Tests to Determine if New Well Cap Will Halt Oil Flow


NEW ORLEANS — With the installation of a new cap on its runaway well in the Gulf of Mexico progressing smoothly, BP prepared on Monday to conduct tests to determine whether the flow of oil escaping from the well could be halted completely.

Doug Suttles, the company’s chief operating officer, said that once the new cap was connected, systems that have been collecting some of the escaping oil would be shut down and valves on the new cap would be closed to stop the flow. Pressure readings would then be taken to determine the condition of the well.

If the tests show the pressure rising and holding — an indication that there was no significant damage along the length of the well bore, which extends 13,000 feet below the sea floor — the valves could remain closed, effectively ending the three-month gusher.

“The best-case scenario: the pressures rise to the point we anticipate they would,” Mr. Suttles said at a morning briefing on Monday. “We’d likely be able to keep the well shut in.”

Scientists from the federal Department of Energy will be involved in analyzing the test results, Mr. Suttles added.

On the other hand, the tests could show the pressure remaining lower than expected, which Mr. Suttles said would indicate a “problem with the integrity” of the well. In that case, he said, the valves would have to be reopened, oil would start escaping from the well again, and the collection systems would have to be turned back on.

That would remain the case until the company could complete work on relief wells to stop the leak and permanently seal the well. That operation is not expected to be finished until the end of July or August at the earliest.

Mr. Suttles said crews made good progress on the capping work overnight, using remotely operated submersibles to bolt a connecting pipe in place on top of the well. The new cap will be set on top of the pipe and then attached to it with a hydraulic latching device.

He expressed confidence that the installation would succeed, but he warned that there could be delays, especially if ice-like crystals of methane and water form when the new cap is put on.

Given the number of engineering efforts that have failed since oil began gushing after the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion on April 20, the company has a looser-fitting cap on standby in case there are significant setbacks with the tighter-fitting cap.

The pressure tests would start shortly after the cap is installed, perhaps as soon as late Monday, and would continue for at least two days, during which time no oil should leak from the well, Mr. Suttles said.

He said crews encountered delays overnight in starting up a new collection system that could divert up to 25,000 barrels of oil a day to a surface ship, the Helix Producer. That system should begin operating Monday, he said, but it could then be shut down to conduct the pressure tests, as would an older system that has been diverting about 8,000 barrels a day to another surface vessel.

The work on the new cap began Saturday, when the looser-fitting one was lifted off the top of the well. That cap had been funneling about 15,000 barrels of oil a day to the surface. Since then, oil has been gushing largely unchecked from the top of the well, but BP had nearly 50 oil-skimming boats at the surface to try to collect it. Mr. Suttles said that about 18,000 barrels of oil-water mix were skimmed on Sunday, and that 15 controlled burns of oil were conducted.

If the pressure tests show that the well is damaged and the valves have to be reopened, full containment of the oil would probably not occur for several weeks, until one or perhaps two more ships could be brought in to handle more of the flow through pipes on the cap. That would raise total collection capacity to more than 60,000 barrels a day, the current high-end estimate of the well’s flow rate. Halting the gusher would then await the completion of the first relief well.

Even if the tests are positive and the well is kept closed, Mr. Suttles said, the relief well work would continue, since that is the ultimate solution to ending the leak close to the source, a reservoir of oil two and a half miles below the seafloor.

Mr. Suttles said the first relief well was now only about five feet away horizontally from the runaway well. But it is still perhaps 150 feet above the interception point, and the drilling at this point is very slow. He reiterated that the planned procedure to stop the leak for good — by pumping heavy mud down the relief well — would probably not occur until the end of the month at the earliest. The mud would be followed by cement to entomb the well permanently.

The second relief well is not as far along, and work on it will soon stop, at least temporarily, to avoid interfering with the first one, Mr. Suttles 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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