The Oil Has Stopped—for Now

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The numbers tell the story better than anything else could: after 85 days, 16 hours and 25 minutes, oil at last stopped flowing from BP’s busted well in the Gulf of Mexico. Since the evening of April 20, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, between 93.5 million and 184.3 million gallons of crude have been spilled—blowing the doors off the 11 mill gal. record set by the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989. BP’s stock—for anyone who cares about it—rose 7% on the news.

But the stock price—like the well repair—is by no means a stable thing. The 75 ton cap that at last sealed the well is not a permanent fix; that still will not come till sometime next month when the relief wells are finished. Indeed, the good news might not last beyond this evening. When BP engineers shut the valves that stopped the flow, it was part of an “integrity test” which must first prove the cap is up to the job it was designed to do.

At six-hr. increments over the next two days,  technicians will be measuring the pressure in the well. High pressure—counterintuitively—is a good thing, a sign that there are no leaks or breaches in the piping below the sea floor that could, in theory, cause a catastrophic loss of integrity in the reservoir holding the oil. Fluctuating or falling pressure means something is escaping and the cap will have to be removed. If that happens, BP will be forced to return to its makeshift series of lines that carry the oil up to processing ships, which collect or burn off as much of the mess as they can. In the event of a hurricane, the ships would have to disconnect and leave, causing the oil to run free again.

If the weeks and months since April 20 have proven anything, it’s that it’s never, ever a good idea to bet on BP getting anything right—at least not for long. But at the moment at least, they do appear to have turned in a good few days’ work.

“I’m very pleased that there’s no oil going into the Gulf of Mexico,” said BP vice president Kent Wells. “In fact, I’m really excited there’s no oil going into the Gulf of Mexico.” So are we, Kent—so far.