BP prepares to change well's cap, then start plugging it

BP, the government and an army of volunteers are fighting to contain and clean the millions of gallons of oil spewing from the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.
By Marc Kaufman and Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2010

In the race to control and kill the leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico before a tropical storm halts operations, BP is gambling that it can perform several complex technical maneuvers simultaneously.

The company plans to change caps on the gusher, a tricky task that could greatly improve the ability to capture the oil or perhaps even shut down the well -- but that would permit oil to flow unabated during the switch. The company had planned to change the cap only after first connecting the well to a new ship at the site, the Helix Producer, which can siphon up to 25,000 barrels of oil a day. But with a window of calm weather forecast for the next week or so, BP has accelerated its plans, administration officials said Thursday.

This burst of activity comes as a relief well is nearing the blown-out borehole. BP and administration officials say that if the weather holds and all the technology works as planned, they could begin the process of permanently plugging the well within two weeks.

With so much about to happen at the blowout site, the Obama administration on Thursday gave BP officials 24 hours to provide a detailed description of what they will do in the weeks ahead and how they will do it. In a letter to BP, National Incident Commander Thad Allen also asked for a series of backup plans to be put into effect if events took unpredicted turns.

"They have said to our people this is how they'd like to proceed. We have questions about that, so we're asking a series of questions, making sure that everything has been carefully thought through before we move into agreeing to sort of a simultaneous process," said a senior administration official.

On another front, the administration was dealt a setback when an appeals court rejected its request to reinstate its moratorium on deep-water drilling.

With the break in the weather, BP and the administration appeared to be projecting conflicting views on how quickly the leak might finally be killed.

In interviews on Wednesday, BP's managing director, Bob Dudley, raised the possibility of success before the end of July. "In a perfect world with no interruptions, it's possible to be ready to stop the well between July 20 and July 27," Dudley told the Wall Street Journal. But he also said that perfect case was "unlikely" because of the threat of hurricanes.

On Thursday, Allen pointedly stuck to the official government estimate that the leak will be plugged by mid-August. If the effort succeeded earlier, Allen said, "we'd all jump for joy."

He cautioned, however, that the oil could be flowing up several different pathways inside the 10-inch steel casing, which has a seven-inch pipe inside it. It is unknown whether the oil and gas are flowing inside those structures, in the space between them or both.

Consequently, the relief well will succeed only when its drill penetrates the right layer or layers. "We can't bet on getting it the first time," he said.

Allen said the relief-well drill will be in place to penetrate the leaking borehole in seven to 10 days -- a time frame more precise than any given before. The process of filling the hole with mud and then plugging it with concrete will take seven to 10 more days and, he said, might have to be done a number of times, depending on where in the well the oil and gas are flowing.

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