BP oil spill update: Smooth sailing for 'top kill,' MMS director ousted
Even after the leaking well is permanently sealed, the Deepwater Horizon drama won't be anywhere near over. Just in Thursday's BP oil spill update, the MMS director is out, the spill is resized, and hearings proliferate on Capitol Hill.
After weeks of preparation and risk-weighing, BP received the OK from Washington on Wednesday to start pumping thousands of gallons of heavy mud into an inoperable wellhead in an attempt to stem a leak that's been spilling as many as 19,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico. As of Thursday morning, the mud mix had stopped the oil and gas flow, and engineers prepared to further plug the hole using rubber debris before attempting to cap the well with cement.
The disaster, however, will live on, even once the leak is stopped. Capping the well is but the beginning of a difficult chapter that will carve a new legacy for the Gulf's ecology, Washington's resource regulators, Big Oil, and the American people. The environmental and economic impacts of the spill are still untold, the legal issues years from being resolved, and the spill's impact on long-term energy independence uncertain.
The silver lining is that, much as the Exxon Valdez accident improved shipping safety, the Deepwater Horizon disaster will yield hard-earned lessons that could ultimately protect America's shores after deep-water oil and gas exploration resumes.
"There's going to be tremendous lessons out of this. We're going to see much more by-the-book operations," says Edward Glab, an oil industry expert at Florida International University in Miami. "It will absolutely make drilling safer in the future."
BP catches a break
Capping the well would be a major break for embattled BP, now under intense scrutiny for its safety practices and role in causing the disaster. Researcher Robert Bea of the University of California at Berkeley, picking through 400 hours of interviews with BP employees, has pinned 90 percent of the blame for the disaster on BP's shoulders.
Even if the well is capped, one big question remains for the tarnished oil giant: whether BP will follow in the footsteps of Exxon, which now has one of the most bureaucratic – and safest – shipping organizations in the world following the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, which may pale next to the Deepwater Horizon blowout.
"There's no seat-of-the-pants intuitive approach to Exxon's approach anymore," says Dr. Glab.
BP will also have to learn from a number of failures in the run-up and aftermath of the Deepwater spill, he says.
For one, BP's worst-case spill scenario as described to regulators by far underestimated the true impact of a blowout at 5,000 feet. The British oil giant didn't have enough containment booms or dispersants on hand to collar the spill. Testimony from Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts on Wednesday also indicated that BP dramatically, and knowingly, underestimated the flow of oil by several factors. As much as 19,000 barrels a day flowed out of the well, not BP's 5,000-barrel estimate, according to new government figures. That makes the total size of spill up to 20 million gallons, nearly twice the size of the Exxon Valdez spill.