ABOARD THE RESOLUTE, 40 miles off Louisiana — BP has begun a critical pressure test of the runaway well that could finally stop oil from spewing into the Gulf of Mexico.
The test will shut the well by closing off valves on a the new cap that was installed at the wellhead, 5,000 feet down and a few miles from this Coast Guard cutter.
BP officials have said that if the test shows that the well can hold pressure, the valves may remain closed. That would end the gusher that began shortly after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers. It would not end the cleanup, however. That could go on for years.
Adm. Paul Zukunft of the Coast Guard, the new national incident commander for the spill response, said the shutdown of two systems that were collecting oil from BP’s runaway well meant that engineers and scientists had initiated the test of its new tight-sealing cap over the gushing well. “It appears that is the case,” he said in a briefing aboard this Coast Guard cutter.
The shutdowns became apparent about 3:45 p.m. local time, when flaring of oil and gas stopped on two surface ships at the well site, about a mile away. A gas and oil burning boom on one vessel, the Q4000, was extinguished first, followed by a gas flare from the Helix Producer, which died down slowly, producing notable soot at the end.
The decision to go ahead with the test came after a day of waiting after government officials, concerned about the possible effects of the pressure test, asked BP to conduct more analysis before proceeding. After the analysis, the government gave the go-ahead.
The test is expected to take as little as 6 hours to 48 hours or more. A short test would mean bad news: the well could not hold pressure from the leaking oil, like a leaky soda bottle.
“We sat long and hard about this test,” Thad W. Allen, the retired Coast Guard admiral who is the national incident commander, said in a news conference. “In the interest of the American people, and the safety of the environment, it was advisable to take a 24-hour break to make sure were getting it absolutely right.”
If the test shows the well is damaged, the flow of oil into the sea could still be stopped by increased collection of oil and flaring, a process that could continue for weeks, awaiting completion of the relief well.
“It’s very clear,” Mr. Wells said earlier in describing the pressure test. “What we’re looking for is for pressure to build up. The higher the better.”
Kent Wells, a senior BP vice president, said scientists would be analyzing the pressure readings throughout the test. “When the data says we need to open up the well, we’ll do that,” he said. “When the data says we can shut it in, we’ll shut it in. We’ll just have to see what the test tells us.”
If containment of any leaking oil is still necessary, it would continue until the company could complete the relief well work — by the end of July or August at the earliest.
If the pressure test shows that the well is more seriously damaged and the valves have to be reopened, full containment of the oil would probably not occur for several weeks, until one or two more ships could be brought in to handle more of the flow. That would raise total collection capacity to more than 60,000 barrels a day, the current high-end estimate of the well’s flow rate. Halting the gusher would then await the completion of the first relief well.
The relief well will proceed even if the well is able to remain shut in. When the relief well intercepts the runaway well, in the next few weeks, heavy mud, followed by cement, will be pumped in to seal it permanently.
The well site was a floating city on Wednesday morning, with scores of vessels scattered across the calm area. The activity was centered on the spot where the Deepwater Horizon burned and sank two days later. The cutter, which is on scene to provide emergency services and would be the last ship to leave in the event of a hurricane, was surrounded by a thin sheen of oil, diffracting into a rainbow of colors in the gulf sunshine.
A huge drill rig, the Development Driller III, was about a mile away, working on the first relief well. A nearly identical rig, the Development Driller II, was drilling a backup that is not as far along. Supply boats attended both rigs, long sections of casing pipe on their decks.
Ships attended the Helix Producer and the Q4000 as well, spraying seawater to keep the flaring booms as cool as possible.
Ships that service and control the submersibles dotted the area — at last count there were 14 underwater robots at work — and two more drilling ships waited nearby.