Update: The "Top Kill" was officially declared a failure by BP Saturday afternoon.
"Top kill." That has been the phrase on the lips of every network news talking head, and in the lead paragraph of every news report, all throughout this last week. British Petroleum (BP) describes the process this way: "The primary objective of the top kill process is to put heavy kill mud into the well so that it reduces the pressure and then the flow from the well. Once the kill mud is in the well and it's shut down, then we follow up with cement to plug the leak."
Think about that for a second. Here was the Deepwater Horizon, an absolute marvel of high-flying engineering and construction, until it exploded and collapsed into the sea. Afterward, here was this hole in the ocean spewing raw crude into the fertile waters of the Gulf. Despite all the fantastic technological prowess evidenced in the construction of the Deepwater Horizon, it's failure left us so buggered for answers to the oil vomiting from the hole they drilled that they are down to stuffing mud into it and praying that works.
Maybe it has, actually. Friday's New York Times suggested as much, reporting, "By injecting solid objects overnight as well as heavy drilling fluid into the stricken well leaking oil into the Gulf of Mexico, engineers appeared to have stemmed the flow of oil." However, the report goes on to state that we won't really know if it worked for another day or so, and even if it did work, the leak could start up again without warning.
Let's all take a huge, arm-flapping leap of faith for a moment and assume the "top kill" mud bomb did in fact work, and the oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster has actually been stopped. A lot of people will probably do some victory dancing on your television screen - BP officials, Coast Guard officials and maybe even the president - and if they do, it is your moral obligation to scream at them until you feel like your throat could burst.
This is just beginning, and even with the oil spigot turned off (for now), it is going to get much, much worse, and will stay that way for a very long time.
This thing has been spewing as much as 19,000 barrels of oil into the ocean per day, every day, for the last five weeks. There are tens of millions of gallons of oil down there, swirling around in the currents and making their way toward a long and desperately fragile shoreline.
Here is one example of what we're all going to be hearing about for the next several months, if not years, to come:
Marine scientists have discovered a massive new plume of what they believe to be oil deep beneath the Gulf of Mexico, stretching 22 miles (35 kilometers) from the leaking wellhead northeast toward Mobile Bay, Alabama. The discovery by researchers on the University of South Florida College of Marine Science's Weatherbird II vessel is the second significant undersea plume recorded since the Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20.
The thick plume was detected just beneath the surface down to about 3,300 feet (1,000 meters), and is more than 6 miles (9.6 kilometers) wide, said David Hollander, associate professor of chemical oceanography at the school. Hollander said the team detected the thickest amount of hydrocarbons, likely from the oil spewing from the blown out well, at about 1,300 feet (nearly 400 meters) in the same spot on two separate days this week.
The discovery was important, he said, because it confirmed that the substance found in the water was not naturally occurring and that the plume was at its highest concentration in deeper waters. The researchers will use further testing to determine whether the hydrocarbons they found are the result of dispersants or the emulsification of oil as it traveled away from the well.
The first such plume detected by scientists stretched from the well southwest toward the open sea, but this new undersea oil cloud is headed miles inland into shallower waters where many fish and other species reproduce. The researchers say they are worried these undersea plumes may be the result of the unprecedented use of chemical dispersants to break up the oil a mile undersea at the site of the leak.
Who knows how many of those plumes are lurking in the Gulf? Where will they go, and when will they arrive? Will this oil be carried around Florida and up the Eastern Seaboard, drowning beaches and fishing grounds and every ecosystem it encounters? How much damage will be done by the dispersants that will be used to quell the oil damage?
I don't know. Neither do you. BP doesn't know; the Coast Guard doesn't know; the president doesn't know. Nobody knows.
We're going to find out, though. Slowly, dreadfully, we are going to find out.
Factor this in before you think this is as bad as it can get: it's about to be high, hot summer in the Gulf. Cleaning up oil at sea and on land when it's above 90 degrees and brutally humid will test the endurance of every human who dares to assist in the clean-up. People died when the Deepwater went down, and mark my words, people will die cleaning up the mess.
This, too: it's about to be hurricane season:
The upcoming Atlantic hurricane season will likely be a busy one and may spawn as many as 23 named tropical storms, including up to seven major hurricanes, the U.S. government said Thursday.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted that eight to 14 storms would strengthen into hurricanes, with top winds of 74 mph (119 kph) or higher. Three to seven of those could become major storms that reach Category 3 or higher - meaning they bring sustained winds of at least 111 mph (179 kph).
"If this outlook holds true, this season could be one of the more active on record," NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco said in a statement. "The greater likelihood of storms brings an increased risk of a landfall. In short, we urge everyone to be prepared."
So, let's be clear. There are millions of gallons of oil threatening thousands of miles of coastlines, ecosystems and livelihoods. Nobody knows how much there is, or where it will appear, or when. It's about to be brutally hot exactly where the clean-up needs to happen, and a whole slew of hurricanes and tropical storms are on the way.
And our best response is to fill a hole with mud, just like the little Dutch boy facing 11 holes in the dike with only ten fingers on his hands. All of this because we are so addicted to oil that the petroleum companies like BP were allowed to "regulate" themselves.
Top kill indeed.