Tentative good news from the Gulf


Yesterday, BP started an ambitious effort to stop the Deepwater Horizon oil spill with a "top kill"—pumping drilling "mud" into the well at a fast enough rate that it backs up the flow of oil behind the broken blowout preventer and starts to form a plug. Today, the Coast Guard announced that this effort appears to be working. It's too soon to call it an unqualified success, but things are looking good and we may get the leak officially stopped up in the next day or so. That doesn't solve the clean-up issue, but it's a relief to know that something is working.

I've seen a lot of really bad explanations of the top kill process in the news. Frankly, I wasn't entirely clear on how it worked until I read this description on the Oil Drum Blog. It likened the leak to a stopped up sewer line. If you have tree roots growing through your sewer, you can still turn the sink on, and liquid can get through. But if you up the volume—flush the toilet or run the washing machine—everything gets backed up and flows back into your basement. Essentially, the broken blowout preventer is the tree roots, and the drilling mud was used to increase the volume of liquid enough that it couldn't get through the break.

Also, for the record, drilling mud isn't mud like you'll find in your backyard. There's been a lot of confusion on that point, and a lot of the news reports I've seen haven't cleared it up much. Drilling mud is an engineered lubricant. Clay is often one ingredient, but there are many types of drilling fluid that get called "mud" and they're usually a mixture of clays, water and various chemicals. Amusingly—at least for anyone who saw "There Will Be Blood"—drilling mud is supposed to look a lot like a chocolate malt.


  1. Fingers crossed like never before.

    Thanks for the technical rundown. As far as the “mud” goes, I used to work for a concrete company in Atlanta, and “mud” was a common nickname for concrete, as in “what time is the mud gonna get here? We ordered it two hours ago!”

    1. I’ve heard that from concrete workers before, seems to be more common in the south. In the universe of underground construction, mud is usually bentonite slurry. Which is what I immediately thought of when I heard what BP was going to try. I tuned out the whole description given on the news. TV isn’t always very good at providing accurate information on construction practices. I watched some show a few weeks ago on the construction of a high-rise hotel in NYC where the narrator was adamant that concrete hardens in exactly 90 minutes. I begged to have the channel changed after that. Since you probably still remember a bit about the properties of concrete, I won’t belabor you why.

      1. I watched some show a few weeks ago on the construction of a high-rise hotel in NYC where the narrator was adamant that concrete hardens in exactly 90 minutes.

        Hahaha! I suppose you could try to design it to set up in about that time, but I wouldn’t bet on the “exactly” part even then. :-)

  2. I don’t know. The coast guard didn’t announce it, Thad Allen did. And no one at BP will confirm or deny. I know this is the report that, out of the countless fabrications, I want to believe, but I don’t trust them at all. Notice that BPs stock has rebounded after this announcement?

  3. I guess BP should get a pat on the back.
    This company should have every single US asset seized by the feds. Every fisherman, oyster farmer and all the people that rely on gulf tourism should be paid their normal wage until all the money is gone. And that’s just for starters.

  4. I think the actual quote was “stabilised the wellhead”. Which probably means that they reduced the flow of crap to a point where they can try that metal dome idea again.

  5. If this top kill worked, I’m happy about it. And I don’t follow every mention of the word “BP” with “Those myopic, safety-ignoring, unreasonable risk-taking fools who should be held fully accountable for this crap”….but please don’t mistake that for me thinking BP deserves a cookie.

  6. I just want to take a wild stab in the dark here…
    the Russians have used nukes to stop spills before, which is crazy, BUT couldn’t a very strong explosive or even a torpedo do enough damage to the pipeline to stop the leak?
    I just wonder if BP is trying to salvage its investment instead of stopping this thing as quickly as possible.
    Just asking…

  7. So a thought on this process – I know it was untested at this depth but it seems to me that all the other methods BP had tried were done so as to not lose access to the oil being produced by this well. The Top Hat method was supposed to enable them to be able to siphon the oil off in a controlled manner. They’ve tried inserting siphoning tubes with mixed success. And they’ve now stemmed the flow with this mud so as to be able to put a new pipe on and siphon the reduced flow. So BP hasn’t actually been trying to stop the leak. Rather they’ve been trying to get it under control so it wasn’t a leak but a producing well again. If they were interested in stopping the leak they would have done more drastic things and far earlier on, rather than 5 weeks after the fact.

    1. I think the plan is to use the mud to get the flow down to the point where it won’t just blow concrete back out of the wellhead. Once they’ve got the flow under control, then they’re going to fill the BOP and top of the well with concrete to seal it off and stop the flow from restarting. They start with drilling mud because that won’t start to harden in the hoses while they’re trying to get the well pressure under control. If they started with concrete and didn’t succeed quickly, they’d be faced with plugged hoses and no way to keep pumping concrete in.

      NB: you won’t see stuff stop flowing from the riser pipe until the concrete’s in place and hardening. Think of it like a T-joint in a pipe laying on it’s side, with the well coming up one side of the cross-bar of the T. The idea’s to pump so much fluid into the stem of the T under such high pressure that it can’t come out the top end of the cross-bar fast enough. That lets you build up back-pressure against the flow of oil from the well, eventually stopping it. Then you can pump your concrete in just beneath where the stem of the T joins the cross-bar, where while the fluid’s still under pressure it’s not flowing to blow your concrete plug away before it hardens. Once you’ve got what you think is enough of a plug, you start backing off on the drilling mud and see if the plug holds against the well pressure. If you see signs it isn’t, you turn up the mud flow again to stabilize things and figure out how you’re going to pump more concrete down.

    2. Actually, my thought was that they just couldn’t be sure *what* the pipe could hold. If they did manage to plug it, the pipe could burst somewhere else. It seems to make sense to just take the least risky approach – let the oil flow and push it all up – then any of the others which might have worked, or might have made it worse.

    3. I think you’re vastly underestimating both the scope of the engineering challenge and the potential risks. The wellhead is a mile under water and has been subjected to unknown stresses during the blowout and the sinking of the platform. The methods they chose were the ones that put the least stress on the wellhead. If the wellhead gets damaged, there’s every possibility that the leak would become impossible to stop.

      So, pick your poison: unknown weeks of spillage, or risk the entire formation emptying into the Gulf?

  8. …and this is why MBA’s should never run engineering operations.
    We’ll see if this works. Damage done, though, is going to take a long, long time to overcome; locally, our seafood has already started to spike in price. I feel that the oyster industry along our Gulf Coast is going to hurt the most. But I agree with what was stated earlier; BP was/is not so much interested in stopping the leak as they are protecting their investment.

  9. Well, thank God for small favors. This has left me heartsick lately.

    On the fishing side, y’all are welcome to come up to Michigan to fish – lots of walleye, perch, and salmon. :D

    BP’s whole damage control policy instead of just capping the bugger is sickening.

    1. Well, they’ll be able to fish up in Michigan until the Asian Carp destroy the fisheries.

  10. This company should have every single US asset seized by the feds. Every fisherman, oyster farmer and all the people that rely on gulf tourism should be paid their normal wage until all the money is gone. And that’s just for starters.

    The oil industry in Louisiana is ~6x larger than the fishing industry, so while it may feel good to cripple BP, it would end up putting 17% of Louisiana’s population at risk of losing their job.

    The fact is that the oil industry is super popular in Louisiana and they’ve done everything in their power to increase the amount of drilling that occurs including to opposing regulation. Only now that the spill has shown to be catastrophic in size do you see politicians in Louisiana start to back off their pro-oil rhetoric.

    1. That is very interesting – I guess I didn’t realize that Louisiana had such a oil industry.

      Are you living in LA now? How are people feeling about BP? I avoid the news so maybe this is a question that would’ve been answered if I’d paid attention. :\

    2. The oil industry may be the bigger in terms of $$$, but I am not sure that that necessarily means a proportionally larger number of Louisianans employed.
      That is, the fishery is more labor-intensive, in a way offshore oil is not. It may provide more work, for more local hands, albeit with less total $$$ flowing through it, than does the oil business.
      Which would be the natural outcome, if oil were overpriced relative to seafood.

      1. Mining Logic 101

        Reminds me of mining towns that depend 90% on mining. Then when something goes wrong, they’ll proclaim, if we make things safer then it’ll be more expensive and less money going to the mining town.

  11. This will only be ‘working’ when the thing actually stops. Not happening yet. I’m guessing their yardstick for success at this point might be they didn’t make it any worse.

  12. bp was paid by Cheney to sabotage the well to discredit Obama and to foul the Gulf so that no one will care if they add 3500 more platforms all owned by Sarah Palin and Roger Ailes in anticipation of Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the Hummer marque to build Family Vans in a plant near Nogales, Arizona which will attract illegals who can be arrested.

  13. the berlin tv tower has a restaurant in its top. there you cannot order french fries. why? because the frying machine is a fire hazard and the fire department has no equipment ready to fight a large fire effectively in that height.
    that is a very sound approach to me.
    do not put a deep fryer in a tower if you could not fight a fire.
    do not drill holes into vast storages of crude oil 1500 metres deep in the ocean if you do not have a system in place to deal with problems.

  14. Okay, imagine you’re at the beach. You stick a straw down into the sand. Now imagine the straw goes a mile underground to oil that’s coming out the straw. How would you stop the oil? Drop a giant fucking rock on it. Done. Every single solution BP is trying concerns “siphoning” the oil so that it’s still a viable well. If they wanted to just stop the oil flow with no concern to getting the remaining oil, they could have done it on day one. Every single one of them belongs in prison.

    1. I suspect that the well costs less than their losing over it. Blocking this one and drilling another would be cheaper than keeping this one leaking. At least, their “relief well” plan was estimated to be going to cost only $100M, but that’s not a full-scale well.

      “Drop a giant fucking rock on it” is admittedly the first suggestion I’ve heard from people claiming BP wants to save the well that sounds like it might have some viability, though. The “blow it up/nuke it” crowd are just bleeding from their ears insane, imho.

      Couple of questions for you, though: how big of a rock do you need to stop a million gallons a day leak? How would you get the rock in place through a mile of water?

      If it costs less than, say, $5Bn, it’s well worth their time to do it.

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