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Engineering a solution to the oil spill

At BP's Houston offices, hundreds of scientists are at work on the Gulf of Mexico spill. They have an unlimited budget, an international team of the sharpest minds in modern engineering — and they have no time.

May 21, 2010|By Jim Tankersley, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Houston — -- More than a week into their quest to stop the oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico from a damaged BP well, several dozen of the brightest minds in the engineering world gathered to watch a 100-ton failure unfold in slow motion.

The engineers packed into a repurposed research center dubbed the Hive, which houses a dozen video screens and, most days, about as many scientists.

Beside a bustling freeway, in a drab Houston office park bedecked with nearly every name in Big Oil, BP had launched a 21st century version of "Apollo 13."

On this evening, an overflow crowd stared for three hours at one screen as a ghostly four-story dome sank nearly a mile into the water.

The lowering of the dome encapsulated the round-the-clock effort to end what is rapidly becoming the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Brimming with engineering firepower, the effort was painstakingly slow to execute.

It ultimately failed to stanch the daily flow of thousands of barrels of light, sweet Louisiana crude into the gulf.

Hundreds of engineers from universities, rival oil companies and the federal government immediately went back to work, in shifts lasting 13 hours or more.

"Anyone who we think could make a difference, we brought in," said Kent Wells, BP's senior vice president for exploration and production.

Then came the "dream team" that President Obama had ordered his Nobel-winning energy secretary, Steven Chu, to assemble: out-of-the-box thinkers including a nuclear physicist, a pioneer on Mars drilling techniques, an MIT professor whose research interests include "going faster on my snowboard," an expert on the hydrogen bomb, and a controversial astrophysicist who was later booted over a past essay defending homophobia.

Those involved say they are crafting and deploying in a matter of days what under normal circumstances would take a year or more.

And yet a limitless budget and all that brainpower have failed to fix the pipe 5,000 feet below the sea surface that has leaked oil for more than a month, spewing at least 6 million gallons, possibly far more.

That may be about to change.

As early as Sunday, BP engineers will launch their "top kill," their most ambitious attempt to overpower the oil flow and seal the 13,000-foot-deep well. The operation will be the culmination of weeks of sleuthing and calculation, daylong practice runs and nonstop contingency planning.

Once again, engineers will watch nervously in Houston, acutely aware of the hazards that have encumbered their mission: the crushing pressure of ocean depths so great that divers cannot survive, of a spewing well that could blow all its restraints.

Perhaps most intense of all, the pressure of a nation that is watching and wondering: What's taking so long?

On the walls of BP's Houston campus, glossy pictures of Gulf of Mexico offshore platforms hang like family portraits along hallways carpeted in flecks of green and yellow, the colors of BP's corporate emblem.

When the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, leased by BP, exploded on the night of April 20 and sank 36 hours later, killing 11 men, workers swarmed the third floor of the building that houses the company's permanent crisis center. They strung wires wrapped in yellow police tape from ceilings to tables filled with fleets of laptops.

Initially a small space designed to respond to disasters such as hurricanes, the crisis center soon overtook the entire floor and parts of several others. BP filled it with 500 workers, mostly men, assigned to containing and shutting off the oil from the Mississippi Canyon 252 well.

They wear casual-Friday uniforms: polo shirts, oxfords with the collars open, and various shades of khaki and dark slacks. The Coast Guard officers wear blue jumpsuits. Some BP workers don blue vests, with their job titles handily stitched in white letters on the back. No one wears a tie.

Elsewhere on the floor, two massage therapists stand in scrubs beside specialized chairs, ready to rub kinks from the backs and necks of weary workers. There's a kitchen that would look small in a two-bedroom apartment. By midafternoon, it's stacked with cookies and Rice Krispies treats.

New arrivals start with a safety briefing, including how to evacuate in the event of a fire. They park in a garage that posts instructions for safe navigation of a few flights of concrete steps: Hold handrail. One step at a time. Walk, don't run. Do not use a cellphone.

The warnings foreshadow the meticulous caution inside the building, where the guiding principle is borrowed from the medical profession: "First, do no harm."

The early visitors included Lt. Kirtland Linegar and Lt. Christopher O'Neil, a pair of stocky Coast Guard engineers. O'Neil once helped rebuild a Coast Guard base flattened by Hurricane Katrina. Linegar started his career as an engineer on an aging drug-enforcement ship in the Caribbean that routinely left port with two of its four engines broken; Linegar and his crewmates would fix them en route.

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