Keep­ing watch on well

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Vicki Smith, Hol­brook Mohr and Harry R. We­ber

En­gi­neers strug­gle to make sense of pres­sure read­ings as they try to de­ter­mine whether BP’s capped oil well is hold­ing tight.

NEW OR­LEANS — In a nail-bit­ing day across the Gulf Coast, en­gi­neers strug­gled to make sense of puz­zling pres­sure read­ings from the bot­tom of the sea Fri­day to de­ter­mine whether BP’s capped oil well was hold­ing tight.

Half­way through a cru­cial 48-hour win­dow, the signs were promis­ing but far from con­clu­sive.

Kent Wells, a BP PLC vice pres­i­dent, said on an evening con­fer­ence call that en­gi­neers had found no in­di­ca­tion that the well has started leak­ing un­der­ground.

“No news is good news. I guess that’s how I’d say it,” Wells said.

En­gi­neers are keep­ing watch over the well for a two-day pe­riod in a sci­en­tific, round-the-clock vigil to see if the well’s tem­po­rary cap is strong enough to hold back the oil, or if there are leaks ei­ther in the well it­self or the seafloor. One mys­te­ri­ous devel­op­ment was that the pres­sure read­ings were not ris­ing as high as ex­pected, said re­tired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the govern­ment’s point man on the cri­sis.

Allen said two pos­si­ble rea­sons were be­ing de­bated by sci­en­tists: The reser­voir that is the source of the oil could be run­ning lower three months into the spill. Or there could be an undis­cov­ered leak some­where down in the well. Allen or­dered fur­ther study but re­mained con­fi­dent.

“This is gen­er­ally good news,” he said. But he cau­tioned, “We need to be care­ful not to do any harm or cre­ate a sit­u­a­tion that can­not be re­versed.”

He said the test­ing would go on into the night, at which point BP may de­cide whether to re­open the cap and al­low some oil to spill into the sea again.

Through­out the day, no one was declar­ing vic­tory — or fail­ure. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama cau­tioned the pub­lic “not to get too far ahead of our­selves,” warn­ing of the dan­ger of new leaks “that could be even more cat­a­strophic.”

Even if the cap passes the test, more un­cer­tain­ties lie ahead: Where will the oil al­ready spilled go? How long will it take to clean up the coast? What will hap­pen to the re­gion’s fish­er­men? And will life on the Gulf Coast ever be the same again?

“I’m happy the well is shut off, that there’s a light at the end of the tun­nel,” said Tony Ken­non, mayor of hard-hit Orange Beach, Ala. But “I’m watch­ing peo­ple mov­ing away, peo­ple los­ing their jobs, ev­ery­thing they’ve got. How can I be that happy when that’s hap­pen­ing to my neigh­bor?”

On Thurs­day, BP closed the vents on the new, tight-fit­ting cap and fi­nally stopped crude from spew­ing into the Gulf of Mex­ico for the first time since the April 20 oil-rig ex­plo­sion that killed 11 work­ers and un­leashed the spill 5,000 feet down.

With the cap work­ing like a gi­ant cork to keep the oil in­side the well, sci­en­tists kept watch on screens at sea and at BP’s Hous­ton head­quar­ters in case the buildup of pres­sure un­der­ground caused new leaks in the well pipe and in the sur­round­ing bedrock that could make the dis­as­ter even worse.

Pres­sure read­ings af­ter 24 hours were about 6,700 pounds per square inch and ris­ing slowly, Allen said, be­low the 7,500 psi that would clearly show the well was not leak­ing. He said pres­sure con­tin­ued to rise be­tween 2 and 10 psi per hour. A low pres­sure read­ing, or a fall­ing one, could mean the oil is es­cap­ing.

But Allen said a seis­mic probe of the sur­round­ing seafloor found no sign of a leak in the ground.

Benton Baugh, pres­i­dent of Radoil Inc. in Hous­ton and a Na­tional Academy of En­gi­neer­ing mem­ber who spe­cial­izes in un­der­wa­ter oil op­er­a­tions, warned that the pres­sure read­ings could mean that an un­der­ground blowout could oc­cur. He said the oil com­ing up the well may be leak­ing out un­der­ground and en­ter­ing a ge­o­log­i­cal pocket that might not be able to hold it.

But Roger An­der­son, a pro­fes­sor of ma­rine ge­ol­ogy and geo­physics at Columbia Uni­ver­sity, said the oil pres­sure might be ris­ing slowly not be­cause of a leak, but be­cause of some kind of block­age in the well.

“If it’s ris­ing slowly, that means the pipe’s in­tegrity’s still there. It’s just get­ting around ob­sta­cles,” he said. He added that “any in­crease in pres­sure is good, not bad.”

The cap is de­signed to pre­vent oil from spilling into the Gulf, ei­ther by keep­ing it bot­tled up in the well, or by cap­tur­ing it and pip­ing it to ships on the sur­face. It is not yet clear which way the cap will be used if it passes the pres­sure test.

Ei­ther way, the cap is a tem­po­rary mea­sure un­til a re­lief well can be com­pleted and mud and ce­ment can be pumped into the bro­ken well deep un­der­ground to seal it more se­curely than the cap. The first of the two re­lief wells be­ing drilled could be done by late this month or Au­gust.

In a pos­i­tive sign, work on the re­lief wells re­sumed Fri­day. The project had been sus­pended ear­lier this week for fear that the cap­ping of the well could in­ter­fere with it.

There was no end in sight to the cleanup in the wa­ter and on shore. Some­where be­tween 94 mil­lion and 184 mil­lion gal­lons have spilled into the Gulf, ac­cord­ing to govern­ment es­ti­mates.

In Orange Beach, long strands of white ab­sorbent boom strung along the shore were stained choco­late brown af­ter a fresh wave of BB-size tar balls washed up. Large sec­tions of the Gulf Coast have been closed to fish­ing and shell­fish har­vest­ing. Many fish­er­men have been hired by BP to do cleanup work.

There is fear that months from now, those tar balls could move west to Cor­pus Christi or travel up and around Florida to Mi­ami or North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

Tim Kerner, mayor of Lafitte, La., said the cri­sis isn’t over by a long shot.

“There’s mil­lions and mil­lions of gal­lons of oil out there, and they need to keep the fish­er­men work­ing,” he said. “It’s no time to pull back. It’s time to con­tinue to fight un­til we know it’s over.”

Kerner added: “I don’t want ev­ery­body to think we won this bat­tle. This bat­tle’s go­ing to be on­go­ing for a while.”

Dave Martin AS­SO­ci­AteD PreSS

Dave Martin AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A stretch of beach on Grand Isle, La., gets a pres­sure wash Fri­day. Though BP has capped the leak­ing well, there are still mil­lions of gal­lons of crude in the Gulf, and there is much con­cern about where that oil could end up.

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