Human Nature

A Well Half-Empty

The BP leak has been plugged. Let the complaints begin.

Read Slate’s complete coverage of the BP oil spill. 

Oil spill cap

For three months, BP and the U.S. government raised hopes that the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico would soon be plugged. Every promise proved false.

Now, to the surprise of the company, the government, and everyone else, the leak has stopped. A “capping stack”—a new blowout preventer lowered onto the old one—has shut off the oil flow. Unless signs of leakage show up elsewhere in the well, the cap will stay in place until the well is silenced for good, through the cap or a nearly completed relief well.

Let the complaints begin.

1. Great. Just when we were finally ready to capture all the oil. In April and May, all the escaping oil poured into the Gulf. In June, BP began to collect a fraction of it. On Friday, President Obama announced that new equipment would finally allow us to capture virtually all the oil. Perfect: The equipment is arriving just in time to be useless.

2. Great. Just when the relief well is almost done. In early May, BP began drilling a relief well to stop the leak. Two weeks later, under orders from the government, it initiated a second relief well. The second well now extends 15,874 feet below the water’s surface, and the first has reached a depth of 17,864 feet—just 100 feet from its destination. The point was to kill the leak by pumping mud and cement into the bottom of the troubled well. But now that the cap is in place, BP and the government are considering a “static kill“—pumping in the fatal mud from the top. Three months of drilling for nothing.

3. We could have done this months ago. BP thought of a capping stack in April but focused on other brilliant ideas—giant box, “junk shot,” “top kill“—that the company and the government considered more promising.  When the “top kill” failed, BP and the feds shelved the capping-stack idea, fearing that the well was damaged and would spring more leaks if capped. So the oil kept gushing.

4. We stupidly delayed the cap so we could finish the second relief well. Last month, according to the New York Times, BP wanted to remove the blowout preventer from the second relief well and try it as a capping stack on the leaking well. “But the federal government intervened and ordered BP to continue drilling the well as a backup in case anything went wrong with the first relief well.” Nice going.

5. We should have had a cap ready at the outset. The Wall Street Journal says the cap took two months to produce because it “had to be designed and built from scratch.” BP’s plea, the paper explains, is that “such short lead times for creating new equipment like the capping stack are unheard of in the industry.” You must be joking. Any company that can build a blowout preventer before opening a well can build a backup blowout preventer, too. It’s cheaper than spilling 100 million gallons of oil and paying for the damage.

6. Now we can’t prove how much oil was leaking. Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, the Democratic chairman of the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee, is upset that the cap, by halting the flow of oil, might thwart the government’s ability to measure how much has been pouring from the leak. If we don’t know how many barrels have spilled, we can’t calculate how much money BP owes. “By shutting in this well, we could be shutting off our last best chance to determine what BP could pay in government fines,” Markey wrote in a letter to federal authorities. Good point! Let’s reopen the leak.

7. The cap is working because the well has bled out. Why is the pressure in the capped well remaining manageable? And why would a “static kill” work today after the “top kill” failed two months ago? Because the loss of 100 million to 200 million gallons of oil has depleted the reservoir, weakening its resistance. Success is finally within our reach, thanks to three months of catastrophic failure. Congratulations.

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