Engineering a solution to the oil spill


-- 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.

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.

Elsewhere on the floor, two massage therapists stand in scrubs beside specialized chairs, ready to rub kinks from the backs and necks of weary workers. There’s a kitchen that would look small in a two-bedroom apartment. By midafternoon, it’s stacked with cookies and Rice Krispies treats.

New arrivals start with a safety briefing, including how to evacuate in the event of a fire. They park in a garage that posts instructions for safe navigation of a few flights of concrete steps: Hold handrail. One step at a time. Walk, don’t run. Do not use a cellphone.

The warnings foreshadow the meticulous caution inside the building, where the guiding principle is borrowed from the medical profession: “First, do no harm.”

The early visitors included Lt. Kirtland Linegar and Lt. Christopher O’Neil, a pair of stocky Coast Guard engineers. O’Neil once helped rebuild a Coast Guard base flattened by Hurricane Katrina. Linegar started his career as an engineer on an aging drug-enforcement ship in the Caribbean that routinely left port with two of its four engines broken; Linegar and his crewmates would fix them en route.

In Houston, O’Neil and Linegar found other engineers already deep into several plans to fight the blowout.

Two dozen times they tried and failed to revive the blowout preventer, a massive apparatus of rams and valves designed to pinch off the well pipe in case of an unexpected surge of petroleum. Throughout the process, a small-scale model of the device sat on a table in one of the rooms. It seemed every time someone touched it, something fell off.

Early in May, the team moved to Option 2: the containment dome.

The dome dropped toward the seafloor for hours on the evening of May 7, as O’Neil and Linegar watched with 50-odd fellow engineers. Finally, the dome reached the spill source. Oil spilled out of the dome’s door. Robot cameras showed what appeared to be shadows on the dome’s underside — “until you realized,” O’Neil said, “that the way the light was, shadows shouldn’t be there.”

When the cameras shifted, the engineers could see sooty black beehives under the dome — icy gas formations of methane that buoyed the structure and left it useless. Near 1 a.m., officials called off the mission. Engineers who had worked 20 straight hours went home, discouraged.

They returned to the command center by 6 a.m. Three hours later, the team had settled on half a dozen fresh ideas.

Because money is no object, engineers order parts as soon as they dream up a new plan. “If we build a $100,000 piece of equipment and we don’t use it, it’s not the end of the world,” Wells said.

There’s no shortage of government help, either. Customs and immigration officials have helped expedite import of parts that didn’t exist in the United States — and the arrival of scientists from other countries.

Chu’s team settled into a diagnostic role, using supercomputers, gamma-ray imagers and other cutting-edge tools to help BP engineers answer fundamental and vexing questions about the pressure levels in the pipe and how much force it could handle.

They helped BP build “decision trees” — “Choose Your Own Adventure” books of the scientific process, where engineers plan responses for every contingency they can imagine. In the day-to-day operation of the command center, Chu’s team members are always whispering in BP’s ear: Did you think of this? What will you do if it happens?

The government engineers say they’re energized by the challenge. “These are the kind of problems I love,” Chu said, adding later: “It’s really roll-up-your-sleeves, detailed stuff.”

Diagnostics aren’t the only big problem for the engineers in Houston, though. There’s the maddening task of managing boat traffic above the leak, so ships can stay nearly still to manage their robot workers underwater.

There’s the frustration of watching deep-water robots plod through even the simplest tasks, such as tightening bolts.

“It’s a different world,” said team leader Tom Hunter, the director of Sandia National Laboratories, who has worked on shallow-water oil rigs and set up containment systems for underground nuclear weapons tests. “The thing that I notice mostly is the things you think would be simple, a mile beneath the surface.”

But evidence of the difficulty flashes every day on video screens in the Hive: clouds of black crude billowing unabated from the pipe.

“It’s like trying to do an operation on the moon,” said Thomas Bickel, deputy chief engineer at Sandia and a member of Chu’s team. “It’s the same complexity. It’s the same difficulty. And you don’t have the luxury of being in an academic environment where you can work on it for three years. Everybody’s very aware of that pressure.”

Lately, engineers have rehearsed the “top kill,” which will pump drilling fluid, or a rubbery mixture dubbed the “junk shot,” or both, into the well. They have made dry runs on a blowout preventer elsewhere in Houston. In the command center, they’ve been “killing it on paper,” Linegar said, going step by step through the process, game-planning for every possible problem. The stakes are high: Poorly executed, the top kill could blow the top of the blowout preventer and dramatically increase the oil spill’s volume.

If there’s irony in a company and a government taking such pains to avoid missteps — after not having a detailed response plan in the first place — the engineers have no time to focus on it.

They’re so busy, in fact, that hardly anyone gathered in the Hive one night last weekend as the team notched its biggest success, inserting a catheter-like tube into the leak and piping some of the oil to a holding ship on the surface.

When engineers reported at 6 a.m. the next day, there were no big celebrations.

They still had a leak to plug.