Oil Spill: Static Kill on the Well—and Just Static in the Senate

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The “static kill” is so called because that’s what BP aims to create—a static situation within its blown well, one where the drilling mud the company is currently pumping into the well offsets the pressure in the reservoir itself. If BP’s Houston-based drilling engineers want some advice on how to create a static situation, however, they might want to look to the world’s greatest deliberative body—the U.S. Senate—which seems to be in a permanent static situation on energy and climate.

First what’s going on 5,000 ft. below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. Today around 4 PM EDT, BP officially began its static kill procedure—which apparently has another jargony name, “bullheading”—pumping barrels of heavy drilling mud through the wellhead and into the reservoir. (The static kill—which was delayed a day as BP investigated what turned out to be minor leaks on the capping stack that had been installed a few weeks ago—came after BP ran integrity tests to ensure the well can endure the stress of the procedure.) Fill up the well with enough mud, BP vice president Kent Wells said, and “you don’t need valves closed at the surface” to keep the oil from leaking. The entire procedure is expected to take 30 to 60 hours, depending on how intact the well structure remains after the stress of the explosion, the spill and the various relief efforts.

There’s a little confusion on what may come next. In recent days, BP has seemed to indicate that a successful static kill might render the completion of the relief well—which have been in the works for nearly as long as the spill itself—all but moot. But at a briefing this morning, retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad W. Allen reiterated that the relief well would be finished regardless of what happened in the static kill. “I’m the National Incident Commander, and that’s the way this will end,” he said. “It will be ended with the relief wells being drilled, and the annulus and the casing being filled with mud and cement being poured.” And when that happens, an accident that has spilled 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico will finally be over.

Here’s an easy bet though: by the time that happens, the U.S. Senate still won’t have done a thing to prevent another accident like this from happening again—or finally moving us away from oil. That’s because even as BP was beginning the static kill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was announcing that his oil spill bill—itself a watered-down compromise for true energy reform—would be postponed until September, after the August recess. The key sticking point was that the bill would eliminate the $75 million liability cap on damages oil companies need to pay in the case of a spill. Republicans are lockstep against the bill as it stands now, and Democratic senators like Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Begich of Alaska oppose the unlimited liability provision as well, arguing it put too heavy a burden on the oil industry. (You know, the same industry that earned billions in profits—last quarter.) There was a chance that those disagreements might be worked out with compromise amendments on the floor of the world’s greatest deliberative body—you know, like, democracy—but Reid had made it clear that the bill would only be offered for a straight up-or-down vote, because Republicans had been clear that they would use the amendment process to intensify attacks on Democratic energy policy:

“It’s a sad day when you can’t find a handful of Republicans to support a bill … that would hold BP accountable for the worst oil spill in history,” Reid told reporters.

“We tried jiujitsu, we tried yoga, we tried everything we could to get Republicans to come along,” he added.

So for those keeping track at home, after the greatest environmental disaster in U.S. history, the Senate failed to act on comprehensive energy reform, and now seems poised to fail to even tighten safety standards for offshore drilling—which certainly needs it. The bill might be taken up again in September, but that’s when Congress enters what’s known as the “silly season,” when Congress members will become focused on re-election and real legislative work will become almost impossible. (Or more impossible, I guess.)

That’s the sad, static situation the Senate finds itself in—and it’s hard to see a way out. Even while the upper chamber remained deadlocked, the House of Representatives managed to pass its own version of the spill response bill recently, just as it passed comprehensive climate and energy legislation last summer. It’s beginning to look—as writers like the New Yorker‘s George Packer and Grist‘s David Roberts have suggested—that until the Senate is fundamentally reformed (including changes to the 60-vote filibuster rule), action on energy or almost anything else will be impossible. The only other choice is static.