BP's Plans to Stop the Oil Spill: So Crazy They Just Might Work?

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A timeline of the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico Gerald Herbert / AP

The failure of BP's first containment dome has Gulf Coast residents despondent and BP engineers scrambling. Fortunately, officials from the beleaguered oil company have several other plans in the works to contain and ultimately stop the oil flow. Unfortunately, without hearing the details these plans all sound like ideas someone came up with in the midst of a fever dream, or at least at the tail end of a week of all-nighters. But a BP press conference today indicated that, ridiculous names aside, these plans are all well-reasoned solutions that could conceivably end the spill (of course, so was the containment dome). Read on for a list of BP's latest strategies:

The 'Top Hat'

This is also a containment dome, but it's substantially smaller than the one that failed this Saturday after it became clogged with methane hydrate crystals. The "top hat" will be placed over one of the remaining leaks and will channel the leaking oil through a pipe to the surface for collection. If all goes to plan, it should be operational by the end of the week.

Pros: As a result of its small size, this vessel will contain a lot less water than the original cofferdam, and therefore, engineers hope, shouldn't allow as much hydrate (which forms from water and methane in high pressure and low temperature conditions) to build up. Furthermore, the "top hat" will be lowered with a water-heated pipe already attached, and methanol, which acts as an antifreeze, will be injected into the dome to prevent hydrate formation.
Cons: It may only prevent some of the leaking oil from reaching the surface. The original, larger cofferdam was expected to contain about 85 percent of the leaking oil, so the effectiveness of this smaller one could be a lot less.
The bottom line:
It remains to be seen whether the "top hat" will function as expected, but it's highly unlikely it would make matters worse. Even though it won't do anything to cut off oil flow from the well and will only collect a portion of the oil being released, it's clearly a worthwhile plan—any decrease in the amount of oil that reaches the surface and joins the growing slick is a step in the right direction.

The 'Junk Shot'
It sounds like a last-ditch effort, but it may be the best shot at stopping the spill. What seems like a load of indiscriminate trash—including golf balls, tire pieces, and knotted rope—is actually what chief operating officer Doug Suttles referred to as "very precisely picked materials." That trash carefully assembled material will be injected into the blowout preventer (BOP) to clog it. Then engineers will pump in mud and concrete from the surface to push the oil and gas back down into the reservoir and to permanently seal the well.

Pros: This could stop the leak once and for all by the end of next week.
Cons: BP has been conducting diagnostic tests of the BOP and, along with the team of industry experts it has assembled, is confident that attempting this operation carries little risk. But there is a slim chance that this could make matters worse and lead to an increase in oil flow from the wellhead. (BP officials said in a congressional briefing last week that the well could conceivably spill up to 60,000 barrels—2.5 million gallons—of oil per day, though current estimates place the spill at 210,000 gallons a day.)
The bottom line: Let's hope the experts know what they're doing, since it would be catastrophic if this led to increased flow from the well. But this does have the potential to end the spill completely, which could otherwise take several months, when the relief well is completed.

The 'Hot Tap'
BP was less clear on how this would work, since it's lower on the list and is still being studied. Remote operated vehicles (ROVs) would be used to tap into the riser and pump oil out of it and through a pipe to the surface.

Pros: The oil and gas would not be exposed to any water, meaning that formation of hydrates would be impossible.
Cons: This could potentially be a risky operation, since it means opening up a new hole in the damaged drill pipe.
The bottom line: Hopefully, it won't come to this—the details are sketchy because BP seems to be putting more emphasis on the first two options. Still, ROVs have shown themselves capable of doing delicate work before, like last week when one of them cut through the dill pipe and attached a valve, ending one of the three leaks from the damaged pipe.

Giant Bales of Hay
A video making the rounds on YouTube demonstrates the use of hay to absorb motor oil from water and suggests that huge amounts of hay be used to clean up the Gulf of Mexico spill. So far, BP shown no interest in the hay plan. Are they missing out?

Pros: Hay absorbs oil and presumably leaves no toxic residue.
Cons: Would this work for crude, as opposed to motor oil? The men in the video mention that crude is more viscous, which is true, but it's also a much more complex mixture of compounds that hay may or may not be able to absorb. And might there be negative effects of putting all that hay into the water column? Just because it's natural doesn't mean it won't be ecologically problematic. How would all the oiled hay be cleaned up, and where would it go?
The bottom line: A for effort, but come on. The YouTube videos are impressive but on too small a scale to be useful—for now.

Also, check out our timeline of the 2010 oil spill.