This past September, the Deepwater Horizon tapped the world’s deepest-ever oil, boring a well 35,050 feet—or 10.7 km—below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. The size of two football fields (the standard measurement for describing really big things at sea for some reason), the $350-million drill rig was a state-of-the-art marvel. Able to maintain its free-floating position, regardless of the weather, with the aid of computers and GPS, it was also self-propelling, simply picking up and chugging to the next site when the job was done. On board the high platform, there was a gym, a movie theatre, poker tables in the lounge, and queen-sized beds and satellite TV in the cabins. Its 126-strong crew referred to it as a “floatel.”
Today, what’s left of the Deepwater Horizon lies 5,000 feet (1,500 m) down on the sea floor, a short distance from the well that blew out on Apr. 20, touching off an inferno that killed 11, injured 17, and caused the rig’s sinking two days later. As much as 750,000 litres a day of crude oil continues to spill into the waters of the Gulf, threatening marine life, and it is only a matter of time until the slick—6,500 sq. km and growing—coats some of America’s most ecologically sensitive shores. The inability of British Petroleum (BP), who leased the platform for $500,000 a day from Swiss company Transocean, to stop the flow after almost three weeks has raised the ire of the Obama administration and brought the oil giant’s own survival into question.
“Its life is very much on the line here,” warned Ken Salazar, the U.S. interior secretary. And the unfolding disaster has exposed disturbing gaps in technology and investment: the shoestring methods for plugging a spill and dealing with its aftermath remain light years behind the industry’s no-expense-spared advances in exploration and drilling.
While the exact cause of the accident remains under investigation, it’s clear safety measures that were supposed to protect workers and the fragile ocean environment utterly failed. As the rig started to disconnect from the well and prepared to move on to its next assignment (BP executives on board to celebrate the switch to production phase were among the injured), one of two temporary cement plugs in the drill shaft gave way. BP’s blowout preventer—a 450-ton box of valves on the ocean floor that was supposed to automatically seal off, or failing that, shear and plug the pipe—didn’t do its job. High above, the Deepwater Horizon exploded as pillars of flame shot 100 m in the air.
BP’s initial efforts to stop the gusher had a high-tech gloss; remotely operated submersibles were used to try to activate the blowout preventer, essentially reaching out and flipping its switches. But when that didn’t work, Plan B and beyond quickly took on a deep-sea MacGyver feel. A 100-ton steel and concrete “containment dome,” resembling a giant outhouse, was floated out to the site, 80 km off the coast of Louisiana, then lowered on cables and nudged into position by the submersibles. The idea was to cover the leak and pump the oil to the surface. But natural gas from the well froze and clogged the opening at the top of the dome before a pipe could be connected. The “top hat,” a much smaller version of the containment dome, about the size of a large oil barrel, is up next. It may prove less vulnerable to ice crystals, but will be much harder to keep in place, and at best will reduce, not eliminate, the spill. BP is already at work on another gambit called a “kill shot,” which will see all sorts of odds and ends, including golf balls, bits of tire, and pieces of knotted rope, injected into the blowout preventer in an effort to gum up the works. The method has succeeded on land, but no one has ever tried it 1.5 km underwater. An international team of industry experts and scientists is hard at work in BP’s Houston offices, devising still more jury-rigged solutions. “We are designing every option to be successful, and we are planning for it to fail,” says Kent Wells, the company’s senior VP of exploration. “This is an unprecedented technological challenge.”
Ultimately, it may end up being the two relief wells that the company has started drilling that bring the spill to an end. The process of boring four kilometres into the seabed to intersect with the gushing 18-cm-wide shaft won’t be quick, however. The company estimates it will take 90 days—meaning an environmental disaster that already ranks among the worst in U.S. history could drag on until August.
In the meantime, the battle to contain the spill and mitigate its environmental costs continues. BP CEO Tony Hayward calls it the “largest, most comprehensive response” in the history of the industry. But this too is a low-tech affair. More than 460 vessels are in the Gulf, helping to skim oil from the surface, or lay protective boom. (Some 432 km—about half the total available—have already been deployed, but the state of Louisiana itself has more than 12,500 km of tidal shoreline.) When the weather co-operates, oil is also being set alight and burned off the Gulf’s waters. The favoured tool seems to be dispersant—a chemical cocktail that breaks the oil down into tiny droplets, so that it might evaporate, sink, or be consumed by bacteria. More than 1.6 million litres has been spread so far, on the surface, and directly at the subsea blowout site. By BP’s account, that’s close to 80 per cent of the world’s current dispersant supply, although manufacturers are scrambling to ramp up production. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is closely monitoring the applications, but no one really knows what the long-term effects will be.
“I’m afraid it’s out of sight, out of mind,” says Matt Rota of the Gulf Restoration Network, a New Orleans-based environmental advocacy group. “But the fact of the matter is we have no good options. We’re using the same technology we did for the  Exxon Valdez spill: boom it, burn it, disperse it.”
In its defence, BP is actively seeking alternatives. The company has set up a telephone hotline and Internet site to collect suggestions for either capping the flow, or cleaning up the oil. By the end of last week, it had already logged more than 30,000 ideas, and put at least one—spraying dispersant directly onto the leak at the ocean floor—into action. (A San Francisco non-profit, Matters of Trust, is forging ahead with an unsanctioned project, collecting human hair and pet fur from salons around the globe and stuffing it into panty-hose logs that will be used to soak up the oil once it reaches shore.)
In the face of what is shaping up to be an unprecedented catastrophe, nothing is off the table. Well, almost nothing.
During a technical briefing for the media this week, a reporter from the Texas Observer, an alternative newspaper, suggested BP go after the oil spill as if it were al-Qaeda hiding in the caves of Tora Bora, and use a “bunker bomb” to collapse the subsea formation. There was an uncomfortable pause. “It’s a long way down,” Kent Wells said finally. “I don’t think that’s a viable option.”