With BP PLC’s blown-out Gulf of Mexico oil well now effectively capped, some experts are questioning why the company didn’t attempt a similar procedure earlier in a crisis that became the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
BP scored a breakthrough last week when it installed a new, tightly fitting cap on the well that stopped oil from gushing into the ocean for the first time in nearly three months.
But a version of the plan that ultimately worked was proposed in the earliest days of the crisis by experts from a Houston firm, Wild Well Control Inc. They were among dozens of specialists BP drafted to help in the immediate aftermath of the spill, caused when a drilling rig it was leasing, the Deepwater Horizon, exploded and sank off the Louisiana coast in late April.
BP confirmed Wednesday that the capping plan was one of a number of options considered at the outset of the crisis but later rejected by the oil giant’s management and by government scientists, who feared the procedure might make the situation worse by drastically increasing the amount of oil gushing from the leaking well.
That decision puzzled many technical experts trying to help BP, according to one subsea engineer who was advising the U.K. oil company in its Houston crisis center. “The whole industry was dumbfounded,” the engineer said.
To be sure, other experts said BP did the best it could under the circumstances. Considering the industry’s lack of experience dealing with blowouts at such water depths, it’s not surprising it took the company nearly 90 days to come up with a way of halting the leak, they said.
Instead of trying to cap the leak, BP applied a series of strategies for diverting the spill that involved channeling the oil to vessels on the surface of the water. Most of these proved ineffective and they inadvertently delayed cessation of the oil flow by a month or more.
“With the benefit of hindsight, it’s fairly obvious they should have intervened directly on the well and not resorted to stopgap measures,” said Gene Beck, professor of petroleum engineering at Texas A&M University. “It’s one of the lessons we’ve learned from the incident.”
“The management at BP were paralyzed by fear,” said another engineer advising the company.
BP declined to comment on the assertions.
David Nicholas, a BP spokesman, said that throughout the crisis “we have worked to develop multiple options for stopping the flow and containing the oil.” He said that while the company initially thought collecting the crude was the best option, subsequent data acquired from the well gave BP the confidence to proceed with a plan to cap it.
He stressed that all decisions on the well are made by the Unified Command, led by retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who is overseeing the federal spill response.
One of the reasons for the explosion that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon was the failure of a safety device called a blowout preventer, or BOP, a 450-ton stack of valves that sits on the seabed and is supposed to block unexpected surges of oil and gas by slicing through the drill pipe and sealing the well.
Wild Well Control came up with a plan to cap the leak by placing a new BOP on top of the one that failed. But the plan would have temporarily increased the amount of crude gushing from the well. BP said it had insufficient information about the well to predict how it would behave in such circumstances.
Instead, the company opted for less-risky measures designed to gather up the oil and channel it to the surface, while in parallel drilling a relief well that would permanently kill the leak at a much later date.
Meanwhile, a so-called top-kill procedure designed to overwhelm the well by pumping in heavy mud at high pressure was aborted at the end of May over fears it might damage the well’s casing.
At that point, BP returned to the idea of installing a new blowout preventer on the Deepwater Horizon’s BOP.
But the idea was vetoed again, this time by federal officials. They feared it could cause a buildup in pressure and trigger an underground blowout, which might further damage the well.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Energy said a number of technical issues had to be sorted out before the well could be capped.
The current seal on the well is effectively a variation on the BOP idea. BP said it took so long to deploy because the seal had to be built from scratch, a process that normally takes years.