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Hellzapoppin': What now to stop oil spill?; Johnson calls for use of air refueling tankers, chemical dispersants on oil slick in Alabama; Gulf ablaze; Animal rescuers brace;

Special Edition - Oil Spill in the Gulf
May 2, 2010

Technical Discussion about the Oil Spill Situation

The following information on several aspects of oil spills provides background that may prove helpful in understanding news reports about the oil spill in the Gulf.

The BP Deepwater Horizon is a drilling rig which was drilling on the Gulf floor about 5,000 feet beneath the surface of the water. The Blowout Preventer (BOP) designed to close off the well in the event of an accident is located on the gulf floor approximately.  The BOP failed to operate when the explosion occurred on April 20. The oil well extends from the BOP to the oil reservoir which is 18,000 feet below the surface.

Typical BOP's weigh up to 500,000 pounds and stand 50 feet tall. They are bolted on the top of a wellhead on the seafloor and in an emergency can cut off the flow of oil to prevent a gusher or a major oil spill. The BOP's can be activated by throwing a switch on the drilling rig. They are also supposed to activate automatically in the event of a major problem or, in some cases, can be activated by acoustic sound waves produced from a ship on the surface.

Three plans are being pursued to stop the oil leak and spill.

BP has ordered three of the steel domes referred to as "containment chambers" along with the customized pipe to connect the domes to a ship on the surface.  Each dome is a giant box-shaped inverted funnel weighing up to 100 tons. The domes will cover the well and two other leaks and channel the oil to a drillship.  It will take two to four weeks to fabricate the piping necessary to connect the funnel to the vessel. The containment chambers typically are 14 feet wide and 40 feet tall. Once lowered over a leak site, the oil will flow up the tapered funnel-like opening into a pipe that leads to ship that can store and transport it.

Another suggestion is to use a stop gap solution by surrounding the area where the oil is coming up to the surface with booms. An oil storage ship could pump the oil and water for disposal later. This might give BP enough time to apply a permanent fix. The problem with this approach is the size of the area where the oil comes to the surface and the amount of water that would be collected with the oil.

Halliburton provide oil services to the rig. They had completed the cementing of the final production casing string in accordance with the well design about 20 hours prior to the explosion. The cementing is provided to prevent the wall of the hole from caving in during drilling. Halliburton said tests demonstrating the integrity of the production casing string had been completed. At the time of the explosion, well operations had not yet reached the point requiring the placement of the final cement plug that would enable the planned temporary abandonment of the well consistent with normal oilfield practice.

A report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Emergency Ops document dated April 28 has the Coast Guard preparing for a worst case release that could potentially become an unchecked gusher meaning that instead of releasing 210,000 gallons (5,000 barrels) a day, it would release 2.1 million gallons (50,000 barrels) a day.

The kinks in the piping currently are controlling the flow to 5,000 barrels a day. There is a concern is that sand which is an integral part of the formations that normally holds the oil under the Gulf is essentially sandblasting through the pipe. The formation that was being drilled by the Deepwater Horizon is reported to have tens of millions of barrels of oil.

"The loss of a wellhead, this is totally unprecedented," said Ron Gouget, a former oil spill response coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "How bad it could get from that, you will have a tremendous volume of oil that is going to be off-gassing on the coast. Depending on how much wind is there, and how those gases build up, that's a significant health concern."

Oil Spill Behavior

Crude oil quantities usually are specified by barrels of oil. 1 barrel of oil contains 42 gallons. Often the oil is described as "sweet crude." That means that the oil does not contain much sulfur. Another term is "light crude." Light crude has light molecules and it flows freely like water. Heavy crude contains molecules that make it thicker like tar. Light crude is highly volatile and it degrades quickly in sunlight and reacts much better to dispersants than heavy crude. The oil from the Deep Horizon well seems to be heavy crude.

The containment process for oil spills relies heavily on containment booms, skimmers, dispersants (similar to detergents and solvents used to break down the oil) to control the oil and collect it at sea. The best conditions for containing the oil are light seas, low tides, and light winds. The current situation in the Gulf makes containment very difficult. On the other hand, heavy seas and high winds have a positive impact on the spill by dispersing it at sea.

Crude oil partially evaporates, losing between 20 and 40 percent of its mass and becoming denser and more more resistant to flow. A small percentage of oil may dissolve in the water. Part of the oil waste may sink with suspended particulate matter, and the remainder eventually congeals into sticky tar balls.  Over time, oil waste "weathers" as it deteriorates and disintegrates in sunlight and decomposes due to microorganisms. The tars in the residue may take many years to totally disappear.

Generally, the clean up of oil which reaches the beaches is much easier and quicker than the cleanup required for marshlands, grasslands, and lagoons.

The worst oil spills in history were:

Gulf War oil spill: 1,360,000-1,500,000 tons of oil
At the beginning of the Gulf War, Iraqi forces opened valves of oil wells and pipelines as they retreated from Kuwait in 1991. The oil slick reached a maximum size of 101 miles by 42 miles and was five inches thick.

Ixtoc I oil well spill: 454,000 tons of oil
The Ixtoc I oil well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in June 1979. The oil drilling platform then caught fire and collapsed, rupturing valves. The spill continued until March 1980.

Rough calculations put the BP Deep Horizon moving toward the top of the worst spills in U.S. history. The Exxon Valdez oil spill is not in the top 10 worst oil spills worldwide.

Spill                                                Amount of Spill
Gulf War                                         353 million gallons
Ixtoc                                               115 million gallons
Exxon Valdez (worst in U.S.)           11 million gallons
BP Deep Horizon (current)               0.2 million gallons per day
BP Deep Horizon (worst case)          2.1 million gallons per day

Johnson calls for use of refueling tankers
GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Johnson Saturday called for the mobilization of the 117th National Guard
Aerial Refueling Wing to fight the Gulf oil spill now threatening Alabama waters and coastal resources, but state officials immeditately shot down the proposal.

"It is already apparent that oil booms and traditional containment methods are not effective against the oil spill threatening Alabama's coast line," said Johnson. "We need to consider an aggressive use of aerial chemical dispersants by our KC135 refueling tankers." 

In an e-mail to Gov. Bob Riley, General A. C. Blalock and Conservation Commissioner Barnett Lawley, Johnson asked state officials to explore mobilizing the 117th National Guard Aerial Refueling Wing located in Birmingham to deliver chemical dispersants to Gulf oil slick threatening Alabama's $2 billion seafood industry and tourism industry just before the height of tourist season.

Blalock said the plan "won't work" with no further explanation.

Controlled burns, skimming, oil booms and chemical dispersants have been used to attack the spill so far, but the joint federal-industry response team has said the chemicals have proven the most effective method of attacking the spill.  According to this article, "Oil dispersants have been available to combat spills since the mid-1980s. They are detergent-like chemicals that break up oil slicks on the surface of the water into smaller droplets, which can then be broken down by bacteria in the water and by other natural processes. Dispersants also help prevent the oil droplets from coalescing to form other slicks."

Two C-130 aerial tankers have already been assigned from Ohio's 910th Air Wing, but these aircraft only have the ability to deliver 6,000 gallons of dispersant per day. The current oil spillage rate is estimated to be 210,000 gallons per day. 

The 117th National Guard Aerial Refueling Wing has nine KC135 refueling tankers designed to refuel aircraft in-flight, each having a delivered capacity of 31,725 gallons.  Even though the use of dispersants by these aircraft may compromise their future ability to deliver fuel, given the gravity of the oil slick, Johnson said all avenues should be explored, including adapting or modifying these aircraft to deliver what has been the most effective counter-measure identified thus far in quantities that will make an impact.

"The $39.5 million cost of each of these aircraft is miniscule compared to the $2 billion impact to Alabama's economy and the $17 billion of share value already lost by BP due to this disaster," said Johnson.

Most likely though, the aircraft would not be jeopardized beyond future use for their intended purpose, he said.

"I suspect the current tanks could be cleaned or replaced," stated Johnson. "I suspect that the degreaser could just be pumped out of the current equipment boom and that the altitude and jet wash would disperse it effectively enough."

"With the capacity of the planes in the 117th we could easily deliver 200,000 gallons of dispersant a day to the slick," he continued. "They just need to start now -- once the oil reaches the shore, wet lands, beaches, estuary, it will be a true disaster."

Johnson was disappointed in the insufficiency of Blalock's response.

The public deserves more than a bureaucratic "won't work," said Johnson who conceded there were a number of possible drawbacks that could prevent use of the planes. Among them, Johnson cited:

"Given the gravity of the situation, I just think the public deserves more than a bureaucratic answer of that "won't work," Johnson concluded.

Johnson, who has a degree in chemistry, is former director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA). He served as Alabama's delegate for both the 13-state Appalachian Regional Commission and 8-state Delta Regional Authority.  Johnson, the son of a career military and civil servant, is a native of Birmingham. He and his wife, Kathy, live in Prattville and are the parents of three children.

Fire in the Gulf
The following photos show the BP oil rig ablaze in the Gulf of Mexico south of Mobile: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9

Oiled wildlife rescue volunteers
Volunteers to assist in the rescue of wildlife harmed in the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill are organizing on Facebook.

Regardless of events affecting the scope of the disaster, there likely will be affected animals all along the coast.

For more information visit this page or email

Folsom fundraiser at Felix's
A fundraising luncheon for Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom, Jr., who is seeking re-election this year, was held Thursday at Felix’s Fish Camp Restaurant on the Causeway.

Among those in attendance were former state Sen. Bill Roberts, lobbyist Beth Marietta Lyons, former state Sen. Gary Tanner, Mobile County Education Association official Wade Perry and his bride, attorney Dorothy Barker "Dottie" Perry of Burns, Cunningham and Mackey, attorney Cecil Gardner and his wife, Susan, Mobile Area Democratic Association chairman Vance McCrary, attorney Karlos Finley and former Mobile County Democratic Party Chairman Bob Beckerle

For more information on the Folsom campaign call 540.239.1730 or email

Strange, James on tap
The Mobile County Republican Executive Committee will meet Monday, May 3 at Westminster Presbyterian Church at 7 p.m. Guest speakers include Tim James, candidate for Alabama governor, and Luther Strange, candidate for Alabama Attorney General. The public is invited to attend. The church is located at Sage Avenue and Airport Blvd.

Hillyer's dad dies
Haywood Hillyer III, New Orleans lawyer and devoted Republican Party member who fought David Duke's campaign, died recently at 72. He is survived by, among others, a son, former Press-Register editorial writer Quin Hillyer.

Artur Davis' Mobile HQ to open
The grand opening of the Artur Davis campaign's newest field office is set for Saturday, May 8 rom 12 noon-1:30 p.m. in Mobile in the Skyland Shopping Center, Suite A at Government Boulevard and Azalea Road.

The Democratic congressman is vying to become the first black governor in Alabama history. He faces state Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks for the party nomination in the June 1 primary election.

Eastern Shore Republican Women
to host big line-up if candidates
Eastern Shore Republican Women will meet Wednesday, May 19 at 11:30 a.m. at the Fairhope Yacht Club.

Guest speakers will be Wayne A Gruenloh, candidate for re-election Baldwin County Commission, District 3; Tucker Dorsey, candidate for Baldwin County Commission, District 3; Daniel Dyas, candidate for Baldwin County Commission District 2; Bob James, candidate for Baldwin County Commission District 2; and Ken Hitson, candidate for Baldwin County District Attorney.

Reservations should be made no later than Friday, May 14 to Lucy Sundbeck, or call 517-4435.   

Lunch is $16. Prospective members and visitors are welcome. The meeting marks a change from ESRW's previous schedule which called for meetings on the third Monday of the month.
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