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BP may turn to golf balls and old tires to plug leaking well

Engineers will use golf balls and shredded tires in what they call a "junk shot" to try to clog the oil well that has been leaking crude at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico since the sinking last month of a drilling rig.

"We'll be pumping pieces of tire. We'll be pumping knots in ropes," Kent Wells, senior vice president of exploration and production for BP, said in a news briefing Monday. "There's a little bit of a science in this, even though it sounds odd."

The disaster since the blowout April 20 has tested the ingenuity and improvisational skills of petroleum engineers who have never tried to cap a well in mile-deep water. They're hoping for victory but hedging their bets.

"We are designing every option to be successful, and we are planning for it failing," Wells said.

Meanwhile, Black Hawk helicopters peppered Louisiana's barrier islands with 1-ton sacks of sand Monday to bolster the state's crucial wetlands against the spill, 4 million gallons and growing.

At the site of the ruptured well, a remote-controlled submarine shot chemicals into the maw of the massive undersea leak to dilute the flow, further evidence that BP expects the gusher to keep erupting into the gulf for weeks or more.

The emergency response to the leak has taken on military campaign terminology. There was talk Monday of multiple "fronts" in the battle (subsea, the surface, the shoreline), an "army" of engineers and experts, and an "air force" of planes spreading chemical dispersants. Although the well remained uncapped, BP executives said the chemicals, controlled fires and skimming have helped them beat back the oil slick and keep it from land.

BP chief executive Tony Hayward, asked whether the spill is imperiling his company, answered with a stiff upper lip: "It's clearly a serious situation for BP, and that is why we are so focused on resolving it. And we will. We will resolve it. It's simply a question of how long it takes."

Engineers have developed at least a half-dozen distinct lines of attack on the leaking well — what might be called plans A through F.

Plan A was tried right away. Engineers at the surface used robot submarines to try to close valves on a massive apparatus called the blowout preventer, which sits atop the wellhead 5,000 feet below. That didn't work, and BP abandoned it.

Plan B, which received a flurry of media attention, used a 100-ton, 40-foot-tall steel containment dome, or coffer dam. Thursday night the dome was lowered onto the largest leak, a hole in a pipe called a riser, which is now partly buried in mud.

But deep-sea chemistry foiled the effort. The dome became clogged with methane hydrates, an ice-like slush created when the pressurized gas from the well mixed with the cold seawater. The hydrates, which are lighter than water, stuck to the inside of the dome and made it buoyant.

The latest hope, Plan C, is the "top hat." It is a small containment dome — 4 feet wide, 5 feet tall and shaped like a barrel cut in half — that will be lowered over the main leak. The smaller dome will not capture nearly as much seawater as the large dome. That, engineers hope, will cut down on hydrate formation. But it might also mean less oil is captured, Wells said.

Plan D: The "hot tap." Engineers want to tap into a section of damaged riser and suck up the oil before it can travel farther down the pipe and spew from the large gash.

Plan E: The junk shot, also known as the "top kill." The idea is to plug the blowout preventer with materials of various shapes and textures. They will be injected directly into the contraption, the larger pieces first. If the blowout preventer clogs as hoped, the next step would be to inject drilling mud down into the wellbore to "kill" the well. Then would come cement to permanently seal the well.

It's risky. BP technicians said they think the blowout preventer is partly closed, constricting flow from the well and preventing it from becoming a full-blown gusher. "In each of these steps, we are weighing the risks of making things worse," said BP executive vice president David Nagel.

The final tactic detailed so far, Plan F, is the relief well. It's a daunting task that requires the drilling rig to bore through rock at an angle and hit the existing well, a 7-inch-wide target, at the very bottom, about 3 1/2 miles below the surface of the gulf. If it works, engineers will inject cement to kill the well.

Nagel said the first relief well had been drilled to 4,000 feet below the sea floor. But he said drilling would get slower as the well deepened. As yet another backup, BP will move another rig to drill a second relief well.

The drama playing out along the Gulf Coast remained fraught with uncertainties Monday, not the least of which was how much oil was leaking and how far it had spread. An oil "sheen" and streamers of mousse-like oil were spotted a few miles from East Timbalier Island, more than 50 miles west of the mouth of the Mississippi River, said Ralph Mitchell, public safety director for Terrebonne Parish. Officials delayed the deployment of containment booms, fearing they'd be torn apart by waves before the oil arrived in the next day or two.

"It's nerve-wracking . . . that it's sitting out there lingering," Mitchell said.

Officials were testing some of the 30 pounds of "tar balls" that washed up on Alabama's Dauphin Island to determine if they came from the spill. Ed Overton of Louisiana State University said tar balls form when oil is heavily "weathered," or decomposed, and might have formed in the Deepwater Horizon fire.

The White House disclosed Monday that it has lent Nobel-winning physicist Steven Chu, the secretary of energy, to the BP effort to restart the failed blowout preventer in the crippled Deepwater Horizon rig.

Chu, a former director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has dispatched a team of senior officials from national labs to BP's operations center in Houston. For the past 10 days, the lab team has worked with the aid of national laboratory supercomputers to figure out what's wrong with the blowout preventer, which is responsible for cutting off oil flow in the event of an accident.

Information from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.

Hearings today

. Two Senate hearings on the spill are set for today, and a House hearing is scheduled for Wednesday. Top executives of BP, which owned the well, Transocean, which owned the rig, and Halliburton, a contractor, are expected to face tough questions.

. The sprawling wetlands that nurture gulf life now face another test as the slick creeps closer. About 40 percent of the nation's coastal wetlands are clumped along southern Louisiana, directly in the path of oil.

. BP said Monday the spill has cost it $350 million so far. The company didn't speculate on the final bill, which most analysts expect to run into tens of billions.

BP may turn to golf balls and old tires to plug leaking well 05/10/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 11, 2010 1:39pm]
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