Can the BP Oil Spill Get Any Worse? Yes

BP Oil Spill
BP Oil Spill

With BP's (BP) Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in its 49th day, efforts to control the oil flow and the spilled crude continue to be hampered by a lack of information -- and transparency -- from BP. Despite the oil company's ongoing attempts to put a sunny face on the catastrophe, recent developments remain dire.

On the bright side, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the U.S. government's man on the scene, announced yesterday that the cap on the damaged oil well is now capturing 462,000 gallons of oil per day. Unfortunately, it's still unclear how much oil is actually spilling out of the ruptured well. Current estimates range from 500,000 to 1 million gallons per day. Depending upon the actual numbers, the cap is capturing between 46% and 92% of the well's flow.

Referring to the now mesmerizingly popular live streaming feeds of the leak, Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming says: "This may be BP's footage, but it's America's ocean. . . . This footage will aid analysis by independent scientists blocked by BP from coming to see the spill."

Is Oil Escaping from Beyond the Well?

But, as if the original well breach weren't bad enough, some evidence now suggests that the well's bore and casing may be "blown." In some ways, the spill is comparable to a straw inserted in cup of soda, and efforts to close the breach have been roughly akin to blocking or capping the straw. However, if the casing -- or straw -- is blown, the oil could begin leaking from any crack or crevice in the surrounding sea floor, and the entire area could be leaking like a sponge.

Speaking to Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC, Florida's Senator Nelson suggested that this nightmare scenario might be happening. He told the journalist that "there's reports of oil that's seeping up from the seabed. . .which would indicate, if that's true, that the well casing itself is actually pierced. . .underneath the seabed. So, you know, the problems could be just enormous with what we're facing."

The ultimate solution that BP has been touting almost since the disaster began has been "relief wells." Basically, a hole dug near the original bore, the relief well would intersect with the main well. BP could then pump the wells full of mud and cement, ultimately blocking the main flow (this diagram shows how the process works). BP is currently digging two relief wells, which it hopes to complete by August. Company CEO Tony Hayward has repeatedly told the public that the strategy is a sure thing.

Years of Cleanup to Come

In truth, however, digging the relief wells is actually extremely difficult, and is likely to be complicated by hurricanes, dense rock and myriad other problems. Worse yet, if the relief wells blow out, the spill could worsen, releasing a further 240,000 barrels -- or 10,080,000 gallons -- per day. In a similar oil spill disaster in the Timor Sea last year, a relief well exploded, destroying another rig and further delaying efforts to cap the well.

Even if the relief wells work perfectly and the flow can be capped in August, the environmental disaster will be far from over: Cleaning up the spill will be a problem akin to herding a few million cats across an area roughly half the size of the Great Plains. On Monday, Admiral Allen pointed out that the oil spill is not a solid, monolithic slick, but rather "hundreds of thousands" of individual patches. While he estimated that the surface oil could likely be cleaned up in a "couple of months," getting the oil out of marshlands in the Gulf coast "will take years."