HOUSTON--Last Wednesday, five weeks into the worst oil spill in U.S. history, BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward locked himself in a room on the third floor of the British oil giant's U.S. headquarters in Houston.
For the next five hours, Hayward, BP executives, senior engineers, and the U.S. Energy Secretary and Nobel Physicist Steven Chu, who had flown in two days earlier, grappled with the latest plan to stem the thousands of barrels of oil a day gushing from a broken well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
The scheme was called "top kill" and involved pumping heavy drilling fluids, known as drilling mud, into the blown-out well to stifle the flow of oil and allow the top of the well to be sealed with concrete. The technique had worked to seal other wells, but never one out of control in 5,000 feet of water. There was a risk that the extra pressure caused by pumping in mud could rupture the top of the well, and increase the amount of oil gushing into the sea.
Even so, Hayward and his team gave the plan a 60 to 70 percent chance of success. Quietly, they hoped an end to the devastating leak--and BP's five week-long, media-saturated nightmare--might be within sight.
The room they worked in measured about 30 feet by 30 feet and is normally used for training sessions. BP's crisis unit had commandeered it and renamed it the "intervention room" soon after the leak began. Cables wrapped in yellow tape with the word "warning" written on it, snaked from the ceiling to the cheap, white laminated tables, which were crammed with laptops. Maps of the Gulf and diagrams of the equipment on the seabed covered the thin walls.
Next door, in an almost identical space called the "containment room," a separate group of engineers worked on strategies to capture the oil that had already leaked.
The team in the intervention room pored over the results of tests to see if the well could take the pressure. The mood was "intense," BP's director for the Americas Bob Dudley told Reuters in the narrow, artificially-lit corridor outside the room during a break in deliberations. "It's kind of like NASA and the Apollo 13 mission in there." … Read more