More good news on the oil spill front: around 9 A.M. today, BP began pouring cement into the well in the final phase of its static kill procedure. BP had earlier pumped 2,300 barrels of heavy drilling mud into the well—enough to equalize pressure in the reservoir and achieve a static situation, preventing any additional oil from leaking out. But the cement could finally seal the well off tightly, all but eliminating the chance of any new leaks. “It will virtually assure us there’s no chance of oil leaking into the environment,” retired coast Guard Admiral Thad W. Allen told reporters this afternoon. 108 days since the spill began, the end really is at hand.
That said, the final phase of the static kill won’t be the final phase of operations on the blown well. As he’s reiterated many times before, Allen said that the relief well—which will pump mud and cement in from the bottom of the blown well—will still be finished. For now drilling the relief well is on hold as concrete is channeled through the top of the blown well—once the cement as dried, it should take another five to seven days for the relief operations to make contact with the original well and begin pumping in drilling mud and concrete. “This well will not be killed until we do the bottom well,” Allen said.
Still, attention has definitely shifted away from the blown well 40 miles south of the Louisiana coast. Now that we know how much oil is in the water—roughly—the question remains how much damage that crude has done to the Gulf ecosystem, and how much it will do. A report released yesterday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) (you can read it here) estimated that about 74% of the 4.9 million barrels Deepwater Horizon poured was either captured, dispersed or broken down naturally, and that the remaining oil seemed too dispersed to do much further damage. But many academic scientists thought the NOAA report was premature at best, and that it was far too early to declare the BP oil spill contained and the Gulf damage limited, as one prominent marine scientist told the New York Times:
“A lot of this is based on modeling and extrapolation and very generous assumptions,” said Samantha Joye, a marine scientist at the University of Georgia who has led some of the most important research on the Deepwater Horizon spill. “If an academic scientist put something like this out there, it would get torpedoed into a billion pieces.”
It doesn’t help that NOAA is the government agency that came up with the original and now extremely discredited flow estimate of 5,000 barrels a day back in May, or that the agency initially downplayed reports by independent scientists—like Joye—that some of the oil was forming in plumes under the water, although the agency’s own scientists later confirmed the existence of underwater oil. Among many Gulf residents—who’ve been misled on many an occasion by BP—the skepticism was even more pronounced, and touched with a fear that the report all but gave the country permission to turn away from the spill, even though the economic damage is still mounting. (The impact on hotels and restaurants has been “like a tornado hit a retailer on Black Friday,” MasterCard vice president Michael McNamara told Bloomberg today.)
This is what happens when public trust is broken—it doesn’t grow back quickly. Trust has long since been lost by BP—and its failures on compensation claims have only worsened the situation. And trust in the federal government among Gulf residents—especially those who remember the failures of the Katrina response, even if that came under the previous administration—may not be much higher. Whether that changes will come down to whether President Obama can fulfill his promise to make the Gulf better than it was before. That’s one more question that has yet to be answered.