In my last post on the oil spill—and trust me, I’ve long since lost count—I asked whether reports of seepages on the seafloor and anomalies near the wellhead indicated that the integrity tests that BP had been carrying might have damaged the well itself, causing leakages. Turns out I didn’t have to wait long for my answer—at a briefing Monday afternoon, retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad W. Allen told reporters that the seepage from the seafloor appeared “inconsequential,” and that it may be unconnected to the well and the capping procedure. (Gas and oil do seep naturally out of the Gulf seafloor into the water.) Pressure inside the well was a little over 6,800 lbs. per. sq. in. and still rising gradually, indicating that the wellbore was likely in decent shape. There were possible methane leaks around the well, as well as additional oil and gas leaking from the well itself, but those issues weren’t enough—yet—to derail the test. While Allen reemphasized that he had ordered BP to keep a close watch in and around the well area, he authorized the cap to remain closed and the pressure test to continue for at least another 24 hours. “There is no indication at this time this is any indication of a significant problem in the wellbore, but we are running every one of these anomalies down,” Allen said Monday afternoon.
BP—as has usually been the case—put an even more optimistic spin on the news, and raised the possibility that the well might be able to be closed early through a “static kill” procedure. (Yes, while the Macondo reservoir may be depleting, there’s apparently no risk of running out of new drilling jargon.) While the company continues to insist—as Allen does—that the relief wells nearing completion are the final solution to the spill, if the cap can continue to hold without damaging the wellbore, BP might be able to pump in drilling mud through the cap and choke the well that way. (The relief wells will be carrying out a bottom kill—a similar process, only the mud is pumped in via the relief well to the bottom of the reservoir.) “With this extensive monitoring we’re having, we’re in a good position to not have a catastrophic event,” said BP Vice President Kent Wells, in a statement that I think is meant to make us feel better.
The static kill is similar to the top kill BP tried in late May, but that procedure failed—in part because with the well uncapped at the time, BP needed to pump down A LOT of mud to overcome the upward pressure of the gusher. Government scientists put an end to that attempt over fears that the force of the top kill might irrevocably damage the wellbore. (Sound familiar?) But now, with the well capped—and the pressure inside the reservoir apparently lower than BP had thought—the company believes a static kill might be possible. “It’s definitely a different situation when you have the well shut in because you can pump in the mud at lower rates at a lower pressure,” said Wells. “The way I view the static kill is that it’s an additional acceleration option for the [relief well] kill procedure.”
In his briefing Allen seemed considerably less enthusiastic about the idea of trying out a static kill—although frankly Allen seems to be considerably less enthusiastic about most things. He emphasized that while the leaks detected so far weren’t enough to scrap the integrity test, he wanted BP ready to open up the cap, relieve the pressure and let oil flow once more into the Gulf if anything changed. But even he acknowledged that the longer the well could remain capped safely the better. “Every day the well is shut in means a lot less pollution,” he said. You know what would mean even less pollution? Permanently closing the well.