Oil Spill: ‘Top Kill’ Fails to Plug the Broken Well

ROBERT, Louisiana, May 29, 2010 (ENS) – BP’s “top kill” operations to stop the flow of oil from the broken Deepwater Horizon wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico have failed.

The procedure was intended to stem the flow of oil and gas and ultimately kill the well by injecting heavy drilling fluids through the blowout preventer on the seabed, down into the well.

“After three full days, we have been unable to overcome the flow,” said BP’s chief operating officer, Doug Suttles, at a news conference in Robert, Louisiana. “This scares everybody, the fact that we can’t make this well stop flowing, or the fact that we haven’t succeeded so far.”

Despite successfully pumping a total of over 30,000 barrels of heavy mud, in three attempts at rates of up to 80 barrels a minute, and deploying a wide range of different bridging materials, called the “junk shot” the operation did not overcome the flow from the well.

Floating in a sea of oil, drilling rigs and response vessels try to stop the flow of oil at the Deepwater Horizon incident site. May 26, 2010. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

Oil and gas are spewing from the well drilled to a depth of 18,000 feet below the seafloor at a rate newly assessed by a government-appointed technical team as between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels per day.

The spill began April 20 when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and burned for 36 hours before sinking to the seafloor about 50 miles southeast of Louisiana. Now, 40 days later, at least 480,000 barrels and up to 760,000 barrels of oil from the broken wellhead have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.

By comparison, the Exxon Valdez spilled 257,000 barrels of oil in Alaska in 1989.

Federal government officials have decided to move to the next step in the subsea operations to try and stop the Deepwater Horizon spill – the deployment of the lower marine riser package, LMRP, cap containment system.

Federal on-scene coordinator U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry today directed BP to launch the new procedure whereby the riser pipe will be cut and a containment structure fitted over the leak.

This operational plan first involves cutting and then removing the damaged riser from the top of the failed blowout preventer, a complex series of valves at the wellhead. This will leave a cleanly-cut pipe at the top of the blowout preventer’s lower marine riser package.

The cap is designed to be connected to a riser from the Discoverer Enterprise drillship situated on the surface, 5,000 feet above the damaged wellhead.

The cap will be placed over the lower marine riser package with the intention of capturing most of the oil and gas flowing from the well. The cap is already on site and it is currently anticipated that it will be connected in about four days.

Bottlenose dolphin swims in the oily Gulf of Mexico along a boomed beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana. May 28, 2010. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

This operation has not been previously carried out in 5,000 feet of water and the successful deployment of the containment system cannot be assured, BP cautioned today.

BP is also attempting to redirect the flow of oil by tapping into the reservoir with two relief wells. Drilling of the first relief well began May 2 and continues and is currently at 12,090 feet. It is expected to be completed around August 2. Drilling of the second relief well started May 16 and is temporarily suspended. It is expected to recommence shortly from 8,576 feet.

In Chicago, President Barack Obama said, “From the beginning, our concern has been that the surest way to stop the flow of oil – the drilling of relief wells – would take several months to complete. So engineers and experts have explored a variety of alternatives to stop the leak now.”

“They had hoped that the top kill approach attempted this week would halt the flow of oil and gas currently escaping from the seafloor,” said Obama. “But while we initially received optimistic reports about the procedure, it is now clear that it has not worked.”

The lower marine riser package approach is not without risk and has never been attempted before at this depth, said the President. “That is why it was not activated until other methods had been exhausted. It will be difficult and will take several days.”

“It is also important to note that while we were hopeful that the top kill would succeed, we were also mindful that there was a significant chance it would not. And we will continue to pursue any and all responsible means of stopping this leak until the completion of the two relief wells currently being drilled.”

President Barack Obama with Gulf coast governors May 28 in Grande Isle, Louisiana. From left: Alabama Governor Bob Riley, National Incident Commander U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, Florida Governor Charlie Crist, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

“As I said yesterday,” Obama reiterated, “every day that this leak continues is an assault on the people of the Gulf Coast region, their livelihoods, and the natural bounty that belongs to all of us. It is as enraging as it is heartbreaking, and we will not relent until this leak is contained, until the waters and shores are cleaned up, and until the people unjustly victimized by this manmade disaster are made whole.”

On Friday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, extended the closed fishing area in the Gulf of Mexico to the east and south of the previously closed area. Closing fishing in these areas is a precautionary measure to ensure that seafood from the Gulf will remain safe for consumers, the agency said in a statement.

The closed area now represents 60,683 square miles, which is approximately 25 percent of Gulf of Mexico federal waters.

With the Atlantic hurricane season starting on June 1, NOAA says, “The high winds and seas will mix and weather the oil which can help accelerate the biodegradation process.”

Most hurricanes span an enormous area of the ocean – 200 to 300 miles – far wider than the current size of the spill, NOAA says. If the slick remains small in comparison to a typical hurricane’s general environment and size, the anticipated impact on the hurricane would be minimal.

Movement of oil would depend greatly on the track of the hurricane. A storm surge may carry oil into the coastline and inland as far as the surge reaches. Debris resulting from the hurricane may be contaminated by oil from the Deepwater Horizon incident, but also from other oil releases that may occur during the storm.

“A hurricane passing to the west of the oil slick could drive oil to the coast,” the NOAA says, while “a hurricane passing to the east of the slick could drive the oil away from the coast.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2010. All rights reserved.