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. Barbie T

    Is that as in Bull Berms? What a mess.

    May 25, 2010 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • matt

      yea here is one give all bp assets to the american people. they need to pay for everything they are still cleaning up the exon spill 20 years later how long for this one. my uncle just lost his entire livelyhood they just closed his fishing grounds and lost 100,000 year. that is one person how many people lost everything. it sickens me to see this. we worry about air pollution does't more than 60 percent of the air production comes from the sea? yea we will choke this year.

      June 4, 2010 at 8:43 am | Report abuse |
    • Donna

      If BP seriously wants to make ammends, not just in the clean up effort, which is their legal responsibility, they can lower gas prices for the people in the regions of the spill and leave them that way. After all is said and done, we are the ones who will pay for the lost revenue to our states in higher taxation and additional taxation.

      June 5, 2010 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • anonymous

      Bid for Oil Recovery Workers Act
      Clean up recovery workers wage: @ 27.00 per hour.
      Wage per week estimate at: $ 1080.
      Health insurance issuance per worker @ $1,551.25 @ six workers = $ 9,307.05
      Estimated 6 workers per acre site – per day estimated recovery = 150 mph & drum capacities of 6 gal. ... 0.18 cu. m/hour to 0.42 cu. m/hour flow rate, 750 kg to 4500 kg weight 12000 V to 1380 V x 8 hours.
      Fueling cost per wet vacuums @ 1380 V 30 gallons @ 2.98 x 8 hours x 6 wet vacuums = $10.01 x 6 = $300.38 weekly.
      36 gallons waste oil – one 50 gallon drum with recovery and waste water removal = 216 gallons…Need 5 50 gallon drums – 2 process drums for waste water removal.
      Rent and Storage: 6400 sq ft. @ 1,500.
      Cost per drum @ 50 metals for $250 @ $1750 x 3 sets for storage and delivery to waste oil processing facilities.
      Transportation costs: estimated mpg@ $2.98 for diesel @ 5 deliveries and pick up – barrel drums @ = $500 fueling cost per week.
      Penske 26 foot truck @ $150 per day with full coverage insurance @ 30 days = $4,500.
      Area: Site location 1; Site location 2; Site location 3;
      Total estimated cost per month per six employees.
      Wages: $25,920.
      Health Insurance: $9,307.50.
      Cost 6 Wet Vacuums: $1,440.
      28 / 50 gallon waste drums: $7,000.
      Rent and Storage: $1,500.
      Fueling costs @ 6 wet vacuums: $1,201.54.
      Transportation costs: $4,500.
      Repair costs: $1,200.
      Clothing and hazardous clothing attire: $45.00 per uniform @ 6 = per month $2,400.00.
      Transportation Fuel costs: $1,800.
      Total Monthly Cost: $56,269.04
      Total Yearly Cost: $573,948.48
      *Distribution and contaminant – dependant on recovery and recycling sites.
      **Wet Vat consumption and containment estimate per 50 gallon drum @ rate per hour x 6 employees at 8 hour intervals.
      ***Estimated hours per week @ 40 hours each worker @ $672.00 weekly @ $27.00 per hour
      These are real costs associated with the clean up and recovery workers bidding on areas to help restore and preserve the coast lines along the affected oil spills.
      This is why the government wants you to bid.
      You are worth more than free use of time.
      Submit your bid now…and help restore the coat land areas.
      Be sure to communicate with those who will and can help start the bidding process.
      Go to the Bureau of Land Management and get an estimate on the areas you will be working.
      Work with the local agencies to help the bidding process.

      June 17, 2010 at 2:22 am | Report abuse |
    • PAUL


      July 20, 2010 at 9:50 pm | Report abuse |

    the FAST and EASY ways to STOP the oil spill:

    May 25, 2010 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Human

      . . . lol joking right?

      May 25, 2010 at 5:36 pm | Report abuse |
  3. ruffnutt

    why not shove some tampons down in there? about two pallets should do it.

    May 25, 2010 at 5:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • bunger

      That's actually not such a bad idea...

      May 25, 2010 at 8:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Techguy

      They'll be all wet and expanded by the time they get down to 5,000 feet......

      May 26, 2010 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • 綱手- Penny

      lol- I love that idea. Hey, it's a better idea than anything "high tech" that has been tried thus far by BP....I'll gladly donate some of mine to the cause.

      June 1, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Report abuse |
  4. upstateNY,Ernest

    I think ruffnutt is thinking in the right direction. Yet us rednecks up here in upstate New York think on a grander scale.....My definition of a "TOP KILL" is you get all the stuffed shirts... The executives resonsible; The top dogs at Halleburton,Transocean,And BP, Put them on trial for irreversable crimes against humanity:Give them all the Electric Chair: "Just to make shure this doesnt happen again". THAT IS A TOP KILL!!!!!Next move would be the "Junk Shot", That involves "Shooting their lifeless bodies down the pipe intern"Cloging up the Blowout Preventer". This we beleive will work!..........Dont get me wrong i say this with all the love i have left in my heart;for bureaucrats.

    May 25, 2010 at 7:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • sickofthiscrap

      Wow!! That was just ugly!

      June 22, 2010 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
  5. don b

    Have any of the suggestions from the public been reviewed and considered to stop this oil leak?

    May 25, 2010 at 8:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • brad case

      I do not know. I am a surgeon, and have a friend who is a mechanical engineer. We have the solution to this leak, and have sent a detailed drawing of the concept to the executives high up in BP. We have not gotten an answer, but a preliminary response is that it "looks promising". We do not know where else to turn for exposure to our idea to get this situation under control.

      May 26, 2010 at 11:59 am | Report abuse |
  6. pitviper

    nicely put Ernest!!! He he he he!!!

    May 25, 2010 at 9:29 pm | Report abuse |
  7. UpstateNY Ernest

    Well I Guess We Will See What The Circus In The Wishingwell Has In Store For Us All ........My Friend........"Pitviper". Can you tell i have family in the Florida Keys?? I Also Have A House In Aventura :Basically Its North Miami. I Have Many Friends That Live In The Gulf Coast; From New Orleans To Pennsicola To Panama City To Destin To Fort Walton Beach,Saint Petersburgh,Tampa,The TEN Thousand Islands,Isla Morada ,Miami,Hollywood,Fort Lauderdale,Last but not least Good OL SAINT AUGUSTINE......SO ITS EASY TO UNDERSTAND WHY IM ENRAGED WITH THIS DISPLAY OF SHEER STUPIDITY/ POLITICAL NAUSIUM, IN THIS LAND OF DENILE.

    May 25, 2010 at 11:50 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Roger

    Why don't they have a bunch of vacuum hoses pumping up as much oil as possible while this is leaking.

    Dispersing the oil means spreading it around. How stupid. BP is just looking for a cheap way to make the problem go away. Let the oil float to the surface and clean it up from there.

    May 26, 2010 at 11:13 am | Report abuse |
    • Don Anderson

      roger , seawater weighs 64lbs per cubic foot 5000×64=320000/144= 2222.22psi which would colapse the hoses.

      May 26, 2010 at 12:36 pm | Report abuse |
  9. brad case

    I am a vascular surgeon, and have a friend who is a mechanical engineer. We have submitted a detailed concept drawing of a solution to this leak to BP executives, and have been told that it looks "promising" We are waiting for a
    response. We feel if we could just get the idea looked at by the BP COO, we could get this leak controlled. IS there ANYONE OUT THERE WHO WOULD LIKE TO TAKE A LOOK AT THIS?

    May 26, 2010 at 12:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Don Anderson

      i would like to look at it

      May 26, 2010 at 12:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Charsan

      Brad i want to see.

      May 26, 2010 at 1:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • chris

      whats ur idea?
      are u just joking?

      June 6, 2010 at 5:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • chris

      and i would like to see

      June 6, 2010 at 5:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Phil

      Hi Doc, Good idea, or how about something like a giant angioplasty procedure whereby the ballon inserted with a metal rod into the pipe and then inflated with very high pressure air stream. The device would be similar to air cushion springs that are used on class 7/8 truck trailers.

      June 20, 2010 at 2:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • w. smith

      i would be interested in your designed system as to how it works. thanks

      July 13, 2010 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Haz

    I'm a drilling engineer, and I truly think the "top kill" method will not work. If this is in a contained environment, yeah sure, it'll work. The higher mud weight will stop the flow and then the cement job will seal it. But, this is on the seabed, open environment with water current etc. A relief well will work for sure, but this takes time. Good luck BP !

    May 26, 2010 at 1:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • JohnAB

      Haz, I agree. The best we can hope for is that it slows down the flow a bit, while praying that the BOP system does not break a leak. Think about it... they're trying to inject mud and concrete into the system starting at the end of the broken riser pipe, right? And the riser pipe is almost a mile long? Isn't the wellhead pressure something like 15,000 PSI? Well, good luck... they'll need it!

      May 26, 2010 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Carl

    I would like to see some more information about the natural pressure forcing the oil out, what the estimated amount of oil at this site is, and how long this flow will last if not stopped.

    Also, not in an attempt to minimize this disaster, I would like some more info on the Ixtoc 1 oil spill about 30 years ago. Another very large spill in the gulf would seem to be a better reference for short and long term consequences.

    May 26, 2010 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Richie Rich

    I think that the highly skilled team of world class engineers should abandon their current strategies and look to internet bloggers for the answer to this problem.

    May 26, 2010 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
  13. JW

    Has anyone suggested explosives to collapse the darn thing in on itself? Or would that make the well unusable for the future and therefore out of the question. (Can’t give up those future possible $$$)

    May 26, 2010 at 7:26 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Dano Boone

    Those people normally set up for tourism down there along the coast in Grand Isle etc. could band together and start some cleanup tourism. Heck I'd go and make it a summer trip. It is awesome down there and we need to be around some of those good people right about now chipping in and helping them out. Heck have Fema bring over some of their nifty trailers left over from Kat for us to bunk up in.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:27 pm | Report abuse |
  15. kimberly h

    Now why want you let kevin Costner come in with his machine and let it see if it works or are you to scared and actor who spent 15 years of his own money to let him try you think it might embarres you, It pulls oil and water through two different ways i think you should let him try,If it can save the ocean before hurricane season my gosh at this point try anything please before all is gone come on Obama you have nothing to lose sincerly, kim

    May 27, 2010 at 11:44 am | Report abuse |
    • Phil

      Kim, Not so far fetched, Hedy Lamar is credited and has a patent with inventing the frequency-switching system for torpedo guidance that was two decades ahead of its time. That was in 1942. The invention is credited as a turning point in WWII naval warfare.

      June 20, 2010 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
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