Glossary of terms related to Gulf Coast oil spill

By Garance Franke-Ruta and Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2010; 5:11 PM

Efforts to stop the Gulf Coast oil spill have given Americans a dizzying array of new technical terms to master. Many of these phrases sound peculiar to ears hearing them for the first time, but their functions are as serious as . . . a failed deadman switch. Below, a list of some of the least intuitive phrases, what they sound like they might mean -- and what they actually do. If they do what they are supposed to do.

Blowout preventor

Sounds like: Someone who took the last appointment at your salon.

Definition: A large valve at the top of an oil well that can be closed if a drilling crew loses control of it but that failed at Deepwater Horizon. (Source: Schlumberger's Oilfield glossary)

Shear rams

Sounds like: Tops the to-do list of a New Zealand shepherd.

Definition: Hardened steel blades within the blowout preventor designed to cut the drill pipe as a last resort to regain control of a well but that failed at Deepwater Horizon.

Deadman switch

Sounds like: When the gravediggers get it wrong.

Definition: An automated mode function failsafe that failed at Deepwater Horizon.

Acoustic trigger

Sounds like: A recurring and irksome sound that works your last nerve.

Definition: A remote-controlled backup device for the blowout preventor, but one that was not used at Deepwater Horizon.


Sounds like: A piece is stuck in the pneumatic barrel of your potato launcher.

Definition: The start of drilling operations for a well. From the old English "spudde," meaning a short knife.

"The burrito levee concept"

Sounds like: Sauce on the side, in a divided paper plate, at Taco Bell.

Definition: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's special locution to describe a form of giant sand-filled barriers. Related to:

Boudin bags

Sounds like: Takeaway containers for sausages in the French Quarter.

Definition: Bags filled with marine cement that are laid out on beaches and named after the Cajun sausages they resemble.

Tiger dams

Sounds like: Contraceptives for feral cats.

Definition: A series of engineered interlocking flexible tubes that are inflated with water to form an impervious temporary dam. (Source: U.S. Flood Control Corp.)

Containment dome

Sounds like: Close relation to "the cone of silence."

Definition: A giant metal box lowered onto the leak to corral the oil so it could be siphoned to the surface. It failed to work at Deepwater Horizon.

Top hat

Sounds like: A euphemism from the old Hollywood Code era.

Definition: A smaller version of the containment dome, it was considered for use at Deepwater Horizon but then abandoned in favor of other plans.

Top kill

Sounds like: The reality show you get when you merge Bravo and Spike TV. (Source: James Poniewozik)

Definition: BP engineers armed with 50,000 barrels of dense mud and a fleet of robotic submarines attempt to plug the gusher a mile below the surface by pushing mud down through the BOP into the well. Specialists estimate it has a 60 to 70 percent chance of not failing.

Junk shot

Sounds like: A desperate golf swing that gets you nowhere. (Among other things.)

Definition. Stopping up the blowout preventor with a high-pressure blast of golf balls, bits of rubber tires and other refuse in an effort to cap the well. A method of last resort if the top kill fails.

Warning signs

Sounds like: Something one should listen to.

Definition: Something whose consequences we all have to live with after they were ignored.

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