Oil Spill: Debating the Static Kill

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Like recovering alcoholics who’ve just come out of an AA meeting, the joint BP-government team overseeing the well containment efforts is taking it one day at a time. At his afternoon briefing, retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad W. Allen announced that he had authorized BP to keep the containment cap shut and the well integrity tests going for another 24 hours, as engineers continue to look for any anomalies or leakages in or around the well site. There was some more concrete good news as well—the gas seepages detected some distance from the well site, which had caused concern Sunday night, turned out to be unconnected to BP’s Macondo well. Instead, the seepages are likely connected to a different well—there are two wells within a few miles of the Macondo site, and old wells do leak in the Gulf. The small gas and oil leaks that had been detected around the containment cap aren’t important enough to end the tests. The pressure inside the well is still holding steady at a little more than 6,830 lbs per sq. in (psi) and rising slowly, indicating that the wellbore is still holding. “We have found nothing consequential for well integrity,” Allen said.

The longer the test goes on without any serious problems, the more likely it is that the wellbore is indeed solid. Beyond being a relief to the engineers working on the project—a seafloor leaking oil and natural gas like a badly patched roof would have been a nightmare—it gives the government the option of moving forward with the static kill that BP vice president Kent Wells outlined yesterday. That would involve pumping heavy mud down through the cap and into the well, to block the flow from the top—as opposed to the relief wells, which would pump in mud and concrete from the bottom of the well.

Allen said the static kill is a possibility, not a sure thing, but that a decision on whether or not to precede would be made over the next day or so, depending on the plan that BP draws up. At the same time, however, the relief well is nearing completion, raising concerns about whether it is really worth the risk of trying the static kill from the top if a relief well could be done by early next month.

And there are other issues at play. The expectation before the well was capped was that the government would be able to get a much more accurate estimate of the true flow rate of the oil leak as it channeled the crude to several ships on the surface. (The last estimate was 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day, though of course no oil seems to be leaking now.) Given that the Oil Pollution Act puts a minimum fine of $1,100 a barrel for oil spills, narrowing down the true size of the leak could make a multi-billion dollar difference when the government finally goes after BP, as Congressman Edward Markey of Massachusetts argued in a letter he sent to Allen over the weekend.

Allen said that he would be meeting with the government’s flow estimate team to see if there would be another way to get a better fix on the true size of the spill, but he admitted that there were no guarantees. That’s true for the static kill as well—time spent using personnel and equipment to try out the static kill would slow down the effort needed to build the additional riser and pipes needed to link the well to new containment ships, meaning oil might flow relatively unimpeded if the decision was made to reopen the well. “We are making tradeoffs,” Allen said. “We’re having very general discussions about the issues that are going on down there.”

For its part, BP insists that the static kill could actually assist the relief well. For instance, it could turn out there has been some leaking from the original wellbore into the annulus—the space between the original wellbore and the rock formation. If that’s the case, the relief well would need to pump mud and cement the annulus, then penetrate the well casing and cement that as well. However, if BP goes ahead with the static kill, it would be able to begin the process of filling the well casing with mud. Basically it comes down to trying to kill the well from two ends rather than one. “Working in tandem, these could have the ability to have the well killed in less time” and with less risk, Wells said.

Of course, there’s always a possibility that something could go wrong—and today, on the three-month anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, there was another timely reminder. At a hearing today in Kenner, Louisiana, Ronald Sepulvado, a BP well site leader, told investigators that the company continued to drill on the Deepwater Horizon despite internal reports of a leak on the Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer. “I assumed everything was O.K., because I reported it to the team leader and he should have reported it to M.M.S.,” Sepulvado said

He was wrong. Let’s hope BP is right this time.