May 25th, 2010
04:00 PM ET

Gulf Coast oil spill demystified: A glossary

"Top hats." "Top kills." Berms. Booms. As the attempts to plug the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico become more complex, so do the terms. We break down the jargon that you might come across as you follow the story.

1. Berms: A wall or barrier of sand usually used to protect against flooding along coasts, but now it's being considered to stop oil from washing up on Gulf Coast beaches.

Context: For nearly two weeks [Louisiana Gov. Bobby] Jindal has asked the [U.S. Army] Corps [of Engineers] to approve a plan to dredge sand berms off the coast in an attempt to keep oil from reaching inland marshes.

The Christian Science Monitor: BP oil spill pushes Louisiana to desperate, massive 'berm' plan

2. Blowout preventer: A large valve at the top of a well that can be closed to stop oil from gushing into the sea in the event of a problem or when the oil rig sank a month ago, triggering the leak.

Context: BP, the well's majority owner, has been trying to stop the flow by using remote-controlled submarines to activate a valve atop the well. But the valve, known as a blowout preventer, is not working.

CNN: Stopping Gulf Coast oil leak could take weeks

3. Booms: These are long pieces of plastic tarp sewn such that they consist of flotation devices on top and a weighted skirt that sinks into the water. They are deployed along beaches to stop surface oil slicks from washing inland.

Context: “We need more boom, we need more resources, we need the materials we have requested to fight this oil and keep it out of our marsh and off of our coast,’’ Louisiana’s governor said.

Financial Times: White House faces fire over BP oil leak

4. Dispersants: Oil dispersants are chemicals that can break the oil down into small drops and prevent it from reaching the surface or the shore. Dispersants are generally less harmful than the oil itself, which is highly toxic, and they biodegrade more quickly.

Context: EPA ordered BP to find another chemical dispersant to use on the oil spill after concerns arose about the long-term effects of the substance now being used.

CNN: Feds tell BP to cut use of oil dispersants in Gulf

5. Junk shot: Debris such as shredded rubber tires, golf balls and similar objects would be shot under extremely high pressure into the blowout preventer in an attempt to clog it and stop the leak. The goal of the junk shot is to force-feed the preventer, the device that failed when the disaster unfolded, until it becomes so plugged that the oil stops flowing or slows to a relative trickle. That would be followed by a “top kill.”

Context: Using the same tubes and pipes, BP would then try a "junk shot," pumping material like golf balls, pieces of tire and pieces of rope into the blowout preventer.

CNN: How BP's 'top kill' procedure will work

6. Relief well: A well drilled into the existing well, intercepting the flow and allowing a specialized heavy liquid to be pumped into the flowing well to bring it under control. This liquid is denser than oil and so exerts pressure to stem the flow of oil.

Context: Now BP has started drilling a relief well that eventually could allow them to close off the broken well. However, that would take at least two months to work, said Doug Suttles, the BP chief operating officer.

CNN: BP to try unprecedented engineering feat to stop oil spill

7. Skimmers: A device used to recover oil from the water’s surface. There are three main types of skimmers. The Weir skimmers, for example, use a dam or enclosure positioned at the oil-water interface. Oil floating on top of the water will spill over the dam and be trapped in a well inside, bringing with it as little water as possible. The trapped oil and water mixture is then pumped.

Context: Mayors and parish presidents were critical of both the government and BP's handling of the cleanup, recounting stories of misdirected protective booms or skimmers that sat on trucks ashore.

CNN: Louisiana demands federal action on dredge plan

8. "Top hat": A top hat is a smaller version of a containment dome that BP tried to install earlier. It is a sort of upside-down funnel designed to trap the oil and channel it to the surface, again to be offloaded onto ships. The earlier four-story containment dome failed when natural gas crystals collected inside the structure, plugging an outlet at the top. BP is abandoning plans to use the “top hat” containment dome to contain the spill for now.

Context: The "top hat" oil-containment device has reached the sea floor in the Gulf of Mexico and should be in position over a leaking well head and operational by the end of the week, well owner BP said Wednesday.

CNN: 'Top hat' containment device reaches ocean floor, BP says

9. "Top kill" Not to be confused with “top hat,” this maneuver is an attempt to stop and seal the well instead of just containing it. The top kill involves pumping heavy drilling fluid into the head of the leaking well at the seafloor. The manufactured fluid, known as drilling mud, is normally used as a lubricant and counterweight in drilling operations. The hope is that the drilling mud will stop the flow of oil. If it does, cement then would be pumped in to seal the well.

Context: All previous attempts by the company to cap the spill have failed, and BP CEO Tony Hayward said the top kill maneuver will have a 60 percent to 70 percent chance of success when it is put in place as early as Wednesday morning.

CNN: Patience runs thin as BP preps untested maneuver to cap oil leak

10. Riser insertion tube: The riser insertion tube tool involves inserting a 4-inch diameter tube into the Horizon’s rise, a 21-inch diameter pipe, between the well and the broken end of the riser on the seafloor in 5,000 feet of water. The insertion tube would be connected to a new riser to allow hydrocarbons to flow up to the Transocean Discoverer Enterprise drillship located on the surface. The oil will be separated and then safely shipped ashore.

Context: After some success with the riser insertion tube, BP is preparing to try its "top kill" approach to stemming the flow of oil from the Macondo well, probably on Wednesday.

Financial Times: Moving in for the ‘top kill’

11. Oil plumes: These are underwater globules of oil that do not float to the surface of the ocean. Scientists say microscopic oil droplets are forming these deep water oil bubbles. The heavy use of chemical dispersants, which breaks up surface oil, is said to have contributed to the formation of these plumes. Scientists are worried that these underwater globs will pose a threat to the marine ecosystem and that the oil could be absorbed by tiny animals and enter a food chain that builds to larger fish.

Context: The University of South Florida recently discovered a second oil plume in the northeastern Gulf. The first plume was found by Mississippi universities in early May.

CNN: New oil plume evidence uncovered

soundoff (77 Responses)
  1. John Z

    Can they not take huge rubber balloons, attach them to the pipe with a rubber bands? Once one balloon is full of oil, tie off the bottom, float it onshore, and suck the oil from vacuums into trucks?

    June 4, 2010 at 5:09 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Tammy

    BP is not trying to plug the well
    they only want to cap and get oil
    they will not plug

    June 5, 2010 at 7:58 pm | Report abuse |
  3. TK

    23" diameter hole has to be plugged. To release the pressure 23" diameter hose brings what ever comes out of the hole to driling ship to collect. The drill wants to drill 25-30" hole at the same spot. The drill goes little bit down to dril- all the oil comes to ship and drill is held without going to botteom of the source- collect all the oil in the ships for months, years until it exhausts it self without dropping any oil in Ocean. Short- but might work.No plugs involved- just technology and profits to take care of all damages.

    June 5, 2010 at 8:45 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Shasta

    its not a spill, its a leak. not a slow leak but a definate gusher. a lot of people are working around the clock on this. sleep deprived and mentally exhausted, they are still fighting. bp does not want this anymore that we do. its easier to be angry at them than to help fight along side of them i guess. did everyone stop buying exxon products when the drunk captain of the valdez wrecked his ship and SPILLED oil into the price william sound, or did we rally as a country to help clean up the coastlines and donate time or money to help alaska. instead of mouthing off maby you should volunteer.

    June 6, 2010 at 7:13 am | Report abuse |
  5. John J Porambo

    With a little experimatation we have found that using the right fiberous material such as cotton and even boune the product used in clothing dryers, when oil is filtered through the fibers the fibers hold the oil and the water runs through the filter the water comes out the bottom clear. The oil may be easily skimmed and filtered applied to the gulf of Mexico cleanup.

    June 7, 2010 at 10:51 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Shayne Escalante

    I think that it's stupid that they do offshore drilling. But i mean come on trying to stop a tsunami before it hits
    shore. I' would not exactly rather have the shore get hit by a tsunami but that's really stupid I mean millions of sea animals LIVES are at stake.!!!:0

    June 10, 2010 at 11:45 pm | Report abuse |
  7. eric almeida

    We are fighting again with our second brain against the longest ecological disaster in the world . But, we must work very , very hard with our first brain to save ours lives in this next future -Water Decade – Water for Life – 2005 -2015 – as World Health Organization says ; " A child dies in the world every 19 seconds because of lack of water or contaminated water . " We must think and actr responsible as United Nations Organization says : " Only One Ocean "' We are Water Friends NGO in Brazil – – Eric Almeida – Science Researcher from Amigos da Agua

    June 11, 2010 at 11:09 am | Report abuse |
  8. GG

    Revelation 8:8 "The second angel blew his trumpet, and something resembling a great mountain (Deepwater Horizon), blazing with fire, was hurled into the sea.
    Revelation 8:9 And a third of the sea was turned to blood(oil), a third of the living creatures in the sea perished(if the oil makes it into the Atlantic, this could happen), and a third of the ships were destroyed.

    We are certainly living in the last days, just prior to our Lord's return. Look for more of the same. Mankind has run his course, and now it's time for the restoration of all things.

    Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, our High Priest at the Father's right hand, and you shall be saved! He is our protection from the things coming on this earth.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • jill

      I am in absolute agreement with you. Get back to your Bible people.

      June 17, 2010 at 7:18 am | Report abuse |
  9. GG

    I've watched some of the "World's brightest minds" attempt to resolve this situation and it truly does look Biblical. It's as though the Lord is putting blinders on these people. The fix is so simple it's almost comical. One of their ideas would have worked if they would have vented the top of the containment dome until it was situated properly over the BOP. It wouldn't settle down over the leak because of the rising pressure. Simple OPEN the top of the dome until it's locked in place, then close the vents and direct the oil to waiting tankers on the surface.

    My solution would work, but they'd have to build a large version of a Tap-and-Dye. Simply clamp the device onto the BOP, or severed pipe, and proceed to drive a carbon steel tap into the walls of the pipe. Along the shank of the cutting tool would be several rows of rubber O-rings to form the seal and stop the leak. This isn't rocket science. It's a pipe and it's oil.

    June 11, 2010 at 7:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Colin in Florida


      Your ideas will not work. What happened with the dome is that ice formed inside the dome (the lowering of the pressure that the gas was under when it exited the well lowers the temperature), and ice plugged the hole, thus preventing it worm working.

      As to your second proposal, you cannot drive a tap into the steel wall. At the low temperatures involved, the pipe would shatter.

      June 17, 2010 at 12:40 am | Report abuse |
  10. bob

    b.p or whoever can start by hiring more people to clean up the oil spill. Plenty of friends and family including myself has applied to help clean this up and we've been waiting for 2 weeks & counting,still no call... whats going on!!!???

    June 11, 2010 at 7:40 pm | Report abuse |
  11. ananonumuys


    June 14, 2010 at 10:09 am | Report abuse |
  12. Landaux

    They dont want to put people like me to work that live only 2 to 3 hours from the spill here in La. and yet I see alot of out of state tags around here, mainly of course from the north and they seem to come first in job take over as always like back in Houston, because 1 out of every 3 people Ive meet there it seems was either from Michigan, PA, or Oh. Ive applied everywhere I can think of, and no call backs, nothing! Not even the Lousisana Work Force (Employment Agency) says they are hiring people to clean up. They must not want it cleaned up that badly. I am willing and waiting. less

    August 2, 2010 at 4:55 pm | Report abuse |
  13. EmmaCay

    It seems like more and more I'm hearing about all these oil spills. It would seem that we need to be more careful about where and how we are building oil well. Great post.

    October 19, 2011 at 7:35 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Kathye

    We need a comment from the Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry. Landry’s done this berofe—she oversaw the 2003 spill in Buzzards Bay, Massachussets . Then, as now, her initial reports of the spill total were way off. Landry, a Coast Guard rear admiral, has gone from taking reporters’ questions at the White House to giving reporters tours of the damage, but there are also reports that the Coast Guard is keeping reporters and photographers from getting a full picture and doing so at the behest of BP. (The Coast Guard says they are accommodating as many media requests as they can; Landry hasn't commented). We have got to ask how the response to the Gulf of Mexico spill compares to the 2003 Bouchard B 120 oil spill in Buzzards Bay,Massaacusetts? Two things come to mind. First the U.S.Court of appeals never allowed the state of Massachusetts to enforce the Massachusetts Oil Spill Prevention Act of 2004. The Coast Guard appealed the rules because of an intercoastal turf war leaving the state with no new laws to protect the bay. Second the residential property claims of thousands of residents have been tied up in the Massachusetts court system for the past eight years. How will residential property owners around the gulf have to wait? On April 27, 2003, eight years ago the Bouchard Barge B-120 hit an obstacle in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts creating a 12-foot rupture in its hull and discharging an estimated 100,000 gallons of No. 6 oil.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:12 pm | Report abuse |
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