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Creative chaos: Cell phone photo helped cap BP spill

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, according to a new report on how the spill was contained.
Image: Video grab of the containment capping stack as work continues at the site of the BP oil well leak in the Gulf of Mexico
The containment capping stack, in white at top left, is seen attached to the Macondo well blowout preventer on Aug. 28. A report by the presidential spill commission found that the response was so unorganized that one key decision came down to a cell phone photo of the capping stack that was used to come up with a computer model.HO / BP via Reuters
/ Source: staff and news service reports

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 report 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.

New details include the story of 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 almost pulled a day or so 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 to remain and the well to stay shut, but government science advisers were firm and near unanimous in wanting the cap removed because of fear of bigger, more catastrophic spill, the report said.

One scientist took a cell phone picture 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 for what was happening under the cap. He was convinced that the containment cap wouldn't blow. He got more data, which bolstered his case. He persuaded the other scientists to wait a bit.

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, referring to the response by industry and the U.S. government

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. 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 was not part of the spill commission.

Also, the oil industry in general and government have not spent the money they promised to improve clean-up equipment and technique for oil spills, a second commission report said.

"We believe the facts illustrate that neither industry nor government has dedicated appropriate resources to clean-up technology since the Exxon Valdez spill, and that the Deepwater Horizon spill response suffered as a result," commission staff wrote. "With the proper combination of dedicated funding and creative incentives, however, Commission staff believes that the existing technology gap could begin to close."

More than anything the commission report on containment didn't blame or praise, but 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 containment story ... contains two parallel threads," commission staff wrote. "First, on April 20, the oil and gas industry was unprepared to respond to a deepwater blowout, and the federal government was similarly unprepared to provide meaningful supervision. Second, in a compressed timeframe, BP was able to design, build, and use new containment technologies, while the federal government was able to develop effective oversight capacity. Those impressive efforts, however, were made necessary by the failure to anticipate a subsea blowout in the first place."