By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14, 2010; A08
The "integrity test" that could potentially shut down the Gulf of Mexico oil gusher has been delayed until at least Wednesday, a setback in the effort to put an end to what has been called the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.
BP had vowed to conduct the test, which would involve closing valves on the leaking well's newly placed cap, by midday Tuesday. As the day wore on, however, the well continued to billow black oil into the gulf.
Late Tuesday evening, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen, the national incident commander, announced that the test had been put off for at least a day.
As a result of discussions among government scientists and BP officials, Allen said, "we decided that the process may benefit from additional analysis that will be performed tonight and tomorrow."
BP spokesman Toby Odone offered little elaboration on those discussions, saying officials wanted to make sure "that the test is done in a way that will produce the results that we need."
The best-case scenario for the test is that it would halt the spewing of the well. But the well could fail the test -- and the gusher would return.
Federal authorities and BP engineers want to see the test create a steady increase in well pressure. This would suggest that the Macondo well is intact, and that oil and gas are not leaking into the surrounding mud and rock formations below the gulf floor. The well blew out April 20 and destroyed the Deepwater Horizon rig, killing 11 men.
If the pressure readings are too low, BP's technicians will abandon the test and, using robotic submersibles, will reopen the valves. BP will resume trying to capture as much leaking oil as possible while continuing to drill a relief well that could kill Macondo with mud and concrete.
"Everybody hope and pray that we see high pressures here," BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells said Tuesday. "Bear with us. Let's do this test."
The test could take at least two days. If authorities determine that the well can remain closed -- "shut in," to use the oil industry terminology -- then Macondo would no longer pollute the gulf, and ships would stop collecting or burning oil and gas.
The relief well is getting close. It's four feet laterally from Macondo, with about 150 feet more to drill vertically until the interception. But the target is narrow -- a steel casing slightly less than 10 inches wide, with a seven-inch pipe inside. The final stages are painstaking, and BP and the government still say the bottom-kill is not likely to take place until August.
Allen set up camp in Houston on Tuesday with Energy Secretary Steven Chu for what the retired admiral had anticipated would be "a consequential day."
The new "3 ram capping stack" was lowered without a hitch onto the reconfigured blowout preventer Monday night. A new surface ship, the Helix Producer, was also connected to the well via the "kill line" on the blowout preventer, and by Tuesday morning was siphoning about 12,000 barrels (504,000 gallons) of oil a day, Wells said. About 8,000 barrels (336,000 gallons) a day have been siphoned and burned through the surface rig Q4000.
Those containment efforts will be halted to conduct the integrity test, Wells said.
The possibility of shutting in the well from the top was raised by BP in the past few weeks. The oil company has expressed concern many times about trying to seal the well from the top, citing fears about the condition of the well below the gulf floor. During the "top kill" attempt in May, the well was taking as much mud as engineers were pumping into it. It was not clear whether the mud was leaking into the rock formations or shooting out the cracks and openings in the pipe above the blowout preventer. In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Wells said BP had become increasingly confident that the mud had flowed out the top. He did not elaborate.
During a conference call Monday, BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles was asked why the new sealing cap and the shut-in strategy had not been attempted earlier. He defended the company's strategy, saying that certain steps could be taken only after engineers had gathered information about the well. A major concern all along was to avoid anything to make the situation worse, he said.
"The problem is, I've had to take these steps to learn the things I've learned," he said. "Without taking those steps, it's unlikely that I would have known what I know now."