Storm Threat Passes, BP Restarts Work to Seal Blown-Out Well

HOUMA, Louisiana, August 12, 2010 (ENS) – BP and the National Incident Command said today that engineers have resumed work on a relief well next to the damaged well in the Gulf of Mexico after a tropical storm passed over the area. With the worst months of the Atlantic hurricane season around the corner, teams must balance safety with the urgent need to seal the well.

The company suspended drilling and put a plug in the relief well after the National Hurricane Center on Tuesday issued a tropical storm warning from Destin, Florida to Intracoastal City Louisiana, including Lake Pontchartrain and New Orleans.

BP said it would remove the plug and conduct a pressure test of the troublesome oil well before drilling resumes.

Now that mud and cement pumped down from the surface last week has blocked the blown-out well from the top in the so-called “static kill,” the next task is to use the relief well to drill in from below and pump mud and cement in to permanently seal the damaged well.

National Incident Commander retired Admiral Thad Allen briefs media and responders, August 11, 2010. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

National Incident Commander retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said it could take as long as 96 hours for the relief well drilling ship to get back to operational status after the storm delay, which would put a possible well killing operation off until Monday.

Admiral Allen told reporters Tuesday that the static kill might have created another problem for engineers to solve. “Following the cementing of the casing itself in the well last week and successful pressure test … we believe there may be a chance that the cement that was forced down through the casing of the well entering the [oil] reservoir might have actually moved over and come back into the annulus, which is the area outside the casing but inside the well bore.”

Before they decide how to proceed, Allen said the team wants to know whether or not there are hydrocarbons coming up from the reservoir of oil into the annulus. As much as 1,000 barrels of oil could be trapped in the series of valves atop the well that engineers want to keep from being released into the gulf.

“We want to understand the condition of the annulus before we actually drill into it, so we are working with BP right now to establish procedures to do a pressure test that will tell us whether or not there’s free communication between the annulus and the reservoir itself or there’s cement that actually worked its way over there from the static kill,” he said.

“That would effect our decision on how we might move ahead with the actual end of the relief well,” Allen said. “And that relates to how pressure can be born inside the annulus.”

“A bottom kill finishes this well,” he said. “The question is – has it already been accomplished with cement from the static kill.”

Allen explained that he makes all the final decisions after thorough discussions among BP and government scientists and engineers.

Drilling the relief well down 18,000 feet below the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

“We have a technical team in Houston that is augmented by the science team led by Secretary Chu and I would say since the start of this event discussions between them have been continuous,” Allen explained. “There is a call with Secretary Salazar every morning with BP leadership and there’s a science team call almost every day and these issues are discussed in great depth.”

“They talk about the risks associated with certain activities, how to mitigate those risks, and any plans for procedures that BP develops are reviewed,” Allen said. “Recommendations are made to me by the science team and if they need direction to proceed, a decision is made by me and I issue a written order to BP.”

Once the well is killed, there is no longer a threat of oil entering the waters of the gulf, so the well itself will no longer be considered part of the response to the oil spill. But there are still many things that must be done before the response is complete, Allen said.

First there is the permanent plugging and abandonment of the well, a process that the Department of Interior oversees by law.

They will do that in conjunction with the Marine Board of Investigation that has been convened in New Orleans between the Department of Interior and Homeland Security to inquire into the circumstances surrounding the event itself, and in consultation with the Department of Justice.

The failed blow out preventer will be removed and taken to the surface for analysis. At that point BP will be acting under the direction of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management within the Department of the Interior. The blow out preventer will be handled under the supervision of the Marine Board of Investigations and under the direction of the Department of Justice as it relates to evidence preservation, Allen explained.

Tim Kimmel of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries carries an oiled pelican from a nesting area in Barataria Bay to a rescue boat. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard.)

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded on April 20 is the property of Transocean, Ltd. and was leased by BP. “There are no near-term plans to salvage the Deepwater Horizon,” Allen said. “It is several thousand feet away from the well head right now, slightly inverted.”

He said that sometime in early September, in conjunction with the supervisor of salvage of the Navy, the Coast Guard will take a remotely operated sub down and start doing a comprehensive review of the rig.

In the long term, the National Incident Command will address the oil that has come ashore, particularly in the marshy areas of Barataria Bay, Chandeleur Islands and the Breton Sound in Louisiana, where a great deal of oil still exists.

Allen said a comprehensive plan is being drawn up to address subsea oil spilled from the Deepwater Horizon and the approximately 26 percent of the total oil spill that is still unaccounted for that did not evaporate, biodegrade and was not skimmed or otherwise collected for burning, flaring or transfer to onshore refineries.

Meanwhile, more of the Gulf of Mexico has been reopened to fishing.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, Tuesday reopened 5,144 square miles of gulf waters to commercial and recreational finfish fishing. The reopening was announced under a protocol agreed to by NOAA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the gulf states.

The closed area now measures 52,395 miles – or 22 percent of the federal waters in the Gulf – down from 37 percent at its height.

Since July 3, NOAA data have shown no oil in the area, and Coast Guard observers flying over the area in the last 30 days have not observed any oil.

In some areas, oil containment boom that has been protecting the shoreline can be removed. Allen said, “If the boom is out there and it gets driven into the marshes it can actually cause more damage than if you would remove it.”

The boom will be decontaminated and cleaned for restaging in case it is needed again.

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