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

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 21, 2010; A01

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."

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."

Allen said the government's handling of the spill was entirely by the book, adhering to the National Contingency Plan for oil spills, a process developed in the 1960s and most recently updated in 1994.

"Now, having said that, it's been safe to say there's been some social nullification of the National Contingency Plan," Allen said.

Translation: The public never liked the arrangement.

"It was not well understood by the general public," Allen said.

"I think the word responsible party was a very confusing word to people," said Carol Browner, White House climate and energy czar. "We were directing BP from the beginning."

Critics remain unmoved.

"The Obama administration played this game where they'd make public statements saying, 'We're telling BP what to do,' but it was clear that BP was still in charge," said Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program for the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.

For political reasons, the administration needed to distance itself publicly from BP even as, largely behind the scenes, it worked hand in hand with the oil company in responding to the spill. Many weeks into the crisis, and with the gushing well unabated, the government stopped holding daily joint news conferences with a top BP executive. Allen took over the daily briefing, solo.

On the technological front, BP had to take the lead in plugging the well. Not even the Pentagon had the kind of robotic submersibles, hardware and know-how to deal with a blowout 5,000 feet deep in the gulf. But in the early weeks of the crisis, BP engineers went from Plan A to Plan Z and were on the verge of needing the Cyrillic alphabet.

Engineers fiddled with the well's blowout preventer, to no avail. The first containment dome clogged instantly with icy methane hydrates. A "riser insertion tool" worked about as well as planned but made little difference.

Then the top kill failed. Mud pumped into the well shot straight out the top.

Failure, it turned out, was the prerequisite for the eventual technological success. After the top kill didn't work, engineers put together a Rube Goldberg containment system, one that used multiple ships, floating riser pipes, a new sealing cap and other hardware borrowed from around the planet. The goal was to capture as much as 80,000 barrels a day. Instead, that system allowed engineers on July 15 to turn off the well as one might a faucet.

The government urged BP to go to the more elaborate containment system. A government-supervised team of scientists said the well was producing 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day, an extraordinary flow. In a testy exchange of letters in early June, the on-scene coordinator for the government, Rear Adm. James Watson, demanded that BP ramp up its containment.

BP had to be inventive, on the fly.

"They had to take two technologies that did not pre-exist in the Gulf of Mexico," Allen said.

A production tanker with satellite-guided positioning raced to the gulf from the North Sea. Engineers also borrowed technology used off the coast of Africa. That system used floating riser pipes, which allow ships to attach and detach via flexible lines.

"The North Sea meets Angola in the Gulf of Mexico," Allen said.

This expanded containment capacity included a new, 75-ton structure atop the well, known as the sealing cap, or 3-ram capping stack. The cap had been envisioned as early as April 24, just four days after the blowout, according to Wells.

The new cap changed everything. Although it was designed to siphon oil to the surface, the new system created another possibility: Engineers could simply shut in the well.

Chu said the BP engineers had assumed, after the "top kill" failed, that the well had a loss of "integrity" somewhere down below the wellhead, with breaches that let the mud from the operation surge into the rock formation instead of straight down the well.

"I said, 'No, I don't think so, there's another scenario,' " Chu said. The well, he said, might have integrity after all. That opened the possibility, he said, for the "integrity test." They could close the well and see what happened.

This led to the most anxious period of the response. The danger was that, by choking the flow at the top, the pressures could build to such high levels that the oil and gas could explode laterally, through the well casing. The hydrocarbons might flow into the surrounding formations and then work their way up, into the gulf.

"The worst-case scenario is you create a fissure that doesn't heal, and the entire reservoir empties," Chu said.

The entire reservoir contains upward of 50 million barrels of oil, according to BP.

When it came time to pull the trigger on the integrity test, Chu and his colleagues called timeout for 24 hours. They demanded more information from BP engineers and asked for more seismic imaging of the gulf floor.

Geologists consulted by Chu gave him some reassurance. They said that the kind of formations below the well could potentially heal after a lateral blowout. But the timing was critical. A lateral blowout would have to be detected quickly, via pressure readings, seismic surveys or visual inspection of new leaks. The well would have to be reopened at the top before the situation got out of control.

And so the integrity test went forward. A robotic submersible closed the final valve on the evening of July 15. The horrid black plume of oil, the gusher that haunted the nation, quickly vanished.

Chu felt that BP wasn't sufficiently monitoring the muddy gulf floor for signs of new leaks. Allen quickly fired off a stern memo demanding more scrutiny of the gulf bottom with robotic submersibles that BP had detailed to other jobs.

Everyone waited, and watched. The well didn't explode, and the reservoir didn't empty.

That was more than five weeks ago. The job isn't quite finished.

"All I'm focused on is trying to kill the well, make sure it's dead," Chu said. "Make sure it's really dead."

And so the strange partnership of BP and the government will continue a little longer, until finally everyone can go home and fear the Macondo well no more.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company