In 2006, a geologist at Yale first taught me about the structure of oil wells. This expert specifically taught and quizzed me on the basic kinds of geological formations that can contain the massive pressures of an oil reservoir compressed by an explosive bubble of natural gas. In the year that followed, I served in the headquarters of the Iraq War, where my strategic-level energy team frequently dealt with exploded oil pipelines. Before all of this, I spent over fifteen thousand hours of my life working under water on nuclear submarines.
I understand oil. I understand what it takes to work under water. I even studied international energy policy and economics full-time for the last two years; I understand BP’s modus operandi. So why am I having such a difficult time convincing my government that a conventional demolition of this oil well is a feasible and serious option?
Geologists in the employment of oil companies can’t be trusted, and that President Obama needs a second opinion from objective experts.
My previous mention of a nuclear demolition—which I immediately ruled out for political reasons—has turned into a straw man that distracts our attention from the pragmatic solution I advocated publicly weeks ago. Yesterday, a New York Times article by William J. Broad exemplified this straw-man argument by superficially dismissing the nuclear option at the expense of taking a serious look at my proposal for a conventional demolition. Broad writes: “Some have also suggested conventional explosives, claiming that oil prospectors on land have used such blasts to put out fires and seal boreholes. But oil engineers say that dynamite or other conventional explosives risk destroying the wellhead so that the flow could never be plugged from the top.”
Sadly, this is a weak and error-ridden argument against using conventional explosives to seal the well. Broad completely misses the point that sub-surface demolition makes plugging the well “from the top” unnecessary. Anyone who has ever looked at the construction of an oil well and the geological layers of rock that an oil well penetrates would understand how an explosive below the surface could sever the long, thin well and bury it permanently under an impermeable rock formation. At that point, it doesn’t matter to anyone other than BP and Broad’s unidentified “oil engineers” whether the existing equipment remains intact.
But there are other reasons why the option of a conventional demolition hasn’t been floated—the petroleum geologists who came to the table to advise the disaster recovery efforts have a stake in Big Oil. One of the stranger things I learned at Yale in 2006 was that being a petroleum geologist is perhaps the most lucrative geek-job on the face of the planet. These modern-day prospectors often earn hundreds of thousands of dollars per year and sometimes enjoy large royalties when their discoveries make money. This problem of agency means that the geologists in the employment of oil companies can’t be trusted, and that President Obama needs a second opinion from objective experts.
• Richard Wolffe: Obama Knew the Spill Was Hopeless• Rick Outzen: BP’s Windfall to the RichThe United States Navy has deep-submergence rescue vehicles and underwater-explosives experts that can be brought to the scene. Congressmen around America have demolition companies in their districts who can contribute their expertise to this precision detonation under the Navy’s command. Oil service companies can assist with drilling the shallow holes in which to place the conventional explosives. Geologists who are not on the payroll of the oil companies can suggest the optimal places to sever this straw with conventional explosives and quench the gusher. Last but not least, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Dr. Stephen Chu can make himself useful and build us a goddamn time machine.
This weekend marks the anniversary of the Battle of Midway, the decisive turning point of the Pacific Campaign of World War II. To Admiral Gary Roughhead, the current Chief of Naval Operations and my former Commandant at the Naval Academy, I implore you, Sir, now is the time to take action and make this a Midway of your own.
Christopher Brownfield is a former nuclear submarine officer, an Iraq veteran, and a visiting scholar on nuclear policy at Columbia University. He is the author of My Nuclear Family, to be published by Alfred A. Knopf in September.