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. Gene

    " BP is abandoning plans to use the “top hat” containment dome to contain the spill for now."

    "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."


    May 27, 2010 at 12:09 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Ronnie

    Someone heeds to tell Bill Nelson he doesn't have clue about to oil patch, and the government wouldn't have a clue of how to even to start controling this well. Bill needs to keep his face out of this.


    May 27, 2010 at 12:27 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Marcus

    What I dont undestand is why in the list above has a Catheter / Balloon block been considered. Knowing the presure levels at the sight of the leak there is little else other then air that we have that can supply enough back presure to contain this leak.

    My idea consists of having a 1000 ft expandable inflatible kevlar sack made to insert into the drill hole that is supplying the leak. It certainly takes less energy to pump the massive cubic footage of air to expand a bag of that size instantly then to pump flashconcrete down to those depths to fill 3 times the space as the kevlar sack would. Air is also a much more reliable substance in determining whether there is or isnt oil leaching through. Air can occupy more space with much more efficiency.

    May 27, 2010 at 1:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • alan C Brown

      At a water depth of 5,000 feet plus another 15,000 feet of hole depth for this oil/gas well to flow 5,000 to 20,000 barrels of oil a day, its flow pressure must be in the 20,000 to 45,000 psi (pounds per square inch) range. The pressure was likely much higher when it blew up.

      The well would not even flow 5,000 feet under salt water unless it had over 3,500 pounds of pressure. Your ballon could not likely handle 10% of 3,500 pounds at the volumes this well is producing even near the surface (100 feet) much less the pressures at 5,000 feet. Also look a the pipe and casing where the leaks are being televised. Sand and rock grit is blown up with the oil and gas at 20,000 to 45,000 psi and cutting the drill pipe and casing like a welding torch. The metals used in drilling are super hard steel alloys over an inch thick; 20,000 feet of drill pipe can weigh 100 to 200 tons depending on diameter used.

      If you factor in the weight of the drilling fluid/mud in the well 200 to 400 tons; cement pumped in ??? tons; or ??? tons of salt water pumped into this well and the well still blew out past the "blow out preventers" – the 45,000 pressure build up in a super size ballon with frozen methane gas and oil coming to the surface from 5,000 feet under water and the static electricity generated should make one heck of an explosion.

      May 27, 2010 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Marcus

    Air would also accelerate the curing process where salt water never positively effects concrete.

    May 27, 2010 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Robert

      The idea is to increase density not lower it by aeration

      May 29, 2010 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gracious Tembo

      Stop the oil spill by inserting a hollow pencil plug into the broken pipe. This wedge can have a collar that would tightly close the broken pipe but at the same time redirecting the oil onto a pipe that will lead to a collecting ship on the surface of water.

      May 30, 2010 at 12:35 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Tom Parker


    We live on the gulf coast near Navarre Bch. My partner works in the hospitality business on Navarre Bch. as a waiter. Because of the Gulf oil crisis,business is not the usual volume.Thus, our household money has decreased. We can't imagine what the impact on Louisiana fishermen's businesses are; not to mention the grave impact on gulg coast wildlife areas!
    BP obviously has not had Adequate Contingency plans!!!! Nor has our government acted appropriately! Independent people/agencies;as well as other countries have offered assistance,but were turned away!!!!
    The Louisiana wetlands ,the strip of beaches from Dauphin Is. to Panama City are some of the the most beautiful beaches in the world!!!! Now only to be destroyed by human degligence!!!!!!!!!!!
    I AM JUST SICK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    May 27, 2010 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • sri

      are you gay ?

      May 28, 2010 at 1:13 pm | Report abuse |


    May 27, 2010 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Ernie Noel

    the president needs to get the navy with deep dive submersibles involved. let them go down and do the job it has to be stopped. bp should be run out of buisness for this. it is going to take longer than kuwait if someone does not do something. the navy can do it, bp can't

    May 27, 2010 at 6:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dave P.

      The deep-dive submersibles being used do not belong to BP; they belong to Oceaneering. And if the Navy were to be asked to perform an undersea job requiring this type of equipment, the Navy would...contract with Oceaneering, just as it has for deep-water operations in the past.
      Not to be snide, but because I spent years working offshore in the oil industry, the public's response to this story is truly teaching me a lesson I didn't think I had to learn: Profound ignorance might prevent the American public from understanding even the basics about a situation, but that won't stop them from forming firm opinions and Monday-morning quarterbacking an event to death.

      As a lifelong citizen of Louisiana and a man for whom conservation of wild habitat is as close to a religion as any cause I hold dear, I understand the frustration of folks who (rightfully) feel as though they can't trust their leaders to do all that needs to be done. But I'd like to assure anyone who will listen that the solution does not and will never lie in and endless stream of "Why don't they..." and "What they should have done is..." and other prescriptives that are borne of sheer ignorance and lack of understanding of the cause of this spill, of the monumentally difficult task of engineering a reliable method to control pressure at the wellhead, and of the time involved for such work to be done without more loss of human life.

      I am finally beginning to understand why the American public remains frustrated with their politicians: Bluntly, they are content to be and to remain simpletons, by and large. And simpletons cannot be expected to identify or elect the kind of leaders who really _are_ leaders.

      So now that I've complained a fair amount, I'll offer a constructive proposal: If you want to really do something that will have a positive impact on this spill and on future spills (because as long as we're extracting oil from the earth, there _will_ be oil spills) start questioning the status quo with respect to the legal status of corporations like BP. Call your senators and representatives. Tell them that the law that caps oil company responsibility for such disasters at $75 million is outrageous and enraging and insulting, considering that BP can (and often does) easily make $75 million in profit in a single _*day*_.

      May 29, 2010 at 3:28 am | Report abuse |
    • Tony

      Dave P, Very well stated.

      June 5, 2010 at 10:15 am | Report abuse |
  8. Mark Paradis

    I Imagine that if one would manufacture a special high velocity projectile and shoot it down the mail well at 20 miles per second, It would penetrate several hundred feet with forward momentum... At the time of zero forward velocity, that projectile would ve designed to shoot high strength tinsel filament anchoes 360 degrees to form what will look like a spider web's anchor threads (only a whole lot more). A 2nd charge in the projectile would then expluse a coumpound that hardens instantly and expands a million fold below the tinsel web deeply embedded in the steel casing. This should create an instant plug thats more or less fused to the well pipe itself. The trick will be to create a launch platform (to fire the device with ultra velocity to penetrate the well deep enough to anchor the filament web and detonate the coumpound creating the seal) ~~ Any experts on here on high velocity projectiles... high tinsel steel or carbon fiber filament... rapid hardening acrylics ??? I think this is a great idea. Perhaps firing filaments is just one idea to create the surface to secure a stable plug... Maybe steel rods connected in a way so they fold outwards when the oil pushes the device back out... like the thing a chimney cleaner uses with all the steel bristles facing up towards the surface but connected in the center so when the item is pushed outwards by the oil, it will lock itself in place !!

    May 27, 2010 at 11:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • cassidy nichols

      While this may work in theory it would take a significant amount of time in "research and development." Given that a relief well should be complete in the next two months I think the well would be the quicker solution.

      May 28, 2010 at 11:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Minto sylvestre

      Brilliant idea. Unfortunately oil companies (especially British Petroleum) isn't interested in spending money on these safeguards and our brave government isn't up to enforcing anything the oil companies don't want to do. The gov't hasn't orgainized the necessary engineering and scientific brains to take responsibility for any of this. They leave it up to the Coast Guard, who cerainly isn't qualified to oversee this catastrophe and make bombastic speeches about "foot on the throat of BP" and "I am responsible". CG Rear Admiral Mary Landry's assessment was "This isn't a catastrophe. It is a serious situation which we are monitoring", as given to her from BP.

      May 28, 2010 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rocko

      Unfortunately to do this you need a straight shot down the well. There's a huge busted up BOP sitting on top of the well preventing any type of easy or straight access to the well hole itself. If access to the well hole easy and straight, you could use your method, but could simply jam it down the hole rather than 'shoot' or 'launch' it. Creative though I'll give you that.

      May 28, 2010 at 7:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Colin in Florida

      Great idea-but one question-what are the mythical compounds you mention? Answer-they don't exist.

      Reminds me of an idea put forth in 1940 for the English to defeat the Nazi blitz. Guy proposed that once a Nazi plane became fixed in a searchlight beam, the beam could be solidified. Of course, he never explained how to do that.

      June 17, 2010 at 12:45 am | Report abuse |
  9. Dar

    Honestly it seems like the pumping mud idea is a fart in the wind concept- maybe if it slows it enough and they could immediately pump tons of cement in the hole, but at the pressures does the cement have a prayer to dry before the mud would give way and pushes everything out at full speed again. Starting to agree that the military or someone is gonna have to get creative with it. Some sort of underwater weapon that would collapse or seal the whole thing up, with a little luck anyway. OR Somehow lower the biggest piece of mountain or granite the military can move on it. Or lower the biggest, thickest block of steel that exists on it- solid steel maybe a 20- 50 yards thick? Either way someone is gonna have to get creative and think BIG and stop this finesse crap

    May 28, 2010 at 12:48 am | Report abuse |
  10. Bill Joseph

    Maybe some day the correct information on the step the drillers left out will probably come out, like removing the drill mud behind the concrete plug too soon just to try to save some money. All of this was to get the well on line a little faster!

    May 28, 2010 at 8:09 am | Report abuse |
  11. Jim

    Obama wants it both ways He's in charge of sucess and not responsible for failure. This position is in an of itself a statement of failure and lack of leadership

    Instead of commissions to find fault put thgether review panels to find solutions, cut the red tape out – I mean doing an environmental impact statement? Unbelievably stupid this warrants firing if you are "In Charge and Take Responsibility" Obama either knock some heads over at EPA or turn in your resignation and let someone take charge who is going to address the problem.

    May 28, 2010 at 8:48 am | Report abuse |
    • cassidy nichols

      While I understand your frustration you have to remember that there is nothing our government can do. The navy doesn't operate sub's that can dive to 5000 feet, so we are left at the mercy of the private sector– oil companies. All we can do is run an EIS to find out where the damage is right now and where it is likely to be so that we can focus on the clean-up as efficiently as possible. As for stopping the problem, all that we can do is make failure so unattractive that the private sector is motivated to find a resolution quickly and effectively. So far what's been done is what any President would do, because it is all they can do.

      May 28, 2010 at 12:01 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Courtney

    There have been several good and realistic solutions, to stop the Well from leaking, from companies and individuals that have proven expertise to back up there idea/ solution.
    From a basic engineering point of view there needs to be parallel development for finding a solution, work toward more than one way of fixing the problem, don’t wait to save the well or be concerned with stopping production from this well head, shut it down as fast as possible.
    Blast it shut as Dr. Rich Pryor has experience in creative solutions and is trusted; Sandia Laboratories is ready to work just trying to contact BP to shut it down using an explosive charge deep below the seafloor to close the pipe.
    Or as another company suggested a millwright, can develop a large hydraulic crimp tool to crimp the pipe closed, both are realistic and comparatively cost effective.
    The two current backup plans BP has on the table, drilling more wells deep in the sea floor and pumping mud, or trying to force a loose fitting plug with a small tube to start sucking oil to the surface, don’t sound like a real solution and are not real proven solutions, as well the two possibilities I have mentioned are not proven, but common sense tells me that the two ideas hold more realism then what is currently on the table.
    Someone needs to get in touch to these two people soon, they have viable solutions, and there solutions are hours and days away from being implemented, cost effective and most importantly realistic

    May 28, 2010 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Doug

    Perhaps if we shot the collective egos of the BP Management and R&D teams into the hole we could stop the leak.

    May 28, 2010 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Northerner

      The pipe isnt big enough for that.

      May 29, 2010 at 10:39 am | Report abuse |
  14. Sarah Berry

    My husband had another idea that just might work for capping the oil gusher. Although we are not about sinking a large old barge ship (not in use anymore) of many tons to cover the hole and stop the oil? We are not sure if the pressure coming from the hole could be managed with the weight of the barge above it...but just a thought. We know the weight of the barge would also sink a fair bit into the ocean floor and the barge may serve as a kind of "basin stopper". Thanks so much for reading my husband's idea.

    May 30, 2010 at 8:13 am | Report abuse |
  15. 綱手- Penny

    I'm glad people are starting to think of solutions – as shown by the blog entry. Love them – they are FAR better than what BP has come up with so far. lol I rather like the tampon idea. It seems that the complicating factor in all of this is the depth of the location where the leaking well resides. I don't believe BP when it says that they don't know about repairing things "at this level" as they would have had contingency plans should something like this happen – or should have had them, anyway. I believe that outside of lawsuits, blaming, finger-pointing and higher crude prices there will be some very spirited discussion on new technology for deep-water drilling, which is sorely needed.

    June 1, 2010 at 12:25 pm | Report abuse |
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