As Bill Clinton joins 'bomb the well' club, experts wince

Former President Clinton this week joined a chorus of those advocating a swift, severe end to the devastating Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

They are urging the military to blast the failed BP PLC well.

"Unless we send the Navy down deep to blow up that well and cover the leak with piles and piles and piles of rock and debris ... unless we're going to do that, we are dependent on the technical expertise of these people from BP," Clinton told a forum in South Africa.

The idea has been kicked around for weeks on blogs and talk shows and at a cocktail parties. Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), for example, said this on an Atlanta radio show last week: "For the life of me, I can't understand why BP couldn't go into the ocean floor ... drill a few holes and put a little ammonium nitrate, some dynamite, in those holes and detonate that dynamite and seal that leak. And seal it permanently."

But drilling experts say blowing up the well could make the disaster worse.


"It's an all-or-nothing-type thing," said Bill Eustes, a petroleum-engineering professor at the Colorado School of Mines. "When you jump off a cliff, you're going down."

Crews would have one shot at sealing the wellbore, he said. If they fail, he added, "then you're in real trouble."

At issue is the steel casing pipe that lines the borehole. It is cemented in place and in some cases is several layers thick. Any explosion attempting to seal the well would have to blow through and collapse all those layers of cement and steel, Eustes said.

"What if you leave even a small amount of gap in the system and oil can work its way through?" Eustes asked. "Now you're in even worse shape than before."

A partial collapse of the wellbore would not staunch the flow, but it would prevent drillers from getting back into the wellbore to try a more conventional kill approach.

"It's an all-or-nothing proposition," Eustes warned.

Robert Wine, a spokesman for BP echoed those concerns when he said the British oil giant was not considering explosives as a possible option for killing the well.

"I hate to criticize a former president," Wine said. "But if you want to make the problem worse, that's probably a good way to do it."

But criticism of the technique has not prevented scientists from kicking around the idea.

On the popular blog, "The Oil Drum," which is frequented by petroleum engineers and other oil-industry specialists, several postings have probed the topic. Their conclusion: Forget about bombing the well.

"This is not a leaking garden hose," one posting says.

Relief wells

Eustes said nature sometimes performs a version of well collapse to seal off runaway wells.

"Nature does it quite often," he said, adding that open sections of rock can collapse in on themselves, sealing off wellbores. "That has happened on occasion with wells that are out of control."

But the only semi-plausible way to simulate such a collapse would involve sending explosives 3 miles down the wellbore to the reservoir.

"Shoot! That's a relief well to start with," Eustes said.

BP is currently drilling two relief wells that are slated to intersect the wellbore sometime in early August, though some have estimated the company could hit paydirt sooner. Once the drillers hit their target, they will pump thousands of gallons of heavy drilling muds and cement into the wellbore to permanently seal the well shut and staunch the flow.

But some have worried about BP's prospects for success. After all, the company has to hit a narrow pipe less than a foot wide more than 4 miles below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

Clinton is among the skeptics, concerned that the relief wells might not work.

"This," he said, "is a geological monster."

With his bomb proposal, Clinton did add a warning.

"The Navy could probably stop it, but there are all kinds of consequences that would have to be considered," he said. "You could shut that well, but what else might you do that might upset the ecostructure of the Gulf?"

And he's not advocating to detonate nuclear explosives at the site.

"You don't have to use a nuclear weapon -- by the way, I've seen all that stuff -- just blow it up," Clinton said.

Other pundits and analysts have suggested setting off a nuclear bomb near the well to plug it. Decades ago, the Soviet Union reportedly did just that to seal off runaway gas wells.

But that idea was quickly laughed off by the Obama administration.

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