Spill relief another two months away

2010-06-01 14:16

The best hope for stopping the flow of oil from the blown-out well

at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico has been compared to hitting a target the

size of a dinner plate with a drill more than 3.2km into the earth, and is

anything but a sure bet on the first attempt.

Bid after bid has failed to stall what has already become the

worst-ever US oil spill, and BP PLC is readying another patchwork attempt as

early as tomorrow, this one a cut-and-cap process to put a lid on the leaking

wellhead so oil can be siphoned to the surface.

Today, US President Barack Obama planned to meet at the White House

with the co-chairmen of an independent commission he established to investigate

the catastrophic oil spill, said a senior administration official, speaking on

condition of anonymity because the meeting had not been formally


Meanwhile, US Attorney-General Eric Holder planned to visit the

Gulf Coast today to see areas affected by the oil spill and meet with state

attorneys general from Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, and several US


Several US senators have asked the justice department to determine

whether criminal or civil laws were broken in the spill.

The best-case scenario of sealing the leak is two relief wells

being drilled diagonally into the gushing well – tricky business that won’t be

ready until August.

David Rensink, incoming president of the American Association of

Petroleum Geologists, who spent most of his 39 years in the oil industry in

offshore exploration, said: “The probability of them hitting it on the very

first shot is virtually nil. If they get it on the first three or four shots

they’d be very lucky.”

For the relief well to succeed, the bore hole must precisely

intersect the damaged well. If it misses, BP will have to back up its drill,

plug the hole it just created, and try again.

The trial-and-error process could take weeks, but it will

eventually work, scientists and BP said. Engineers will then pump mud and cement

through pipes to ultimately seal the well.

As the drilling reaches deeper into the earth, the process is

slowed by building pressure and the increasing distance that well casings must

travel before they can be set in place.

Still, the three months it could take to finish the relief wells –

the first of which started May 2 – is quicker than a typical deep well, which

can take four months or longer, said Tad Patzek, chair of the petroleum and

geosystems engineering department at the University of Texas-Austin.

BP already has a good picture of the different layers of sand and

rock its drill bits will meet because of the work it did on the blown-out


On the slim chance the relief well doesn’t work, scientists weren’t

sure exactly how much – or how long – the oil would flow.

The gusher would

continue until the well bore hole collapsed or pressure in the reservoir dropped

to a point where oil was no longer pushed to the surface, Patzek said.

A third well could be drilled if the first two fail. According to

BP spokesperson John Curry: “I don’t admit the possibility of it not working.


don’t know how much oil is down there, and hopefully we’ll never know when the

relief wells work.”

The company was starting to collect and analyse data on how much

oil might be in the reservoir when the rig exploded April 20, he said.

BP’s uncertainty statement is reasonable, given they only had

drilled one well, according to Doug Rader, an ocean scientist with the

Environmental Defense Fund.

Two relief wells stopped the world’s worst peacetime spill from a

Mexican rig called Ixtoc 1 that dumped 530 million litres off the Yucatan


That plug took nearly 10 months beginning in the summer of 1979.

Drilling technology has vastly improved since then, however.

So far, the Gulf oil spill has leaked between 74.6 million litres

and 163 million litres, according to government estimates.

In the meantime, BP is turning to another risky procedure federal

officials acknowledge will likely, at least temporarily, cause 20% more oil – at

least 380000 litres a day – to add to the gusher.

Using robot submarines, BP plans to cut away the riser pipe this

week and place a cap-like containment valve over the blowout preventer.

Yesterday, live video feeds showed robot submarines moving equipment around and

using a circular saw-like device to cut small pipes at the bottom of the


The crews will eventually cut the leaking riser and place the cap

on top of it and the company hopes it will capture the majority of the oil,

sending it to the surface.

Ed Overton, a Louisiana State University professor of environmental

sciences, said: “If you’ve got to cut that riser, that’s risky. You could take a

bad situation and make it worse.”

BP failed to plug the leak on Saturday with its top kill, which

shot mud and pieces of rubber into the well but couldn’t beat back the pressure

of the oil.

Meanwhile, the location of the spill couldn’t be worse.

To the south lies an essential spawning ground for imperilled

Atlantic bluefin tuna and sperm whales.

To the east and west, coral reefs and

the coastal fisheries of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas. And to the

north, Louisiana’s coastal marshes.

More than 200km of Louisiana coastline already have been hit with


Tulane University ecologist, Tom Sherry, said: “It’s just killing us by


It’s an area that historically has been something of a

super-highway for hurricanes, too.

If a major storm rolls in, the relief well operations would have to

be suspended and then re-started, adding more time to the process.

Plugging the

Ixtoc was also hampered by hurricane season, which begins today and is predicted

to be very active.

Three of the worst storms ever to hit the Gulf coast – Betsy in

1965, Camille in 1969 and Katrina in 2005 – all passed over the leak site.

On the Gulf coast beaches, tropical weather was far from some

tourists’ minds.

On Biloxi beach, Paul Dawa and his friend Ezekial Momgeri sipped

Coronas after a night gambling at the Hard Rock Casino.

Both men, originally

from Kenya, drove from Memphis, Tennessee, and were chased off the beach by a

storm, not oil.

Momgeri said: “We talked about it and we decided to come down and

see for ourselves but there’s no oil here.”

Though some tar balls have been found on Mississippi and Alabama

barrier islands, oil from the spill has not significantly fouled the


Still, the perception that it has soiled white sands and fishing

areas threatens to cripple the tourist economy, said Linda Hornsby, executive

director of the Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association

Hornsby said: “It’s not here. It may never be here. It’s costing a

lot of money to counter that perception. First it was cancellations but that

evolved to a decrease in calls and there’s no way to measure that.”

Yet there was fear the oil would eventually hit the other Gulf

coast states. Hentzel Yucles, of Gulfport, Mississippi, hung out on the beach

with his wife and sons.

He said: “Katrina was bad. I know this is a different type of

situation but it’s going to affect everybody.”


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