As the threat of a storm stalled efforts to permanently seal BP’s blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico, the government said Thursday that the well would be left closed off and unattended if ships had to leave the area.
By late Thursday evening, Thad W. Allen, the retired Coast Guard admiral who leads the federal response effort, said many vessels at the well site were preparing to leave now that a tropical depression had developed into a tropical storm, Bonnie, that was headed into the gulf.
Among those preparing to evacuate, he said, was a drill rig that is working on a relief well, which is considered the ultimate way to seal the well. It was beginning the process of disconnecting a riser pipe from the rig to the seabed and pulling it up, a process expected to take up to 12 hours.
The decision to leave the well capped, which was made at the recommendation of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, means that scientists with the government and with BP think that the well is undamaged and that there is little risk it would deteriorate if kept under pressure, as it has been since valves on a new cap were closed a week ago. Reopening the valves would mean that oil, which has not flowed since they were closed, would once again pour into the gulf.
“We have enough confidence to leave the well shut in,” Kent Wells, a senior vice president of BP, said in a conference call with reporters in Houston.
At the well site, 50 miles off the Louisiana coast, most work was halted during the day in advance of the storm’s arrival.
“While this is not a hurricane, it’s a storm that will have some significant impacts,” Admiral Allen said.
Mr. Wells said the storm would delay operations 10 to 12 days, depending on its severity and how close it passed by the site. That would push back completion of a relief well to the middle of August, he said.
The drill rig that is working on the relief well is most likely to be among the first to leave because it travels very slowly. Other ships that are better able to handle higher seas and travel faster would leave later, Admiral Allen said. Support ships for submersibles that have been monitoring the well would be among the last to leave, so the well would probably be unattended for only a few days, he said.
The relief well has been temporarily plugged because of the weather worries, Admiral Allen said. If the decision is made that the rig evacuate, it would take 8 to 12 hours to detach a riser pipe from the seafloor and pull it back up so the rig could move.
“We would be watching the weather closely,” he said. “If conditions allow us to resume, we would do that.”
On Thursday, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency, telling reporters that some low-lying coastal communities might need to be evacuated. But did not order a mandatory state evacuation.
By Thursday afternoon, though, BP and the Coast Guard had already started moving some surplus materials and equipment from low-lying areas into secure staging areas in Louisiana, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi, Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft, the federal on-scene coordinator, said at a news conference in New Orleans on Thursday.
Admiral Zukunft said that officials were “re-positioning and re-anchoring” the protective boom in some areas. Only the boom that was staged and waiting to be used would be moved to higher ground, he said.
But this actions prompted heated debate in some of Louisiana’s coastal parishes.
Kevin Davis, the president of St. Tammany Parish, was upset that the Coast Guard told him it was planning to move inland barges that had blocked oil from entering Lake Pontchartrain. He issued an executive order saying that anybody who would move such equipment could be arrested.
In St. Bernard Parish, officials worried about whether the protective boom would be moved too far away to be re-deployed quickly after the storm passes. Admiral Zukunft said that moving supplies and equipment was necessary to protect resources so they can quickly be re-deployed after the storm. “We don’t want to lose this material,” he said.
Once the storm has passed, officials can resume their work on drilling the relief wells.
And when the rig is back in place and operating, about two days of work are needed to install and cement a last section of steel casing pipe in the relief well. After that, BP plans to first try another well-sealing procedure, called a static kill, in which heavy drilling mud would be pumped into the well in an effort to permanently stop the flow of oil and gas.
If the static kill is successful, the only need for the relief well may be to confirm that the well is permanently sealed. If the results from the static kill are ambiguous, though, it would then take at least several days, and perhaps several weeks, to permanently shut the flow from the bad well by pumping mud down the relief well.
The National Weather Service said Thursday that the tropical depression, the third in what is expected to be a busy hurricane season, had formed in the Bahamas. Now a storm, its track was expected to run to the northwest into the gulf.
A spokesman for the private weather service AccuWeather said the storm would probably reach the area of the well site late Saturday or early Sunday.