BP oil spill: Technology centre stage in containment

BP has said technology is playing a crucial part in efforts to contain a huge oil spill that took place last month in the Gulf of Mexico.

Three major leaks began after an explosion took place on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, for which BP owns the lease, located off the Louisiana coast. The rig is destroyed but when operational, it was a cutting-edge rig with many processes either automated or controlled remotely through fibre optic connections.

BP told Computerworld UK that robotic submarines are being used extensively to help track and plug leaks following the disaster. “They’re connected by cable to manned support vessels,” said a spokesperson. “From there they are controlled and data is taken.”

The smallest of the leaks was stopped early on, but hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil are still spewing into the sea every day from the other two leaks. Bob Fryar, senior executive VP at BP, said in a video from the company’s Houston Crisis Centre: “A big part of the focus is to mitigate and stop oil leaks at the sea floor.”

Five key options were identified for this, all involving vital contribution from the robotic submarines. The first is injecting oil “dispersant” at the sea floor.

Another is to attempt to make the blow out preventers - which sit on top of the well head 5,000 feet below the water surface, and control oil flow - function again in order to stop the leak. But Fryar described this as “like doing open heart surgery at 5,000 feet”.

Other steps include subsea collection and capture of oil, and pumping material into the blow out preventer to plug the flow. The most standard procedure is drilling a relief well, but unusually this will be at a depth of 18,000 feet and will present a major challenge.

Specialised systems are checking the “type of oil” in each area, a BP spokesperson said, “which dictates what steps we take” for each instance.

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