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Commentary: Stopping the Gulf oil spill with oatmeal and a very long straw

An absolutely true news item: British Petroleum says it is considering a plan to plug the main leak on the sunken Deepwater Horizon oil rig by shooting it full of shredded car tires, old golf balls and knotted ropes.

British Petroleum announced today that it has fired its top engineer for safety design and replaced him with Jody McNamara, age 12, a sixth-grade honors student at the Dwight Eisenhower Middle School in Tulsa, Okla.

McNamara, who will earn about $350,000 a year in salary and stock options, was offered the BP job after a panel of industry experts selected his 250-word essay, "How To Stop Undersea Oil Leaks Really Quick," over thousands of other entries.

"Jody is clearly on the cutting edge of deepwater energy technology,'' said BP chief executive Tony Hayward. "We couldn't be happier to have him join our team at such a critical time."

McNamara was introduced to reporters at a lunch-hour press conference in the school cafeteria. He said his first priority would be devising a new strategy for dealing with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"I don't want to talk trash about these other guys," he said, "but come on -- golf balls and car tires? Seriously?"

It was not clear whether McNamara has any prior experience advising major petroleum companies. The school yearbook lists him as a member of the Science Club, Chess Club and 4-H. His interests are said to include "soccer, skateboarding and collecting really cool arrowheads."

The hiring of an outsider didn't surprise industry insiders, who say BP had run out of ideas in its increasingly desperate efforts to plug the mile-deep Deepwater Horizon.

A four-story dome that was supposed to fit over the gushing wellhead became clogged with icy crystals and had to be towed away. Burning off the floating crude has had only limited success, as gobs of tar are threatening shorelines and marine life all along the Gulf coast.

"What Jody brings to the table," said BP's Hayward, "is a completely fresh viewpoint on problem-solving. The principal showed us his class project from last semester -- the hamster-powered light bulb? I'm telling you, this kid is scary smart."

In his winning essay, McNamara proposed several possible options for sealing the ruptured oil pipeline. He said the most promising plan would require "a super-long straw" and approximately 3,700 metric tons of Quaker oatmeal.

"You ever let that goop sit in a cereal bowl for an hour or two? It turns to rock," the sixth-grader explained at his press conference. "There's nothing that stuff won't clog up."

McNamara said he successfully tested the technique using a homemade Lego model of the Deepwater Horizon, submerged in a 30-gallon aquarium in his brother's bedroom.

"Don't worry, we took out all the fish first," he said.

Hayward later conceded that the aquarium experiment was more sophisticated than any that BP had undertaken. "It could have saved us the fortune that we blew on that stupid dome," he added ruefully.

Classmates describe McNamara as studious but not stuffy.

One recounted a prank that occurred on a recent "Burger Day" when McNamara loosened the cap on a bottle of mustard before handing it to unsuspecting companion at the lunch table.

"We all fell on the floor laughing," the classmate said. "Jody's an awesome dude."

Said another: "So what if it's, like, his first really epic oil spill? He couldn't possibly do worse than those grownup dorks did."

Critics of BP expressed guarded optimism about the company's decision to put a 12-year-old boy in charge of the Deepwater Horizon containment project.

A spokesman for the Department of Interior released a statement saying, "Jody McNamara seems like a bright young fellow, and we are encouraged by BP's willingness to give him a chance. God knows their own people don't have a clue what to do."

Before leaving for an orthodonist's appointment, McNamara showed reporters his first memo to BP executives, written as an extra-credit assignment for his English class:

"Please don't build any more offshore oil rigs until you figure out how to shut them off."

McNamara received an A on the paper.

He promised to get busy working on the oil-spill plan right away, as soon as he finished his homework and cleaned the hamster cage.

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