Deepwater Horizon: The Gulf Oil Disaster
July 19, 2010
One has to wonder and hope the 48 hours turned into 72 hours will bring
favorable results for the testing of the new cap put in place by BP to stop that
oil leak at 5,300 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.
In a nail-biting weekend across the Gulf Coast, engineers struggled to make
sense of puzzling pressure readings from the bottom of the sea Friday, trying to
determine whether BP's capped oil well was holding tight or in danger of
springing a new leak.
No immediate leaks were spotted, which was encouraging. But midway through the
testing period on the new temporary cap that was bottling up the crude inside
the well, the pressure readings were not rising as high as expected, said
retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's point man on the crisis.
Allen said two possible reasons were being debated by scientists: The reservoir
that is the source of the oil could be running lower than expected three months
into the spill. Or there could be an undiscovered leak somewhere down in the
well. Allen ordered further study but remained confident.
"This is generally good news," he said. But he cautioned, "We need to be careful
not to do any harm or create a situation that cannot be reversed."
He said the testing would go on into the night and through the weekend, at which
point BP may decide whether to reopen the cap and allow some oil to spill into
the sea again.
"No news is good news, I guess that's how I'd say it," Kent Wells, a BP PLC vice
president, said on a conference call two hours after Allen spoke.
Throughout the day, no one was declaring victory — or failure. President Barack
Obama cautioned the public "not to get too far ahead of ourselves," warning of
the danger of new leaks "that could be even more catastrophic."
Even if the cap passes the test, more uncertainties lie ahead: Where will the
oil already spilled go? How long will it take to clean up the coast? What will
happen to the region's fishermen? And will life on the Gulf Coast ever be the
The big question is how much of the Gulf of Mexico is now a 'dead zone'? Large
schools of fish and the predators that follow them have moved closer to shore
with even the largest of the Gulf's creatures, Whale Sharks, spotted much closer
to shore than ever before.
BP's newest spill-containment strategy in the Gulf has yielded such encouraging
initial results, many are asking why the oil giant didn't hit on this solution
earlier in the crisis.
The short answer is that the model of the well cap now in place didn't exist in
the earlier stages of the spill saga. But what's more noteworthy than the timing
issue is the likelihood that the device owes its origin to the same authority
that any homeowner turns to in order to get a leak plugged: a professional
That, at any rate, is the theory that the Christian Science Monitor's
Patrik Jonsson has floated — and the recent sequence of events leading to the
plugging of the leak make it seem plausible.
Jonsson reports that six weeks ago, University of California, Berkeley,
engineering professor Robert Bea received a late-night call from an anonymous
plumber. According to Bea — who had formerly worked as an oil-industry executive
before his present gig as an academically backed manager of engineering crises —
the "mystery plumber" reached out to him because he had an idea for how to plug
BP's busted well in the Gulf. The plumber provided Bea with sketches of a
containment cap that upgraded some of the design flaws in the cap the oil
company deployed in its unsuccessful bid to plug the leak several weeks ago.
Bea passed the plumber's sketches on to a contact at the Coast Guard and to a
panel of experts who were evaluating proposed schemes to repair the leak
submitted by the general public. Jonsson writes that when Bea first got a
glimpse of the containment cap that has stopped the flow of oil into the Gulf,
he noticed striking similarities to the designs dreamed up by the plumber.
"The idea was using the top flange on the blowout preventer as an attachment
point and then employing an internal seal against that flange surface," Bea told
Jonsson. "You can kind of see how a plumber thinks this way. That's how they
have to plumb homes for sewage."
BP spokesman Mark Salt told Jonsson that he presently has "no way of finding
out" if the well-capping crew used any of the mystery plumber's ideas. Salt
added that there's "a good chance that this was already being designed" when Bea
handed over the sketches.
Still, there's one way that BP's containment officials can be sure if they
followed the plumber's blueprint: When he submits his three-figure-an-hour bill.
Was it really 'Joe The Plumber' who did this? We'll just have to wait and see
who emerges to collect the 'bill'.
So we all watch and wait to see and hear what the test results bring. If this
works, Admiral Thad Allen says they'll immediately return to containment of the
Gulf oil spill.