When BP's newest spill-containment strategy in the Gulf yielded such encouraging initial results, many asked why the oil giant didn't hit on this solution earlier in the crisis.
The short answer is that the model of the well cap now in place didn't exist in the earlier stages of the spill saga. But what's more noteworthy than the timing issue is the likelihood that the device owes its origin to the same authority that any homeowner turns to in order to get a leak plugged: a professional plumber.
That, at any rate, is the theory that the Christian Science Monitor's Patrik Jonsson has floated — and the recent sequence of events leading to the plugging of the leak make it seem plausible.
Jonsson reports that six weeks ago, University of California, Berkeley, engineering professor Robert Bea received a late-night call from an anonymous plumber. According to Bea — who had formerly worked as an oil-industry executive before his present gig as an academically backed manager of engineering crises — the "mystery plumber" reached out to him because he had an idea for how to plug BP's busted well in the Gulf. The plumber provided Bea with sketches of a containment cap that upgraded some of the design flaws in the cap the oil company deployed in its unsuccessful bid to plug the leak several weeks ago.
Bea passed the plumber's sketches on to a contact at the Coast Guard and to a panel of experts who were evaluating proposed schemes to repair the leak submitted by the general public. Jonsson writes that when Bea first got a glimpse of the containment cap that has stopped the flow of oil into the Gulf, he noticed striking similarities to the designs dreamed up by the plumber.
"The idea was using the top flange on the blowout preventer as an attachment point and then employing an internal seal against that flange surface," Bea told Jonsson. "You can kind of see how a plumber thinks this way. That's how they have to plumb homes for sewage."
BP spokesman Mark Salt told Jonsson that he presently has "no way of finding out" if the well-capping crew used any of the mystery plumber's ideas. Salt added that there's "a good chance that this was already being designed" when Bea handed over the sketches.
Still, there's one way that BP's containment officials can be sure if they followed the plumber's blueprint: When he submits his three-figure-an-hour bill.