By Joel Achenbach and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 5, 2010; A01
On the 107th day of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Macondo well became an apparently harmless hole in the seafloor, clogged with 13-pound-per-gallon gunk, and barely more of a threat to spew oil into the Gulf of Mexico than to start gushing lemonade.
The "static kill" had worked.
The well that tormented the nation has flatlined. Federal officials green-lighted the cementing of the well, already jammed with mud, late Wednesday. Federal waters are reopening gradually to fishing. The oil slick, the once-horrific expanse of red-orange mousse and silver sheen, has largely disappeared, federal scientists said Wednesday, even though the amount of oil left is more than four times that dumped by the Exxon Valdez.
The Obama administration breathed a sigh of relief, holding a midday news conference featuring top officials who claimed credit for guiding BP in getting the well under control. Officials hastened to remind the public that Macondo won't be incontrovertibly dead until a relief well drills into it near its base and plugs it with cement. But even the cautious retired Adm. Thad Allen, national incident coordinator, called the static kill a "fairly consequential" event and a "very significant step."
About three-quarters of the nearly 5 million barrels of oil that escaped Macondo has evaporated, dissolved or been dispersed by chemicals, skimmed by boats, burned, weathered and, most important, devoured by the Gulf of Mexico's permanent oil-eating microbial workforce, according to a study released Wednesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Interior Department.
"Mother Nature is assisting here considerably," said NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco.
This should terminate, once and for all, the more apocalyptic scenarios for the demise of the gulf and the spread of oil to Atlantic shores. There is no sign that the oil is going to ride the Loop Current onto the beaches of South Florida, the Outer Banks, Bermuda, Ireland and so on.
Just a month ago, the spill was an uncontrolled calamity: Macondo mocked the technological skills of the world's petroleum engineers, and oil was slathering birds and turtles and tar-balling hundreds of miles of coastline. The turning point came when BP put a new tight-fitting cap on the well July 12 and closed the valves three days later, cutting off the ugly geyser of oil that had become a dominant image of the summer.
Federal scientists have said that vigilance would be called for even after the static kill procedure worked, which, according to BP in a 2 a.m. announcement, it did. BP sent out a bulletin declaring success after spending eight hours pumping mud into the well from surface ships.
"It'll look like it's mortally wounded but may not be dead," said Tom Hunter, a member of Energy Secretary Steven Chu's scientific team.
In a sense, this will not really be over until Allen feels secure enough to take the vacation with his wife that he had scheduled for Aug. 1. Allen has been adamant that the relief well is the ultimate answer and came close this week to declaring that any premature celebration of the end of Macondo would be a federal crime: "I'm the national incident commander, and that's the way this will end."
Allen has at various times referred to the oil spill as an event that is "anomalous, asymmetrical and unprecedented." On Wednesday he dropped a few more multisyllabic adjectives: "indeterminate . . . omnidirectional . . . unbounded." But he acknowledged that these last descriptions of the spill no longer apply: "It's bounded now," he said, permitting himself a flicker of a smile.
The White House made clear Wednesday that BP would not be getting congratulations from the administration for its deep-sea plumbing achievement. Press secretary Robert Gibbs staked a claim to any credit for the positive turn of events: The outcome would have been different were it not for "a containment strategy that we pushed BP forward on, that we pushed BP to accelerate in order to capture the oil that was leaking."
For the White House, a political containment strategy has been vital, too. Early in the summer of the spill, the administration was on the defensive. Analysts compared the spill's tarnishing of Obama's reputation to the damage Hurricane Katrina did to President George W. Bush's image. Both disasters tested presidential responsiveness and sensitivity.
Unlike Katrina, however, the spill had staying power. Katrina came and went, leaving devastation behind, but the spill "is this ogre that keeps coming at us," one administration official said a few weeks into the disaster.
The ogre threatened to devour the president's agenda. It upset the horse trading that three key senators were doing to put together a politically viable climate bill by making it impossible for the president to stick to his vow to support an expansion of offshore drilling. Instead a six-month Interior Department moratorium on deep-water drilling riled Gulf Coast lawmakers, and Senate leaders couldn't even muster enough support for a more narrow oil spill bill.
For BP's gaffe-prone chief executive Tony Hayward, who has agreed to step down Oct. 1, the static kill came too late. But one of his much-derided comments from May looks less outrageous today. "The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume," he said. But tiny might have been the wrong word for a 4.9 million barrel spill, the largest unintentional spill in history.
With or without Hayward, BP faces a mountain of claims, fines and settlements. The oil giant will put aside about $32 billion, and the company said it would peel off about 10 to 12 percent of its exploration and production assets to cover the costs. Investment analysts warn that even that enormous sum might not be enough if BP is found to have been grossly or criminally negligent, which would quadruple its fines under the Clean Water Act and complicate litigation likely to drag on for years.
Liability is just one of many unanswered questions that investigators and policymakers will try to figure out in the coming weeks, months and years. Why did the blowout happen? Why did it take so long to plug the well? What can the oil industry do to boost safety and respond better next time? What is the long-term effect of oil on the environment? How can government regulators provide better oversight?
Americans have learned a new lingo, the sometimes indelicate terminology of petroleum engineering: blowout preventer, top kill, bottom kill, static kill, junk shot, blind shear rams, capping stack, choke line, kill line. The oil industry has to convince a public newly literate in such terms that it's safe again to puncture the seafloor at depths where only robotic submersibles can perform tricky engineering tasks.
"It was the among the worst things that could happen within the entire oil industry, highlighting a cascade of human, technical and regulatory failures," said Byron King, an oil analyst at Agora Financial. "It showed industry and government in their respective worst light -- hubris overflowing, competency lacking."
For many, the crisis isn't over, particularly for the people of the gulf who have been rattled by yet another disaster just five years after Katrina.
In the Louisiana tourist haven Grand Isle, it has been the worst summer ever for Emma Chighizola, owner of the Blue Water Souvenirs shop. Cleanup crews have rented nearly all of the summer houses, and there are few places for tourists to stay. Not that it matters much -- the only folks who have come to Grand Isle this summer have been drawn not by blue water and beaches but curiosity.
"They drive down on Saturdays to see the oil," said Chighizola, who has owned her shop for more than two decades.
Her son works on the beach here, riding a tractor and tilling the sand to scoop up oil. He says, "Mom, it's still coming in," said Chighizola, who wears a white button that reads "Holding on to Our Cajun Coast With Hearts and Hands."
Blue Water Souvenirs was empty again Wednesday, and Chighizola sat watching "Wheel of Fortune." No one was buying the seashell necklaces or the "Every Hour in Grand Isle Is Happy Hour" tees, though cleanup crews had bought a few trinkets earlier.
For Chighizola and other Gulf Coast residents, for BP, for the plaintiffs' lawyers and mediators and policymakers, the crisis might not be over. But technologically, the well has finally been brought to heel.
And the summer of the spill is almost over.
Staff writer Krissah Thompson in Louisiana contributed to this report.