Leaking well could be capped Monday as BP nears well intercept

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New Orleans, Louisiana (CNN) — Crews working on the leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico will “be in a position later on today to put a containment cap over the well,” retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the man in charge of the federal response team, told CNN’s American Morning Monday.

He said once the cap is placed on the well, scientists will be able to gauge the pressure inside the well, then determine whether the cap is holding the oil in or if crews will need to continue siphoning up oil. While robots replace the old cap, crude is leaking out. Scientists estimate that 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil are spewing daily from BP’s breached well.

Some of that gushing oil should be collected soon, BP’s Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said Monday. He said the oil-gathering ship the Helix Producer should begin collection of oil from the ruptured well Monday and should “ramp up to full capacity” in several days, after two setbacks Sunday delayed its implementation.

Suttles blamed the delays on problems with a hydraulic system used to operate the valve and a leak in the methanol system. But he said the Helix Producer had only been set back less than a day and both issues had been resolved.

Once the Helix Producer gets hooked up, between that ship and the Q4000, which is already active, crews should be able to collect up to 33,000 barrels of oil per day, Suttles said Monday.

In the best-case scenario, the containment cap would have the ability to actually close down the valves and slowly contain all the oil, Allen said Monday. But if oil collection was still necessary, over the next two to three weeks, 60,000 to 80,000 barrels (2.52 million to 3.36 million gallons) a day could be collected as part of the containment process, BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells said Sunday. That’s because the new containment cap would allow four collection ships to access the well, rather than the maximum of three allowed by the old cap, Allen said Friday.

Allen said Monday he has asked BP for plans on how to do “integrity” testing on the sealing cap and hopes the company will “move on that” later in the day to determine how to move forward. The testing could take 48 hours, Suttles said.

“What we are talking about now is containing the oil. That’s far different than actually killing the well and plugging it with cement,” Allen said. “We will need to do that, ultimately, but this will significantly improve our situation regarding the amount of oil coming to the surface while we finish the relief wells, which are the final solution.”

The first relief well that BP plans to use to shut down the leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico is now just five feet away from the main well and, at 17,840 feet deep, it’s 30 feet above the hoped-for final casing point, Suttles said Monday. That’s where BP will run additional tests, then aim for the final intersection point. Given the closeness to the target, he said that BP was estimating “kill” operations to shut down the main well could take place at the end of the month.

The second relief well, which has been drilled as a redundancy measure at the behest of the Obama administration, is now at 15,874 feet deep, Suttles said. He added that BP is going to stop drilling that well further, unless it ends up being needed.

BP said Monday that the cost of its response to date amounts to about $3.5 billion.

While response crews were hard at work over the weekend, the seven members of the National Oil Spill Commission visited different areas of the Gulf Coast affected by the oil disaster, ahead of their first two meetings in New Orleans on Monday and Tuesday. Committee co-chairman William K. Reilly, a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator, went to Gulfport, Mississippi, to talk with disaster victims and inspect recovery efforts.

The visits and meetings will help the presidential commission tasked with investigating the Gulf oil gusher and making recommendations about the future of offshore drilling “begin to lay the groundwork for our efforts going forward, to determine what really to concentrate on and where to put our priorities and, very importantly, what the people most affected by all of this think about how effective the response has been,” Reilly said.

Minutes after the commission’s first public meeting Monday morning, a protester stood up and disrupted it. He was escorted out by security.

The advocacy group Emergency Committee to Stop Gulf Oil Disaster had pledged to protest the opening of the public hearings.

“We call on people everywhere to question the government and BP’s response, and to demand transparency,” committee member and New Orleans resident Elizabeth Cook said in a statement released early Monday.

The National Oil Spill Commission has six months to determine what happened when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded April 20, leading to the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history — and how to prevent something similar from ever happening again.

President Barack Obama established the bipartisan commission last month to investigate the oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. Its members will listen to public comments and official testimony from BP, the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the recovery efforts.

Despite the limited time frame, Reilly said he was not worried.

“I think we can meet the president’s expectations, and I hope those of the American people, to get to the bottom of this in some kind of definitive way that is reassuring about the future,” he said.

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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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