Oil spill update from the field: Inside BP’s war room

Daniel Gutierrez and other subsea instellation engineers conceive tasks for the Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) working at the Deepwater Horizon spill site. Every action, like placing the final capping stack on the well, involves thousands of ROV tasks. (Photo by Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine)  

BP America Headquarters, Houston, Texas, August 13
High up in an office building overlooking a duck pond on the west side of Houston, a loudspeaker kicks on: “Severe weather assessment in five minutes.” The meeting takes place in a windowless room with map-covered walls; participants wear colored vests with names printed on the back: “Law Officer”, “Environmental Unit Leader”, “Incident Commander”. A satellite image of the Gulf of Mexico shows a swirl of clouds off the west coast of Florida predicted to become a tropical storm. “It will go over the source site in less than 48 hours,” says the Incident Commander.

I am in the Houston Command Center, BP’s war room, where for the last four months a team of more than 500 engineers and technicians has been working around the clock to cap the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and drill relief wells. Failed ideas like the top hat and the junk shot were born here, and with the entire shoreline of the Gulf on the line and the entire world watching, the atmosphere in the war room has been, to say the least, tense—two massage therapists are present at all times. But plans for the containment dome which ultimately capped the well were drawn up here too and with the pace now calmer I am able to gain access to a place that has remained something of a black box.

I first meet Larry Staggs, a veteran BP worker who tours me through two large rooms filled with computers and phones, BP’s main call center for the spill. “When the top kill didn’t work things just exploded,” says Staggs. Calls spiked from 2,000 a day to 12,000 a day. BP had more than 100 operators fielding calls, which came from 88 different countries; there were translators proficient in German, French and Vietnamese. Many people called to suggest ideas on how to cap the well or cleanup oil, some called to yell. “If somebody is irate and wants to cuss at us we try to calm them down,” says Staggs. Several people called back hundreds of times. Why do you think they were so mad, I ask. “When you looked at pictures of the leaking pipe, it looked deceptively simple,” says Hunter Rowe, who helped organize the call center. “But it wasn’t; you’re working with extreme temperatures, high pressures and unknown well conditions, frankly, I think frustrations ran high because a lot of people couldn’t appreciate all the complexities of the problem.”

Staggs leads me through the leafy campus to the Westlake 4 building, wherein lies the war room; somewhere on an upper floor are Secretary of Energy Stephen Chuo and BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells. I receive my second ID badge and after an elevator ride I receive a third. The war room is actually many rooms, spanning several floors. Hallways are lined with photographs of oil rigs at sunset and oil rigs on cobalt blue seas. Rooms are packed with computers and conference tables; each has its own mission. There is a room that coordinates the Q4000, a room for the Helix Producer and a room labeled SIMOPS, which orchestrates the movements of the 60 plus ships at the spill site. These vessels, many as long as football fields are often operating within several dozen feet of each other and SIMOPS must make sure there are no collisions.  

Behind glass doors marked “Authorized Personnel Only” is a large darkened room with a bank of bright monitors showing murky live feeds of the seafloor at the spill site. This is one of the most critical rooms of the entire operation, the ROV room; every underwater movement associated with capping the leak has been performed by the ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles), which are about the size of a minivan. Each action, like placing the final capping stack on the wellhead, requires several thousand smaller actions, referred to as tasks; moving an ROV a specific distance, having it apply a hydraulic wrench, having it turn the wrench with a set torque. ROV tasks are conceived by a group of subsea instillation engineers in this room then passed along to operators on ships at the spill site that carry out the commands with fighter pilot-like joysticks which control the ROVs. Before the well was capped a guard manned the door and entry was impossible. Now, I am able to duck in and snap some shots but then must leave.

“Do you want to speak with one of the ROV engineers?” Staggs asks.

I do, and out walks an energetic young man with a goatee named Daniel Gutierrez. He explains to me the process of placing the final capping stack. It couldn’t be completely sealed initially because a quick pressure transition would have formed the slushy hydrates that doomed previous caps. Several valves were left open to discharge oil and relieve pressure, the final series of steps involved tightening the bolts on these valves. What was the feeling in the room when the last bolt was turned, I ask? “There was some cheering,” says Gutierrez.

Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine

A computer screen in BP's war room shows several of the more than 60 plus ships at the spill site. The movement of these often massive vessels is orchestrated by a team in Houston in order to avoid collisions. (Photo by Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine)