Guest Post: “Top Kill” Has Failed

Washington’s Blog

Here’s the scoop: BP’s attempt to stop the oil spill using the “Top Kill” method has failed.

How do I know?

Well, as the New York Times notes:

BP officials, who along with government officials created the impression early in the day that the strategy was working, disclosed later that they had stopped pumping the night before when engineers saw that too much of the drilling fluid was escaping along with the oil.

Indeed, BP stopped pumping “mud” for more than 16 hours (the material gushing out of the leaking riser didn’t stop during that time).

Basically, BP has failed in trying to drive enough “mud” down the well to provide enough weight to tamp down the oil gushing out. It didn’t work.

Indeed, BP’s “re-starting” Top Kill really means that Top Kill Version 1.0 was tried and failed, and now BP will try Top Kill Version 2.0 – adding “junk” to the mix.

Unless BP can get very lucky and plug the holes with miscellaneous junk, Top Kill 2.0 won’t be any more effective than Operation Sombrero.

As the Guardian explains:

Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer, insisted that the operation was going to plan, but admitted: “What we do know is that we have not yet stopped the flow.”

He said BP engineers would soon use additional materials to try to plug the well, suggesting heavy mud deployed so far would not work on its own.

And the Guardian’s oil spill blog (a great resource which I just discovered) notes:

6pm CDT: Doug Suttles makes an appearance on CNN ….

Asked by CNN what had happened, Suttles said: “Too much of the mud is exiting the riser as opposed to going down the well bore.” This could be fixed in several ways, including the infamous “junk shot”, using a more viscous mud type, or finally restarting pumping at very high rates.


7.30pm CDT: The Washington Post has more details on BP’s stop-start top kill process, and mentions that BP is considering a “junk shot” tonight:

Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer, said that on Wednesday the company had blasted high-pressure mud into the leaking well two times, trying to force the oil down in a procedure compared to using one firehose against another.

After doing it twice, Suttles said, the company stopped about midnight Wednesday, and spent Thursday assessing the plumes still shooting out of broken machinery. He said that company officials believed the two efforts had probably made some progress.

“I think some people believe it has. Some people believe it’s less obvious it has,” Suttles said. “What we do believe we’ve done is successfully pumped some mud, some of this drilling mud, into this wellbore.”

But, Suttles said, oil was still coming out, despite these efforts: “What we do know is that we have not yet stopped the flow.”

He said the company would try the procedure again Thursday evening and might add chunkier debris such as rubber balls to the mix in hopes of clogging the leaking pipe. That procedure is known as a “junk shot.”

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George Washington is the head writer at Washington’s Blog. A busy professional and former adjunct professor, George’s insatiable curiousity causes him to write on a wide variety of topics, including economics, finance, the environment and politics. For further details, ask Keith Alexander…


  1. cadams

    I am hearing of almost unbelievable rumors that the contaminants, used to disperse the oil slick, could conceivably, in the event of a hurricane, cause catastrophic damage throughout the path of the hurricane’s storm surge. Does anyone have any credible sources for this?

    1. Rex

      From what I have read various places, some common ideas have been:
      1) Big bang at the well head – sometimes a nuke
      2) Drop a bazillion tons of stuff on it
      3) Drill a hole next to the drill pipe and explode the well shut

      Sane responses have pointed out that Gulf floor is soft sediments for hundreds or more feet down. If the pipe isn’t tightly sealed by this process, the oil will be leaking into this sediment and start coming up all over the place.

      On the nuke idea, with oil already working to kill much of the life in the Gulf, I guess adding radioactivity into the water won’t be that much worse.

      If the top kill fails (sounds like it probably will fail) the next idea I have heard is to cut off the broken riser pipe and attempt to clamp onto it and pipe the flow to the surface.

      It is sounding more and more like the only workable solution is the new wells being drilled to stop the flow very deep. That will take many weeks.

      It is one more very depressing occurrence in our messed up world.

      1. Rex

        Oops, sorry. I meant to post the above reply on the message below about blowing up the well.

        But on the subject of dispersants and hurricanes. I don’t think the dispersants will make things much worse than just bringing the oil itself well inland by a big storm.

        My instincts were that the dispersants only purpose was to spread out the oil so it didn’t look so bad. This seemed stupid to me, especially if the chemicals weren’t benign.

        Today I heard that there is a reason for dispersing the oil. There are bacteria in the water that can gradually eat the oil. By spreading out the oil the bacteria can eat it faster.

        I’m still not convinced the spreading this much oil can really help.

    2. Doug

      Does anyone know anything *really* about the dispersants, what exactly they are and what the potential side affects might be? I have seen nothing investigative about them. Just that they are “like detergent”.

      1. Crocodile Chuck


        it is designed to function like a detergent: to reduce the surface tension of the oil in water. The oil will then be dispersed in three dimensions, rather than two, ie remain on the surface. Out of sight, out of mind? Composition: petroleum distillates+proplyene glycol (antifreeze)+sulfonic acid salt. See wikipedia below for toxicity/contraindications:

    3. Maggie Knowles
      Dr. Jeff Masters wrote a post on oil spills and hurricanes, and he talks about dispersants:
      “Storm surge and oil
      One of the more unnerving prospects to consider if a hurricane hits the oil spill is what the hurricane’s storm surge might do with the oil/dispersant mixture. The foul mix would ride inland on top of the surge, potentially fouling residential areas and hundreds of square miles of sensitive ecosystems with the toxic stew.” click the link above for the rest.

    4. Lawrence Anthony Florek

      Come on. Use your common sense. What the hell has happened to us that we can’t conceive of the simplist possible consequences anymore? Hdave we become so dependent on little tinker toy machines that you press with your fingers that we can’t put two and two together. What the hell do you think hurricanes are? Do you think they’re some ride in an amusement park? They are ferocious natural phenomena that can destroy entire cities. The tremendous pressure and sheer volume of a hurricane will pick everything up in its path including oil and toxic dispersants and spread it for hundreds even thousands of miles.

  2. Mark

    Can a detonation of sorts by a ‘Bunkerbuster’ type missile adjacent to the well do enough damage to close the well in on itself?

    Has this been tried before?

    Is this option not on the table because it is not economically viable? They can recover 40% drilling a relief well or three over the next 9 Months?

    Just asking.

    1. Andrey Subbotin

      I rather doubt you can push the nuke down the problematic well and be really realy sure it went 2km down. Russians used separate wells parallel to the problematic one, which were much easier to drill on surface. Drilling one on the seabed will take months.

    2. Keenan

      In the 1991 “Gulf War 1”:

      27 Jan 1991
      DOD announces that USAF F-111s attacked pipelines feeding the Sea Island Terminal with GBU-15 laser-guided bombs to stem the flow of oil, now 35 miles long and 10 miles wide, into the Persian Gulf, and to ignite oil and burn off pollutants. The attack specifically targeted system of pipes that regulate oil flow from storage tanks to the terminal called manifolds. Oil flow has apparently drastically slowed, and fire should burn out in about 24 hours.

      Not exactly the same as this was a surface platform in shallow water.

    3. Bob Morris

      Red Adair successfully shut down numerous oil gushers on land using bombs.

      Whether this could work underwater, well, it’s never been tried.

      1. gcc

        The procedure using explosives is only used to extinguish a burning oil well.
        The explosion consumes all of the oxygen, thus starving the fire.
        The procedure will not work to cap a runaway well head.

  3. Bob the Builder

    I’ve read miscellaneous articles that say the Russians have used low-grade (if there is such a thing) nukes to close wells before. I seriously do want to know if that would be an option for Obama. If so, why wouldn’t he say something about this option and/or just do it?

  4. SA

    BP waited until after Obama’s news conference to announce that the operation had been halted the previous night — before the new conference, BP even said top kill “operations continued over the night and are ongoing,” a total fabrication.

    BP will not announce that a “top kill” is impossible until after Obama’s photo-op “I feel your pain” tour of the Gulf coast tomorrow. That’s why the last word from BP was it will be Friday night at the earliest before they “know” if the operation is successful. They already know it won’t work. They are just timing their revelations to curry favor with Obama.

  5. Francois

    If the junk shot also fails, God help the people who’ll be affected; that include West Florida and Bermuda too BTW.

    What a total cluster of fucks!

  6. alex black

    I heard that the opening at the well head is, like, 22 inches in diameter.

    There are many politicians and banksters whose girth would exceed that. If one was shot down the pipe, head first, at a high enough velocity, wouldn’t that seal it?

    Might have to amputate their arms and shoulders first, but we’re a humane people – we’ll use anaesthesia.

    1. reskeptikal

      What’s been done so far:
      0. Everyone’s pretty sure that a relief well will need to be drilled… But:

      1. Obfuscation and misinformation.
      2. Play with radio-controlled submarines and video recorders.
      3. Wave hands – more media distraction.
      4. Spray god knows what- probably agent orange II- on some of the oil.
      5. Try and block the well- (analogy is like sticking your finger into a water tap- possible but very difficult.)
      5.1 see A. Black above. (Give the people what they want! They’re probably calling for volunteers as we speak.)
      5.11 Daisy chain politicians and bankers end-to-end so as to gain more traction on the ‘riser-walls’.
      5.2 Realise what fun this is, change business model- BP is now a media entertainment company.
      5.3 release the bueray/ dvd/ video.
      6. Watch shares sky-rocket, etc.

      10. Meanwhile the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic ocean is fish-free, but things could be worse, right?

  7. renting_for_profit

    Nothing has changed – the oil will continue to spew, in greater or lesser amounts, until the relief well(s) are finished – with luck, before summer is over, without luck, in the beginning of 2011.

    This has been the case since the BOP failed, by the way, and is based on all the other cases of deep water wells blowing out, including in the Gulf.

    That’s right, months. Using the best people and best equipment. This isn’t a Hollywood production, this is the real world.

    Sad to say, the number of Americans who refuse to leave their Hollywood dreamworld seems even greater than the number of Americans who don’t believe in evolution.

    1. reskeptikal

      Well c’mon renting_for_profit, with a media like ours, it’s a big ask to expect people to be rational.

      There are differences and there are similarities to Katrina and if the government is going to sit around on their a***es (for whatever reasons) in a time of catastrophe, well, why do we need them at all?

        1. aet

          Hey…here’s some big oil co counter-offensive, but with some reason (but spot the holes…).
          It’s all the government’s fault, apparently.

          Good title for a pro-oil-company book, no?
          But as I said, there be some reason in Hoffmeister’s arguments. This looks like a “human error”deal, a la Chernobyl, IMHO: so tech standards willobviously need to be revised. And that’s a job for the engineers..

          Not the politicians.

    2. Ronald

      BP and the Government must be doing something so they will continue to work the plan..always live but as you clearly point out the relief wells are the best bet to stop the leak.
      Interesting to see the high interest in making the leak larger by nuking or other military style bombing technology seems Americans view the military as some sort of techno savior.

  8. Avg John

    This news actually makes me queasy.

    There is so much in the news that moves me to anger, but this news creates a feeling of despair.

  9. Vespasian

    I’m inclined to agree with SA’s assessment. We already know that the PR-world loves to release bad news on Friday evenings … especially on a holiday weekend.

  10. Frakken

    at least detracts attention from the spill on BP’s Alaskan pipeline that has it shut down for a few days

    1. Vespasian

      Saw the vid. Simmons’ logic on a 2nd gusher is poorly reasoned. There’s no reason I know of to assume a 2nd gusher, but he assumes one because of the “cloud” of oil a few miles away … has he never heard of ocean currents?

      I agree with him that identifying and sucking up oil across the depths is valuable, and I hope someone is figuring out how to do it. Our efforts to skim the surface oil and protect beaches is only the most bare-bones in limiting damage…

  11. ScottH

    I’m all about assuming control from BP and sinking the battleship if that would work, but the last thing we need an 80,000 tons of iron on top a slow leak. Let’s not go nuclear unless we have to. Anything that makes sense to me should not be attempted.

    I would build a steel wall ten by ten around the hole, twenty feety high and keep pumping cement into that casing until it was full of cement. This is why I am not an oil engineer.

  12. ScottH

    How would you stop a hole in the ground? If we have a cement like medium that cures with the sea floor and hardens, then let’s go Everest on this bitch. Just keep piling more and more of this shit on top until we have a mountain the size of Everest on it. My guess is the idiot wins.

    1. ScottH

      Last post ever, but all we need is a coordinated effort to ship as much cement from the mainland to the hole. That’s what mobilization is all about. Remove the drill righ and take barges filled with stones and cement and drop them. This is no longer a surgical case. It’s a simple matter of mass. I’d prefer a hose with directed matter more than a battlship sinking, but it’s like a fire line before ther were fireman and fire stations. We all carry the water hand to hand and throw them at the problem only because we know in aggregate our efforts help.

      Once again, I have no idea what I’m talking about and I hope to never blog on Yves site again because I’m a moron.

  13. Brooklynbatman

    NOAA has a pretty in depth PDF on their site which talks about all the chemical dispersants devised over many years for this purpose. I didn’t see anythng in there about hurricanes or other weather moving them onshore. Intersestingly, they did talk about Corexit which was developed by Exxon and, according to this paper, has a very low toxicity compared to the others. I have to wonder if we are being misinformed about this dispersant because everyone is reporting how toxic it is. Anyway, if you feel like reading through this 100 page chemical dispersant page, take a look. Here is the link.

  14. Coffee Lover

    I’m grateful to finally see today on the news that BP has stopped some of this oil thats been coming up into our seas for almost 2 months now!! Jeez what is their thinking?? I can’t believe its been taking this long. I know what it is, its all about the dollars, they can still make profits from this oil well thats why they won’t close it up for good to stop this debacle!

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