hasn’t been fixed already.  The L.A. Times got this part of the story write in a piece headlined, “BP’s containment problem is unprecedented The company must stop a relentless gush of oil nearly a mile below the surface, in a situation that hasn’t been dealt with before,”  The LAT quotes some experts.

“Everything about it is unprecedented,” said geochemist Christopher Reddy, an oil-spill expert and head of the Coastal Ocean Institute at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. “All our knowledge is based on a one-shot event”¦. With this, we don’t know when it’s going to stop.”

Accidents have occurred before in which oil has gushed from damaged wells, he said. But he knew of none in water so deep.

And “everything is bigger and more difficult the deeper you go,” said Andy Bowen, a research specialist who works with undersea robotics at the Woods Hole center. “Fighting gravity is tough. It increases loads. You need bigger winches, bigger cables, bigger ships.”

An analogy, he said, is the difference between construction work on the ground versus at the top of a mile-high skyscraper.

The bottom line:  An ounce of prevention is worth 10 million gallons of cure (see 20-year veteran of the Coast Guard: “With a spill of this magnitude and complexity, there is no such thing as an effective response.”)

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32 Responses to Time to stop calling the BP-Halliburton oil disaster a ‘leak’ or a ‘spill’ — Try ‘an undersea volcano of oil’

  1. Robert Nagle says:

    All oil spills are different; however, it might help to read marine biologist Riki Ott’s piece about the spill and how it compares to Exxon Valdez. A must read.

  2. John McCormick says:

    If anyone is interested in seeing what a BOP is, cut and paste the following and go to the bottom of the article.

    John McCormick

  3. David Greene says:

    Good article, John – but don’t skip the middle section featuring Transocean’s opinion of BOPs – Transocean being BP’s contractor and owner of the now-sunken Deepwater Horizon rig:


    Working With Rig Managers

    Though BOPs are a necessary piece of safety equipment, one of the largest rig fleet managers, Transocean, recently pointed its finger at BOPs onboard its rigs as the source of lower drilling revenues for Q2 2009. Transocean reported an EPS of $2.79, which was below the consensus of $3.03, due to a variety of revenue and cost factors, some of which were related to BOP issues.

    Steven Newman of Transocean addressed the issue during an earnings conference call a few months ago. “The deepwater segment of the fleet, which is the 4,500 – 7,500 ft segment, 16 rigs in that fleet was the largest underperformer in Q2. We had a couple of human error incidents on drill floors on a couple of those rigs, and we had a handful of BOP problems; nothing that I would characterize as systemic or quarter specific. We did a deep dive on each one of those incidents. We’ve identified the root causes. We are going back to address them in our management system so they don’t happen again. They were anomalies.”


    Though Transocean posted a slight decrease in revenue for Q3 2009, Newman was accurate in stating that the BOP issues were resolved. Transocean reported a net income of $710 million for Q3 2009. Revenues for the quarter were $2.823 billion compared to $3.192 billion for Q3 2008.

  4. The “volcano” statement is exaggerated. casual research indicates to me that a moderate volcano (the recent Icelandic case) emits on the order of a half million tons per day. Mauna Loa can emit as much as ten times that much in an hour. Meanwhile, the high end estimates of the undersea gusher are 25,000 barrels per day. This is about 4000 tons, or something like one per cent of a volcano.

    If that’s not enough to scare the heck out of you I don’t know what is. There’s no need to exaggerate.

    This is a disaster. I’m not trying to sell it short. And I realize this is a quotation, not an analogy you came up with. But if people are relying on you for science information you need to sacrifice poetry for precision when necessary. We need a public that can deal with thinking about big numbers and large scales. It does no good to promulgate inaccurate but memorable statements that could easily be taken literally.

    Could you check my numbers please? If I’m right, I suggest that you change the headline to say “called a volcano” rather than “is a volcano”, and mention in the text that it’s “only” 1% of a volcanic mass flux in literal terms.

    That all said, yow! I’m getting the idea that we’ll be very lucky if we aren’t dealing with this spill for decades.

    [JR: That’s a bit much, Michael. This is called a “metaphor.” It is meant to be figuratively descriptive of what is happening, as opposed to say “leak” or “spill,” which obviously is not. One should always provides the flow rate in the same piece.

    That said, if we are going to get all technical, please find me this imaginary definition of volcano you have invented. I can’t seem to find it online. Your calculation does actually convince me that this is like a small volcano. Pretty incredible. By the way, it is probably going to go on for a lot longer than many, many volcanoes do.]

  5. Dave E says:

    Could you give a comparison with the Ixtoc I blowout? According to NOAA (, the blowout occurred in 1979 and released about 140 million gallons of oil before it was finally capped (over 9 months after the blowout). What was the long term effect of that spill been?

  6. Mike Roddy says:

    I agree that this gusher is unique, but there is both precendent (Ixtoc)and inevitability. Hydraulic systems under great pressure, with hot fluids, will always leak, and sometimes crash the mechanical system.

    The notion that BP or Transocean failed to buy a BOP, or that they are a bad company, is valid, but secondary. Demonizing BP, Exxon, or Massey management lets everybody else off the hook. It’s the whole industry that’s rotten- crazed with greed, and indifferent to all of the external and unforeseen costs of their activities, as long as they’re factored into the long term balance sheet.

    People should take this event as a signal that we need to get off fossil fuels as soon as possible, and skip the clean technology by 2025 blah blah blah, the horror of a small premium for renewables, and the rest of it. Denier spokesmen and oil company policy are totally committed to making as much money as they can as soon as possible, period, and don’t give a damn about anything else, including a planet that is habitable in the future. Time for them to be held accountable, and for what passes for our leadership to step up and do the right thing.

  7. StefanW says:

    I’m by no means an oil industry expert so I don’t know if the following is true. According to several responses to newspaper articles, a remote-control shutoff switch wouldn’t have made any difference in this situation. As back-up, BP used a remote-controlled robotic submersible to physically pull some lever on the outside of the BOP. The lever worked as intended, but the BOP obviously didn’t for some unknown reason.

  8. Wit's End says:

    O/T but just for fun…Brian Lehrer on WNYC had a segment on Time’s list of the 100 Most Influential People and asked listeners to name their own nominee for the Most Influential Thinker category. I actually got on which made me very nervous! Of course being a founding member of Romm’n’Legions, I nominated Dr. Joseph Romm, whose blog,, is the best one-stop shopping for climate change education I have found. at around 5:12 into the show.

    JR, you should have been on Time’s list in the first place!

  9. Karen S says:

    Not sure even a volcano is an adequate analogy, though I can’t think of a better one. When a single gallon of oil can make a slick on water that’s the size of a football field, and this gusher may empty an entire undersea oilfield into the sea, we may be witnessing the destruction of an entire ocean. I don’t know if there are any words for that.

  10. Bob Wallace says:

    I’m with Mike…

    “People should take this event as a signal that we need to get off fossil fuels as soon as possible, and skip the clean technology by 2025 blah blah blah, the horror of a small premium for renewables, … ”

    Increase feed-in tariffs for wind, solar, and geothermal by a penny or two per kWh. And guarantee them for a significant period of time, not a year or two at at go.

    That’s one simple idea and it would greatly accelerate the rate of getting us off of fossil fuels.

    Here’s another. Increase the federal subsidy for EVs from $7,500 to $10k. And lean heavily on states to match CAs $5,000 subsidy. That would bring a Nissan Leaf well under $20,000. Down to where it becomes very affordable for ordinary drivers. Even before they add in the fuel cost and maintenance savings.

    Get the cost of an EV down to the point where (with a decent trade-in or down payment) your EV monthly payment would be no more than what you would be spending at the pump.

    Let’s spend a little more tax money up front in order to reduce our long term costs. Let’s be business-like in our thinking….

  11. Bob Wallace says:

    Some good news!

    “Bill Salvin, a company spokesman, said that crews had finished building a containment dome, a 4-story, 70-ton structure that the company plans to lower into place over one of the three leaks to catch the escaping oil and allow it to be pumped to the surface. The other two domes would be completed on Tuesday, Mr. Salvin said, and crews hoped to install all three domes by the weekend.”

  12. It shocks me to see the real pictures that look more like a Hollywood disaster film. It is my way of removing the impact.

  13. Wonhyo says:

    I see a consistent pattern of society underestimating and underreporting both the potential for and reality of human caused natural disasters. The deepwater rig’s operators obviously underestimated the risk of this event occurring, because they clearly were not prepared for it. They then proceeded to underestimate the rate of leakage by an order of magnitude.

    It’s not just deepwater oil rigs. We underestimate and underreport the risks and costs of nuclear power all the time. Even the DOE’s estimate of $96 billion for 150 years of nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain ignores the remaining 99,850 years of storage required. It also ignores any additional nuclear waste that will be generated, and need to be stored, beyond the present.

    The ultimate underestimation and underreporting is in climate change. Scientific models inherently produce underestimates of climate change because they lack feedback cycles (even the known ones). The scientific authors fail to point out that their estimates are likely on the low end. A typically scientific statement is, “the impact of X *may be as high as* Y…”, when, in fact, the impact of X will be at LEAST as high as Y. The mainstream media then “balances” this toned down scientific conclusion with totally opposite conclusions from politically motivated non-scientists. By the time it reaches the general public, a few of will change our light bulbs, then be done with it.

    The state of denial we are in regarding the risks of deepwater oil drilling, nuclear power, and climate change, are much like the housing bubble.

  14. Chris Dudley says:

    A name that might fit is ‘chemical attack on the Gulf’ though as with other chemical attacks, it may spread.

  15. I found it difficult to visualize the sea bed floor situation after the Horizon Explorer rig sank. I wanted to understand what was leaking and the what needed to be done to correct the problem. Working at 5,000 feet sea depth is an incredible challenge.

    I scoured the web for visualizations, schematics to get an overall picture of the situation. Here’s a link to what I have found so far.

    The current thinking is that there are 3 leaks in the 5,000 foot riser pipe which lays on the sea bed in a twisted, tangled mess. Part of it apparently still rises 1,500 feet above the sea floor.

    A impact of the uncontrolled flow of the oil-water-sand mix on the remaining integrity of the riser is a serious concern. The abrasive sand may be detrimental to the integrity of the riser.

    Hopefully the plan is to position domes over the 3 leaks can be accomplished before any additional leaks occur. We won’t be fully out of the problem until the relief well is able to plug the existing oil well.

  16. John Mashey says:

    SO, given the (best estimates of numbers), I suspect one good graphic would propagate, if someone will create it.

    Vertical: total cumulative flow in barrels
    Horizontal: duration in weeks.

    Two lines:
    Exxon Valdez: line goes from 0 to (ship capacity) in (?a few weeks), then flattens out. Maybe there’s a continuation that shows cleanup efforts slowly shrinking the line back towards zero, although that might require multiyear time-scale.

    Gulf line: line goes from zero up, with no limit yet known.

    Alternatively, one might show the flow rate (i.e., the first derivative) on the vertical, in which case the area under the curve is the total release. Showing cleanup efforts is less obvious.

    One might record a sequence of these, including BP porjections on various dates…

  17. It’s almost like you get to the point where there is a loss for words. The scope of this calamity hasn’t begun to be realized.

  18. Mike #22 says:

    Originating from deep within the earth, plumes of hot toxic organics emerge onto the ocean floor where they are vigorously mixed with seawater. Components of the crude oil plumes are dissolving into the seawater as this crude drifts up. How much? If there was a strong plume in relatively still water, one could imagine most of the crude just flowing straight up. But if there is good mixing, currents, and wave action, a lot of could happen on the mile long trip to the surface.

    NOAA has some information.

    “Composition of Crude Oils

    Crude oils are complex mixtures which vary widely in composition. However, they can be divided into three broad groups of compounds which help the responder assess the initial impacts and fate of the oil. These groups are very simple:
    1) Light-weight components
    2) Medium-weight components
    3) Heavy-weight components”

    “…Light-weight components are characterized by:
    …High water solubility; usually contributes >95% of water-soluble fraction
    …High acute toxicity because they contain the monoaromatic hydrocarbons (benzene, toluene, xylene) which are soluble and toxic”

    The light weight components aren’t might not make it to the surface. In a surface spill, these components evaporate, but as pointed out in the reference: “One important exception to this general rule is when the dissolved fraction is rapidly mixed into the water column under cold conditions…”

    This leaves the medium and heavy weight components. Maybe just drifting along, forming emulsions and little tar balls. Hell’s own lava lamp.

  19. David Stern says:

    I second some of the comments above. 5000 barrels a day is about 10 litres a second or a cubic metre every two minutes roughly. I’ve seen an estimate for Eyjafjallajökull of 20 cubic metres a second (or 75 tonnes). 2000 times faster. Given that it’s crazy that there wasn’t more preparedness for a disaster of this type. I would have likened this to Chernobyl. It could have a similar effect on future deep water drilling. Hopefully, at least far better disaster preparedness will have to be achieved for any future projects.

  20. Rick Covert says:


    I second what Dave E requested. I moved to Corpus Christi, Texas back in June of 1979 just after high school graduation and within a day or two of my arrival the Ixtoc I well blew out and it took 9 months to cap. That well was in relatively shallow water compared to this well blowout. We’re also less than 1 month out from hurricane season and I hope they can cap this one soon before the gulf gets too active. I also remember the Texas governor, a Republican governor, unusual for Texas at that time which still hadn’t gotten over the Civil War, called the spill, “…much ado about nothing.” A day later the slick washed up on Texas beaches.

  21. substanti8 says:

    The volcano metaphor seems quite apt to me.  In both cases, hot subterranean liquids and gases are being ejected into the biosphere through a single perforation in the Earth’s surface.

  22. Rick Covert says:

    So how’s that drilly, spilly, burny thing workin’ out for ya’ Aunt Sarah. QUESTION: Joe, how did you keep from spontaneous laughter just before Keith Olbmermann interviewed you and said, “THAT WOMAN IS AN IDIOT!”

  23. David B. Benson says:

    One could read up on undersea volcanoes, sometimes called vents.

  24. Daniel J. Andrews says:

    Considering Louisiana’s governor Bobby Jindal’s objections to funds being spent on volcano monitoring, I had to smile (albeit sadly) at your reference to this BP disaster being a volcano. As a biologist, I’m feeling sickened when I think what this will do habitat and wildlife along the coastline.

    And my better half is a Newfie and was there when the cod fishery collapsed. She tells me what happened to the fishermen and the communities there, and we feel for the people down along southern and Gulf coasts who will lose their livelihood. This is so terrible on so many levels.

    OT but in reference to another of your posts, Joe: our Canadian news, CTV, is doing a pretty good job of covering this disaster. The reporter at the site is Tom Walters. My favourite bit was where he, in 20 seconds, demolished the comparison between Bush-Katrina and Obama-BP responses to the disaster (something along the lines of “the oil spill wasn’t forecast days in advance, the hurricane wasn’t the responsibility of a single company that repeatedly downplayed it’s seriousness, etc….”). Very succinct, to the point.

  25. homunq says:

    As someone who lived on the side of an active volcano for three years (Volcan de Fuego in Guatemala; you could hear sand land on our roof about once a month and feel tremors several times a week), I can say that Michael Tobbis doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I bet that over the time I lived there, Fuego averaged less than 4000 tons a day. Mauna Loa and Unspellable are large volcanoes; your average day-to-day active volcano is much less.

  26. malcreado says:

    The spot on my garage floor is from a leak. . .

  27. riverat says:

    Maybe a continuously erupting geyser would be a more apt description.

  28. Leif says:

    If you are having trouble calling the gulf event a volcano, Michael Tobis, #4, what would you call the ~ twenty million tons of CO2 that man is emitting to the atmosphere every day. Much of which is absorbed by the oceans and making every square inch acidic to the point of destroying the base of the ocean food chain within the life span of your children. Tonnage wise the gulf event is ~ 1,000 tons a day, depending on who’s numbers you use, which is a drop in the bucket compared to 20,000,000 tons a day of CO2. One you can see the other is insidious. Both are deadly.

  29. jorleh says:

    Going to Moon, but not a mile down in the sea?

    There must be tens of cubic miles really black and oily seawater around the holes now. Where are they going to put the “collectors”? They can`t any more to find the holes, impossibly.

  30. Bob Wallace says:

    jorleh – the original well should be findable by its GPS coordinates.

    Other leaks of hot oil and gas should be “see-able” using heat sensitive detectors.

  31. Ria Rogers says:

    Of course it’s an underwater oil volcano. It happened naturally about 35,000 years ago. Read about the asphalt domes: BP never actually struck oil so there was little concern about it at first. It was about the diesel fuel on the platform. Then the oil started to show. Just like a volcano, the gas blew first and brought up the oil.

    As far as who is at fault and what happened there are a lot of hands involved but Halliburton looks to be the culprit. The cement job in deep, deep water isn’t guaranteed. I found an interesting diary on and checked it out:

    Drilling that deep, gas bubbles are many times encased in ice crystals. Drilling the hole to cement the pipe causes heat. Crystals melt, gas bubbles escape. Cement isn’t set. Too many bubbles = Kaboom.. There is a PDF of a Halliburton presentation the diary linked to. Halliburton presented a set of procedures for deepwater drilling. But after listing them it states, “Conditions in deepwater wells are not conducive to achieving all of these objectives simultaneously???? Geez. There are no guarantees in deepwater. It’s not exact science yet. Daily Finance also had an article that stated 18 out of 39 explosions that happened were caused by a faulty cement job.

  32. charles says:

    I worked for Halliburton..Those 2 yrs was the worst working experience of my 20 yrs I’ve been working. The mgt is horrible, I saw alot of mistreatment of good working people and was mistreated myself … It was a classic tail wagin the dog scenario to the extreme…