Oil spill logistics

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An oil well off the Louisiana coast is still leaking oil into the Gulf of Mexico after a rig blew up last week. A similar incident occurred last year off the northern coast of Australia. To find out what happened there and what might happen here, anchor Marco Werman speaks with Louisa Rebgetz of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

MARCO WERMAN: The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is growing. That was the word today from the U.S. Coast Guard. The spill began last week when an oil rig operated by the British company BP exploded. Eleven workers are thought to have died in the blast. Since then, thousands of gallons of oil have been leaking into the Gulf daily. Now engineers are scrambling to come up with a system to stop the growing spill. There was a similar incident last year in the Timor Sea that lies between Australia and Indonesia. Louisa Rebgetz covered the incident for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. She is in Darwin, on Australia's north coast. Louisa what went wrong in the Timor Sea in 2009?

LOUISA REBGETZ: Basically the west atlas oil rig started spilling oil into the Timor Sea in August last year. The company has since revealed, only months later, that a pressure corrosion cap was removed to clean corroded casing threads in the well. That happened in March last year, but in fact they were never reinstalled. What added to the problems was that they failed to put in the right amount of cement used in the well. So basically the combination of factors, the failed cement job in connection with the absence of these pressure containment caps caused the well to blow out, and it did so for some ten weeks. Oil spilled into the Timor Sea off Australia's western coast.

WERMAN: Right. And Louisa when we say the rig started spilling oil; you mean oil is actually leaking pretty rapidly below the surface of the ocean, right?

REBGETZ: Yeah, that's right. 2,000 barrels of oil leaked every day form this well for ten weeks until it was finally plugged. The day before it was plugged the rig also caught on fire. So it was a massive, massive oil spill.

WERMAN: So it was very similar to what's happening in the Gulf of Mexico. How did they fix the leak in the end and what were the various methods they tried before getting to the final fix?

REBGETZ: Well the company says the reason why it took so long to plug was that they had to call in another drilling rig to get down and try and plug the hole full of mud. So they had to actually wait three weeks while this oil was spilling into the ocean to get another rig. And then the process of filling it was quite complex. It was sort of done with magnetic robotic equipment. They described it as if you had to plug in a plate into the hole and then pump; I think its 4,000, barrels of heavy mud into the hole in order to stop it leaking. They had four failed attempts at trying to do this and they said that the reason why it's such a prolonged way to do this is because once they have one attempt, they then have to wait five to seven days before they can try again because they have to set up their whole equipment again and try and line it up. So it's not a very time efficient way of plugging the hole.

WERMAN: What kind of damage did the oil spill do to marine life?

REBGETZ: Well that is still being assessed and environmentalists in Australia say that the true extent won't be revealed for some time and I supposed I have to put into context this area. This area is described as a marine super-highway. It's part of the most pristine part of the world and lies nearby reef. There's endangered flat back turtles in the area and whales. Some conservationists say that dolphins, sea snakes, birds and turtles were spotted swimming through the slick. They can't put a figure on the exact amount of casualties caused by the slick and, in fact, the slick moved towards neighboring Indonesia and Indonesian fisherman reported that they had pulled dead fish from the ocean where the slick had moved into Indonesian waters. And I suppose from just the visible impacts that I saw via television crews flying over it, were extreme. But the true extent, the toxic effects of the spill are still being assessed and will be for years to come, environmentalists say.

WERMAN: Interesting parallels between the west atlas oil rig disaster and the one that's happening right now in the Gulf of Mexico. Louisa Rebgetz covered the west atlas oil rig disaster last year for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. She joined us from Darwin, Australia. Thank you very much Louisa.

REBGETZ: Thanks Marco.