BP well remains sealed as pressure tests continue


BP’s blown-out gulf well remained sealed Friday morning, spewing not a drop of oil. But pressures in the well were still measuring at an ambiguous level that will require scientists and engineers to make a tough judgment call on whether to reopen the well.

BP senior vice president of exploration and production Kent Wells told reporters Friday that there are no signs of additional leaks of oil and gas created by the “integrity test” that throttled the Macondo well Thursday afternoon, nearly three months after the blowout that killed 11 workers and sent the burning rig Deepwater Horizon to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) continue to scout the area around the well’s blowout preventer, trying to determine whether the pressures created by closing the valves on the well’s new cap could force hydrocarbons out the well’s steel casing and into the surrounding rock formation.

Engineers and scientists hope to see high pressure hold steady during the 48-hour period allotted for the test. That would suggest that the well bore is physically intact, while lower pressure would hint of breaches in the casing and leakage into the surrounding rock. Seismic and sonar surveys also will look for evidence of oil and gas moving through the geological formations.

Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander, has said that a pressure reading of 8,000 or 9,000 pounds per square inch would be ideal, while a reading below 6,000 psi might indicate leakage.

Wells reported that the pressure was at 6,700 psi on Friday, about the same level as it was on Thursday, according to Tom Hunter, a member of the federal scientific team that is overseeing the test.

Hunter, who witnessed the test from BP’s war room in Houston, told The Washington Post Thursday that the pressure appeared likely to level out “closer to 7,000.” He said one possibility for the lower than ideal level is that the reservoir has lost pressure as it has depleted itself the past three months.

“It’s just premature to tell,” Hunter said. “We just don’t know whether something is leaking or not.”

Wells on Friday characterized the pressure as slowly and steadily rising, even though the measure he gave was the same as what Hunter said Thursday.

“We’ve seen no negative evidence of any breaching,” Wells said.

At the White House, President Obama called the closing of the cap “good news,” but cautioned reporters that “we’re not going to know for certain which approach makes sense until the additional data is in.”

Obama noted that the new cap gives BP many more options for capturing the flow of oil, should officials decide that the cap must be reopened. As many as four ships could soon give BP the capacity to collect between 60,000 and 80,000 barrels a day, which exceeds even the highest government estimate for what’s coming out of the well.

“When the oil stops gushing, everyone starts feeling like we’re done, and we’re not,” Obama said. “What they want to make sure of is that, by putting this cap on, oil is not seeping out in ways that could be even more catastrophic.”

At 3:25 p.m. Eastern time Thursday, a robotic submersible slowly closed a valve on the well’s new sealing cap, and the well ceased to spew oil into the gulf. Within moments, the oily plume long visible on the live camera feed from the site — a fixture of cable TV and many a nightmare — disappeared.

The technological breakthrough came 87 days into the crisis.

BP could nix the test at any moment and reopen the well. The ambiguous pressure readings, at least so far, appear to leave officials without a clear-cut choice.

“If it were a lot higher, it would be an easier decision to make,” said Hunter, retired director of the Sandia National Laboratories.

Allen issued a statement late Thursday saying that, although he is encouraged by the latest developments, a return to the containment strategy “remains likely.”

Reopening the well would not be a sign of failure, Hunter said, because, with the new cap — the “3 ram capping stack” — on top of the well since Monday night, BP has more options for capturing the hydrocarbons. “No matter what comes out of this entire operation, we’re going to be in a much better position than we were before,” Allen said.

The successful start to the pressure test incited clapping, handshakes and back slaps in the war room, Hunter reported. But given past mishaps, BP engineers and government officials muted their celebration.

“We’re far from the finish line here,” BP chief operation officer Doug Suttles told CNN.

“It felt very good not to see any oil going into the Gulf of Mexico. What I’m trying to do is maintain my emotions. Remember, this is the start of our test,” Wells said in a conference call Thursday with reporters.

Regardless of whether BP and the government decide to keep the well closed at the top, the ultimate solution to the blowout is a mud and cement bottom-kill from a relief well that is four feet from Macondo laterally and has only about 150 feet vertically to drill. During the integrity test, drilling of the relief well has been suspended as a precaution against oil and gas surging into the new hole from Macondo.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), leading reporters Thursday on a tour of an island the state is building to stop incoming oil, welcomed the closing of the well. But he said he was worried that public attention and federal help might slacken if the well remains sealed.

“This fight’s not over for Louisiana,” Jindal said. “It would be premature to declare ‘Mission Accomplished.’ ”

Obama, in his remarks Friday, stressed that successfully stopping the flow of oil is only one part of fighting the massive spill. The delicate coastlines and wetlands of the Gulf states must be cleaned up and restored, he said, and the fragile economies of those states must be rebuilt.

“People need to be compensated,” Obama said. “We’ve got an enormous amount of work to do. And people down in the gulf — particularly businesses — are still suffering.”

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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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