BP's "top kill" plan for fixing the Gulf of Mexico oil spill involves enormous ships, a mile of undersea piping, and a 30,000-hp mud pump. How does it work? Let's find out. UPDATE: Live footage of the process!
The above graphic is a few weeks old — drilling on the two relief wells shown began on May 2 and isn't expected to be finished until August — but it gives the best sense of the scale and scope of the project. Judging by the latest version of this image, released on Monday (it provides the same basic information but doesn't look as cool), there hasn't been a lot of progress on the secondary wells.
According to a recent press release, BP's efforts to cap the well's many leak points have centered around a failed component called a blow-out preventer, or BOP. The BOP's failure — the name gives a hint as to what it was supposed to do — is directly related to the spill, and extensive testing to determine how and why it failed is currently underway. All told, the site is host to several undersea operations, more than 2000 people, 16 ships, and 16 remote-operated vehicles. This is what it looks like:
What's it all mean? The testing involves pumping drilling fluids into the BOP to measure pressures and validate flow paths, the better to understand the size and severity of the primary leak. That information will then be used to determine whether or not something called a "top-kill" can be implemented.
The top kill is a pretty amazing thing. It was devised over the past month by BP, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Energy Department, and the Minerals Management Service. It centers around the Helix Q4000 surface platform and encompasses three ships full of mud, one of which is the 381-foot HOS Centerline, one of the largest supply ships in the world. The process is somewhat involved, but it comes down to this: The Centerline uses 30,000-hp pump to shove between 40 to 50 barrels of mud per minute over to the Q4000, which then diverts it down to the leaking BOP through a mile-long pipe. The mud is stuffed into the well at such a rate that it overcomes the gushing oil, forcing the leak to taper and the well to become static. A concrete cap is then applied, sealing the leak permanently.
The whole mess is also known as "outrunning the well" and could take up to two days. It may start this week.
Will it work? Probably, but there's no guarantee. Top-killing has been used to cap wells in the past, but never at this depth. As the Washington Post reports,
The danger is that the top kill could worsen the situation. The powerful injection of mud might destabilize the blowout preventer, or punch a bigger hole in the sharp kink in the riser just a few feet above the blowout preventer. If the mud doesn't beat back the spill, that could mean a mess of mud mixed with a larger flow of oil and gas.
Greg McCormack, director of the Petroleum Extension Service at the University of Texas at Austin, said he's cautiously optimistic that the top kill will work, saying: "There's always a trade-off between making it better and making it worse. This probably has the least amount of risk of making it worse."
If the top kill doesn't work, the backup plan involves a mechanical cap known as a lower marine riser package, or LMRP, seen above. First, robotic submarines sever the top of the damaged BOP, increasing oil flow into the Gulf by as much as 15 percent. The LMRP is a sealing device with a very large grommet that is lowered onto the well and connected to a riser leading to a drillship. The drillship then captures most — the key word here is most — of the oil and gas flowing from the well. There are other options, but this is the most practical. If the top kill doesn't work, the LMRP could be implemented within a few days.
Updated maps of the 54,000-square-mile spill — including cool stuff like sheen spreading, types of visible slicks, and so on — can be found here. The world's craziest gulf-spill infographic can be found here.
A piece of the Gulf the size of Jamaica is covered in oil, people, and the leak hasn't stopped. Wow. Here's hoping they fix it soon.