Oil Spill: Some Long Awaited Relief

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In what was possibly the most anticipated intersection between two shafts in U.S. history, the government announced late Thursday that BP’s relief well had finally connected with the company’s original blown well. That will allow BP to go ahead and place a final cement seal on the original well—finally, truly, really killing it. “The two wells are joined,” said retired Coast Guard admiral Thad W. Allen, as if announcing a newly wedded couple. If the Macondo well were a vampire (like this one), the relief well would be a stake in its heart.

The well isn’t permanently killed yet—Allen has said repeatedly that he won’t make that declaration until the relief well cementing procedure is successfully completed. The endgame has been extended more times than anyone could care to count, but from an engineering perspective, a successful relief well is pretty impressive. BP—with help from the government and other oil companies—had to drill down thousands of feet, parallel to the original blown well, then hit a target for intersection smaller than a dartboard, all while dodging storms in the Gulf and serious annulus problems. So now at least oil companies know that it’s possible to close off a blown deepwater well through a relief well—and they know it’s not very easy.

With the Macondo well almost finish, the attention will turn fully to the future of offshore drilling in the U.S.—and the long-term impact of the spill. The new deepwater drilling moratorium put into place by the Obama Administration in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon is still in place—it’s set to expire Nov. 30, though it could be lifted earlier. Oil companies—and many Gulf residents—have been complaining for months about the economic impact of the moratorium—though a just-released government report estimated that just 8,000 to 12,000 jobs were lost due to the pause in drilling, with no appreciable impact on oil prices. (Oil companies and Gulf politicians, predictably, argued the report underestimated the economic pain from the moratorium.) Still, after a summer that featured more than one serious accident on a drilling rig, I’m not sure we can say yet whether deepwater drilling really is safe again—or whether an element of risk is something the public is just going to have to accept in exchange for American oil.

If we are going to accept that tradeoff, though, we should know the risks—and be ready for them. The early failures of Kenneth Feinberg’s spill compensation fund—he’s quickly fallen behind promises to pay individuals within a couple of days—don’t bode well for the aftermath of BP’s disaster. And as Kate Sheppard reports in Mother Jones, we still don’t have a firm grip on the total amount of oil spilled—and we really don’t understand how it was possible for government scientists to so badly underestimate the flowrate at the beginning of the disaster. (The watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility has filed suit against the Obama Administration to get to the bottom of that question.) By the time this is all over, the relief well may look like the easy part.