The leaking MC252 oil well is releasing an incredible amount of hydrocarbonsâ€”estimates have moved upwards from BP’s ludicrously low 5,000 barrels per day all the way up to 100,000 bbl/day. Beyond environmental effects of this released material, the amount of potential energy held in the hydrocarbons that are going uncaptured is staggering.
Since getting the lower marine riser package (LMRP) cap installed last month, the Deepwater Horizon response team has been able to capture a portion of the oil & gas leaking from the well. Hydrocarbons are brought to the surface aboard the drillship Discoverer Enterprise which transfers the oil to tankers that in turn shuttle it to shore. Unfortunately, the Discoverer Enterprise isn’t equipped to handle natural gas, and can only capture a limited amount of oil. For the first twelve days that the LMRP cap was installed, June 3rd through June 15th, the Discoverer Enterprise collected as much oil as it could each day, up to a maximum of 15,000 barrels per day. The LMRP cap was configured to only capture as much oil as the maximum amount that the Discoverer Enterprise could recover, with the excess allowed to flow around the LMRP cap and into the ocean directly. Natural gas that came to the surface was immediately flared by the drillship, which lacks any other ability to handle gas.
On June 16th, the Helix Q4000 joined the Discoverer Enterprise on the scene as a secondary vessel to handle the well’s producation. While the Q4000 adds no oil capturing capacity, it does have the capability to flare oil, allowing the LMRP cap to be reconfigured, bringing more oil & gas to the surface. BP has been releasing daily statistics concerning the amount of oil & gas flared, allowing us to calculate the energy that is unceremoniously disposed of each day.
Since the Q4000 arrived, an average of 8,400 barrels of oil and 1.49 million cubic meters of natural gas have been flared. A barrel of crude oil contains 6,119 megajoules of energy and a cubic meter of natural gas 40.9 megajoules. Using these numbers together tells us that 51.48 terajoules of oil energy is burned in the form of oil and 60.97 TJ from flared natural gas every day.
The total energy being continuously burned each second from the MC252 leak is 1.3 gigawatts, the same amount of energy as produced by a large nuclear power reactor or nearly 3 times the average power generated by the Hoover Dam.
Other energy loss
The above calculations only concern the amount of oil and gas collected by the installed LMRP cap, and not the other balance of the well’s production that is released into the ocean without being captured. This additional flow amounts to 35,000â€“60,000 bbl/day according to the most recent estimate of the Flow Rate Technical Group. In terms of energy, this amounts to 2.5â€“4.2 gigawatts of potential energy lost to the ocean.