Good News—Kind of—on the Oil Spill

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Well it only took about 80 days. On Thursday the Gulf coast woke up to some good news—the relief wells seen as the final tool to end the oil leak are proceeding faster than projected, and BP has raised the possibility that they may even be completed by July 27, far earlier than expected. Speaking to NBC and the Wall Street Journal in separate interviews yesterday, Bob Dudley—the head of BP’s Gulf Coast restoration unit—said that the wells might be finished ahead of schedule. “In a perfect world with no interruptions, it is possible to be ready to stop the well between July 20 and July 27,” Dudley told the Journal. (BTW—”Gulf Coast restoration unit,” BP? Might want to stop continually poisoning the Gulf before you take responsibility for restoring it.)

Of course, in a perfect world there probably wouldn’t have been an oil spill in the first place. (Also cars would run on cotton candy and I’d be hosting a one-hour special on ESPN to announce my NBA free-agent destination, but that’s neither here nor there.) And today Coast Guard Admiral Thad W. Allen cast doubt on the possibility of finishing the relief wells early. “We are down to the final days and weeks of closing in to a point where we can intercept the wells,” Allen told reporters in Alabama today. “Our target date remains the middle of August.”

Allen has been doing disaster relief long enough to know, as he’s told reporters before, it’s better to underpromise and overdeliver. (That’s much better than underpromising and underdelivering, which pretty much describes much of the response so far.) But he’s also pushing BP to move faster on containment. The company is ready to move to the next stage with well containment, adding a new oil recovery ship—the Helix Producer—that is capable of capturing an additional 25,000 barrels of oil a day, about twice what the drillship Enterprise and the Q4000 platform are currently saving. BP was supposed to hook up the Producer by the end of June, but the high winds and waves caused by Hurricane Alex delayed the procedure.

The company also has the option of deploying a new, tighter containment cap over the blown well that might even be able to capture all the oil leaking from the site. (The current cap has a looser fit.) The problem there is that swapping the cap means two or three days where the well wouldn’t be fully covered, increasing the flow into the Gulf. Whether the new cap is worth the temporary increase in the oil leak is a decision Allen will need to make. To that end, the admiral sent a public letter to Dudley demanding a detailed timeline of the possible capping operations, a contingency plan if the cap doesn’t work, a new timeline for the relief wells and a plan for further surface containment. (See the document here.)

Of course, the relief wells could still miss their target, the well could collapse leading to a massive leak of oil and methane and a hurricane could come sweeping into the Gulf, causing utter catastrophe. But right now there’s a glint of optimism for the people of the Gulf coast who have suffered through this spill. Though perhaps not as optimistic as BP might feel right now—the company’s shares have gained about 23% since hitting a 14-year low on June 23.