Allen: Bad weather, equipment issues hamper oil recovery

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By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 21, 2010; 2:36 PM

Oil production from the damaged BP well in the Gulf of Mexico dipped slightly because of weather and maintenance issues, causing more crude to gush into gulf waters and highlighting the need to bring in equipment that can increase output and resistance to bad weather, Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen said Monday.

BP announced, meanwhile, that its spending so far on fighting the worst oil spill in U.S. history has hit the $2 billion mark, with a projected date for plugging the well still about a month and a half away. BP said the figure includes the cost of the spill response, containment of the oil, the drilling of relief wells, grants to Gulf Coast states, reimbursement of federal costs and the payment of claims. It said it has received more than 65,000 claims to date and made more than 32,000 payments totaling at least $105 million.

In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) has filed a brief in support of a lawsuit seeking an injunction against President Obama's moratorium on deep-water oil and gas drilling in the gulf, Jindal's office announced Monday. The amicus brief argues that the federal government should include the states in setting policies and making decisions on exploration and development of the Outer Continental Shelf and that the Interior Department should be required to cooperate with the affected states.

It charges that Louisiana "was completely ignored" when the federal government established the six-month moratorium "for alleged safety reasons" in the wake of the BP oil spill disaster.

U.S. District Court Judge Martin Feldman said he would decide by noon Wednesday whether to issue a preliminary injunction against the deep-water drilling moratorium.

Allen, the senior U.S. official in charge of the federal response to the disaster, told reporters Monday that the total amount of oil recovered in the latest 24-hour period was 23,291 barrels, "slightly below" the average in recent days. He attributed the drop, which he put on the order of 2,000 to 3,000 barrels a day, to lightning that forced the Discoverer Enterprise drillship to shut down operations temporarily and to needed maintenance of the system for bringing oil to the surface.

Government scientists estimate that the damaged well 5,000 feet below the surface is spewing between 30,000 and 60,000 barrels of crude a day into gulf waters, Allen said. Of that total, the Discoverer Enterprise produced about 14,600 barrels in the latest 24-hour period, and the Q4000 platform flared off an additional 8,700 barrels. The two vessels also have been flaring off millions of cubic feet of natural gas a day.

Allen said BP is bringing in a third vessel with a goal of increasing production to as much as 53,000 barrels a day. That production would come from a "kill line," which was previously used in the unsuccessful "top kill" attempt to plug the well, and would allow engineers to reduce the amount of oil that is currently being vented from a containment cap on top of a failed blowout preventer, Allen said.

Beyond that, the admiral said, he favors installing a new system by mid-July that would increase total production capacity to 60,000 to 80,000 barrels a day. But that involves some risk because crews would have to disconnect the existing containment cap, allowing crude to gush unchecked until the new system could be installed. The advantages of the new system would include a better seal at the source of the leak, a more "redundant" network of flexible hoses and greater "survivability" in bad weather, giving production crews a better chance of continuing to operate during the current hurricane season, Allen said.

However, it was not immediately clear how severe a tropical storm the planned new system could endure. Allen previously told reporters that a major hurricane would force crews to suspend oil production and that, with no way to stop the flow, the crude would resume gushing into the gulf at full force until the storm passed.

As the production efforts continue, two relief wells that offer the best hope of plugging the well are making progress, Allen said. One has reached 10,677 feet below the sea floor and is "closing in on the well bore" of the damaged BP well, he said.

Engineers on Monday are beginning "ranging" operations in which they send electric current down the well bore to help determine how far the relief well is from intercepting the damaged well, Allen said. He said engineers hope to intercept the well in the next few weeks, with completion of this so-called "bottom kill" operation still tentatively set for the second week of August.


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