BP Macondo oil well successfully capped

Two offshore oil platform rigs in Port Fourchon, La., shown under construction in June as cleanup continued on the oil spill.
Two offshore oil platform rigs in Port Fourchon, La., shown under construction in June as cleanup continued on the oil spill. (Saul Loeb)
By David A. Fahrenthold and Steven Mufson
Saturday, September 18, 2010; 1:48 AM

At last, the well is dead.

BP's Macondo oil well is physically incapable of leaking another drop, according to the head of the U.S. government's response effort. Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen said Friday that this discovery was made after a "relief well" finally broke through into the Macondo well more than 17,000 feet below the Gulf of Mexico floor.

Officials had worried that they would find oil between the pipe and the shaft's rock wall. But they found none - a discovery that shows that the well is capped and also could provide new clues to what made it blow up in the first place.

"The well presents no further threat of discharge," Allen said.

But just to be sure, BP plugged it a little bit more. About 4 p.m. Friday, authorities began the long-awaited - and now, rather anti-climactic - "bottom kill," filling in that empty space with cement. The cement should be set by Saturday afternoon, Allen said, and a final pressure test will allow the declaration of death.

After the American people spent the summer watching the fearsome oil well spill, Allen said this last step was as much for our benefit as it was for the gulf's.

He said the intent was "psychologically, for people in the gulf to understand that there is a stake in the heart of this beast."

BP's well spent about three months repelling all attempts to kill it - eventually spilling 4.9 million barrels, or 205.8 million gallons, into the gulf. Then, it spent the next two months dying: The well was sealed off July 15, and cement was forced down its central pipe in a so-called "static kill" in early August.

Through it all, a rig in the gulf was slowly drilling down to provide the final nail in its coffin. The relief well's progress was slowed by passing storms - which made the gulf too choppy - but also by the depth of its target. Drilling began on the gulf floor a mile down and continued for another 2.4 miles into the earth.

Finally, on Thursday afternoon, the drill hit its target, a seven-inch shaft. It opened a hole into the space between the shaft's wall and the outer layer of pipe.

There was no camera recording it, but engineers could learn about the outer space around the Macondo well pipe by studying fluid that rose from the other well's drill pipe. When no oil came up, they knew that the Macondo well was plugged at its source.

That was a good thing for the gulf. But it could also be a good thing for BP's legal case, because it could be a signal that the blowout was not caused by a problem with BP's design for the well's pipes.

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