Oil Spill: How Will the Weather Play in the Well Endgame?

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Time to play good news/bad news on the Gulf spill once again. Good news: retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad W. Allen told reporters today that he was all but ready to authorize BP’s static kill procedure, which would involve pumping mud in through the containment cap, and that it could begin within 48 hours. If it works, the procedure could bring an earlier end to a blown well that has spilled up to 190 million gallons of oil into the Gulf. (Static kill—sounds like a particular aggressive brand of laundry spray.)

However, there’s trouble brewing on the horizon—literally. A storm is forming in the Caribbean, and the system is likely to move into the Gulf of Mexico over the weekend, with a 50% chance of becoming a tropical depression or storm by Friday. As a result, work on the relief well—which had been tantalizingly close to completion—had to be halted, and the weather could even force Allen to reopen the cap that has stanched the flow of oil into the Gulf over the past week. If a tropical storm does end up passing near the well site, Allen will be forced to pull back his ships and stop relief well drilling until the storm is passed. And because moving all those ships takes time, he’ll need a cushion on either side. “If we have to evacuate the area to move off the area and then come back and redeploy, we can be looking at 10 to 14 day gaps in whatever our line of operations are,” Allen said Wednesday morning. “We are in discussions right now.” BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells told reporters that the company had put a plug in its relief well before it halted operations—just to keep it stable if they needed to pull out quickly.

Right now it’s not clear what would happen to the cap if BP and its contractors needed to pull out because of a storm, whether they would be able to keep the well shut and prevent any more oil from entering the Gulf, or whether that would be too risky and it would have to be opened to avoid damaging the wellbore. Allen said that if a pullout was needed, the ships that run the remote operated vehicles (ROV) would be the last to leave, so it might only be a three or four day period when the well would be fully unattended. “This is necessarily going to be a judgment call based on the risks,” Allen said.

If the Admiral and his men get lucky with the weather—as they did the last time a tropical storm neared the Gulf—BP should be able to continue with both the relief well and the static kill. The federal government hasn’t yet approved the static kill, and Allen said that BP would first have to put a crucial piece of casing in place on the relief well, to ensure what he has called the “final solution” to the spill isn’t adversely affected by BP’s new plan. But Wells—characteristically—was optimistic. “The static well does not slow down the relief well,” Wells said. “Continuing the static kill gives us the option of acclerating the relief well.” And with more hurricanes looming on the horizon during this heavy storm season, faster will be better.