Amid BP Well Progress, Energy Secretary Chu Finds a Central Role


WASHINGTON — As the public cheers news that a new cap has temporarily stopped oil flowing from a damaged BP PLC well, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu has been focused on pressure readings.

The information — which helps scientists evaluate the well’s integrity and how to contain the spill — reflects the Nobel Prize winning physicist’s emphasis on data.

For the past week, Chu has been pushing scientists for information about the geology of the Gulf of Mexico sea floor near the broken Macondo well, asking what could happen if oil seeped out through new cracks. On Wednesday, Chu forced BP to delay testing the new cap, ordering temperature monitoring and more seismic testing to evaluate geological formations on the sea floor.

These tests continued to yield good news Friday, with the damaged well surviving rising pressure with the new cap. It suggests the cap might be able to completely shut the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

The new cap may offer another benefit: a way to precisely measure the amount of oil flowing into the Gulf. At Chu’s request, the cap is fitted with instrumentation that “should allow them to get a more accurate flow rate,” the senior administration official said. Up to this point, government scientists had estimated the daily oil flow at between 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day.

Chu accepted the top Energy Department job certain that data would help convince policy makers to reshape U.S. energy policy. As the U.S. government supervises BP’s spill response, Chu’s reliance on data is having its moment.

U.S. President Barack Obama deployed Chu to a Houston command center in May. Since then, Chu has set the pace and direction of the technical solution to the broken well, according to administration officials and documents.

In June, Chu ordered pressure meters to be added to a “top hat,” a containment device that BP tried lowering onto the gushing well. In early May, he pushed for using gamma rays to obtain images of BP’s blowout preventer, or BOP.

BP had been trying repeatedly to activate the blowout equipment, which is supposed to stanch oil flow in the event of a catastrophic blowout. The images helped BP conclude that “they had activated everything that they needed to but it still wasn’t working,” a senior administration official said.

The gamma ray scan helped provide information about pressure levels within the well. This technique helped “us understand what is happening inside the BOP (blowout preventer) and informing the approach moving ahead,” National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administrator Jane Lubchenco told reporters in June. she said.

A BP spokesman declined to comment on Chu’s role, directing questions to the U.S. Energy Department.

Chu has become so central to the spill response that he has frequently had to cancel other plans. In May, he postponed a trip to China, where he was to discuss progress on clean-energy cooperation, to deal with the spill. This week, Chu canceled an appearance before a House committee. He also scrapped plans to travel to Kokomo, Indiana, on Friday to visit an electric-vehicle parts maker in order to be on hand for testing of the newest cap.

A vast network of contacts in the scientific community has aided Chu’s approach.

“When he’s had a specific question, he’s been able to call somebody in that field and say ‘who are the best people on this question?'” the administration official said. Most of the scientists called in have “one or two degrees of separation” from Chu “if he doesn’t know them personally.”

Chu, a former director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, relies heavily on Tom Hunter, who recently stepped down as a director of Sandia National Laboratories. Chu asked Hunter to coordinate efforts across the Energy Department’s labs to respond to the spill. By late May, more than 150 people from the national labs had provided expertise, including conducting a structural analysis of a broken riser pipe connected to the blown-out well.

On Thursday, scientists worked late into the night as the test of the new cap got under way. By Friday, less than 24 hours into the well-integrity test, the scientists were still evaluating through data to judge the integrity of the well. U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday tried to explain the situation to the public, cautioning that the cap didn’t represent a permanent fix.

“Scientists are doing a number of tests. What they want to make sure of is is that by putting this cap on, the oil isn’t seeping out elsewhere in ways that could be even more catastrophic,” Obama said in remarks in the Rose Garden. “That involves measuring pressures while this cap is on. The data is not still in and it has to be interpreted by the scientists.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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