washingtonpost.com
BP oil spill: Leaking, seepage. Will the cap hold?

John Hofmeister
Founder and CEO, Citizens for Affordable Energy and Fmr. Shell Oil President
Monday, July 19, 2010; 10:30 AM

A day that seemed destined for success ended in ambiguity Sunday. The blown-out well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico remained shut for the fourth day, but the national incident commander reported concerns about seepage around the well and ordered BP to improve its monitoring of possible problems.

John Hofmeister, founder and CEO of Citizens for Affordable Energy and former president of the Shell Oil Co., was online Monday, July 19, at 10:30 a.m. ET to discuss the latest developments in the gulf.

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John Hofmeister: Good day to you. Look forward to your questions.

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Fairfax, Va.: Thad Allen has authorized keeping the well shut for another 24 hours provided that BP engineers monitor it carefully. What is going on now with the well? How dangerous is the leakage? Could it all explode all over again?

John Hofmeister: The biggest concern is the integrity of the well casing. It is an under designed well. The pressure and the explosive force of the original blowout could have damaged the well casing in one or more locations. Especially at the mouth of the reservoir. If oil is seeping on the outside of the casing because of the cap a lot or a little it cannot be controlled by the cap, that may be the source of the current seepage.

The near term fix is to release the cap and control the flow of oil to surface ships. Secondly, complete the relief well drilling to try and cement both inside and outside the casing shut at the point of intervention.

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Santa Rosa Beach, Fla.: If it's determined that there are leak(s) coming from the well casing (possibly causing the reported seepage, and/or other manifestations of a leak), what's the probability that the relief well -- if executed as planned -- will stem those leaks? (I would think it depends on whether the leak(s) occur along the section of well casing between the relief well and the sea bed). Thanks much...

John Hofmeister: Given that there is apparent seepage it's currently unknown whether the source is a broken casing or whether the seepage comes outside the well casing from the reservoir itself. A potential remedy is to use the relief well to cement both inside and outside the well casing in hopes of stopping any flow. The probability of success is uncertain but it's still the best option for now.

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Washington, D.C.: It may be obvious to others but not to me: What is the reason for drilling the relief wells?

John Hofmeister: The risk of further damage to the existing well by controlling pressure at the top of the well is too uncertain to be reliable. The industry has good experience in shutting off blowouts by accessing the well as close as possible to the reservoir mouth and cementing the well shut deep down in the earth's subsurface.

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Louisiana: If the leak is stopped, what have we learned from this that will help if there's another similar blowout in the future?

John Hofmeister: We've learned several things. The design of the current cap appears robust. Future drilling plan could include having such a cap available in the event of future blowouts. Second, the original damage to the blowout protector, pre-blowout, needs to be fully understood to determine whether blowout protectors need improvement overall with more redundancy built in. Third, the lesson of the cleanup are that we must achieve greater scale and size immediately, not later. Fourth, the design of wells in deep water should be rigorous and complete, more so than this well to reduce risk in deep-water drilling.

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Cedar Crest, New Mexico: Can they attach a pipe to the well cap and siphon the oil up to a tanker? That way, the pressure on the well will be reduced and the oil won't spill in the gulf.

John Hofmeister: The current purpose of the cap is to stop the well permanently. That's why they're checking for leaks. If it is not permanently capped with this device and there is seepage the cap must be removed and the flow controlled to surface ships and another shutoff solution such as relief wells will be utilized.

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Arlington, Va.: Even if it were mechanically sound and viable for BP or someone else to pump from this particular well again at some point, it would never happen because of the politics and PR of it, right?

John Hofmeister: It's my understanding BP has promised not to profit from this well. In my opinion, however, failure to produce this huge natural resource would be a loss to the nation. Why not commit the well proceeds to the restoration of the Gulf of Mexico as a down payment on correcting the devastation in the wetlands and other infrastructure along the gulf coast?

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MMS: Who can we trust to say that this is under control -- I don't particularly believe BP or MMS at this point.

John Hofmeister: Ultimately the Coast Guard has final responsibility to the president and to the nation. If we can't believe the incident commander, Thad Allen, which I do, then we're all in serious trouble.

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Washington, D.C. : You used to be president of Shell Oil. What would you have done if this was Shell Oil's problem and not BP's?

John Hofmeister: First off, the well design would have been far more robust, i.e.., It would have multiple flow channels to prevent blowout incidents. Second, every Shell rig has a safety officer who can shut down operations if rig management is trying to take shortcuts, apart from normal procedure. Third, known equipment integrity issues such as a compromised blowout protector would have been investigated and corrected, even if schedule delays were the result. At Shell, every life is important. There is not price on life.

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Washington DC: Why do they need to continue drilling the relief wells? Can not cement be pumped down the original pipe? Was the new cap not designed for this or is there some other answer?

John Hofmeister: They tired the top kill method some weeks ago which did not work because of extraordinary well pressure. Since the mud would not weigh down the flow of oil there was then no way to force cement on top of the mud. The relief well comes in at the bottom of the column instead of the top. As mud and cement are pushed into the pipe way down the well it will build a column of weight on the oil column climbing the well. That weight ultimately should subdue the reservoir and seal in the well.

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washingtonpost.com: This concludes our discussion with John Hofmeister. Thank you for joining.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

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