New cap finally gets a go at choking off spill
struck by fears of ‘irreversible’ error, government had delayed procedure
NEW ORLEANS — BP allayed last-minute government fears of making the Deepwater Horizon disaster worse and started trying Wednesday to slowly choke off the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in the hope of finally stopping the leak.
Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government’s point man on the disaster, said the government gave the goahead after carefully reviewing the risks of the procedure. The plan is a test of whether a new temporary well cap can withstand the pressure and ultimately contain the oil.
“What we didn’t want to do is compound that problem by making an irreversible mistake,” Allen said at the end of a 24-hour roller-coaster of hopes raised, hopes dashed and hopes raised again along the Gulf Coast.
The cap — a 75-ton metal stack of pipes and valves — was lowered onto the well Monday in hopes of either bottling up the oil or capturing and funneling it all to the
Continued from A surface. But before BP could test the equipment, the government intervened because of concerns about whether the buildup of pressure from the oil could rupture the walls of the well and make the leak worse.
“We sat long and hard about delaying the tests,” Allen said. He said that the pause was necessary in the interest of the public, the environment and safety, and that officials were convinced the test could go forward.
If the cap works, it will enable BP to stop the oil from gushing into the sea, either by holding all the oil inside the well like a stopper or, if the pressure is too great, channeling it through lines to as many as four collection ships.
The test began with BP shutting off pipes that were funneling some of the oil to ships on the surface so the full force of the gusher went up into the cap. Then deep-sea robots began slowly closing, one at a time, three openings in the cap that let oil pass through. Ultimately, the flow of crude will be blocked entirely. All along, engineers will be watching pressure readings to see whether the well is intact. The first two valves shut off like a light switch, while the third works more like a dimmer and takes longer to close off.
During the testing a high pressure reading — above 6,000 pounds per square inch — would indicate that the casing is intact. A lower reading — 4,000 pounds per square inch or less — likely would mean oil and gas are escaping through breaks in the well piping or through the seafloor.
Allen said that BP will monitor the results every six hours and end the test after 48 hours to evaluate the findings.
The one-day delay came just when it looked as if the Gulf oil crisis was near an end. The holdup was met with disappointment on the Gulf Coast.
“This thing’s been going on for so long now. It’s time to take a gamble,” said Mitch Jurisich, a third-generation oyster farmer from Empire, La. “If it’s going to blow the bottom of the ocean out, it’s just going to blow the bottom out.”
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the government acted “out of an abundance of caution to do no harm,” and added that he didn’t consider the delay to be “some giant setback.”
While the testing was on hold, oil continued to spew nearly unimpeded into the water. Two vessels on the surface collected about 700,000 gallons on Tuesday, BP said. The government estimates 1.5 million to 2.5 million gallons are leaking every day.
BP also said it was halting drilling for the duration of the test on one of two relief wells that are intended to plug the gusher permanently from deep underground. The company said it was stopping the drilling because it was unclear what effect the testing of the cap could have on it. Work on the other relief well had already halted according to plan.
Before BP got the go-ahead for the cap test, BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles urged Gulf Coast residents to be patient.
“We’re going to get this thing stopped as fast as we can,” he said. “If it is not in the next couple of days with the test, we’ll do it with the relief wells.”
Tony Wood, director of the National Spill Control School at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, said the government’s caution is prudent because so much of the work being contemplated is uncharted territory.
Wood said trapping the erupting oil in the cap could increase pressure inside the casing, or the piping inside the well, and could fracture it until it is leaking like a sieve.
That could make it impossible to plug the well, creating leaks “from multiple points on the seafloor,” Gibbs said at the White House.
The cautious approach follows a string of failed attempts by BP to contain the leak, including the use of a giant concrete-and-steel box that quickly became encased in ice-like crystals, a colossal siphon tube that trapped very little oil, and an effort to jam the well by pumping in mud and shredded rubber.
As of Wednesday, the 85th day of the disaster, between 92 million and 182 million gallons of oil had spewed into the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon rig leased by BP exploded April 20, killing 11 workers.
This image taken from video provided by BP shows that oil has stopped flowing from the center valve during testing of the new 75-ton cap atop the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.