BP may have already, inadvertently, killed the Gulf oil well


It is possible that BP’s once-gushing Gulf of Mexico oil well is already dead, and that the maneuver long touted as the ultimate solution for permanently plugging the well won’t be needed, the federal government’s point person for the oil spill response said Thursday.

There’s a chance that crews sufficiently — and inadvertently — killed the Macondo well last week after pumping it with mud and cement in a “static kill,” National Incident Commander Thad Allen said Thursday.

“We may be the victims of our own success here,” Allen said. “If the cement is already there it would obviate the need to do the bottom kill.”

Though he called it a “low-probability outcome,” Allen’s comments were the first time he has publicly suggested that the well could be sealed in any way other than by having a relief well intercept the Macondo well 18,000 feet below the Gulf’s surface and pump it with mud and cement.

Whether the so-called bottom kill is necessary will depend on the results of a pressure test conducted on the well Thursday afternoon. BP engineers and a team of government and academic scientists were expected to review the results Thursday evening before making a decision on what’s next

The test will tell the scientists whether there is oil in the well’s annulus and, if there is, whether it is static or coming from the reservoir.

Scientists believe there is a chance that cement pumped into the top of the well during the static kill procedure traveled down the well column, into the reservoir and then back up the well’s annulus, an outer shell, trapping about 1,000 barrels of oil inside but essentially sealing the well from the bottom.

“There’s a chance that happened. We don’t know,” Allen said. “That’s why we’re conducting the test.”

While the static kill was intended to shut down the well, Allen had until Thursday maintained that the relief well would remain necessary either to rid the well of oil the static kill missed or simply as a crosscheck to confirm that the static kill did, in fact, kill the well.

But Allen said Thursday that scientists and engineers are concerned that if the static kill resulted in a cement plug inside the annulus, pumping it with more mud and cement would increase pressure inside the well, sending the now static oil shooting up the well column where it could damage the blowout preventer atop the well and, perhaps, escape into the water above.

Allen said scientists want to be sure they don’t engage in “a series of events” that would cause that to happen.

“This whole pressure test is really in an overabundance of caution,” Allen said.

If pressure in the well stays level during the test, that will mean there is cement in the annulus and it is either fully or partially killed, Allen said. If there is an immediate rise in pressure during the test, that would mean that any oil in the annulus is shooting forth from the reservoir and that there is not a cement plug separating the two.

Also on Thursday, as remnants of Tropical Depression 5 passed over the metro area, oil spill response teams began surveying the Gulf Coast shores and marshes for new signs of oil, according to Mike Utsler, BP’s response team leader in the unified command center. Utsler said crews were also inspecting areas where boom had been to determine if it had been displaced.

The full surface spill response effort will return today, Utsler said.

Meanwhile, a storm packer that was placed in the relief well to protect it from the storm was removed Thursday. Should scientists determine that the bottom kill procedure is still necessary, that operation would take place sometime between Sunday and Tuesday, Allen said.

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

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