WASHINGTON – A single picture from a cell phone camera may have saved the Gulf of Mexico from a few more weeks — if not months — of oil gushing from the BP well.
A new study from the presidential oil spill commission describes the behind-the-scenes, excruciating tension and mistakes behind the three-month effort to cap the busted well. More than anything the report pulled back the curtain on what happened during hectic times as 172 million gallons of oil gushed into the Gulf from April 20 to July 15.
The 39-page report faulted BP and the federal government for being unprepared for a well blowout, but then lauded them for scrambling for different fixes after the disaster.
The report painted a picture of chaotic meetings described by outsiders as disorganized and by insiders as "akin to standing in a hurricane." And it criticized BP's constant underestimating of how much was spilling, dooming some fixes and possibly delaying the ultimate capping of the well.
Amid the messy meetings, came details about a lone scientist working from a cell phone photo who saved the day by convincing the government that a cap it considered removing was actually working as designed.
The cap that eventually stopped the oil from flowing was nearly pulled about a day after it was installed in mid-July because pressure readings looked so low that they indicated a leak elsewhere in the system. BP wanted the cap left in place and the well to stay shut, but government science advisers were firm and near unanimous in wanting the cap removed because of fear of a bigger, more catastrophic spill, the report said.
One scientist took a cell phone picture of pressure readings and e-mailed it to a government researcher in California for advice.
Just using that cell phone photo, Paul Hsieh, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist, created a model to explain what was happening under the cap and how — despite low pressure readings — there was no leak. He was convinced the containment cap wouldn't blow. He got more data, which bolstered his case.
Hsieh, a research hydrologist who normally works with water, labored through the night without the aid of caffeine. He stayed up all night triple checking calculations, going on adrenaline.
"I just knew a decision had to be made the next day," he said. "I had participated in the conference call. I had sensed the tension everyone had and that just kind of kept me going."
Hsieh laid out his case and it persuaded the other scientists to wait.
The government waited six hours, then a day. Nothing happened. The cap held.
Hsieh turned out to be right.
Hsieh told The Associated Press that he was "flattered that I was portrayed well," but said others including Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who headed the scientific team, deserve the credit.
The picture Hsieh examined was "a game changer," said University of California at Berkeley professor Bob Bea, who analyzed the report for the AP.
"It also shows how in disarray we were," Bea said.
Before the cap was put in place, officials had established pressure levels that would tell them whether everything was OK, there was trouble and the cap had to be removed immediately, or whether it was a wait-and-see situation. The pressure readings were in the wait-and-see zone, but political appointees discussed it further and there was a push to remove the cap. Coast Guard Admiral Kevin Cook urged officials to give the cap more time, then Hsieh's analysis swayed them.
To Paul Fischbeck, a professor of decision science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, this part of the report was scary.
"It became a political decision that they didn't want to risk having this big blowout," said Fischbeck, who wasn't part of the commission. "You set up a logical reasonable process and in the heat of the moment all these factors creep in and it pulls you off what you had logically decided to do. And that is very dangerous when it happens."
Both Bea and Fischbeck said they consider Hsieh a hero in a chaotic time.
Monday's draft report said some BP attempts to stop the gusher — especially the efforts dubbed Top Kill and Junk Shot — probably were doomed from the start. That's because BP had underestimated how much oil was spilling.
That influenced the debate on whether to keep the successful cap in place. When Top Kill didn't work, instead of blaming too much oil, BP relied on smaller flow rates and faulted "rupture disks" in the well casing. The rupture-disk explanation was a factor for some scientists who worried that there would be an even bigger spill if the successful cap remained.
Both BP and the government were unprepared for capping a blowout well and cleaning up the mess it makes, the report said. But given how unprepared they were, both BP and the government reacted quickly and impressively, the report said: "BP's efforts to develop multiple source control options simultaneously were Herculean."
"It was a marvelous experience in logistics," said Bea, who wasn't part of the spill commission.
Also, the oil industry in general and the government have not spent the money they promised to improve clean-up equipment and technique for oil spills, a second commission report said. Despite billions of dollars in profits, oil companies spend only a few million dollars a year on clean-up technology. The federal government in 2010 spent $7.4 million on oil spill research. In 1993, when adjusted for inflation, the federal government spent $20.3 million on the subject.
At one point during the hectic times, government officials started paying attention to the advice of BP's competitors — even though BP said not to believe them — in a confusing way.
"An industry participant recalled that the calls were fairly disorganized, with no pre-set agenda and people talking over one another," the report said. "He mentioned one instance when he was chagrined to learn he had been talking to Secretary Chu without realizing it."
Early in the spill, an Interior Department employee overseeing BP's efforts described his experience "as akin to standing in a hurricane," the report said. "Despite working more than 80 hours a week, this individual recalled having to miss more than half of the BP engineering team meetings he was supposed to attend."
The oil spill commission: http://www.oilspillcommission.gov/