07/10/2010 10:42 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Government Awakens from Coma: Forces BP to Contain the Well

For the last 81 days, I've been watching the government, perpetually 2 steps behind BP, fail time after time to keep BP honest, or even understand the issues enough to not just take what they were saying at face value.  It started from the first moment.  Initially, when the Horizon sank after being incinerated for 2 days with flames roaring 250 feet over the rig floor and melting the derrick, BP said the well wasn't flowing.  Then a day later, the Coast Guard announced, with BP's silent assent, that it was flowing 1,000 barrels per day; then a few days later the estimate was reluctantly raised to 5,000 barrels per day.   For the subsequent 5 weeks, staring at the video feeds and knowing that the oil boiling out of the destroyed riser was far more than the volume that Adm. Thad Allen kept repeating, the BP rep almost always stood behind him, mum, or repeating the mantra that the volume was not important since the "response would be the same no matter how big."   It's been a long, ugly road.

First, we watched the early, very heavily edited (and blurred) video feeds of the ROVs trying in vain to shut in the BOP (I still think some of that was file footage from Oceaneering).  Then we watched the giant containment dome being built for days on the docks, the continuous coverage of it being shipped to the site, the days of waiting for the result.  When they were building it, I kept thinking that first, it wasn't big enough to fit over the BOP, which is over 50 feet tall, and second "what were those wings they were building on it?"  When I found out that they were putting it over the bent riser on the seafloor instead of at the wellhead, I realized that that whole effort was just for show. No serious person would have thought it would work, plus, the biggest leak was going to be out of the cracks in the top of the bent over riser, not 600 feet away, especially after days of sandblasting inside the valves and piping that were making things worse by the hour.

Thank God at around this point Ed Markey pitched a fit, demanding continuous video feeds rather than the days-old PR style videos we were getting out of BP. Suddenly, the whole world could see the gushing well 24/7; at least when the websites showing it weren't swamped with viewers. After the containment dome failed, we watched for weeks as the RIT (riser insertion tool) finally was finished and inserted, catching a mere trickle of the torrent of oil flowing out of the blown out well while BP reps claimed victory that finally, at least something was working. Sort of. I kept asking myself, why don't they just cut off the damn riser and get over the well with a flanged cap, or another BOP? No one from the press would ask that simple question, and, if they did, the Coast Guard would just defer to more double speak and platitudes from BP reps.

Then, the top kill came. After much hoopla, the effort started just before the Memorial Day weekend, and we heard breathless accounts of the horsepower, the pumping rates, the volumes of mud; all the oo-ahh snippets, but no real information.  During the kill, Adm. Allen actually said that the kill was being successful, which anyone watching the feeds knew that it wasn't.  BP and Allen kept repeating the newest mantra that it would take "24-48 hours before we know."  On Saturday, I starting hearing that the effort had failed, but that BP would keep pumping through the weekend so they wouldn't have to announce it before the holiday and before the next containment cap was ready.  That's when I came out with the story that it failed.   In mid afternoon of that day, in a hastily called press conference just hours after my story posted on the Hurricane and Huffington Post, BP and the Coast Guard announced that the effort had indeed failed.  A few days after, I heard that they had suffered some kind of downhole failure and the Coast Guard had ordered a halt to the procedure.  The Wall Street Journal printed that same account shortly after.

Finally, they cut off the riser and put on the ill fitting containment cap.  At least it was something.  The problem was that the ship they had moved out there, the Discoverer Enterprise, could only handle about 15,000 barrels a day.  People who were paying attention immediately started saying, "That's not big enough."  Sure enough, when they got the cap on, it could only contain the 15,000 barrels a day, so the Q4000, used originally for the top kill, was brought in to take production off the kill manifold and burn it off.  Even with that, oil is still gushing.

And on and on.  Obfuscation about the flow rate; multiple teams of scientists pouring over blurry video footage and putting out a volume ranges of plus or minus 100%.  Then we find out that BP had HD video of the well the whole time.  The lame clean up effort; keeping media away from the worst areas; skimming and recovery assets not even close to what was needed.  Orchestrated press conferences that were long on words, short on data.

Which brings us up to today.  The Helix Producer has been on station now for over a week.  It's an FPSO (floating production storage and offloading) vessel that can process 25,000 barrels a day.  BP has been steadfastly putting off installing the latching containment cap, and hooking up the Helix, citing high seas, bad weather, hang nails and sinus congestion.  Thursday, finally,  the US government awoke from its leadership coma, demanding to know what's taking so damn long and what can you do to hurry up containing the well?  We all know that BP is strongly motivated to not contain the whole flow, since we would then know exactly what it's producing and back-calculate how much they have polluted the Gulf since the well blew out on April 20.  Surely, they were hoping to get it killed with the relief well before they got around to getting the flow contained so they could argue for lower volumes to reduce the massive EPA fines that will come.  Heavy subsea dispersant use was also used to cover the evidence.  Suddenly, BP is ready to go with the new containment system.  They start installing it today, and is a subject of a post later today.

The government, while talking tough, has been complicit with BP, deferring far to often to the company's representatives and rhetoric.  This disaster has dragged on far too long, but we can expect little else since BP remains in place as operator, allowed to continue running the containment effort while the Coast Guard stands aside and the White House stamps its feet, not knowing what to do. 

While I don't presume that anyone in the White House actually reads this blog or watches my television appearances, but certainly I'm glad someone finally woke up, if just for a minute, to do what I, and other industry bloggers have been yelling about for weeks (months?).

More on The Daily Hurricane Energy page.