New Orleans, Louisiana (CNN) — The U.S. government has told BP to proceed with “integrity” tests on a new capping stack on its crippled oil well in the Gulf of Mexico.
Retired Adm. Thad Allen, who is heading the government’s response to the oil spill, said that after analysis of the testing procedures, the tests are expected to proceed Wednesday night. It’s hoped the tests will show whether the well, which has been spewing oil for 86 days, will finally be able to be contained — either by closing the 75-ton stack or by siphoning off oil to the surface.
The crucial pressure tests were put off Tuesday due to an “overabundance of caution,” Allen said.
The test — to check pressure in the well and determine if it can be sealed once and for all by a custom-designed cap — was expected to get under way Tuesday afternoon. But late Tuesday night, officials announced that additional analysis of the well testing procedure was needed. The move followed a meeting with Chu and his team of advisers, and the decision was made by the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command, which includes government agencies as well as BP.
BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles told CNN Wednesday that while final preparations for the test were underway, government scientists “raised a couple of issues which the National Incident Commander, Adm. Allen, felt it was worth putting the test on hold for 24 hours while we address those concerns.”
The BP source told CNN the delay was the government’s decision, saying BP employees and scientists were comfortable with “preliminary pre-testing” readings, but the government team had some concerns and wasn’t ready to go to the next level.
Because of that concern, additional pre-testing was conducted Tuesday evening and overnight, and the data was being examined Wednesday, the source said. Tests are being conducted, the BP source and a government official involved in the situation said, but officials as of Wednesday morning had not moved on to the “integrity test.”
Asked about specifics of the concern, both sources said officials are trying to be as cautious as possible, and if there is any risk involved in sealing the well, authorities want to opt for more containment over taking that risk.
The decision to delay testing was made at about 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Kent Wells, BP senior vice president, told reporters Wednesday.
Asked why it took more than five hours to publicly announce the delay, Suttles said there were many people involved in the decision process and “everyone needed to get informed and aligned.” But he agreed that the announcement was delayed for too long and said he hopes information can be disseminated in a more timely fashion in the future.
It had been hoped that the integrity test would show whether an end is in sight to the environmental disaster that has been unfolding for the last 12 weeks. But throughout the evening, cameras some 5,000 feet below the surface showed oil gushing from the well’s capping stack, indicating that valves had not been closed to begin the pressure test. Some of the oil, however, is being siphoned. BP said more than 17,000 barrels (714,000 gallons) was collected Tuesday.
The massive cap, which has a better seal than the last cap placed on the well, is some 30 feet high and weighs 160,000 pounds. It’s hoped that it might seal the well completely. Under a worst-case scenario, however, the test might show there’s more damage to the well’s casing, meaning that capping the well would not stop the oil from flowing. If it’s unable to contain all the oil, some could be diverted through riser pipes to ships on the surface.
Allen said the well cap placement is part of a “very complex, nuanced and broad-based response” to the rupture of the underwater well in April. The worst environmental disaster in U.S. history was triggered April 20 when the underwater rig Deepwater Horizon exploded and then sank two days later. Eleven workers were killed.
When the integrity test takes place, it will measure pressure inside the well and is expected to last anywhere from six to 48 hours. The test involves incrementally closing three valves on the new cap, a process that would allow BP to do its pressure measurements.
Higher pressure readings would mean the leak is being stopped, while lower pressure indications would mean oil is escaping from other parts of the well.
“When we actually close the well in through this new cap, the pressure will rise,” Suttles said. “So what’s important here is to monitor that pressure as we close it.”
Results of the test will determine whether officials can leave the well closed in and stop the oil flow, or open the valves up and contain the flow, he said.
The test is called an integrity test because it is aimed at ensuring the well bore has enough integrity to hold the pressure in the well when it is closed, he said.
“In this exercise, high pressure is good,” Allen said. “We are looking for somewhere between 8- and 9,000 psi [pounds per square inch] inside the capping stack, which would indicate to us that the hydrocarbons are being forced up and the well bore’s being able to withstand that pressure.”
Allen was asked what he thought the odds were to the success of being able to shut the well with the new cap.
“I think we are very confident we can take control of this hydrocarbon stream and then slowly close all these valves and stop the emission of hydrocarbons. What we can’t tell is the current condition of the well bore below the seafloor and the implication of the pressure readings,” he said. “That is, in fact, why we’re doing a well integrity test.”
When the test gets under way, both the BP and government source said it likely will proceed slowly. The generally accepted plan is to close the well so the pressure gets to about 6,500 pounds per square inch and “keep it there for a bit to watch a few things that some of the scientists are concerned about,” the BP source said. The decision then would be made about whether to take the pressure up to where it needs to be to conduct the test, at about 8,300 pounds per square inch. If the plan plays out this way, a 48-hour watch period looks much more likely than the six-hour period, they said.
Allen said that if low pressure readings persist for around a six-hour time frame, that could signal problems with the new cap.
But officials want to ensure that if they can’t build up pressure readings, they are able to pinpoint where the pressure is being relieved, BP’s Wells said Wednesday.
“Clearly, we want to move forward as soon as we’re ready to do this,” he said. But “we don’t want to move forward with inconclusive results.”
“As much as we want to do things as soon as possible, we also want to make sure things are absolutely correct,” Wells said.
Meanwhile, work on two relief wells — seen as the ultimate solution to the oil disaster — was suspended.
Wells said work on the first relief well, expected to be completed in August, was delayed while officials prepare for the integrity test out of an abundance of caution. It is possible, though unlikely, that closing the valves as part of the integrity test could cause the back side of the relief well to be blown out, Wells said.
“It’s a good precaution to take at this time,” he said. However, the delay will set the relief well progress back by one to two days.
Operations on the second relief well were temporarily suspended at a depth of 15,963 feet to ensure there is no interference with the first relief well, BP has said.
The latest containment cap, while seeming to offer the best odds of success, wasn’t ready earlier.
If it’s determined that the cap can’t seal the well completely, and some crude must be sent to the surface, the oil-gathering ship, the Helix Producer, is now in place. On Monday it joined the Q4000, which was already active. And more vessels are planned; Allen said a four-vessel system that could recover up to 80,000 barrels (3.3 million gallons) a day could be ready by the end of the month.
Wells said the Helix Producer is ramping up production and recovered about 9,200 barrels (386,400 gallons) on Tuesday.
Scientists estimate that 35,000 to 60,000 barrels (1.4 to 2.5 million gallons) of oil have spewed daily from BP’s breached well. Allen cautions that even if the engineering containment efforts work, there is still a lot to be done in a disaster that has affected the environment and the livelihoods of people from Louisiana to Florida.
“There’s still a significant amount of oil out there, and the oil recovery and the impacts of this oil will probably extend well into the fall in terms of oil coming ashore, tar balls, beach cleanup, and then we will be … trying to understand the long-term environmental ecological impact of the event,” Allen said.