Gulf oil spill: Bill Nye discusses top kill

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Bill Nye
The Science Guy
Friday, May 28, 2010; 1:00 PM

Bill Nye, the Science Guy, was online Friday, May 28, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the Gulf oil spill and the latest efforts to cap the well, including the "top kill" maneuver.

Photo Gallery: Gulf oil spill's animal victims

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Bill Nye: Good afternoon, Eastern Time. Bill Nye here, looking forward to answering, as best I can, your questions.

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Chantilly, Va.: Why is the oil still gushing out after more than a month? I always assumed they need pumps and other equipment to get the oil to the surface. Where is the pressure coming from to continue to let the oil out of the well?

Bill Nye: The pressure driving the huge flow came or comes from ancient bacteria that fed on ancient sea plants or plankton. The bacteria gave off natural gas, also called methane. It's trapped in a cavity under the seafloor. This gas is under about 460 atmospheres (6,800 psi) of pressure. That's plenty to spew oil for years, or even decades.

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Sarasota, Fla.: BP has not been clear about the quantity of mud versus oil coming out of their gushing pipe. There seems to be uncertainly interpreting the video. But couldn't they determine the relative quantities from a quick, simple analysis of the fluid they are pumping to the surface? --

Bill Nye: The head BP guy this morning made the extraordinary, and probably not quite accurate, claim that no oil has been coming out, while the mud is flowing. He probably just meant the flow of oil is way down. Such an estimate is very hard, because most of the oil doesn't make it to the surface. It becomes neutrally buoyant goo. Yikes.

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College Park, Md.: Why can't we use explosives to collapse the leaking well?

Bill Nye: Explosives would almost certainly blow the gusher opening wider rather than narrower. Gravity is being overwhelmed by the ancient pressure trapped in the oil and gas deposit deep under the seafloor. Keep thinking, though...

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Anonymous: Why is difficult to recreate enough pressure to push the oil back down into the reservoir via the top kill. Presumably, when they pumped out the mud and replaced it with sea water, there was a situation where the mud's weight was enough, why isn't it enough now?

Thanks.

Bill Nye: Great question. The problem is sealing the opening. If we could get a good, or good enough, seal around the ragged broken "riser" pipe, we might be able to staunch it. I hope they give up on trying to recover much oil right now. Instead, I hope they fashion a cap. With buoyancy and all, it would take about 6,000 tons of concrete. That sound like a lot, and it is. But, we or they have already pumped 30 times that weight in drilling fluid or mud.

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Re: First Question: Bill,

The first question is a great to open the forum. I'd like to follow up that question with the question. What is the pipe's, that is currently broken at the sea floor, capacity for non-flow pressure along its walls, i.e. what's preventing the current capping effort from causing the pipe to blow out underground given the pressure is so great?

Thanks.

Bill Nye: The pipe on the seafloor wasn't or isn't strong enough to hold the high pressures. It is part of the "blow out." They or we are now trying to stop the floor upstream of that at the robust, massive, astonishingly strong Blow Out Preventer (BOP). Note well though, it didn't prevent much of anything.

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St. Croix, USVI: In order to extract oil from the earth (whether beneath the sea or above) don't you need to have a pumping mechanism in place? Once this well was opened, does it mean it could just pour oil until resources were diminished? Could a natural disaster like an earthquake cause the same type of oil leak beneath the sea?

Bill Nye: Earthquakes do, from time to time, disturb the seafloor. And yes indeed, there are many natural "seeps" of tar and petroleum around the world. Given thousands of years, ecosystems adapt. In this catastrophic episode, it's not so simple if you're a seabird or estuary grass.

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Baseball: Wikipedia says you have switched your allegiance from the Mariners to the Nats? Is that true?

Bill Nye: I grew up a Washington Senators fan. The Senators were called the "Nats" in the Washington Post sports section, when I was a paper boy (deliverer). Nat-urally I'm a Nats fan. I route for the Mariners, when appropriate. Keep in mind though, in that league, the pitcher doesn't get to bat. The players will always oppose eliminating the DH. Nevertheless, I feel it's more fun, when the pitcher bats (as all Nat's pitchers do).

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Bill,

I noticed that there's an ad on this page for 10 cents off per gallon at Shell. Back to my question: do you think within your lifetime, you will see an end to oil/gas usage?

Bill Nye: Without an end to the burning of fossil fuels, coal especially, most of us will live shorter lives. I talk about this often. I'm hopeful, but very, very concerned.

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Ashton, Md.: Sorry to be off-topic, but my kids and I are wondering if you'll ever do more episodes of Bill Nye the Science Guy?

Bill Nye: It would be great, but those shows were made at a different time in history. They were very inexpensive by most production standards, but now there are literally millions of places to watch science videos on the web. We would have to find the right executive in the right frame of mind. Maybe someday. Thanks for your support.

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Anonymous: With the pressure from the mud vs. pressure from the oil, is it likely that the pressure will build in the tube and explode causing an even bigger hole?

Bill Nye: The well casing (main pipe) is probably strong enough. Any hole that got blown would probably be a crack or tear. It would be bad, but probably not as bad as what we have now- a huge gusher a mile under water.

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Washington, D.C.: I've heard a lot about proposed chemical dispersants, but I'm not sure what effect they will have in mitigating any damage. (When I add soap to a sink of oily water, the oil doesn't disappear.) What do you think the immediate benefits of dispersants are? Do the benefits outweigh the drawbacks?

Bill Nye: The dispersants were probably a good idea, when everyone thought the flow was only (?!) 5,000 barrels a day. With the gusher going into its sixth week at four times that flow rate, dispersants are probably not such a good idea. I feel it was the quantity that has everyone so concerned. It's been barrel after hopeful barrel. We've got to stop the leak.

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D.C.: Why is the procedure called a "top kill?"

Bill Nye: You come at the well from above, from the last place the oil flows past- the top. And, you kill the well. You can't produce oil from that opening anymore. To get to the killed well's bounty, you have to drill in from the side- the relief wells.

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D.C.: Why won't a giant solid cement cone plug the hole and stop the leak? That is, you put the point of the cone into the hole at the bottom of the ocean and secure the funnel so the oil won't push it out of the hole?

Bill Nye: Good idea. Looks to me like about 6,000 tons. A lot, to be sure. That might be what's next. Stay tuned.

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Huntsville, Ala.: My comment -- after 30 yrs+ in thermoset polyurethane experience I think the leakage may be stopped by pumping a highly reactive chemical system either polyurea (example truck bed spray) or polyurethane (example skateboard wheels)into the pipe. Either system cld be catalyzed to react almost instantly at the temperature and pressure in that pipe.

Bill Nye: All good, but it has to get down there at the moment it cures. If it goes too soon, your millions of dollars worth of surface to seafloor plumbing is no longer useful for anything. If it goes too late, you just blow the uncured material into the sea. Maybe they'll take your advice No bad ideas, keep 'em coming.

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Augusta, Ga.: Any projections about the how toxic this oil is to the green things in the Gulf? (The oceans phytoplankton produce 90 percent of the world's oxygen and deserve consideration for their work for us and the sustaining diversity we need.)

Bill Nye: O, the plankton. It breaks my heart. I'm pretty sure the neutrally buoyant tar-muck is a mixture of now-dead plankters and oil. It's a crazy mess we've gotten ourselves into.

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McMinnville, Ore.: This doesn't pertain to the leak itself, but about the use of dispersants. Isn't crude oil anionic? Why not use a cationic substance to bind the oil? I work in the wine industry, and we use bentonite clay to bind layby proteins for clarification in white wines. Just curious.

Bill Nye: Bentonite clay is the main ingredient in drilling fluid (drilling mud). It's just such a large flow at a huge pressure. Binding is fine. Stopping it is, apparently, a whole 'nother thing.

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Louisville, Ky.: I did just tweet this. There is a video suggesting the use of hay or straw to sop up (not stop) the oil spill. It is so simple--it sounds like a joke, but watch the video at How to clean up the oil spill (YouTube) I'd love your comment.

Bill Nye: Hay soaks up oil; so does hair. You just need such enormous quantities here. And, they have to be spread over enormous ares of the sea. It's a big ol' job.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Bill,

Who is winning these days between you and Bagely?

Bill Nye: I'm crushing him. Well, almost. We are both seeking ways to have our very high quality of life while doing more with less. Today, for example, it being near the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, I'll make more electricity than I will use. Not bad. Meanwhile, the oil is gushing away.

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Richmond, Va.: Is the oil spill going to be severe enough to eliminate or lead to the extinction of any species of marine life unique to the Gulf Coast?

Bill Nye: Yes. It's got to be. There are countless species that you and I have never heard of. There will almost certainly be some things that will be killed off completely and disappear. These might be certain plankton plants or other unknown bottom dwellers (benthons) that will probably not make through this.

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Michigan: First, thank you Bill Nye, for making science fun and interesting to so many youths. Second, after just looking at the live feed, it certainly look like there is much oil still coming out with even more mud. Do you think this effort will work? and do you think that they could make things worse? A major collapse of the sea floor would do what to the oil underneath? release it? couldn't we seal up the well with somethin more permanent than mud? something synthetic? or are they trying to keep the options of redrilling this well later?

Bill Nye: With these high pressures, the seafloor is probably solid enough. The way things are getting worse is the time that keeps passing as this mess gets messier. Oh yes, things are going to get worse before they get better. Sigh...

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Harrisburg, Pa.: My question comes from a bit more ignorance, I'm afraid. They said that they would know right away if it was failing, but wouldn't know if it was successful for several days. Why is this? Thanks.

Bill Nye: They are trying to get some drilling fluid (mud) to hang up or stick to the joints and sharp edges in the giant preventer gizmo's plumbing. As it sticks, it is hoped it will build up a layer that gets thicker and thicker and eventually closes the opening completely. It's like erosion in reverse. That doesn't seem to be happening as fast as we would all like. It not be happening much at all.

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Laurel, Md.: Charles Krauthammer writes today that offshore drilling has been forced into keep water by environmental regulations discouraging drilling in safer environments closer to shore.

If this well had been in only 1,000 feet of water, would it have been solved by now because human divers could work on it?

Bill Nye: This thing failed in large part because the blow out preventer was not maintained. Batteries were dead. Pressure tanks didn't hold enough pressure. It wasn't tested enough to see if it needed maintenance. To me it's a case where the government isn't properly organized, and it's not properly funded to handle the enormous difficulties associated with regulating an enormous industry.

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Rockville, Md.: Why can't they just crimp the broken end of the pipe? Isn't that what the blowout preventer was supposed to do? Don't we have a pair of "super pliers" that can do the job?

Bill Nye: Crimping is part of your everyday experience. This pipe much more brittle. The water is cold. The sizes and pressures are huge. Imagine crimping a six-inch old black iron pipe. It would just crack. Would but it were that straightforward. Keep the ideas coming, though.

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San Antonio, Tex.: It sounds like all that pressure is going to be really hard to contain. What are the chances of attaching another valve to the failed BOP?

Bill Nye: That's the next plan; I believe. They will mount a second preventer, with valves and rams that work, on top of the failed one. It will involve a lot of cutting and buffing and screwing-downing (sic). Meanwhile the flow will be wide open. But, they've said that they are considering this idea.

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Columbia, Md.: What's so special about golf balls in this instance? Why not tennis balls?

Bill Nye: Golf balls are hard. It seems to me, they have used tennis balls. They toss 'em in the "junk" mix. In the "oil patch", they get what's around.

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GSA across the street from Interior: Even if the well is "permanantly sealed" won't BP and the Federal Government have to monitor this well forever?

Bill Nye: Yes. This will be costly. Compared with keeping nuclear fuel and waste under observation though, it's probably reasonable. Along that line, just imagine the regulatory problems and likelihood of problems, failures, and disasters, when we have a few thousand nuclear power plants. There are 800,000 or so oil wells around the world. Imagine, say, 20,000 nuclear plants. Accidents will happen. Something to consider...

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Bill Nye: Thanks for all the great questions. Read them over; look at all the ideas you all have. There's bound to be a few good ones in there. Keep up the good work. Let's change the world.

For now though, I have to fly- Bill Nye the Science Guy...

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