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.
Instead, BP's lawyers could argue that part of the blame lies in the cementing job done by contractor Halliburton, which was supposed to plug those pipes at the bottom.
"All the information we have gathered to date . . .leads us to believe conclusively that the well design did not contribute to this accident and the well has complete integrity," Daren Beaudo, a BP spokesman, said in a statement Friday.
This denouement about four miles down will not do much to alter the way the spill is still affecting life in the gulf, in the oil-smeared states on its shore and in oil-company boardrooms from Houston to London.
In the Louisiana marshes, fishermen have reported patches of peanut-butter-thick oil rising to the surface as the water warms. In Pass a Loutre, La., near the Mississippi River mouth, state officials were grappling with a patch of submerged oil several acres wide.
And even in areas where the oil has disappeared, the spill is still hurting Louisiana's shrimp business by scaring off its customers.
"Can't find nobody to take it. Can't find nobody that wants to eat it," said David Chauvin, a seafood dealer in Chauvin, La. He said that three-quarters of his boats haven't returned from helping with BP's cleanup. "My fear is that, if we have 100 percent of these boats come back, we'd flat out have to tell the boats 'Look, you have to quit fishing.' Because we could not sell it at any price."
For BP, the spill has forced the resignation of its chief executive, Tony Hayward, who steps down Oct. 1. The company is waiting to see if the Justice Department - which is examining equipment such as the "blowout preventer" - will file criminal charges. If not, the financial burden will be immense but more easily within the company's means.
Already, the spill has washed away more than $70 billion of BP's market share. The stock is up about 50 percent from its post-spill low point but is down 37 percent from its April 20 close, hours before the Macondo blowout. BP's stock closed down slightly Friday at $38.03 a share.
And, for those on the Gulf Coast who lost money during the spill, the next step is to wait for Kenneth Feinberg, the administrator of BP's $20 billion compensation fund. The difficulty of his job, sorting out claims from fishermen, beach resorts and the far-flung businesses that support them, was made clear this week in a series of meetings along the coast.
Feinberg said that 3,000 claims had no documentation and an additional 12,000 had "documentation so inadequate that no one would pay those claims." After facing angry claimants in Louisiana on Monday and Florida on Tuesday, Feinberg said he felt like "a moving pinata."
"I must say I underestimated the problems in processing these claims," Feinberg said. He added: "I never thought it would be easy. But there's a serious proof problem with some of these claims."