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The Science of Taming the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
For three months in 2010, following the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, thick oil spread out across the Gulf of Mexico as rippling surface waters transformed from blue to shades of orange and brown. The oil thinned as it slicked out more than a thousand miles from the Macondo well, outlining areas of the spill with a sheen rainbow.

On Tuesday during the March Colloquium, Dr. Paul Hsieh, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, spoke to a crowd at NASA’s Langley Research Center about his role in ending the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill (also called the BP oil spill), which earned him the Federal Employee of the Year medal in 2011.

Dr. Paul Hsieh.

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During the March Colloquium at NASA's Langley Research Center, Dr. Paul Hsieh, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, shared the chart he received on his phone from a colleague. Hsieh analyzed the well pressure data to help determine if the containment cap should remain on the well. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

BP oil spill, AVIRIS airborne measurement.

AVIRIS airborne measurement acquired May 17, 2010, over the site of the Deepwater Horizon BP oil rig disaster. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Dryden/USGS/UC Santa Barbara

“Like almost all of you, I am a government scientist and probably just like you, we do our work in our field of specialty and we interact with our colleagues in our field of specialty, and that’s most of what we do,” Hseih said. “But once in a while, you just happen to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right skills, and one is able to make a contribution in a somewhat out of ordinary situation.”

At the age of 14, Hseih’s parents immigrated to the US from Hong Kong to give their children a chance at the American dream. Hseih’s dream came true when he became a civil servant after graduating from Princeton University and the University of Arizona.

When he started his studies in civil engineering, he was interested in mechanical and aeronautical engineering. But somewhere along the way he “fell in love with water,” and completed his Master’s and PhD in hydrology and water resources.

Even Hseih couldn’t have dreamed up the course that was set in motion by those decisions.

As attempt after attempt to contain the Deepwater Horizon spill failed, he was one of a team of government scientists asked to take the lead role in finding a solution.

Eighty-seven days after the explosion, a 75-ton containment cap was temporarily placed on the gushing wellhead.

The process of permanently killing off the well meant that a relief well would be drilled about a half mile away, angled to intervene at the bottom of Macondo well. Then cement would be injected, closing off the well completely.

But that process would take months to complete. In the interim, they had to determine if the temporary cap was a viable option.

The potential hazard of keeping the cap on was that an underground blowout could occur if oil leaked out of the rupture disks of the rig, possibly fracturing underground rock and creating a new flow path for the oil.

From the time the cap was placed, a well integrity team, which included Hseih, had 24 hours to determine if the cap should stay or be removed. About six hours after that placement, at around 8:30 p.m., Hseih, who had relocated from BP’s headquarters in Houston back to Menlo Park in California, received a cell phone photo of a chart showing pressure readings from the well.

With the mobile image, and without modeling software or time to rest, Hseih pulled an all-nighter filled with creating and solving equations. He presented his findings the next morning.

After his evaluation, along with additional evidence from other experts, the government recommendation on the morning of July 16, 2010, was that the Macondo well be allowed to remain shut in by the cap until permanent closure was complete.

“Information from different sources came together to tell a happy story,” Hseih said, adding that the team also relied on satellite data from NASA.

The well remained shut in, still under heavy monitoring and consistent analysis. A dreaded underground blowout never happened and no further spilling occurred. The well was successfully ‘killed’ in September 2010.

“All the work that we do really makes a contribution to our society, and most of the time we do in it a way where it’s not very much noticed,” Hseih said, “and once in a while we’re able to do something that is out of ordinary.”

By: Denise Lineberry

The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman