Oil Spill: For Now the Pressure Holds

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Quick update on BP’s well containment efforts while I’m waiting for the weather to clear in Louisiana, where the sky is leaking like a blown well. After shutting the containment cap yesterday afternoon and closing off the flow of oil, BP began pressure testing the integrity of the wellbore. About 18 hours after they began, BP vice president Kent Wells told reporters Friday morning that the pressure inside the well is around 6,700 lbs. per square in. (psi), and that the pressure had steadily built up to that level and that it’s holding steady for now.

This is…kind of good, technically. The very fact that the test is still continuing is a promising sign—with the engineers checking the pressure every six hours, a bad reading would have brought the test to quick end. But just because it’s continuing doesn’t mean the wellbore is still perfectly intact. “If the pressure didn’t get above 6,000 psi, we’d be absolutely sure the wellbore had no integrity,” Wells said. “If it gets and holds above 8,000 psi, we’d be absolute sure it was solid.” So the good news is that the wellbore isn’t a total mess, but that doesn’t mean it’s solid enough to permanently cap the well—we’ll have to wait and see if the pressure continues to build. But it is, as President Obama said yesterday, a “positive sign”—in a crisis that hasn’t had many.

Update: This morning Obama gave a brief address on the spill and took a couple questions from the press. His message was clear: just because BP has managed to temporarily stop the flow of oil into the Gulf with its new cap does not mean that this crisis is over. “We won’t be done until we’ve killed the well and have a permanent solution in place,” Obama said. “I don’t want us to get too far ahead of ourselves.”

And he pointed out—correctly—that even when the well is killed, the cleanup process won’t be over. “We’ve got a big job,” Obama said. “There’s still a lot of oil out there. There’s still an enormous cleanup to do. People in the Gulf are still suffering as a consequence.”

With all the attention that has been focused on underwater cameras showing the oil billowing out into the Gulf, it’s easy to see how the nation’s focus could shift once those pictures change. That can’t be allowed to happen.