Worries over another blowout halt Gulf oil spill capping effort


Worried about triggering another blowout — possibly deep down a well of uncertain condition — BP and federal officials have put the brakes on the latest effort to choke off the undersea geyser of crude.

Instead, they ordered a new round of analysis scheduled to start Wednesday before moving forward with pressure tests intended to determine whether a new 150,000-pound cap and a well three miles below the sea floor are strong enough to withstand the powerful flow of oil and gas.

The decision was made Tuesday in Houston, where U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and a team of federal and industry scientists and geologists are overseeing BP’s plans to run a “well integrity test.”

“As a result of these discussions, we decided that the process may benefit from additional analysis,” U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is in charge of the federal effort, said in a statement issued Tuesday afternoon.

After successfully placing a new and beefier cap on the blown-out well, the oil giant had been scheduled to start slowly shutting off valves, aiming to stop the flow of oil for the first time in three months.

If the cap works, it would enable BP to stop most, and possibly all of the oil, now gushing into the sea. The company could either use the cap as a cork to “shut in” the well. Or, if capping would create too much pressure, use the more sophisticated new cap to channel as much as 60,000 barrels a day through pipes and lines to as many as four collection ships.

Neither BP nor the federal government offered an immediate explanation of the additional analysis, but in briefings early in the day, it was clear there are still significant questions about conditions of gear on and underneath the sea floor — particularly the casing that lines the well.

Those concerns also had prompted Chu to halt BP’s earlier “top kill” effort to pump heavy drilling mud down into the well. Kent Wells, a BP senior vice president, told reporters in a conference call from Houston Tuesday afternoon that the integrity test would indicate whether there was damage inside the well. If the pressure doesn’t build up as valves are closed on the new cap, he said, it would point to a breech that could worsen if the well is simply capped.

In the worst-case scenario, it could trigger a blowout deep beneath the sea floor that would be difficult, and perhaps impossible, to control — at least until BP finishes drilling relief wells. That effort is still expected to take until mid-August.

“What we’re not about to do is take the risk that if we know we’re losing pressure somewhere, that it could be somewhere that could end up breaking around the sea floor,” he said. “That’s just not a risk we’re prepared to take.”

Earlier Tuesday, there seemed to be cause for cautious optimism. “Even when it’s finally capped, this will be a long-term cleanup effort, but it sounds promising that this plan might be the one to work,” said Gordon Goodin, chairman of the Santa Rosa County Commission in the Florida Panhandle.

A series of methodical, preliminary steps has been completed, including mapping the sea floor. BP had hoped to start the tests, expected to take anywhere from six to 48 hours, on Tuesday morning but that estimate was too optimistic.

Engineers spent hours on a seismic survey, creating a map of the rock under the sea floor to spot potential dangers, like gas pockets. It also provides a baseline to compare with surveys during and after the test to determine whether the pressure on the well is causing underground problems.

It was unclear whether there was something in the results of the survey that prompted officials to delay the testing. Earlier, BP’s Wells said he hadn’t heard what the results were, but he felt “comfortable that they were good.”

In the test, three separate valves to pipes that funnel oil to surface ships were to be closed, one at a time, to see if the new cap blocks the sludge from entering the Gulf.

Wells said he didn’t expect anything the pressure tests might reveal to pose a problem for what industry experts say is the only permanent solution — the “bottom kill” procedure executed by relief wells. That will pump heavy drilling mud into a hole more than 17,000 feet deep in the well, creating enormous back pressure that experts believe will finally cap the nation’s worst oil spill.

“I think we’re probably fine there,” Wells said. “We’ll see what the integrity test tells us. Maybe I could get some surprise on that.”

Also Tuesday, U.S. Coast Guard officials said test results confirmed that tar balls found on a Galveston, Texas, beach last week were from the oil spill.

Tar ball sightings have been few and far between over the past week in the Florida Panhandle, but local leaders remained frustrated by what they consider a sluggish cleanup.

“They need to find ways to be more efficient,” said Goodin, the Santa Rosa County commissioner, recounting a recent trip to a cleanup site.

“It was 9:15 in the morning and they were still setting up tents,” he said. “Everyone else in the world has been up and working for the past two hours at that point.”

In hard-hit Pensacola Beach, tar balls remain lodged below the sand, despite day and nighttime cleanup efforts.

BP has employed 1,558 cleanup workers to comb Panhandle beaches picking up ooze from the oil spill, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The leak began after the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling platform exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers. As of Wednesday, the 85th day of the disaster, an estimated 90.7 million to 179.2 million gallons of oil had spewed into the Gulf.

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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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