Plugging Macondo, the story of how the runaway Deepwater Horizon oil well was finally brought under control

Last May I wrote about the oil drilling disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. This year I can report on the final killing of the runaway well. The story appears in the Spring issue of Mines Magazine, the magazine of the Colorado School of Mines Alumni association. The story appeared there because the two engineers in charge of the operation, Donal Fitterer and Bill McEduff, are graduates of “Mines.” You can read their story here.


The well was plugged at the top, but top plugs are often temporary solutions. What was really needed was a relief well to intersect the hole just above the oil reservoir, the so-called “bottom kill.” All they had to do was hit a basketball-sized target buried under 5,000 feet of water and 13,000 feet of rock while drilling from a randomly moving floating platform. Sounds like a high-pressure assignment, but Fitterer said, “The number one thing I learned at Mines was the ability to focus on exactly what needs to happen to get the job done. They are very big on giving you too much to do, so you have to make a decision as to what is most important.”

The technique they used was to drill the relief well, using standard directional drilling, to get close to the well at a depth. Once there, they used a ranging vector magnetometer to close in on the target which involves drilling a little, putting the instrument down the hole, then adjusting and drilling some more. The goal was to get the relief well parallel to and near the original well, then intersect the runaway well at a depth near 18,000 feet, which is just above the oil reservoir.

Positioning is achieved using a 300-foot-long assembly, which includes a 30-foot-long cylindrical beryllium copper tool equipped with a transmitter and receiver on opposite ends. Invented by Vector Magnetics, the device emits a current that sets up an electromagnetic field when conducted by the well casing. By interpreting data on the electromagnetic field picked up by the receiver, Fitterer can calculate the precise distance and direction to the blown-out well.

It only takes him two or three hours to collect these measurements, but they must be taken every 30 to 60 feet, and getting the equipment into place at the extreme depths at which they were operating was a very time-consuming process: 24 hours to withdraw the drill bit; 12 hours to lower the ranging tools, take measurements, and retrieve the equipment; and another 24 hours to lower the drill bit back into place. As a result, in the final approach, progress moved at a rate of 30 feet every 2 ½ days.

Once the original well is intersected, they could pump in heavy mud to permanently seal the well. You can watch an explanatory video of the technique here.

BP, Obama, and the EPA

BP’s Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill has caused environmental and economic damage and a political circus. Have you ever heard of the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Contingency Plan Act? This law was passed in 1994 and it specifically charges the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with mitigating damage from major oil spills. In response to that act, the EPA, itself, says, “When a major oil spill occurs in the United States, coordinated teams of local, state, and national personnel are called upon to help contain the spill, clean it up, and ensure that damage to human health and the environment is minimized. Without careful planning and clear organization, efforts to deal with large oil spills could be slow, ineffective, and potentially harmful to response personnel and the environment. In the United States, the system for organizing responses to major oil spills is called the National Response System.” The Act makes a prompt and effective response to a major oil spill a national priority. So how are they doing?

Some (mainly conservative) columnists have attributed Obama’s Nero-like lack of concern to ulterior motives. For instance, Obama’s refusal to accept aid from the Dutch government is said to be a sop to the labor unions. And, Obama is using the oil spill disaster to renew his push for Cap & Trade climate legislation.

Maybe there are ulterior motives, but more likely, the less-than-prompt and effective response is probably due to incompetence by Obama and his bureaucracies, just like FEMA’s failure after Katrina. For instance the EPA dithered while considering the possible toxic effects of an oil dispersant that BP wanted to use. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is incensed with the Coast Guard because they stopped cleanup efforts to check whether the crews had proper fire extinguishers and life vests.

Meanwhile, Congress is holding hearings, with all their sound and fury, in a feigned effort to investigate BP (and give “face time” to legislators). Such hearings have no practical value in mitigating the oil spill.

Obama used the oil spill as an excuse to impose a six-month moratorium of deep water drilling, possibly to promote more “alternative energy” schemes. Obama said is was for “safety” concerns by the Department of the Interior, but analysis by the Wall Street Journal shows that this was all about politics. Another possible ulterior motive: the oil spill and Obama’s moratorium will aid Obama contributor George Soros who is heavily involved in Brazilian oil. Brazil stands to benefit from the BP oil spill catastrophe as the US moratorium makes more rigs available for other countries.

Yes, BP should be held responsible for the loss of economic activity caused by the accident. But government action, and inaction, is making things worse. They are not letting a good crisis go to waste.