New cap might capture all of spewing oil, ex-Coast Guard chief says
MIAMI — The first hint of a nearing end to the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill was voiced Friday by the ex-Coast Guard admiral in charge.
By July 15, a new, better cap might replace the present leaky cap on the broken well — temporarily containing all of the oil, said retired Adm. Thad Allen.
Also, the relief well counted on to permanently seal the oil leak is a week ahead of its early August schedule for completion, he said.
If the new cap works, it could capture up to 80,000 barrels of oil a day. Current estimates of the amount of oil being spewed are 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day, so it all might be contained, Allen said.
The new system would involve cutting away the current cap on the well, which is poorly fitted and uses a rubber seal that lets thousands of gallons of oil a day spew into the Gulf. It would be replaced by a thick steel cap that would be bolted on. It would connect to four riser pipes that would go up to four containment vessels on the surface.
A decision about whether to go ahead with the new cap will be made in about a week, Allen said. One consideration is to compute how much longer it might take to disconnect such a complex new system if a hurricane approaches, he said. With the current setup, oil containment must be suspended 120 hours before gale force winds arrive.
BP spokesman Robert Wine confirmed that the new cap, if successful, might temporarily stop the entire flow of oil.
“We had been asked to come up with a plan to create extra capacity and duplication so that if something happened to one (surface collecting) vessel, we could keep producing,” Wine said.
Allen also said BP’s efforts to drill a relief well to permanently close the leaking well are seven or eight days ahead of its August schedule, and within about 600 feet of the well at 11,817 feet below the surface of the Gulf. Workers are drilling about 15 feet at a time, then backing off the drill to take new readings to make sure they are on target.
A second, back-up relief well is at 7,775 feet.
“I am reluctant to tell you it will be done before the middle of August because I think everything associated with this spill and response recovery suggests that we should underpromise and over-deliver,” the admiral said.
After drillers reach the pipe in the blown-out well, they will need two to five days to bore into it, pump in enough heavy mud to overpower the upward pressure of the spewing oil, then pump in concrete to seal it permanently, Allen said.
Also Friday, BP said some oil-skimming boats are back at work off the coasts of Alabama and Louisiana after rough conditions churned up by Hurricane Alex kept them ashore for a few days.
Keith Seilhan, BP’s incident commander in Mobile, Ala., said the size of the skimmer fleet will increase dramatically as sea conditions calm down. “We are not going to sit around if we can be working,” he said.