Oil containment structure moves into position

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 7, 2010; A11

HOUSTON -- BP lowered a 100-ton steel box the size of a small townhouse into the Gulf of Mexico Thursday night in a perilous and technically challenging effort to capture most of the oil leaking from a damaged well 5,000 feet below the surface.

The box, tethered by cables to a crane on a barge, was expected to be lowered to the sea floor over more than four hours, a process that would not conclude until Friday morning.

If successful, by Sunday, the structure will contain 85 percent of the oil and gas from a leak in a ruptured pipe known as the riser, funneling it to the surface, where the gas will be burned and the oil will be transferred to barges or tankers. If the box fails, and other efforts also fail, oil could continue to gush into the gulf for more than two months, experts said.

At BP's U.S. headquarters here, hundreds of technical experts from major oil companies and universities were working in the company's third-floor crisis center, calculating forces and factors that might affect the operation.

"We've brought in the brightest minds and we are working around the clock to do this," said Bob Fryer, chief executive of BP Angola who returned to help with the crisis that began with an explosion April 20 on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.

Half a dozen experts experienced with remote-operated vehicles watched a wall of video images from the sea floor as one remotely operated submersible used metal fingers to grab hold of and move a yellow transponder that was to help guide the giant box, or dome, to the proper part of the sea floor.

The silent drama played out underwater while a noisier drama played out on land. The Interior Department postponed plans for drilling or seismic testing off Virginia's coast. After visiting BP's office here, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the department would grant no new permits until at least May 28, when an investigation of the gulf accident is expected to be complete.

"I want to make sure that every question that needs to be asked is asked and answered," Salazar said.

He said that Shell Oil's plans to drill off the coast of Alaska would fall under the freeze.

Salazar also said that "no significant violations were found" during recent emergency inspections of other offshore drilling rigs by the department's Minerals Management Service.

Meanwhile, Gulf Coast states took precautions as pinkish rivulets of oil began to encroach on their shores. Louisiana's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries closed shrimp harvesting areas west of the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Rodney Mallett, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, said emulsified oil has reached the state's Chandeleur Islands. "The oil is surrounding the Chandeleur Islands now," he said, adding that it has washed ashore in some places.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials said the unexpected pink color is a result of the crude oil mixing with chemical dispersants.

How much worse the shorelines get depends on whether BP can stop the leak or funnel the oil into barges and tankers at the surface.

The number of remotely controlled vehicles near the well accident site is up to 10, and four were in the water early Thursday as spill response teams got the dome into position above. Using an open phone line, the experts talked to people on barges controlling the undersea vehicles with joysticks.

The view of the sea floor was limited. "It's like looking at a fish tank through the eye of a needle," said Eric Munstereifel, a BP employee who has been working with remotely operated underwater vehicles for 20 years.

Nonetheless, the vehicles' cameras will tell BP whether the structure is in the right place.

While waiting for the dome, the vehicles have continued to work on the blowout preventer, the failsafe mechanism that failed. On Wednesday, contractors working for BP removed the "brain" portion of the device to see if they could repair and reinstall it. The company might also connect the 2-inch-wide hydraulic hoses on the side of the blowout preventer to new controls.

Although the Obama administration urged BP to get help from the Defense Department, a BP official here said that the Defense Department rarely works below 2,000 feet.

But thousands of individuals have called BP to offer ideas. One man faxed a photo of blue items in a wheelbarrow. A woman wanted to send hair to help absorb oil near shore. A retired engineer asked how to make sure his letter would reach BP chief executive Tony Hayward.

One person from NASA, who was working with former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, showed up to pitch an idea for clamping the leaking pipe. He met with BP technical experts.

The installation of the structure faces several challenges. The sea floor is muddy, not sandy. To prevent the structure from sinking under its own weight into the mud, BP contractors have outfitted it with flaps, which are similar to horizontal shutters that distribute the weight over a greater area.

Tadeusz W. Patzek, a University of Texas professor involved in the effort, said BP also needs to worry about the stability of the structure given the tremendous force of the leak.

Finally, BP said it is worried that the natural gas mixed in with the oil will expand dramatically as it travels up a new pipeline toward the surface and that it could form something resembling an ice block, obstructing the pipeline. Pressure at the sea floor is about 2,300 pounds per square inch, compared with 14.7 pounds at the surface.

To counteract the gas expansion problem, the company might attempt to inject methanol into the well; it could act in a way similar to antifreeze in cars. The company might also pump warm seawater into the lower parts of the pipe. The temperature at the sea floor is only about 39 degrees, Fryer said.

These are some of the issues being examined by hundreds of people in rooms equipped with long tables and laptops. Among those on hand were engineers from Chevron and Adam "Ted" Bourgoyne, a longtime professor of petroleum engineering at Louisiana State University.

"That's the guy who taught me drilling," said Fryer, the London-based BP executive in charge of offshore exploration and production activities in Angola.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company