BP’s “Apollo 13” Crisis…
Engineering a solution to the oil spill
At BP’s Houston offices, hundreds of scientists are at work on the Gulf of Mexico spill. They have an unlimited budget, an international team of the sharpest minds in modern engineering — and they have no time.
By Jim Tankersley
May 22, 2010
Reporting from Houston
More than a week into their quest to stop the oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico from a damaged BP well, several dozen of the brightest minds in the engineering world gathered to watch a 100-ton failure unfold in slow motion.
The engineers packed into a repurposed research center dubbed the Hive, which houses a dozen video screens and, most days, about as many scientists.
» Don’t miss a thing. Get breaking news alerts delivered to your inbox.
Beside a bustling freeway, in a drab Houston office park bedecked with nearly every name in Big Oil, BP had launched a 21st century version of “Apollo 13.”
On this evening, an overflow crowd stared for three hours at one screen as a ghostly four-story dome sank nearly a mile into the water.
The lowering of the dome encapsulated the round-the-clock effort to end what is rapidly becoming the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Brimming with engineering firepower, the effort was painstakingly slow to execute.
It ultimately failed to stanch the daily flow of thousands of barrels of light, sweet Louisiana crude into the gulf.
Hundreds of engineers from universities, rival oil companies and the federal government immediately went back to work, in shifts lasting 13 hours or more.
“Anyone who we think could make a difference, we brought in,” said Kent Wells, BP’s senior vice president for exploration and production.
Then came the “dream team” that President Obama had ordered his Nobel-winning energy secretary, Steven Chu, to assemble: out-of-the-box thinkers including a nuclear physicist, a pioneer on Mars drilling techniques, an MIT professor whose research interests include “going faster on my snowboard,” an expert on the hydrogen bomb, and a controversial astrophysicist who was later booted over a past essay defending homophobia.
Those involved say they are crafting and deploying in a matter of days what under normal circumstances would take a year or more.
And yet a limitless budget and all that brainpower have failed to fix the pipe 5,000 feet below the sea surface that has leaked oil for more than a month, spewing at least 6 million gallons, possibly far more.
That may be about to change.
As early as Sunday, BP engineers will launch their “top kill,” their most ambitious attempt to overpower the oil flow and seal the 13,000-foot-deep well. The operation will be the culmination of weeks of sleuthing and calculation, daylong practice runs and nonstop contingency planning.
Once again, engineers will watch nervously in Houston, acutely aware of the hazards that have encumbered their mission: the crushing pressure of ocean depths so great that divers cannot survive, of a spewing well that could blow all its restraints.
Perhaps most intense of all, the pressure of a nation that is watching and wondering: What’s taking so long?
On the walls of BP’s Houston campus, glossy pictures of Gulf of Mexico offshore platforms hang like family portraits along hallways carpeted in flecks of green and yellow, the colors of BP’s corporate emblem.
When the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, leased by BP, exploded on the night of April 20 and sank 36 hours later, killing 11 men, workers swarmed the third floor of the building that houses the company’s permanent crisis center. They strung wires wrapped in yellow police tape from ceilings to tables filled with fleets of laptops.
Initially a small space designed to respond to disasters such as hurricanes, the crisis center soon overtook the entire floor and parts of several others. BP filled it with 500 workers, mostly men, assigned to containing and shutting off the oil from the Mississippi Canyon 252 well.
They wear casual-Friday uniforms: polo shirts, oxfords with the collars open, and various shades of khaki and dark slacks. The Coast Guard officers wear blue jumpsuits. Some BP workers don blue vests, with their job titles handily stitched in white letters on the back. No one wears a tie.