New cap on ruptured oil well faces key tests


New Orleans, Louisiana (CNN) — BP plans to begin testing the new cap on its ruptured deepwater well Tuesday — a move that officials hope will be a step on the way to stopping oil from gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.

“This test involves closing one or more of the valves on the new cap for a period of time to allow BP to measure pressures in the well,” retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said.

The process could take anywhere from six hours to two days, or longer if BP extends them.

Officials say several scenarios are possible: the cap could contain all the oil; the cap could contain some of the crude while ships on the water’s surface collect the rest; or, under a worst-case scenario, there could be more damage to the well’s casing, meaning that capping the well would not stop the oil from flowing.

Before testing began, some oil continued to gush from the upper section of the new, 18-foot, 150,000-pound cap.

Allen, who is leading the federal response to the environmental disaster, said Monday scientists will be checking the pressure inside the well, and then determining whether the cap is holding the oil in or if ships will need to continue siphoning oil.

A critical step is making sure there’s no hydrate buildup, according to BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles.

In the best-case scenario, the containment cap would have the ability to close down the valves and slowly contain all the oil, Allen said.

If oil collection is still necessary, BP said it has more resources at its disposal. The oil-gathering ship, the Helix Producer, was put in place Monday to recover oil, joining the Q4000, which is already active.

And Allen said the new cap offers a significant advantage: four collection ships could connect to the well, rather than the maximum of three allowed by the old cap.

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, according to BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells.

As robots put the new cap in place, Allen emphasized that work was also continuing on two relief wells, which he called “the final solution” to shutting down the leaking well.

BP’s Suttles said Monday that because the first relief well is five feet away from the main well, BP was estimating “kill” operations to shut down the main well could take place at the end of the month.

“We’re getting really, really close, it looks to me like, to at least stopping the oil,” said Ed Overton, Louisiana State University professor emeritus of environmental science. “The ultimate solution, of course, is the relief well that will seal the damaged well for good… But getting the oil stopped at this point is a gigantic, gigantic step forward.”

Scientists estimate that 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil have spewed daily from BP’s breached well, causing the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

The presidential commission tasked with investigating the Gulf oil gusher and making recommendations about the future of offshore drilling will continue its public meetings Tuesday.

The National Oil Spill Commission has six months to determine what happened when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded April 20 — and how to prevent something similar from ever happening again.

A new moratorium on deepwater drilling issued by the U.S. Interior Department Monday has already played a prominent role in the hearings.

The government said the new moratorium, which could be in effect through November 30, is to “protect communities, coasts, and wildlife” while oil and gas companies implement safety measures to reduce the risks of blowouts and oil spills associated with deepwater drilling.

But Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana told the presidential commission that the new moratorium was “unnecessary, ill-conceived and a second economic disaster for the Gulf Coast.”

Cherri Foytlin, whose husband works for a firm that supplies tools to drilling companies, agreed.

“What I want the commission to walk away with is that we are people down here, and the moratorium and the oil spill affects people and not just big companies. When you rage against big oil like BP and Exxon, you’re really raging against me,” she 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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