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Small leaks spring at BP oil well; cap to stay in place for now

By Steven Mufson and David S. Hilzenrath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 20, 2010; A01

New problems arose in the struggle to contain the Gulf of Mexico oil spill as bubbles and seepage appeared in four areas around the damaged BP well, but Obama administration and company officials agreed to keep the new well cap closed for at least 24 more hours as they weigh the gravity of the developments.

Meanwhile, at a hearing in Louisiana, attorneys for crew members of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig did battle with one another and members of a government panel investigating the April 20 explosion while revealing new details about fateful choices made hours before the blowout.

In Washington, the Interior Department moved to defuse tensions with shallow-water drilling firms and Gulf Coast lawmakers over how to speed up the permit process.

BP said that one of the seepage areas, less than two miles from the Macondo well, is a natural leak not linked to the well. Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen, the national incident commander, said concerns are focused on other "anomalies" -- some seepage within several hundred yards of the well and bubbles appearing near the original blowout preventer on the sea floor.

In addition, video provided by BP showed drops of oil and gas leaking from a piece of the new containment cap just below three rams designed to cut off the flow from the well. The leak has caused the formation of some hydrates -- slushlike crystals of natural gas and water that torpedoed earlier containment efforts. But, Allen said, "we do not believe this is consequential at this time."

Allen and, in another briefing, BP senior executive Kent Wells said the company might make a second attempt to kill the well by shooting drilling mud into the blowout preventer. An earlier attempt was aborted, but Wells said stopping the flow even temporarily would make killing the well easier.

Consequences

The latest events added to tension that had begun to dissipate over the weekend as the new containment cap appeared to be holding fast without causing problems. And the developments highlighted the unappealing tradeoffs associated with every decision carried out a mile below the sea surface.

Allen said that the four-day-old effort to close the well had complicated the prospects of containing the spill by channeling oil through four lines to surface ships. He said that if the new cap must be opened, it would take several days to make sure sand would not clog the lines, to finish building flexible riser pipes to the surface and to hook up surface ships designed to suck oil from the cap. During that time, oil and gas would flow into the gulf.

But with the cap closed, the risk of broader damage to the well itself and surrounding geological structures looms large. If the well is so damaged that oil and gas is leaking throughout, the hydrocarbons could seep into surrounding rock formations high above the reservoir and then into the sea. Or they could come out the top of the well. Vessels using seismic equipment were scouring the area for evidence of such seepage, but their presence kept other ships from getting close enough to finish building the infrastructure that would be needed if the cap were opened.

Meanwhile, pressure in the well continued to rise Monday, albeit slowly, reaching 6,811 pounds per square inch, Allen said in the late afternoon. He said the pressure was rising about one pound per hour.

This, too, has triggered debate among BP and U.S. officials, who had expected the pressure to hit 8,000 psi and who thought that lower pressure readings would be a sign that oil and gas was leaking into rock formations through damaged well equipment. But because of the steady increases in pressure, BP and government scientists are wondering whether so much oil and gas had been spilled already that the pressure in the partly depleted reservoir has been reduced.

The fight to control the well was just one piece of the picture Monday.

In Kenner, La., a new round of hearings on the Deepwater Horizon explosion opened Monday with members of a government panel pressing the chief rig engineer to expand on an earlier statement describing the chaotic final moments on the burning rig.

In that statement, which has not been made public, Stephen Bertone said that the captain of the rig screamed at a crew member for pressing either a distress button or a disconnect button and, referring to an injured man on a stretcher, said, "Leave him."

But at Monday's session of the joint U.S. Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, Bertone said, "I honestly don't feel anything in that statement needs to be changed," and his attorney, Stephen D. London, resisted efforts to get him to describe the scene anew.

Panel co-chairman Hung M. Nguyen of the Coast Guard said that the only way Bertone could avoid answering questions from the panel was to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Nonetheless, the panel permitted Bertone to leave the witness table after about four hours of testimony without explicitly invoking the Fifth Amendment or elaborating.

The skirmish was the first of what could be several tests for the government panel. Two key BP officials who had been scheduled to testify this week canceled for medical reasons, including Donald Vidrine, one of the Deepwater Horizon's "company men," as those who represent BP on rigs are known.

The hearing did produce some new details.

One witness described how BP mixed a large quantity of two chemicals and injected them into the well to flush out drilling mud. But the chemicals aren't usually mixed together, and the injection of more than 400 barrels of dense, gray fluid were about double the quantity normally used for the task, said Leo Lindner, a drilling fluid specialist for contractor M-I Swaco.

The reason for the action: BP had hundreds of barrels of the two chemicals on hand and needed to dispose of it, Lindner testified. By first flushing it into the well, the company could take advantage of an exemption in an environmental law that otherwise would have prohibited the discharge of the hazardous waste into the gulf, he said.

"It's not something we've ever done before," he said.

Improvising

Despite assurances from a BP specialist, Lindner conducted his own improvised experiment the night before the explosion to double-check. He mixed a gallon of one substance with a gallon of the other. When the well exploded, a fluid that fit its general description rained down on the rig. Bertone said part of the rig was covered with an inch or more of material that he said resembled "snot."

Bertone also testified that a variety of maintenance problems afflicted the Deepwater Horizon in the months before it exploded and sank, killing 11 workers and triggering the massive spill.

A BP audit of the rig in September found 390 maintenance issues that had not been resolved, BP lawyer Richard Godfrey said while questioning Bertone. Godfrey said the auditors estimated that it would take 3,545 hours to make repairs.

Bertone said many of the items listed in the September audit were based on a new maintenance program that was not tailored or relevant to the rig.

He testified that the computer on a chair used by the rig's driller had been malfunctioning and that its hard drive had been replaced. When the computer froze, it rendered the driller blind to conditions in the well unless he switched chairs. In addition, one of the rig's thrusters had been having problems for eight months, he said, and the rig had experienced partial blackouts.

Ronnie Penton, an attorney for one of the rig workers, said in an interview after the hearing that the double-sized dose of fluid skewed a crucial test of pressure in the well just hours before the blowout. Based on the test BP concluded it was safe to continue displacing the heavy mud from the well in favor of much lighter sea water.

Hilzenrath reported from Kenner, La.

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