Bad Weather Could Delay Work on Well, Official Says


Bad weather may delay work at BP’s well in the Gulf of Mexico, but even if the sea and sky remain relatively calm, additional precautions will be taken before any effort is made to permanently stem the flow of oil, the official overseeing the federal spill response said Wednesday.

The official, Thad W. Allen, a retired Coast Guard admiral, said that if an area of low pressure over Puerto Rico developed into a tropical depression or storm and headed into the gulf, all ships at the well site 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana might have to depart for safer waters. Government weather experts are evaluating the situation, he said.

If the forecast is for a storm, “we could be looking at 10 to 14 days” when no work could be done on a relief well that is considered the ultimate way to seal the BP well, Admiral Allen said. Containment projects and other work would have to be suspended as well.

The relief well is expected to intercept the bad well at the end of July and then it would take at least several days, and perhaps several weeks, to permanently shut the flow from the bad well.

No decision has been made yet on whether the well, which is now sealed as part of a test to see whether it can hold pressure, would be left in that condition, Admiral Allen said. After nearly three months gushing oil, the well has not leaked since last Thursday, when valves on a cap atop it were closed to start the test. But if officials decided it was too risky to leave the well under pressure during a storm, the valves would be reopened and oil would once again spew into the gulf.

Admiral Allen said it was possible that the well would be left shut but closely monitored by remotely operated submersibles for as long as possible. The submersibles, and their relatively fast-moving support ships, would probably be away from the site for only three or four days, he said.

The admiral said scientists from the government and BP were still evaluating whether to try a “static kill,” in which drilling mud would be pumped into the well from the top and used to force the oil and gas back into the oil reservoir, 13,000 feet below the seabed. If the technique succeeded, then the relief well might only need to confirm that the well was sealed.

But he said that if a decision was made to go ahead with the procedure, BP would have to wait until after a final section of steel casing pipe was installed in its relief well. The relief well is currently less than five feet horizontally from the bad well, Admiral Allen said, and “not far away from a place we had concerns about.” The fear is that if the static kill damaged the well, it might damage the relief well, too. So having a steel liner affords some protection.

Kent Wells, a BP senior vice president, said at an afternoon briefing that pressure tests continued to show favorable results in preparation for a possible static kill operation in the next few days. “We have no evidence the well does not have integrity,” he said. “Every day we go longer gives us more confidence.”

But Mr. Wells added that decisions on the next steps hinged on the weather. If good weather continues, Admiral Allen said, the casing job could be finished by Thursday or Friday, and the static kill, if approved, could start two days later.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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