The passage also aptly described the situation faced by the scientists at BP, such as vice president of engineering Paul Tooms or vice president and engineer Richard Lynch, who seemed incapable of determining how much oil was actually flowing and figuring out how to stop it despite valiant efforts. An early attempt born of the "containment room" ultimately created and submerged a nearly disastrous underwater balloon—albeit a solid steel balloon four-stories high and weighing nearly 100 metric tons—that became buoyant when methane-filled ice formed beneath the giant dome meant to enclose the well. The structure instead floated up toward rescue boats on the surface. Had attempts to steer it away on May 7 failed, a collision between a ship and the methane-containing steel balloon could have caused a conflagration as bad as the explosion that ultimately destroyed the Deepwater Horizon. Plus, this cofferdam effort preempted an ROV effort using sonar and acoustic sensors that would have more precisely measured the flow of oil and natural gas into the sea.
In the "intervention room," explicitly charged with messing with the well itself, the pressure was perhaps higher than at the wellhead. The converted training room had become something akin to NASA's Mission Control, the conditions at the bottom of the Gulf as hostile to humans and human efforts as the vacuum of space. Cables wrapped in yellow tape snaked down from the ceiling, sprawling onto the white laminated tables where they plugged scientists' laptop computers into grids of electricity and information grids. Diagrams of blowout-halting technology and maps of the Gulf served as wallpaper.
On the afternoon of May 26, BP technicians fired up pumps rated at a total of 30,000 horsepower and began shooting heavy drilling mud into the well. In addition, the BP team fired "junk shots"—a mix of golf balls, rubber balls and other detritus—in a bid to slow the oil flow. A BP technician read off pressure readings to those in the intervention room: 8,000 pounds per square inch; 7,000 pounds per square inch; 6,000 pounds per square inch (psi). Initial signs seemed good as BP ramped up the flow rate of mud to as much 70 barrels per minute.
But the ROV camera impassively showed the mud spewing back out of the well and onto the seafloor. The shredded balls in the junk shots were not clotting the flow of oil, and it was visible for all to see on the live video feed.
Chu versus the oil volcano
There is something of the owl in Chu's heart-shaped face—giving the impression of proverbial wisdom but also of a veiled raptor, ready to strike the intellectually unprepared. He may look oddly casual with his hands nestled in the pockets of the dark blue power suits he favors in Washington, D.C., but he attacks with questions. Even in the simple collared shirt with rolled-up sleeves that he favored for his time in Houston, the bespectacled Energy secretary posed a danger to the oil company scientists and executives, especially as he quickly acquired knowledge about the problem posed by Macondo. The only question was: Whose scientific expertise would prevail?
Secretary Chu could be forgiven for possibly feeling conflicted about his role: He had been called in to save an industry, while working as hard as he could to render it obsolete via programs like the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy. If energy could be personified, Chu would be among those who immediately come to mind, dashing from one global event to another—from the high-profile climate summit in Copenhagen to the prosaic opening of a solar factory in the U.S. Midwest—all as he penned peer-reviewed research for major journals and tended to his day-to-day political responsibilities.