Gulf oil spill could be con­tained next week if tighter cap works

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Tom Breen

NEW OR­LEANS — The BP oil leak could be com­pletely con­tained as early as Mon­day if a new, tighter cap can be fit­ted over the blown-out well, the govern­ment of­fi­cial in charge of the cri­sis said Fri­day in some of the most en­cour­ag­ing news to come out of the Gulf in the 2½ months since the dis­as­ter struck.

If the project planned to be­gin this week­end is suc­cess­ful, it would sim­ply mean no more oil would es­cape to foul the Gulf of Mex­ico. The well would still be busted and leak­ing — work­ers would just fun­nel what comes out of it to tankers at the sur­face. The hope for a per­ma­nent so­lu­tion re­mains with two re­lief wells in­tended to plug it com­pletely far be­neath the seafloor.

“I use the word ‘con­tained,’” said re­tired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen. “‘Stop’ is when we put the plug in down be­low.”

Within a week, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion plans to is­sue a new ban on deep-sea oil drilling to re­place a mora­to­rium re­jected by a fed­eral court.

On a Fri­day visit to Cal­i­for­nia, In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Ken Salazar de­fended the six­month mora­to­rium his agency im­posed in May and said the dif­fi­cul­ties BP has en­coun­tered in re­spond­ing to the dis­as­ter un­der­score the need for a pause in deep-sea drilling.

“The mora­to­rium we is­sued on May 28 in my view was right then and is right to­day. I think it’s very legally de­fen­si­ble. I think that the lower court was wrong,” Salazar said Fri­day on a visit to the Santa Mon­ica Moun­tains Na­tional Recre­ation Area.

“We will move for­ward and in the com­ing days an­nounce a new mora­to­rium de­ci­sion. It will be within the next week,” he added.

A fed­eral ap­peals court Thurs­day de­clined to put a hold on an ear­lier lower court or­der over­turn­ing the ban while the mat­ter is on ap­peal.

Salazar said the new mora­to­rium de­ci­sion will in­cor­po­rate data gath­ered in re­cent weeks.

Crews us­ing re­mote-con­trolled sub­marines plan to swap out the cap dur­ing the week­end, tak­ing ad­van­tage of a win­dow of good weather fol­low­ing weeks of de­lays caused by choppy seas.

The cap now in use was in­stalled June 4 to cap­ture oil gush­ing from the bot­tom of sea, but be­cause it had to be fit­ted over a jagged cut in the well pipe, it al­lows some crude to es­cape into the Gulf. The new cap — dubbed “Top Hat Num­ber 10” — is de­signed to fit more snugly and help BP catch all the oil.

Dur­ing the in­stal­la­tion, the gusher will get worse be­fore it gets bet­ter. Once the old cap is re­moved, oil will pour into the Gulf un­hin­dered for about 48 hours while the new one is put in place, Allen said.

BP also worked Fri­day to hook up an­other con­tain­ment ship called the Helix Pro­ducer to a dif­fer­ent part of the leak­ing well. The ship, which will be ca­pa­ble of suck­ing up more than 1 mil­lion gal­lons a day when it is fully op­er­at­ing, should be work­ing by Sun­day, Allen said.

The govern­ment es­ti­mates 1.5 mil­lion to 2.5 mil­lion gal­lons of oil a day are spew­ing from the well, and the ex­ist­ing cap is col­lect­ing about 1 mil­lion gal­lons of that. With the new cap and the new con­tain­ment ves­sel, the sys­tem will be ca­pa­ble of cap­tur­ing 2.5 mil­lion to 3.4 mil­lion gal­lons — es­sen­tially all the leak­ing oil, of­fi­cials said.

In a re­sponse late Fri­day to Allen’s request for de­tailed plans about the new cap, the Helix Pro­ducer and the re­lief wells, BP man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Bob Dud­ley con­firmed that the leak could be con­tained by Mon­day.

But Dud­ley in­cluded plans for an­other sce­nario, which in­cludes pos­si­ble prob­lems and mis­steps for the in­stal­la­tion of the cap that would push the work back un­til Thurs­day.

The past 80 days have seen the fail­ure of one tech­nique af­ter an­other to stop the leak, from a huge con­tain­ment box to a “top kill” and a “junk shot.” The lat­est ap­proach is not a sure thing ei­ther, warned Louisiana State Uni­ver­sity en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­ences pro­fes­sor Ed Over­ton.

“Ev­ery­thing done at that site is very much harder than any­one ex­pects,” he said.

Con­tain­ing the leak will not end the cri­sis that be­gan when the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon drilling plat­form ex­ploded April 20, killing 11 work­ers. The re­lief wells are still be­ing drilled so they can in­ject mud and ce­ment into the leak­ing well to stop the flow, which is ex­pected to be done by mid-Au­gust.

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