On April 20, 2010, BP’s mile-deep Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico blew out, exploding in an inferno that killed 11 men, sank the huge drilling rig Deepwater Horizon and led to America’s worst oil spill. In this excerpt from his new book, “A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher” (Simon & Schuster), which will be published Tuesday, Washington Post staff writer Joel Achenbach describes the Obama administration’s attempts to persuade a skeptical public that it was fully in command of the effort to kill the well — even as that effort was going dismayingly awry.
It was an innately tense and confusing arrangement: Under a 1960s-vintage law known as the National Contingency Plan, the federal government was formally in charge of the oil-spill response, but BP was the “responsible party.” Officials in the government felt as if they were stuck in a second-rate buddy movie in which the hero and the villain are chained together at the ankles.
On May 10, President Obama ordered his Nobel Prize-winning secretary of energy, Steven Chu, to dive into the response. Two days later, Chu showed up at BP headquarters with a hand-picked team of advisers, most of whom had limited experience with petroleum engineering. (Chu, a physicist, had won his Nobel for figuring out how to freeze atoms with lasers.)
BP executives were not thrilled to see the scientists march through the door. It looked to the company as though the administration had said, “Where are our experts?” and then rounded up anyone who did not flinch at the sight of a differential equation. Science, engineering, it was all the same. The Obama folks were obviously in love with the idea of Chu — this notion of having an in-house Nobel Prize winner who could be dispatched, superhero-like, to solve intractable problems with the power of his giant brain.
“There’s no way, no matter how smart they are, that they can get up to speed instantly given the pace we were going at,” said BP executive Kent Wells.
The key moment came two weeks later, on May 26, when BP began the “top kill” maneuver. The operation would, if all went as planned, ram a load of heavy mud into Macondo’s gullet, followed by a shot of cement. But failure at this point would feel like a disaster within the disaster.
Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who had been appointed national incident commander for the spill, worked around the clock to supervise the response while also dealing with the rituals demanded of a retiring commandant. In the span of a few days in late May, he oversaw a surge of Coast Guard personnel into the Gulf Coast, briefed his replacement as commandant, hosted 100 colleagues at an event at his home, presided over the retirement of the vice commandant, and finally, on May 25, relinquished his Coast Guard command. There was a picnic for 300; Allen’s father, who had broken his hip in April, arrived from Arizona and attended the change of command in a scooter.
In a few weeks, Allen would have to move out of the commandant’s quarters, and he and his wife, Pam (still hoping to go to Ireland for two weeks in early August), had to pack up their belongings and put most of them into temporary storage.
“I was walking around with an earpiece in, holding conference calls, telling the packers what to do,” Allen said. The moment burned in his memory came one Sunday in mid-May at his grandson’s seventh birthday party at a Chuck E. Cheese’s: He had to go out into the parking lot to participate in a conference call, which lasted three hours. His family was not amused.
So it went for all the people involved, both in the government and at BP: The response was a 24-hour job. Downtime was an illusion at best. Anyone who has been involved in a project of such intensity knows the feeling of never truly being off work. Normal domestic life becomes a ghostly backdrop to the vivid, hard, tangible reality of the project. In the military, there is a term: “battle rhythm.” The people tasked with killing Macondo had been on battle rhythm for more than a month.
The stakes were high, the situation fluid. There were a couple of new leaks in the already leaking pipe that was kinked just above the well’s blowout preventer, or “BOP.” BP knew this, and the government knew this, but the news media and the American public never got the memo. The well’s evolving leak was reported in an internal government update from the Unified Command:
“New Development . . . The oil flow at the kink in the riser was initially leaking as two small plumes. Late last week, a third small plume developed, and on Tuesday of this week, a fourth small plume was observed, indicating that cracks are forming in the riser.”
New leaks in the kink: That wouldn’t have played well in the current media environment. The gloom had already thickened, congealed, turning into great, gloppy, emulsified streamers of pessimism and fear. A vast mousse of doom.
Every day the federal government tracked the public mood, not only via the mainstream media but also by dipping into the new “social media,” scrutinizing Facebook and Twitter comments. In addition to setting up a Facebook page and Twitter account for the Unified Area Command, the government had a YouTube operation, a Flickr account, and a Web site, Deepwaterhorizonresponse.com. But the public could never quite grasp what the Unified Area Command was, and how it was different (if it was different) from BP. That was the gist day after day as the Social Media Report landed in administration inboxes. For example:
For Internal Use Only
Unified Area Command External Affairs Summary
Tuesday, May 25
Social Media Report
Facebook followers: 23,798 (+494)
Twitter: Followers: 5,368 (+177); Lists: 370 (+10)
YouTube: Views 1,800,011 (+7,807); Videos 38; Subscribers 420 (+11)
Flickr: Photos: 433; Views: 80,903 (+5,406)
Website hits: 32,130,855 30,926,987 (+1,203,868)
—Lack of confidence that top kill will work.
—Animated discussions concerning some articles that were posted, claiming that explosions near the wellhead are causing the sea floor to collapse and have destroyed the BOP . . .
—Heightening impatience for the well to be capped.
—Continued concern that the information posted to our Facebook page is a BP PR maneuver.
—Continued passionate concern for the environment.
—Continued prevalence of concerns about a looming apocalypse . . .
Under “Trends,” the Social Media Report noted “growing calls for the Federal government to intervene, without knowledge that the government is already providing an oversight role.”
This was Issue No. 1 for the White House, something as big, as hot, as perplexing, as the war in Afghanistan, the long grind in Iraq, and the mopey economy. The administration had thrown everything at the spill: every agency, every scientist, every person who might possibly know how to plug a hole. But to the administration’s torment, the public wanted Obama and his people to do more — somehow, someway. No matter how many times the administration said, “We’re in charge,” the public never quite believed it.
A White House staffer asked the Interior Department to put together a list of things the government had done to help plug the well, saying that even a partial list “would be tremendously helpful in pushing back against the current press narrative.” Suggested examples: Using gamma rays to peer into the blowout preventer, and arguing for a mud shot top kill rather than a “junk shot.”
In a later e-mail, the White House staffer made an obvious point:
“Also understand we may not wish to claim credit for top kill approach until we see what happens.”
The Obama administration had another fundamental problem in this particular crisis: The president didn’t seem mad enough. The American people wanted to see their leaders bring some heat, and they became impatient with the cool and collected Obama. The president still had that “No Drama Obama” thing going, that ability to ratchet crises down to the level of mere challenges. His equanimity was one of his great qualities, but suddenly he seemed like the guy who orders a fine Vouvray at a biker bar. People didn’t want explanations and rationalizations from him; they wanted him to pop someone in the mouth.
Instead he was aloof and professorial (professorial having become a pejorative in the age of right-wing talk radio and the tea party movement). He was disastrously unable to project a demeanor or temperament that could persuade the average American that he had his dander up. He didn’t look like he had any dander at all. His press team circulated an anecdote: In a meeting early in the crisis, Obama had grown so frustrated that he said to his aides, “Plug the damn hole!”
No one demanded more of the president than one of his political allies, Democratic strategist James Carville. Carville went on CNN the night of May 26 and declared, “BP is not the equal of the United States government. This president needs to tell BP: ‘I’m your daddy, I’m in charge. You’re going to do what we say. You’re a multinational company that is greedy, and you may be guilty of criminal activity.’ It’s time that we understand BP does not wish this thing well.”
But Obama was more of an I’m-your-professor kind of guy. That very day, the president had been on the road, making a speech in California at the new plant of a company that builds solar panels. He noted that Chu, “who, as you know, is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist,” was on the scene in the gulf. Obama said nice things about solar energy. It was good, green stuff — except when was he going to pop someone in the mouth?
Top kill had to work. Had to.
“We have the very best people in the world working on this,” BP executive Doug Suttles told the news media. BP chief executive Tony Hayward went on TV and estimated that the operation had a 60 percent to 70 percent chance of being successful. Where he got his estimate was a mystery, but so was everything else about the subsea response.
At 2 p.m. on May 26, the top kill began. It took a while for the mud to reach the seafloor and enter the BOP. Almost immediately, the four little jets, or miniplumes, from the kinked riser pipe changed color: They had been black with streaks of white gas, but now they went mud-brown.
The scientists and engineers were studying pressure readings. They hoped to see the pressure build briefly, and then drop steadily, eventually reaching zero as the mud rendered the well static.
And it started out just that way. Pressure up. Pressure down. Pressure dropping . . .
They were all elated. This was working!
But then the pressure stopped dropping. It leveled off. A series of e-mails from a government staffer gave the play-by-play:
2:13 p.m.: “We have not yet hit a tipping point that indicates a killed well . . .”
2:24: “They seem to be having trouble outrunning the well. . .”
3:19: “There are no indications that things are getting worse — but it is not clear that the kill has been (or will be) successful . . .”
4:35: “They just closed off all mud flow and are seeing whether the well will go stagnant. So far (4 minutes) the pressures are all going down slowly (a very good sign — but not conclusive).”
6:11: “. . . the pressures (kill/choke and below BOP) starting creeping upward . . .”
It wasn’t working. BP had stopped pumping mud, and before too long, the pressures had started to rise again. Time to reload. They would try heavier mud. That evening, Hayward went on TV with a statement that was neither here nor there.
“The operation is proceeding as we planned it,” he said.
What no one in the general public knew, throughout that Thursday of the top kill, was that the top kill had actually stopped — been put on hold — sometime Wednesday night. There was no mud going into the BOP anymore. Neither BP nor the government got around to mentioning this important factoid. The New York Times finally broke the story, saying that the operation hadn’t worked as planned. Suttles, appearing shortly thereafter at the daily news briefing, offered an equivocal analysis:
“Nothing has gone wrong or unanticipated,” he said. He added, “I believe this can work.”
Finally, after a 16-hour gap, the mud kill attempt began again. This time, BP started with a junk shot, injecting golf balls and knots of rope and Happy Meal–like trinkets into the BOP to try to create some barriers against which the mud could push.
Obama visited Grand Isle, La., walked the beach, talked to the mayor and some other locals. A reporter shouted out, “Mr. President, how confident are you that it will be — that the leak will be plugged soon?”
The president answered, “All I can say is that we’ve got the best minds working on it, and we’re going to keep on at it until we get it plugged.”
But the best minds were going to have to keep working a lot longer, because the mud shots did not work — not the first day, not the second day, not the third day. BP had dramatically underestimated Macondo’s flow rate. On Day 4, Saturday, BP and the government decided to halt the operation.
This was, for many people involved in the response, the worst moment of the entire disaster save the initial tragedy that killed 11 men.
Suttles had been almost correct when he had told the news media during the top kill procedure that everything was going according to plan. The only thing that did not go according to plan was that it didn’t work. This was one of those operation-a-success-but-the-patient-died deals.
The top kill hadn’t so much as bruised Macondo. The hydrocarbons continued to shoot out of the well as if they’d been fantasizing about being in open water for 10 million years.
Obama finally decided to experiment with a butt-kicker persona. Appearing on the “Today” show, he told host Matt Lauer, “And I don’t sit around just talking to experts because this is a college seminar; we talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers, so I know whose ass to kick.”
It didn’t sound quite right, this note of profanity coming from the mouth of the Great Equilibrator. The president was like a middle-aged man trying on a leather jacket, knowing full well he’d feel more comfortable in tweed.