Oil Spill: BP’s Capping Procedures Hit a Snag

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When he spoke at a briefing yesterday morning, Coast Guard Admiral Thad W. Allen told reporters that it would be a “very consequential 24 hours.” At the time BP had just connected the new, tighter cap over the blown well and was ready to begin pressure tests that—if successful—would have been one of the last steps to finally stopping a gusher that has leaked up to 160 million gallons of oil or more into the Gulf of Mexico. As he spoke the team was carrying out seismic surveys around the well site to prepare the way for the pressure tests. As late as 2:30 yesterday afternoon, BP vice-president Kent Wells assured reporters that the tests—which would probe the physical integrity of the wellbore, which runs 13,000 ft. beneath the floor of the ocean—would begin within a few hours.

Shortly after that briefing, however, Allen sent out a brief statement saying that the government had decided to delay the integrity tests, saying “we decided that the process may benefit from additional analysis that will be performed tonight and tomorrow.” At the usual 7:30 AM briefing today, BP’s Wells that the joint company/government team—which includes federal heavy hitters like Energy Secretary Steven Chu—would get together again later today to decide what to do about the integrity tests. Wells downplayed the delay, saying that the seismic surveys done yesterday had nothing to do with the decision to hold off on the pressure tests. “We always want to make sure we have full agreement before going ahead,” Wells said.

It’s not clear why the pressure tests had to be delayed, but there are immediate consequences. Because the drillship Enterprise —which had been stopping about 15,00 barrels a day from flowing into the Gulf—had to be disconnected during this procedure, the only containment option working is the new Helix Producer ship and the Q4000 platform. But that ship is still being ramped up, and right now together they’re managing to eliminate only about 8,000 barrels every 12 hours, though that rate should rise. But otherwise oil is flowing freely into the Gulf at a higher rate than before the new cap procedure began.

Perhaps more importantly, Wells said today that while the company waits to begin the pressure tests, it’s also put a hold on drilling the relief wells, which are now tantalizingly close to reaching their target. “However long we’re sitting and waiting here is a direct setback to the relief wells,” Wells said. That’s concerning—if the well capping process fails, the relief wells are the next best shot at stopping the flow, and every day they’re paused is another day oil will flow into the Gulf, lengthening the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

And then there are the deeper worries. Outside experts have worried that BP’s efforts to control the well over the past nearly three months—and the initial explosion—might have severely damaged the well and the surrounding seafloor. If that turns out to be the case, geologists envision oil simply bubbling up from a porous seafloor—which would be impossible to cap and impossible to contain. It would be a true nightmare scenario.

It’s also notable that while BP seemed ready to begin the pressure tests yesterday, it was the government team that made the decision to hold off for now. That’s exactly what happened during the end stages of the doomed “top kill” procedure at the end of May, when Chu finally made the call to end the attempt—in part out of concern that the work could end up fatally damaging the well. History might be repeating itself now—but all the rest of us can do is wait.