In the 'war room'

In BP 'war room,' small victories, many uncertainties

BP, the government and an army of volunteers are fighting to contain and clean the millions of gallons of oil spewing from the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.
By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 3, 2010

HOUSTON -- The ROV room is the closest thing to Mission Control. It's dark, cool, hushed. Engineers with headsets face a wall showing the live video feeds from the remotely operated vehicles, the submarines patrolling the depths of the Gulf of Mexico, roughly 420 miles to the east of this nondescript building in a BP office park in the sprawling Houston suburbs.

One video feed shows the familiar gusher, frothing and fussing away as always. But wait: Has it weakened? Is there less oil coming out? Yes? Maybe?

"I to this day still get fooled," said Kent Wells.

He's one of BP's top engineers, and the most visible -- the guy who gives the technical updates in videos posted on the company's Web site. He said he sometimes convinces himself that the well is losing steam. But no: The blown-out well named Macondo, drilled by the ill-fated rig Deepwater Horizon, is as tireless as ever.

So he and his colleagues must kill it.

They will, too -- knock on wood, throw salt over shoulder, cross fingers, make ritual sacrifice to the gods, etc. Almost lost in the crush of bad news, failed technical efforts, dire warnings and ominous weather reports is that the engineers in this room, and their colleagues at other command centers and out in the gulf, have a good shot at ending this nightmare in a matter of weeks. The first relief well is already within 15 feet, laterally, of Macondo, and has only about 600 vertical feet to go before it will intersect the well.

The last stretch is slow going. This is precision work. Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen wouldn't budge Friday from the standard prediction of a mid-August completion, but he said the relief well is seven or eight days ahead of schedule.

No one is overconfident.

"There's no guarantee," Wells said. "What we do have is the best people from all over the world, we have a lot of experience, and with time we've become a lot smarter understanding this. Could it throw us another curve ball? That's always a possibility."

The war room is not exactly a place where people are eager to be interrupted by reporters. This is where engineers devise plans for what is known as the "sub-sea" response. It's mostly a BP operation, but there are engineers from other oil companies, plus a smattering of federal employees. (Of 569 people on duty Friday, 221 were contractors and 18 were federal workers, according to BP.)

Decisions have to be reviewed and approved by government officials, but those officials, all the way up to the president of the United States, have made clear that killing oil wells is not a government specialty. BP is the responsible party for the spill, and this is the responsible war room for fixing the problem at its source.

Fixing the problem

The engineers here don't worry about beach cleanup, claims from sidelined fishermen or Washington politics. They just figure out how they're going to kill the well, capture the oil, flare the gas, keep the ships and rigs from colliding, prepare for hurricanes, evacuate in an emergency, bring in new tankers and drillships, find customized hardware, conjure backup plans to their backup plans, etc.

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