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

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 3, 2010; A01

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.

The workers, casually dressed, of all ages and nationalities, barely look up from their laptops as a visitor makes a quick tour. The engineers are all too aware that BP is in public disfavor and that few people are going to consider them the good guys as long as that well keeps spurting oil into the gulf. Wells isn't happy with the media coverage, which he said has treated BP as "the villain," but he said he tries not to pay attention to what's being said out there.

"If we get at all distracted by that, we won't be as good as we should be on the response," he said.

"Five minutes until the 1:30 severe-weather-contingency meeting," a woman's voice blares over an intercom.

The weather meeting is in the briefing room. This is where you find the Information Wall: printouts, photos, charts. The informational core of the operation isn't digital; it's old-fashioned hard copies of the very latest that's known. Goal: Keep everyone on the same page.

The war room is actually a series of rooms, more than a dozen of them, most windowless. The command center has a makeshift feel to it: Walls have come down, tables jammed together, broadband cables hastily installed and dangling from the ceiling.

Jon Rogers, an engineer who is part of the dispersant team -- applying chemicals at depth to the gusher -- said of the atmosphere: "It's intense, but it's probably the most interesting thing that a lot of people have worked on."

And what a problem it is. No one's ever been told to plug a hole in the bottom of the sea. The last time there was a blowout of this magnitude -- the Ixtoc I well in the southern gulf in 1979 -- it happened in 150 feet of water. The Macondo well was drilled in 5,000 feet of water.

The well penetrates a reservoir roughly 18,000 feet below the gulf surface. The pressure at depth is on the order of 9,000 pounds per square inch; the pressure at the sea floor, where the well is spewing, is only about 2,200 pounds per square inch. The physics can't be argued with. The oil and gas are going to surge upward, from high pressure to low pressure, the flow turning into a hydrocarbon fire hose, as though the deep reservoir were a Coke bottle that a prankster has shaken violently.

Going low

Thus the basic concept of the relief well: Go low. Hit the well at the base with heavy mud when the oil and gas haven't yet built up a lot of momentum. But no one is sure exactly what shape the well is in down there. If it's eroded, damaged, the bottom-kill could take longer.

Some of the engineering schemes have worked about as well as expected. Some have been busts. This is where they cooked up the containment dome (failed); the riser insertion tool (worked, but didn't do much and is no longer used); the top kill (failed); the top hat (worked pretty well) and most recently the flaring of oil and gas brought to a surface ship (ditto).

"We did something, we learned something," BP managing director Bob Dudley said last week, summarizing the sub-sea engineering of the past 2 1/2 months.

With 20-20 hindsight, some mistakes are clear. For two weeks early in the crisis, upon orders from the war room, technicians used robotic submarines to try to close valves and shear rams on the blowout preventer. But it became clear that the blowout preventer would never be of help.

The containment dome's failure was also foreseeable. An engineer in the war room said that methane hydrates, the icy product of gas and cold water at depth, could form inside the dome as it was lowered over the plume. The Houston team decided to try anyway, and the dome instantly clogged.

"We left the dome over the top of the flow too high for too long," Wells says. "We could have come in from the side."

Wells doesn't hesitate when asked what has the been the hardest part of the last 70-plus days:

"There's no question the most difficult thing was the event itself. Eleven people died."

The engineering work ahead could get more complicated rather than less. A new ship has arrived at the disaster site, ready to help capture oil, but it hasn't been able to make connections to the well because of the high seas churned up by Hurricane Alex. All the containment operations might have to be abandoned if a big storm blows in. Nothing comes easy.

"Stress relief" says a sign in an alcove, where a masseuse works on someone's stiff shoulders.

So simple a task: Plug the hole.

Will they?

They have to.

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