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Gulf oil spill: Why is it so hard to stop?

Working in the deep sea at the source of the Gulf oil spill is a bit like working in space, say scientists. It's a hard place to get to, a tricky space in which to maneuver, and subject to daunting laws of physics.

By Peter N. Spotts/ staff writer / June 8, 2010

A pollution containment chamber (left) was steered remotely using underwater cameras in an unsuccessful attempt to stem the Gulf oil spill May 11.

U.S. Coast Guard/AP

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Hammond, La.

There's a reason the deep ocean is dubbed "inner space."

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It's a place that poses some of the challenges that astronauts and robotics operators face in outer space.

Just getting equipment there, for instance, can turn a 10-hour job into a 100-hour task. Multiton submersibles must perform operations that require brute force or the delicacy of a watchmaker, guided by engineers using an array of cameras that offer little depth perception. One false nudge of a joystick and the vehicle could go sliding by its target.

No event has made these inner-space challenges as highly visible as the BP oil spill.

IN PICTURES: Gulf oil spill's impact on nature

Yet the spill is shaping up as more than a test of deep-sea technology. It could be the offshore oil industry's version of the Challenger or Columbia space shuttle disasters – tragedies whose triggers had as much to do with attitudes and organizational culture as with hardware or operating conditions.

The blowout, explosion, and fire, which killed 11 workers and sank the Deepwater Horizon rig, betray technological arrogance and short memories, says Thomas Beamish, a sociologist at the University of California at Davis who has written in-depth about a 38-year-long oil spill in the Guadalupe Dunes 170 miles north of Los Angeles.

"We deal with the last catastrophe and move on, and sort of expect it not to happen again," he says.

Indeed, in a recent interview with the Financial Times, Tony Hayward, British Petroleum's chief executive officer, acknowledged that the company considered the blowout a "low probability, high impact event."

"What is undoubtedly true is that we did not have the tools you would want in your tool kit," he said.

Nor did the company have experience applying its various techniques for stemming the flow at such depths. From four-story containment domes to junk shots and top kills, the blowout defied efforts to stanch the thousands of barrels of oil erupting into the Gulf of Mexico each day, though the new containment cap is having some success, capturing nearly 630,000 gallons of oil in the latest 24-hour period. It is unclear what percentage of the leaking oil that is.

Why is it so hard to stop the flow? The reasons are many.

For one, oil in reservoirs under the Gulf of Mexico is subject to very high pressures – as much as 9,000 pounds per square inch, notes Steve Sears, who heads the petroleum engineering department at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. This means the spewing oil is more forceful – and harder to handle.

The depth of the blowout – 5,000 feet – makes the effort even more difficult. Robotic space exploration provides "a very good analogy" for deep-sea drilling, Dr. Sears says.

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