Tony Hayward, the chief executive of BP, made an astounding admission before Congress last week: after nearly two months of failure, the company and the Coast Guard have no further plans to plug the Macondo oil well leaking into the Gulf. Instead, the goal is merely to contain the leak until a relief well comes online, a process that could take months.
With tens of thousands of barrels of oil leaking from the well each day, this absence of a backup plan highlights a lack of leadership, resources and expertise on the part of the Coast Guard, which from the beginning was compelled to give BP complete control over the leaking wellhead.
Instead, President Obama needs to create a new command structure that places responsibility for plugging the leak with the Navy, the only organization in the world that can muster the necessary team. Then the Navy needs to demolish the well.
The Coast Guard, of course, should continue to play a role. But it should focus on what it can do well, like containing the oil already in the Gulf and protecting the coast with oil booms and skimmers. It should also use this crisis to establish permanent collaborations with other maritime forces around the globe, particularly those that can get to a disaster area quickly.
But control of the well itself should fall to the Navy — it alone has the resources to stop the flow. For starters, the Office of Naval Research controls numerous vehicles like Alvin, the famed submersible used to locate the Titanic. Had such submersibles been deployed earlier, we could have gotten real-time information about the wellhead, instead of waiting for BP to release critical details.
The Navy also commands explosives experts who have vast knowledge of underwater demolitions. And it has some of the world’s finest underwater engineers at Naval Reactors, the secretive program that is responsible for designing nuclear reactors for nuclear submarines. With the help of scientists in our national weapons laboratories and experts from private companies, these engineers can be let loose on the well.
To allay any concerns over militarizing the crisis, the Navy and Coast Guard should be placed in a task-force structure alongside a corps of experts, including independent oil engineers, drilling experts with dedicated equipment, geologists, energy analysts and environmentalists, who could provide pragmatic options for emergency action.
With this new structure in place, the Navy could focus on stopping the leak with a conventional demolition. This means more than simply “blowing it up”: it means drilling a hole parallel to the leaking well and lowering charges to form an explosive column.
Upon detonating several tons of explosives, a pressure wave of hundreds of thousands of pounds per square inch would spread outward in the same way that light spreads from a tubular fluorescent bulb, evenly and far. Such a sidelong explosion would implode the oil well upstream of the leak by crushing it under a layer of impermeable rock, much as stepping on a garden hose stops the stream of water.
It’s true that the primary blast of a conventional explosion is less effective underwater than on land because of the intense back-pressure that muffles the shock wave. But as a submariner who studied the detonation of torpedoes, I learned that an underwater explosion also creates rapid follow-on shockwaves. In this case, the expansion and collapse of explosive gases inside the hole would act like a hydraulic jackhammer, further pulverizing the rock.
The idea of detonating the well already has serious advocates. A few people have even called for using a nuclear device to plug the well, as the Soviet Union has done several times. But that would be overkill. Smartly placed conventional explosives could achieve the same results, and avoid setting an unacceptable international precedent for the “peaceful” use of nuclear weapons.
At best, a conventional demolition would seal the leaking well completely and permanently without damaging the oil reservoir. At worst, oil might seep through a tortuous flow-path that would complicate long-term cleanup efforts. But given the size and makeup of the geological structures between the seabed and the reservoir, it’s virtually inconceivable that an explosive could blast a bigger hole than already exists and release even more oil.
The task force could prepare for demolition without forgoing the current efforts to drill relief wells. And even if the ongoing efforts succeed and a demolition proves unnecessary, the non-nuclear option would give President Obama an ace in the hole and a clear signal that he’s in charge — not BP.
Christopher Brownfield, a former nuclear submarine officer and the author of the forthcoming memoir My Nuclear Family.