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

By Marc Kaufman and Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2010; A01

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.

With so many imponderables, he said, predicting a July finish seemed overly optimistic.

Nonetheless, the administration is as eager as BP to take advantage of the predicted week to 10 days of good weather. The wild card in the picture has always been hurricanes. The new, tighter-fitting cap would be connected to a floating riser pipe that would, in turn, be connected to surface ships with flexible hoses. That would enable the ships to detach quickly in advance of a storm, then reconnect quickly upon their return.

With the Helix Producer connected to the current cap, the surface vessels would have the capacity to capture up to 53,000 barrels of oil a day from the well. With the new firmer cap in place and yet another surface ship collecting oil, the overall capacity would increase to 80,000 barrels a day, higher than any official estimate for the flow rate of the well.

The relief well is currently moving almost parallel to the blown-out Macondo well, just 12 feet away laterally, and with only about 200 feet to go before it reaches the interception target.

The blown-out well will be intercepted at a point where there is both casing and interior pipe. Oil and gas may be surging between the original wall of the hole and the outside of the steel casing -- a space that was cemented before the well erupted on April 20. Or the flow could be taking place in the annulus, as the space between the casing and the pipe is known. Or it could be within the pipe itself -- or some combination of all that.

Allen also addressed sometimes-frustrating efforts to clean the waters using skimming boats, including a large vessel called A Whale sent from Taiwan. Allen said the big boat was designed to collect greater concentrations of oil than those that are being found in much of the gulf but that the Coast Guard had agreed to test it for another week.

He said the administration has been active for weeks in organizing a volunteer effort but added: "I think everybody would agree there's not enough skimming operations." An enormous flotilla of private boats has been assembled to clean the waters, but it has been difficult to match the vessels with appropriate jobs.

"One of the analogies I've made is to the militia at Concord before the Revolution. Everybody showed up for the fight: Some had muskets, and some had a hatchet," Allen said.

Also Thursday, a federal appeals court rejected the Obama administration's request to reinstate a six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling in the wake of the oil spill. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, based in New Orleans, ruled about 90 minutes after hearing arguments over the administration's request to put on hold a lower court ruling that lifted the moratorium.

The ruling is likely to prompt the Interior Department to quickly issue a revised moratorium order on drilling in water deeper than 500 feet to address concerns raised by the federal courts. A department official said earlier on Thursday that such an order would be issued "immediately" to address any deficiencies, but that could spark yet another legal battle and leave drillers on the sidelines again.

The appeals court, in a 2 to 1 decision, ruled that the administration had failed to show that it would be irreparably harmed if the moratorium was lifted while the government appealed the merits of the case. Already, some oil services companies have said they will not begin new drilling operations in the region until the legal matters were resolved, and some were moving rigs and workers overseas for projects.

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