Oil Spill: Meet the New Blowout Preventer

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For all the attention over undersea oil plumes and seafood toxicity and depressed Gulf residents, it’s easy to forget that this well technically still hasn’t been killed. And now it looks like the final end of BP’s cursed Macondo well won’t be happening any time soon.

After days of struggling over how to deal with concrete that had made its way into the annulus or outer casing of the original well, it now looks like BP may have to come up with a more complicated solution. At a briefing for reporters on Thursday, retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen—who really deserves a vacation at this point—said that BP had agreed to remove the Deepwater Horizon’s original blowout preventer, still sitting on top of the well, and replace it with a new one. “We are very close to the end and it’s a very complex situation,” said Allen. “It’s not black and white.”

Here’s the logic—because there is concrete in the annulus, somehow, Allen worries that the bottom kill could increase the pressure in the annulus, which could then push oil and anything else trapped in the outer casing towards the top of the well. The original blowout preventer—which failed to do its job of, well, preventing a blowout—was damaged in the Deepwater Horizon explosion and may not be able to withstand higher pressure. If the original blowout preventer were somehow broken, it could lead to the release of the 1,000 barrels of oil believed to be remaining within the annulus. Worse, it might even give the oil in the well’s reservoir—which likely still has lots of oil in it—a fresh path to the surface, starting the leak all over again. “We don’t know the condition of the bottom of the annulus,” Allen said. A new leak “is a low probability but would be a very high consequence outcome.”

Before BP swaps out the blowout preventers, it is engaging in another ambient pressure test—out of an “overabundance of caution,” as Allen likes to say—to ensure nothing more will go wrong. But this means the final bottom kill will be significantly delayed, until the week after Labor Day, assuming nothing further goes wrong. That’s about a month longer than the original target date.

What went wrong? Energy Secretary Steven Chu, speaking to the New York Times, believes the issue might lay with the static kill performed earlier this month, when drilling mud and concrete was poured into the top of the well:

Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who was involved in the discussions about replacing the original blowout preventer, said in an interview that he remained concerned that the cementing of the well during the static kill might be flawed.

“It wasn’t perfect,” Dr. Chu said. “There were mechanical issues and the rate of flow of cement wasn’t as high as they wanted.”

Decode that: it’s entirely possible that the static kill—which some experts opposed—may have helped bring us to this impasse. Still, it’s important to remember that, unlike earlier problems BP had with controlling its blown well, the delays in the bottom kill won’t release any additional oil into the Gulf. But it also underscores the fact that neither BP nor the Obama Administration will be able to slap a “Mission Accomplished” banner on the Gulf spill any time soon.