Saturday, August 14, 2010

BP to proceed with relief well as precaution

BP to proceed with relief well as precaution

The gulf oil leak is sealed, officials say, but they want to make sure the fix is final.

Gulf oil spill
Vessels involved in drilling two relief wells and other operations work at the site of the Deepwater Horizon accident. (Win McNamee, Getty Images / August 9, 2010)

Although BP's troubled well in the Gulf of Mexico appears to be plugged from the top and bottom, the federal spill commander said Friday that government and company officials have agreed that a relief well should be completed to ensure a permanent seal.

Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen raised the possibility Thursday that last week's "static kill" operation, in which the well's inner casing was jammed with cement, might have made that final step unnecessary. A four-hour pressure test was conducted to determine whether oil was still flowing freely from a deep reservoir into the outer ring of the well bore.

The readings indicated the flow had been blocked by last week's cementing. "We have sealed the well at this point," Allen said Friday.

But engineers can't tell whether that bottom plug of the outer ring, called the annulus, is good and solid, or thin and flimsy.

So they are not yet declaring victory over a well that caused one of the world's largest oil spills, shut down a third of federal waters in the gulf to fishing and wiped out much of the region's summer tourist season.

"Everybody is in agreement we need to proceed with the relief well. The question is how to do that," Allen said after consulting with the head of BP and the secretaries of Energy and the Interior. Work on two relief wells, which must travel more than two miles to reach their target, began in May.

Paradoxically, the success of the static kill has complicated the final phase of the relief-well maneuver. "We probably did too good a job," Allen said.

Not only did the static kill stuff the well's casing with dense mud and cement, it seems to have forced cement down into the oil reservoir and back up into the base of the annulus. That has trapped what BP estimates to be 1,000 barrels of oil between the bottom and the top cap.

Scientists are worried that when the relief well pours more mud and cement into the bottom to thoroughly seal it, the increased pressure could force the trapped oil upward, perhaps damaging the capping apparatus, or downward, breaking the bottom seal.

"What we don't want to do is somehow upset what we've already done," Allen said.

Engineers spent Friday debating how to proceed with the relief well without creating new problems. It is possible, Allen said, that they could devise some way of diffusing a pressure buildup. They may even consider installation of a new blowout preventer on the wellhead.

"It remains a work in progress. We're trying to assess the options we have," Allen said.

Once he issues the order to resume the relief-well operation, Allen said, it will be four days before the drill gnaws through the final 50 feet and into the damaged well. That timetable could change if extra measures are taken to guard against pressure problems.

Engineers also want to be careful to preserve the condition of the blowout preventer, which will be removed and examined as part of the investigation of the April 20 explosion that ripped through the Deepwater Horizon rig, killing 11 workers.

It's estimated that 205.8 million gallons of oil escaped from the crippled well before it was capped with a temporary fix July 15.

Earlier this week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reopened more than 5,000 square miles off Florida to commercial and recreational fishing.

At the peak of the fishing bans, NOAA had closed 37% of federal gulf waters, an area encompassing more than 88,000 square miles. Now, about 22% remains closed.

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