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how the well was plugged

With BP's know-how and U.S. authority, the Macondo well was plugged

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.

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By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 21, 2010

It was awkward from the start, this marriage of necessity between BP and the federal government. The government had ultimate authority; BP had the technology to plug the Macondo well. Something known as the National Contingency Plan called for a "unified command" in which government officials would issue orders and make pronouncements but BP would do the most crucial work and be the "responsible party."

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People got confused. Who was in charge, really? The well kept gushing; everyone looked bad. Reporters asked top officials why the government didn't simply take over. But we're in charge already, the officials said.

The fact is, the two sides formed a team, weird as that might be at times. That is true today, still, with the Macondo well looking rather dead -- choked by a mile of cement -- but not yet terminated to everyone's satisfaction.

Government scientists and BP engineers have been devising a complex endgame. Before Macondo receives a conclusive dose of mud and cement at its base via a relief well, engineers want to take the old, damaged blowout preventer off the wellhead and replace it with a new blowout preventer. That will delay the "bottom kill" until after Labor Day, according to retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander.

BP engineers and the government scientists come from different cultures. In general, the engineers want to plunge ahead, and the scientists want to go slower.

"We helped them see that there are dangers lurking here, and there and everywhere," Energy Secretary Steven Chu told The Washington Post. "The Department of Energy is in charge of the nuclear arsenal. . . . This is no messing around. In our culture, you want to make sure that nothing can go wrong."

The Obama administration has claimed credit for turning an uncontrolled calamity into something managed and mastered. The response to the disaster would have been different, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said after the well had been plugged with cement, had the administration not "pushed at every step of the way" for BP to "do things more comprehensively and faster."

BP has stayed clear of that debate.

"I've got a philosophy that when you're in the middle of the response, you stay focused on the response. When the response is over, that's a good time to analyze how the response went and decide what could have been done better," Kent Wells, BP senior vice president, said recently.

But the broader truth seems to be that BP and the government have overcome their natural antagonism to create a functioning partnership. The two sides had testy moments, but again and again they found a path to agreement. When Allen was asked whether a recent pressure test was conceived by the government scientists or the BP engineers, he replied: "It's hard to say anymore, we've been together so long. Some of these conversations start around the coffeepot."

The government needed BP because the company had the tools to plug the hole. BP benefited from the outsider perspective of government scientists and needed officials of the Environmental Protection Agency to run interference on such contentious issues as the use of chemical dispersants, a subject on which BP was viewed as having zero credibility.

Keeping everyone moving in the same direction has been Allen, perhaps the least-excitable person in American public life. Allen said in a recent interview that his goal was to "produce unity of effort" and added, "You can't do that by polarizing, or creating conflict, or getting caught up in a personal agenda or getting too excited about things."


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