Crews hope attempt to seal off oil at bottom of Gulf will mark a turning point

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

On Gulf, a turning point nears in spill efforts

NEW ORLEANS — BP engineers began testing the blown-out Gulf of Mexico oil well Tuesday in the first of several delicate steps in what they think is their best chance yet to reach the ultimate goal — snuffing one of the world’s largest spills for good.

When the hours-long testing is declared complete and crews spend several more hours analyzing the results, the company said it hopes to begin pumping heavy drilling mud and eventually cement down the throat of the well — in an effort dubbed the “static kill” — to choke it for good.

The testing started around 1 p.m. Central time as crews probed the broken well bore with an oil-like liquid to determine whether there were any obstructions in the well and to assess the pressure of the bore and the pump rates it can withstand.

Even if crews can proceed with the static kill, they won’t know for more than a week whether it worked because they have to wait for completion of an 18,000-foot relief well to reach the reservoir from the bottom.

“This is a really positive step forward,” retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said earlier of the pending static kill. “It’s going to be good news in a time where that hasn’t been very much good news, but it shouldn’t be a cause for premature celebration.”

Company officials earlier said the static kill alone — which involves slowly pumping mud down lines running from ships a mile above — may plug the oil leak.

But the only surefire way to make certain the well is permanently plugged is to fill it from below with mud and cement, via the relief well, in a so-called “bottom kill,” Allen said. The relief well is set for completion as early as Aug. 11.

The static kill is meant as insurance for the crews that have spent months fighting the spill. The only thing keeping oil from blowing into the Gulf at the moment is an experimental cap that has held for more than two weeks but was never meant to be permanent.

Allen, the government’s point man on the spill response, added earlier Tuesday that there “should be no ambiguity” that the primary relief well will be finished, regardless.

The testing for the static kill was supposed to be completed Monday, but a minor leak discovered in the hydraulic control system pushed back the diagnostics until Tuesday. Allen said leaks have been repaired.

While the static kill could take days to complete, mostly because it involves the slow pumping of mud, Allen said crews should know within hours of its start whether the mud is pushing down the oil.

It’s important to begin soon, he said, with the peak hurricane season just around the corner. Tropical Storm Colin formed far out in the Atlantic on Tuesday, but early forecasts put it on a track off the East Coast rather than the Gulf.

And while diagnostic tests show that the 75-ton cap that has bottled up the oil since mid-July is sound, the static kill would give scientists more confidence the well won’t leak again, he said.

“The quicker we get this done, the quicker we can reduce the risk of some type of internal failure” of the massive cap, he said.

A federal task force said Monday that about 172 million gallons of oil made it into the Gulf between April and July 15, when the temporary cap contained all the oil.

The task force said about 206 million gallons actually gushed out of the well, but a fleet of boats and other efforts were able to contain more than 33 million. The 172 million gallons is on the high end of recent estimates that anywhere from 92 million to 184 million gallons had gushed into the sea.

Judging by the latest estimate, BP could be fined up to $5.4 billion under the Clean Water Act, or as much as $21 billion if it is found to have committed gross negligence or willful misconduct.

The high-end fine would drop to around $17.6 billion if the government credits BP for the oil it has recovered, while the low-end fine would be around $4.5 billion.

Any fines would be on top of the compensation BP has agreed to pay to thousands of people harmed by the spill. Under pressure from the White House, the company set up a $20 billion escrow fund to pay all claims, including environmental damages and state and local response costs.

The company began drilling a primary relief well May 2, 12 days after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and killed 11 workers, and a second backup well May 16. The first well is now only about 100 feet from the target.

BP and federal officials have managed to contain large parts of the spill through skimmers, boom and chemical dispersants meant to break up the oil.

Federal regulators have come under fire from critics who say that BP was allowed to use excessive amounts of the dispersants, but government officials counter that they have helped dramatically cut the use of the chemicals since late May.

The Environmental Protection Agency released a study Monday concluding that when mixed with oil, chemical dispersants used to break up the crude in the Gulf are no more toxic to aquatic life than oil alone.

As businesses along the coast continued to clamor for relief from losses caused by the spill, BP said it created a special team to reduce paperwork and speed up payments to “businesspeople who are suffering.”

Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Ramit Plushnick-Masti in Houston, Jeffrey Collins and Harry R. Weber in New Orleans, and Matthew Daly in Washington.

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