DEEP-SEA BLOWOUT: Stopping a blown out oil and gas well 1,500 meters beneath the sea surface required strenuous scientific efforts by the U.S. government and BP. Image: U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
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Forty-eight hours into an attempt to muscle a gusher of oil back into the deep-sea well from which it spewed, the flow of petroleum and gas refused to slow. Screen after screen in a special room at BP's headquarters in Houston showed the oil gushing undiminished, silently witnessed underwater by remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).
The room—called the HIVE, for Highly Immersive Visualization Environment—was hardly the only place at BP buzzing with activity. Earlier, locked in the 10-meter-square "intervention room" on the third floor, scientist fought scientist in the battle over whether to proceed with an established way to plug the leak, the so-called "top kill" operation. Nobel Prize winning physicist and U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu remained unconvinced of BP's technical case, whereas geologist by training Tony Hayward, CEO of the British oil major, felt it had as much as a 70 percent chance of success, according to the President's National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling report released in January.
That might have been true had the oil been flowing at the rate BP and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimated, roughly 5,000 barrels per day. (One barrel of petroleum holds about 160 liters.) In fact, such top kills had worked to control other wells in the past, albeit not those some 1,500 meters beneath the ocean surface. But, perhaps unknown to BP at the time, the oil was gushing at more than 50,000 barrels per day—meaning it had plenty of pressure to blow top-kill mud back out of the hole.
The scientist-versus-scientist clashes are just some of the new details about science's role in stopping the spill that have emerged in the year since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and set off what would become the worst oil spill in U.S. history. When BP scientists couldn't figure out how the blowout preventer failed, Chu suggested gamma-ray imaging, which could visually pierce the giant piece of equipment at the bottom of the sea. (It did the trick, revealing that the preventer's pipe-shearing rams had not fully slammed shut, allowing oil to continue spewing.) When BP engineers presented plans for containment caps or other operations, Chu and his team of independent hydrologists and geophysicists would question assumptions in a bid to force BP to consider the full range of possibilities, rather than simply hoping for the best. And when BP scientists failed to develop better plans, Chu invited other oil companies—Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell—into the effort.
"Where the limits of reality lay"
The entry of Secretary Chu and a team of government scientists—pulled from the U.S. Department of Defense's JASON independent advisory group—began May 10, three weeks after the blast that killed 11 workers. At that time, they were there only to assist BP as it struggled to regain control of its well on the Gulf of Mexico seafloor. BP had dubbed the well Macondo for the ill-starred, fictional town in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. "It was as if God had decided to put to the test every capacity for surprise and was keeping the inhabitants of Macondo in a permanent alternation between excitement and disappointment, doubt and revelation, to such an extreme that no one knew for certain where the limits of reality lay," as Garcia Marquez wrote—words that could be equally applied to the gushing deep sea oil well.