BP Oil Disaster Solution: 'Just Blow It Up'?

Despite controversy, some still favor using explosives to plug BP oil well.

June 30, 2010 — -- Is it time to blow up the gushing BP oil well? Much like the oil spill itself, it's an idea that keeps spreading despite efforts by the Obama administration to contain it. Most recently, former president Bill Clinton voiced his support for the "just blow it up" solution.

It may become necessary to "send the Navy down deep to blow up the well and cover the leak with piles and piles and piles of rock and debris," Clinton said at a weekend forum hosted by several news organizations. "...Unless we're going to do that, we are dependent on the technical expertise of these people from BP."

Clinton's comments came weeks after government officials dismissed the explosive solution.

"I think we'd have to run out of a lot of things before we'd consider something like that," Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen told "Good Morning America" earlier this month. He later said that even a non-nuclear explosion -- considered by some to be less controversial and less dangerous -- could also prove more hurtful than helpful.

Some who have floated the idea agree that it's risky, but ask whether explosives would be any worse than the status quo -- up to 60,000 barrels of oil are leaking into the Gulf of Mexico each day and BP's efforts to drill relief wells to plug the leak are more than a month away from completion.

"At what point do the real damages that pile up outweigh the potential risks of something like weapons use a couple of thousand feet below the sea floor?" said Michael E. Webber, the associate director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas at Austin. Webber was among the first to publicly raise the possibility of using explosives to seal the BP well; he says that he does not necessarily support the idea, but maintains that it's worth consideration.

Here's how he and others say the explosives proposal could work: Near the failed BP Macado oil well, another hole would have to be drilled some 3,000 feet down. Explosives would then be lowered into that hole. Detonating those explosives would create a cavity below the sea floor that would envelop a section of the neighboring BP well and plug it with rubble.

Blowing Up the Well Could Create More Leaks, Diplomatic Headaches

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Christopher Brownfield, a former nuclear submarine officer and a nuclear policy researcher at Columbia University, compared the solution to "stepping on a garden house (to stop) a stream of water."

But opponents of the solution, including BP itself, argue it's a lot more complicated than that. The explosion, they say, could potentially disturb rock formations that had helped contain some oil, resulting in new leaks.

"The problem with exploding a highly powerful device down there -- you essentially lose any and all control," a BP spokesman said. The explosion, he said, could create new "flow paths" for the oil.

"Now, instead of having leak coming from one wellhead, you would have it come from 100 different locations on the seafloor," said Paul Fischbeck, an oil platform expert and a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. "How do you stop that?"

Proponents counter that the depth at which the explosion would occur could prevent that possibility.

"If you go deep enough underground, nothing gets out," said former Air Force Secretary Hans Mark, now an engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin specializing in national defense policy.

Mark and others point to the former Soviet Union's strategy of capping out-of-control gas wells with below-ground nuclear explosions.

But others argue that the fact that the BP well is an oil well -- not a gas well -- and that it is underwater (unlike the Soviets' gas wells) make the situation too different to be comparable to the Soviet experience. There's also the Soviets' not-so-reassuring success rate: though the U.S.S.R. successfully plugged four gas wells with nuclear explosives, its last effort in 1981 failed.

"A 20 percent failure rate is way beyond anything that would be acceptable here," said Fischbeck.

Choosing a nuclear explosive, in particular, could land the U.S. in a diplomatic pickle, nuclear policy experts warn.

"The United States has signed a treaty that we would not explode nuclear weapons under water or anywhere else," said John Isaacs, the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which nations began to sign in 1996, puts a moratorium on nuclear weapons testing. Were the U.S. to run afoul of the treaty, experts say, states like Iran might use that to justify their own nuclear weapons exercises.

Brownfield argues that conventional explosives could be used instead and so does Clinton.

"You don't have to use nuclear weapons, by the way. I've seen all that stuff, just blow it up," the former president said at last weekend's media event.

But not everyone -- including proponents of the explosives idea -- is so sure. Mark says it would take larger conventional explosives to match the power of nuclear ones, and they might prove trickier to transport.

It's a "problem of getting to the pipe," he said.

"You'd have to get very close, and you'd have to be very lucky."