Oil Spill Containment Update: The Pressure’s On

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Greetings from New Orleans, where I’m about 1200 miles closer to BP’s complex containment procedures above the site of the Deepwater Hozion sinking—yet I’m pretty much still dependent on subsea camera web feeds like the rest of you. I’m here to check out how the spill—and the cleanup—are progressing, and how the community is dealing with the worst environmental disaster in American history.

But the real action isn’t onshore right now—it’s 40 miles southeast of the Louisiana coast and 5,000 feet beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, where BP is performing a complicated underwater dance that might bring an earlier end to the gusher. The company has already swapped out the earlier, loosely fitting containment cap over the blown well and is now within hours of connecting a newer, tighter cap: the 3 ram capping stack. Once that’s connected BP will be able to begin conducting pressure tests that will probe the physical integrity of the wellbore, which runs 13,000 feet below the ocean floor. If the tests show the pressure is stable or rising—meaning there aren’t any other leaks around the wellbore from which oil might be escaping—BP may be able to close the open valves on the new cap and essentially shut off the ongoing leak. No more crude escaping into the Gulf. “The number one priority is to get this flow stopped,” said Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer, at an afternoon press briefing on Monday.

A lot could still go wrong—after all, as BP loves to point out, the robots carrying out this operation are working in freezing cold, ink-dark waters a mile beneath the surface, where nothing of this complexity has ever been attempted. Ice-like hydrates could form inside the new cap as it is lowered over the well—which is what scrapped an earlier top hat containment system. An underwater robot could slip—it’s happened before—and miss a crucial connection. And even if the new cap is securely fastened, the pressure tests could reveal that the wellbore is too damaged to completely shut off the flow. If that happens, BP will need to go back to containing the oil as best it can—though it will have a number of new containment ships, including the just activated Helix Producer, that will soon bring its total capacity to 60,000 to 80,000 barrels of oil a day, theoretically enough to account for all the crude that is flowing into the Gulf. But it would take several weeks for BP to bring the new ships online one by one.

There’s no doubt that BP—like just about every resident of the Gulf Coast and the current occupant of the White House—would love to see the gusher stopped now, rather than waiting for the relief wells to finally kill the spill next month. And if that does happen, expect critics to question why BP didn’t try this procedure from the beginning, rather than exhausting the full supply—top hat, top kill, bottom kill, junk shot—of deepwater drilling terminology.

When a reporter asked Suttles just that question, he got a little philosophical—or at least as philosophical as a mechanical engineer with a quarter-century of experience in the oil and gas industry is likely to get:

We never wanted to take a step that could make things worse. We were parallel pathing a number of options, and we were never certain which one would be correct. If I knew now what I might know tomorrow I might choose things in a different order. But I had to take the steps to learn the things we learned, because without those steps it’s unlikely we’d know what we know now.

So live and learn I guess—tens of millions of gallons of oil later.