Oil Spill: Is the Well Damaged? (Update)

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Going into the integrity test being performed on BP’s blown well in the Gulf of Mexico, we were told that the longer the test was carried out, the better it would be for the wellbore—and for the chances of putting an early end to the oil spill. If the test—which began on July 15, after BP managed to stop the flow of oil from its new and tighter containment cap—was halted after just a few hours, it would signal that the wellbore had been damage and that oil was leaking. “The longer the test goes on the more confidence we have,” BP Vice President Kent Wells told reporters on Saturday.

Well, as I write this it’s been more than 72 hours since the integrity test began, and—judging from the live underwater camera feed of the well—the cap is still closed and oil still isn’t flowing into the Gulf. That should be a good sign—and indeed, on Sunday morning Wells told reporters that BP planned to leave the cap closed until a relief well could permanently end the flow. “We’re hopeful,” said Wells. “Right now we do not have a target to return the well to flow.” It seemed like the best news anyone could hope for, a real chance that after as much as 180 million gallons of lost crude, the oil spill might be over.

But no phase of this catastrophe has been easy, and there’s no reason to expect the endgame will be either. On Saturday afternoon, as the pressure test passed the 48 hour mark, retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad W. Allen said in a statement that he would allow the test to continue for another 24 hours, while government ships carried out additional probes of the seafloor around the well site.  Then just a few hours after Wells spoke to reporters on Sunday, Allen released another statement saying that said he expected the integrity test to end as of 4 PM on Sunday, “with the potential for additional extensions in 24-hour increments”:

While we are pleased that no oil is currently being released into the Gulf of Mexico and want to take all appropriate action to keep it that way, it is important that all decisions are driven by the science. Ultimately, we must ensure no irreversible damage is done which could cause uncontrolled leakage from numerous points on the sea floor.

Yet the 4 PM deadline came and went without BP opening the valve, as far as observers could tell from the underwater cameras. BP and the government seemed split, with the oil company looking to push forward on a potentially risky containment procedure and Washington exercising caution. It only became clear late on Sunday why government scientists were worried. In an official letter to BP’s Dudley that was released a little before 9 PM, Allen said that seafloor monitoring had detected some kind of seepage a distance from the well and found “undetermined anomalies at the wellhead.” Allen told Dudley that the company was required to investigate and report to the government within four hours of the detection of any gas leak, and—this may be key—Allen directed BP to provide him a written procedure for opening the choke valve on the containment cap “as quickly as possible without damaging the well should hydrocarbon seepage near the wellhead be confirmed.” In other words, BP had to be ready to stop the pressure test and let oil flow into the Gulf once more. (Read the letter here.)

At this point it’s not certain that what those “undetermined anomalies” represent, nor has it been confirmed that the seepage Allen referred to—reported first by the AP—contains methane. (Outside experts have noted that the oil gushing from the well has an unusually high percentage of methane—as much as 40%—and they fear that damage to the wellbore could lead to oil and gas leaking directly from the seafloor,which would be impossible to stop.) BP spokesperson Mark Salt told CNN after Allen’s letter that for now the test is continuing.

But Allen’s letter is worrying, not the least because there had always been concerns that capping the well might actually worsen any damage that the spill—and previous containment efforts—might have already inflicted on the wellbore. In the initial phases of the integrity test that didn’t seem to be the case—as BP had hoped, pressure inside the well gradually increased, and was above 6700 lbs. per sq. in. (psi) by Sunday. That’s not as high as it might have been—a pressure reading above 7500 psi would have almost surely meant that the wellbore was intact and that cap could have remained shut safell. But both BP officials and Allen said that the readings might indicate that the well was solid, but the three month-long oil spill had simply depleted the reservoir, preventing the pressure from getting too high. (The more depleted the well becomes, the less pressure the oil would be under.) “We don’t know because we don’t know the exact condition of the wellbore,” Allen said on Friday—though the discovery Sunday of seepages indicates that all may not be well.

Beyond the condition of the wellbore, however, Sunday’s odd chain of events once again raises the question of who exactly is in charge of this procedure. It’s not the first time there’s seemingly been a split between BP and the government—the same thing happened during the top kill attempt in late May, when BP repeatedly expressed optimism that the plan would work only to see Washington, on the advice of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, shut it down over fears that the procedure might damage the wellbore. While Allen does have the final say what’s being done to the well, it’s still BP engineers who are running the show minute by minute, and the admiral is dependent on BP for the immediate information he needs to make those decisions. According to a federal official who spoke to the AP for their story Sunday night, BP was not complying with Washington’s demand for more monitoring near the wellhead—and Allen himself had to send a letter to BP’s Dudley to demand more information, including additional seismic testing of the seafloor.

While neither BP nor the government wants to see oil leaking into the Gulf, that doesn’t mean their interests are always in line.  BP’s stock price jumped 4% on Friday on news that the oil was no longer flowing into the Gulf—it’s not hard to see why they might want to push the limit on containment and keep that well shut. (BP does have a history of pushing limits in pursuit of profit, which is after all why we’re here in the first place.) It’s Allen’s job to check that impulse and make decisions for the national interest, not just the interest of BP’s shareholders. “As the National Incident Commander, I must remain abreast of the status of your source control efforts,” Allen wrote. The chain of command—like the wellbore—might have sustained some damage.

Update (10:43 AM EDT): Around 7 Am EDT Monday, Admiral Allen released a new statement authorizing BP to continue the integrity test for another day:

Yesterday I sent BP a letter stating that there were a number of unanswered questions about the monitoring systems they committed to as a condition of the US government extending the well integrity test. Last night a conference call between the federal science team and BP representatives was convened to discuss some specific issues, including the detection of a seep near the well and the possible observation of methane over the well. During the conversation, the federal science team got the answers they were seeking and the commitment from BP to meet their monitoring and notification obligations.Ongoing monitoring and full analysis of both the seepage and methane will continue in coordination with the science team.

I authorized BP to continue the integrity test for another 24 hours and I restated our firm position that this test will only continue if they continue to meet their obligations to rigorously monitor for any signs that this test could worsen the overall situation. At any moment, we have the ability to return to the safe containment of the oil on the surface until the time the relief well is completed and the well is permanently killed.

So that’s where we stand—and another trip to the spillcam shows no oil leaking from the containment cap, the entire underwater scene as silent and eerie as the first frames of a Jaws film. It’s still not clear what the “answers” are that federal scientists were seeking, but I suppose it’s a relief that they apparently got them. Still this entire awkward series of command via letters and releases underscores how dysfunctional this response has been. Allen may be in charge, but he’s relying on BP to give him information and carry out his orders—Washington seems to have no independent eyes on the scene, as Andrew Revkin points out at Dot Earth. Just for comparison’s sake, imagine NASA carrying out a mission the way BP and the government have with the well—a private company carrying out the orders and relaying information from Houston, and NASA rocketman giving orders from Washington. Not exactly Apollo 13—and not exactly comforting.