The Science Behind Deep-Water Oil Drilling

Efforts to capture oil leaking from the BP well in the Gulf of Mexico suffered a setback Wednesday, after an underwater robot bumped into the venting system of a containment cap — forcing BP to temporarily remove its latest effort to capture the millions of gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf.

Henry Fountain i i

hide captionHenry Fountain covers science and engineering for The New York Times.

New York Times
Henry Fountain

Henry Fountain covers science and engineering for The New York Times.

New York Times

April's Deepwater Horizon disaster has continued to raise questions about the oil industry's ability to manage the challenges and risks involved in drilling miles below the ocean floor to reach highly pressurized oil deposits.

Science reporter Henry Fountain has been covering the environmental disaster for The New York Times. In an interview with Fresh Air's Dave Davies, Fountain explains how deep-water drilling works thousands of feet below sea level and what may have gone wrong on the Deepwater Horizon.

Fountain says he also learned the lengths and extremes to which humans will go to acquire oil.

"One of the things I learned is that this particular well that had the blowout wasn't really unusual. ... But one of the things is, it really goes back to our need for oil, and not just for cars but for pretty much everything — plastics, fertilizers and society," he says. "And the problem is, is that the easy oil has basically been gotten: the oil from land, the oil from shallow offshore wells. So going forward, we're going to have more of these wells drilled in extreme conditions. So, in a way, there's potential for more disaster in the future, and it seems to me that if there were ever an argument for pursuing alternative energies, the argument is being made now — in a pretty hard way, but it's being made."


Interview Highlights

On the scale of the deep-water rig

"Most people don't realize how big these rigs are and the huge scale of drilling in general, particularly deep-water drilling. The Deepwater Horizon was something like 300-by-300 feet, with a drilling derrick 220 to 230 feet high and designed to drill in very deep water, up to about 7,000 feet. So it carries thousands of feet of drill pipe, thousands of feet of other piping — it's really a mammoth piece of equipment."

On how the rig stays in place

"It's called dynamic position. I believe this rig had eight thrusters. They can rotate 360 degrees, and basically it can keep the rig over a certain spot for days at a time."

On the importance of the synthetic mud pumped into the shaft

  • A boat uses a boom and absorbent material to soak up oil in Cat Bay, near Grand Isle, La., on June 28. A tropical storm is expected to hit the Gulf and impede cleanup efforts.
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    A boat uses a boom and absorbent material to soak up oil in Cat Bay, near Grand Isle, La., on June 28. A tropical storm is expected to hit the Gulf and impede cleanup efforts.
    Joe Raedle/Getty Images
  • Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and wife Carole Rome Crist (right) stand with others during a Hands Across the Sand event June 26 in Pensacola, Fla. The event was staged across the nation to protest offshore oil drilling.
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    Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and wife Carole Rome Crist (right) stand with others during a Hands Across the Sand event June 26 in Pensacola, Fla. The event was staged across the nation to protest offshore oil drilling.
    Joe Raedle/Getty Images
  • Oil clouds the surface of Barataria Bay near Port Sulpher, La., on June 19.
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    Oil clouds the surface of Barataria Bay near Port Sulpher, La., on June 19.
    Sean Gardner/Getty Images
  • Workers adjust piping while drilling a relief well at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
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    Workers adjust piping while drilling a relief well at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
    Charlie Neibergall/Getty Images
  • A dolphin rises up out of the water near Grand Terre Island off the coast of Louisiana on June 14.
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    A dolphin rises up out of the water near Grand Terre Island off the coast of Louisiana on June 14.
    Derick E. Hingle/AP
  • President Obama stands with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (right) and Gulfport, Miss., Mayor George Schloegel after meeting with residents affected by the oil spill.
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    President Obama stands with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (right) and Gulfport, Miss., Mayor George Schloegel after meeting with residents affected by the oil spill.
    Charles Dharapak/AP
  • Crude oil washes ashore in Orange Beach, Ala., on June 12. Oil slicks, 4 to 6 inches thick in some parts, have washed up along the Alabama coast.
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    Crude oil washes ashore in Orange Beach, Ala., on June 12. Oil slicks, 4 to 6 inches thick in some parts, have washed up along the Alabama coast.
    Dave Martin/AP
  • A volunteer uses a toothbrush to clean an oil-covered white pelican at the Fort Jackson Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Buras, La., June 9.
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    A volunteer uses a toothbrush to clean an oil-covered white pelican at the Fort Jackson Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Buras, La., June 9.
    Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
  • A shrimp boat skims oil from the surface of the water just off Orange Beach, Ala., as a family enjoys the surf. Oily tar balls have started washing up on Orange Beach and beaches in the western Florida panhandle.
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    A shrimp boat skims oil from the surface of the water just off Orange Beach, Ala., as a family enjoys the surf. Oily tar balls have started washing up on Orange Beach and beaches in the western Florida panhandle.
    Dave Martin/AP
  • Sand from a dredge is pumped onto East Grand Terre Island, La., to provide a barrier against the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, June 8.
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    Sand from a dredge is pumped onto East Grand Terre Island, La., to provide a barrier against the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, June 8.
    Charlie Riedel/AP
  • A dead turtle floats on a pool of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill in Barataria Bay off the coast of Louisiana on June 7.
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    A dead turtle floats on a pool of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill in Barataria Bay off the coast of Louisiana on June 7.
    Charlie Riedel/AP
  • Workers use absorbent pads to remove oil that has washed ashore from the spill in Grand Isle, La., June 6.
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    Workers use absorbent pads to remove oil that has washed ashore from the spill in Grand Isle, La., June 6.
    Eric Gay/AP
  • Plaquemines Parish coastal zone director P.J. Hahn lifts an oil-covered pelican out of the water on Queen Bess Island in Plaquemines Parish, La., June 5.
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    Plaquemines Parish coastal zone director P.J. Hahn lifts an oil-covered pelican out of the water on Queen Bess Island in Plaquemines Parish, La., June 5.
    Gerald Herbert/AP
  • Heavy oil pools along the side of a boom just outside Cat Island in Grand Isle, La., June 6.
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    Heavy oil pools along the side of a boom just outside Cat Island in Grand Isle, La., June 6.
    Win McNamee/Getty Images
  • President Obama walks alongside Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle (from right), U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is in charge of the federal response to the spill, and Chris Camardelle after meeting with local business owners in Grand Isle, La., June 4.
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    President Obama walks alongside Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle (from right), U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is in charge of the federal response to the spill, and Chris Camardelle after meeting with local business owners in Grand Isle, La., June 4.
    Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
  • A brown pelican sits on the beach at East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast after being drenched in oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, June 3.
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    A brown pelican sits on the beach at East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast after being drenched in oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, June 3.
    Charlie Riedel/AP
  • U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announces that the Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into the BP oil spill. With him, from left: Stephanie Finley and Jim Letten, U.S. attorneys for the Western District of Louisiana; Ignacia Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division; Tony West, assistant attorney general, Civil Division; and Do...
    Hide caption
    U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announces that the Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into the BP oil spill. With him, from left: Stephanie Finley and Jim Letten, U.S. attorneys for the Western District of Louisiana; Ignacia Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division; Tony West, assistant attorney general, Civil Division; and Don Burkhalter, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi.
    Cheryl Gerber/AP
  • The oil slick off the coast of Louisiana, seen from above.
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    The oil slick off the coast of Louisiana, seen from above.
    NASA via Getty Images
  • A worker leaves the beach in Grand Isle, La., on May 30. BP is turning to yet another mix of undersea robot maneuvers to help keep more crude oil from flowing into the Gulf.
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    A worker leaves the beach in Grand Isle, La., on May 30. BP is turning to yet another mix of undersea robot maneuvers to help keep more crude oil from flowing into the Gulf.
    Jae C. Hong/AP
  • Protesters cover themselves with a water and paint mixture during a demonstration at a BP gas station in New York City on May 28.
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    Protesters cover themselves with a water and paint mixture during a demonstration at a BP gas station in New York City on May 28.
    Mary Altaffer/AP
  • Workers clean up oil in Pass a Loutre, La.  The latest attempt to plug the leak was unsuccessful.
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    Workers clean up oil in Pass a Loutre, La. The latest attempt to plug the leak was unsuccessful.
    Jae C. Hong, File/AP
  • Residents listen to a discussion with parish officials and a BP representative on May 25 in Chalmette, La. Officials now say that it may be impossible to clean the hundreds of miles of coastal wetlands affected by the massive oil spill.
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    Residents listen to a discussion with parish officials and a BP representative on May 25 in Chalmette, La. Officials now say that it may be impossible to clean the hundreds of miles of coastal wetlands affected by the massive oil spill.
    Sean Gardner/Getty Images
  • An oil-soaked pelican takes flight after Louisiana Fish and Wildlife employees tried to corral it on an island in Barataria Bay on the coast of Louisiana. The island, which is home to hundreds of brown pelican nests as well at terns, gulls and roseate spoonbills, is impacted by oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill.
    Hide caption
    An oil-soaked pelican takes flight after Louisiana Fish and Wildlife employees tried to corral it on an island in Barataria Bay on the coast of Louisiana. The island, which is home to hundreds of brown pelican nests as well at terns, gulls and roseate spoonbills, is impacted by oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill.
    Gerald Herbert/AP
  • A sign warns the public to stay away from the beach on Grand Isle, La. Officials closed the oil-covered beaches to the public indefinitely on Saturday.
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    A sign warns the public to stay away from the beach on Grand Isle, La. Officials closed the oil-covered beaches to the public indefinitely on Saturday.
    John Moore/Getty Images
  • Pelican eggs stained with oil sit in a nest on an island in Barataria Bay on May 22.
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    Pelican eggs stained with oil sit in a nest on an island in Barataria Bay on May 22.
    Gerald Herbert/AP
  • A bird flies over oil that has collected on wetlands on Elmer's Island in Grand Isle, La., May 20. The oil came inland despite oil booms that were placed at the wetlands' mouth on the Gulf of Mexico.
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    A bird flies over oil that has collected on wetlands on Elmer's Island in Grand Isle, La., May 20. The oil came inland despite oil booms that were placed at the wetlands' mouth on the Gulf of Mexico.
    Patrick Semansky/AP
  • Members of the Louisiana National Guard build a land bridge at the mouth of wetlands on Elmer's Island.
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    Members of the Louisiana National Guard build a land bridge at the mouth of wetlands on Elmer's Island.
    Patrick Semansky/AP
  • The hands of boat captain Preston Morris are covered in oil after collecting surface samples from the marsh of Pass a Loutre, La., on May 19.
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    The hands of boat captain Preston Morris are covered in oil after collecting surface samples from the marsh of Pass a Loutre, La., on May 19.
    Gerald Herbert/AP
  • Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (center) and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser (right) tour the oil-impacted marsh of Pass a Loutre, La. "This is the heavy oil that everyone's been fearing that is here now," said Jindal.
    Hide caption
    Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (center) and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser (right) tour the oil-impacted marsh of Pass a Loutre, La. "This is the heavy oil that everyone's been fearing that is here now," said Jindal.
    Gerald Herbert/AP
  • BP Chairman and President Lamar McKay (left), with Transocean President and CEO Steven Newman (center) and Applied Science Associates Principal Deborah French McCay, testifies during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing May 18 on response efforts to the Gulf Coast oil spill.
    Hide caption
    BP Chairman and President Lamar McKay (left), with Transocean President and CEO Steven Newman (center) and Applied Science Associates Principal Deborah French McCay, testifies during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing May 18 on response efforts to the Gulf Coast oil spill.
    Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
  • This undated frame grab image received from BP and provided by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee shows details of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP has agreed to display a live video feed of the oil gusher on the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee's website beginning Thursday evening.
    Hide caption
    This undated frame grab image received from BP and provided by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee shows details of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP has agreed to display a live video feed of the oil gusher on the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee's website beginning Thursday evening.
    Senate Environment and Public Works Committee/AP
  • President Obama speaks with local fishermen about how they are affected by the oil spill in Venice, La., on May 2.
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    President Obama speaks with local fishermen about how they are affected by the oil spill in Venice, La., on May 2.
    Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
  • Danene Birtell with Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research tends to a Northern Gannet in Fort Jackson, La., on April 30. The bird, normally white when full grown, is covered in oil from the oil spill.
    Hide caption
    Danene Birtell with Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research tends to a Northern Gannet in Fort Jackson, La., on April 30. The bird, normally white when full grown, is covered in oil from the oil spill.
    Alex Brandon/AP
  • Since the explosion, a third oil leak has been discovered in the blown-out well.
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    Since the explosion, a third oil leak has been discovered in the blown-out well.
    Gerald Herbert/AP
  • In this aerial photo taken April 21 more than 50 miles southeast of Venice, La., the Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns.
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    In this aerial photo taken April 21 more than 50 miles southeast of Venice, La., the Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns.
    Gerald Herbert/AP
  • Tendrils of oil mar the waters of the Gulf of Mexico in this satellite image taken Monday. An estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day are seeping into the Gulf, after an explosion last week on a drilling rig about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast.
    Hide caption
    Tendrils of oil mar the waters of the Gulf of Mexico in this satellite image taken Monday. An estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day are seeping into the Gulf, after an explosion last week on a drilling rig about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast.
    Courtesy of Digital Globe

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"You have 5,000 feet of water [in the case of Deepwater Horizon] and you have 13,000 feet of rock, and that puts a lot of pressure on the oil, which is basically in a reservoir down deep. So without the drilling mud to create the heavy column of downward force, the oil and gas would just come up."

On the blowout preventer

"You can think of the blowout preventer as the last line of defense or the second line of defense. And it's huge. The one that the Deepwater Horizon had was like 53 feet tall, about 25 feet wide on both sides like a square, and weighed something like 350 tons, so it's not a light-duty piece of equipment, really. ... It has several different sealing mechanisms on it, and some of them are designed to be used — not in emergency situations, but if they have to do certain tests, they'll close part of the blowout preventer."

On what happened on the Deepwater Horizon

"There was some sort of well control issue, some sort of big kick of methane. They were sort of struggling with things for half an hour at least to get things under control. There's indications that they diverted flow and tried other methods to try to stop things. Probably operated parts of the blowout preventer and may have tried to trigger the ultimate feature of the blowout preventer, which is the blind-shear rams — which actually sort of cut the drill pipe and sealed off the well. And that's really a last-ditch thing, because if you do that, your drill pipe falls down the hole and you have to go back and fish it out and it's going to take you a long time and it's going to cost you a lot of money."

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