Just a few days ago we reported that a mysterious oil sheen that has appeared in the Gulf of Mexico not far from the BP Deepwater Horizon Well that burst last year. It turns out that our suspicions have been realized and the oil bubbling up to the surface matches that of BP’s “sealed” well. Scientists confirmed that they have established a chemical link between the sheen and the hundreds of millions of gallons of oil that spewed into the Gulf last summer.
The Press-Register collected samples of the new oil earlier this week and provided them to Ed Overton and Scott Miles, chemists at Louisiana State University, who also investigated the first spill last year. The pair pinpointed the spewing oil as MC252, a match for the Deepwater Horizon Well. Overton told the Press-Register, “After examining the data, I think it’s a dead ringer for the MC252 oil, as good a match as I’ve seen. My guess is that it is probably coming from the broken riser pipe or sunken platform. […] However, it should be confirmed, just to make sure there is no leak from the plugged well.”
BP officials have claimed they have been watching the water closely with one of their vessels, but no oil has yet to be seen. During BP’s inspections there were waves up to 2 feet high, and scientists say this likely obscured the small sheen emerging on the water every few seconds.
The Press-Register’s own investigation spanned several hours, and determining where the new oil was emerging was not an easy task, given continually changing currents. In response to a Press-Register’s findings, the U.S. Coast Guard sent a helicopter and a boat to the well site Thursday, but failed to find any oil, according to Captain Jonathon Burton. However, the fact that the investigation revealed that the oil matches with the BP well was useful, as it ruled out other pipelines that crisscross the Gulf floor — singling out the BP well means that trying to figure out a remedy for the issue should be more focused. Burton also believes that the weather conditions may have hidden the oil during the Coast Guard inspections.
“The next time we’ve got a nice flat calm day, we’re coordinating to get something out there to see what might be coming up at that point,” Burton said.
Robert Bea, a prominent University of California petroleum engineer studying the BP spill told the paper, “Looks suspicious. The point of surfacing about one mile from the well is about the point that the oil should show up, given the seafloor at 5,000 feet [...] natural circulation currents would cause the drift. A remote operated vehicle (ROV) could be used to ‘back track’ the oil that is rising to the surface to determine the source. This should be a first order of business to confirm the source.”
Nothing is yet conclusive, and researchers are hypothesizing different possibilities before they dub it a “leak”. Bea ventured, “Perhaps connections that developed between the well annulus (outside the casing), the reservoir sands about 17,000 feet below the seafloor and the natural seep fault features” could provide a pathway for oil to move from deep underground to the seafloor.
Philip Johnson, author of the Standard Handbook of Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering and a professor at the University of Alabama, suggested that trapped oil might be escaping from the wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which is still sitting on the seafloor. Other possibilities, he posed included heavy oil deposited on the seafloor slowly being degraded by bacteria and releasing lighter components, a natural seep, or, in a worst case scenario, a leak in the 5,000-foot-long cement plug used to seal the well.
Here’s hoping it is the lesser of the evils and we don’t have another rupture on our hands.