Oil Spill: The Cap Is On—Now the Test Begins

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A brief update on BP’s containment procedures while I wait for the presidential oil spill commission to begin its second day of hearings here in New Orleans. (By the way, you can watch the hearing, which begins at 9 AM Central, here.) Yesterday evening BP managed to successfully connect the new containment cap—the 3 ram stacking cap—in a operation that BP vice president Kent Wells said went “extremely well,” so clearly there’s a first time for everything. In all seriousness though, so far everything has been going right for the oil company as it continues a complicated procedure that—if everything goes off—could bring a quicker end to the environmental disaster.

But the next stage will be critical. Later this morning BP will begin the pressure tests that will probe the physical integrity of the well. If it goes right—meaning the pressure remains high and steady, indicating oil isn’t escaping anywhere else from the well—the company should be able to close all valves in its containment system and end the gusher once and for all. But BP isn’t making any promises. “It’s not simple stuff and we don’t want to speculate around it,” Wells said at a briefing early this morning. But we should know within two days at most whether the first part of this crisis is finally over—though it’s far from finished, given the tens of millions of gallons of oil that have already spilled into the Gulf, and the irreparable damage to America’s most productive coastline.

Update: At a 10 AM briefing from BP’s offices in Houston, Coast Guard Admiral Thad W. Allen emphasized just how important today would be to the overall response. He also mentioned that as the integrity tests are carried out, they’ll be able to get a much better measurement of the actual flow rate of the oil spill. Currently the leak rate is estimated between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels a day, and that huge range is due to the fact that technicians can’t be sure how much of the flow is oil, natural gas, sediment or water. “These are all inelegant ways to estimate the flow of the well,” Allen said. “Now we weil be able to directly measure the flow through the capping stack and that’s extremely important.”

Indeed—the penalties that might be put on BP or any other company found to be responsible for this spill are based on the number of barrels that have been leaked into the water. Getting a firm fix on how much oil has actually been spilled—something we’ve never managed to get, more than 80 days after the initial accident—is necessary, and it’s something BP has always seemed to resist. And interestingly, BP’s Doug Suttles said yesterday that he wasn’t sure they would be able to get a better fix on the flow rate during the integrity tests, because the “number one priority is to get this flow stopped.” We’ll see.