BP sees no damage to well as new oil cap test progresses

As the Gulf of Mexico entered a third day free of fresh oil  from BP’s blown-out well, the government on Saturday extended a test that has so far shown no signs of damage in the 13,000-foot-deep hole.

Thad W. Allen, the retired Coast Guard admiral who commands the spill response, announced Saturday afternoon, 48 hours after the test began, that it would continue for an additional day. “We continue to see success,” he said in a statement.

Earlier, Kent Wells, a senior vice president of BP, said the company was encouraged by the results of the test, which is meant to assess the condition of the well by allowing pressure to build inside it.

“The longer the test goes, the more confidence we have,” Mr. Wells said. There had been no signs of any oil or gas leaking out of the well or up through the seafloor into the water, he said.

The procedure began Thursday afternoon with the closing of valves on a new, tighter-sealing cap atop the well. With the valves closed, oil stopped gushing into the gulf for the first time since the disaster started with the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on April 20.

In his statement, Admiral Allen said that once the test was complete, “we will immediately return to containment,” reopening the well and collecting oil through pipes up to surface ships.

BP officials have said, however, that if the test showed the well was in good shape, it was possible that the well would remain shut. Admiral Allen has said that it might be shut only if a hurricane approached and collection ships had to leave for safe waters.

A technician involved in the effort said that with the encouraging news from the test, there had been discussions Saturday about leaving the well shut and changing the method of permanently sealing it. The current plan calls for the gusher to be plugged by pumping mud, and then cement, into it through a relief well that is nearing completion.

The technician, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the work, said that engineers had discussed stopping work on the relief well in favor of a “bullhead kill.” In that operation, heavy mud would be pumped in through existing pipes and the oil and gas would be forced back into the oil reservoir at the bottom of the well.

The procedure is somewhat similar to the “top kill” method that failed in early June, but would be much more likely to succeed because with the well sealed, no oil or gas would be moving inside.

A BP spokesman said Saturday that the relief well was still considered the ultimate solution to the leak.

With the relief well strategy, the blown-out well would have to be reopened when the mud pumping began. The well would not have to be reopened to try a bullhead kill, the technician said.

If the well is not reopened, the exact flow rate of oil may never be known. It is estimated at 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day.

Mr. Wells said that if the well were reopened for containment, two vessels that had been collecting oil were on standby and a third with a device to funnel oil from the top of the cap could be brought in quickly.

But in reopening the well, engineers would have to let oil gush into the water, at least for a short time.

Mr. Wells said scientists were “not at all surprised” that pressure readings from the test were lower than had been expected if the well were, in fact, intact. But rather than the cause being damage to the well, he said, it could be that the reservoir of oil had been depleted by the gusher.

Source: The New York Times

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