Gulf oil cap appears successful

Engineers battling the Gulf of Mexico oil spill are confident that the cap over the rogue well is strong enough that they may be able to plug it by pumping mud inside, bringing the three-month disaster closer to an end, BP and the Coast Guard said Monday.

The cap is holding tight at pressures slightly below what engineers had expected, said BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells. That means it may be possible to once again try using the dense liquid to help permanently seal the well, he said.

An earlier attempt at a “top kill” failed because the oil was gushing too violently, but it may be easier for the mud to plug the well when oil isn’t flowing, Wells said.

The capping strategy hit a snag over the weekend when oil was discovered seeping into the nearby sea bed. But that oil doesn’t appear to have come from the well, said retired Coast Guard admiral Thad Allen. He said pollution from the well doesn’t seem to be spilling and pressures are acceptable.

“There is no indication at this time that this is any indication of a significant problem in the well bore,” Allen said. “But we are running every one of these anomalies down.”

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The ultimate solution — drilling down to the base of the leaking well and plugging it with cement — is also nearing completion. Workers are finalizing preparations to drill the final section of a “relief well” to intersect the damaged well, which could happen by the end of next week, Wells said.

Both Allen and Wells said that blocking the leak with a second well remained the best solution, and would proceed regardless of whether a top kill succeeds.

The rogue well from the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig poured at least 90 million gallons into the Gulf since it blew up April 20, killing 11 crewmembers and causing what has become the worst oil leak in U.S. history.

Julius Langlinais, a retired Louisiana State University petroleum engineering professor, said the slightly increasing pressure is evidence that the well cap is working. The small oil and gas seeps discovered near the well do not appear to be a sign of an impending blowout, he said.

There is still no guarantee, however, that the flawed well can’t explode again. “If something gave way close to the mud line, we could have a very serious breaching,” he said. “It’s not going to be a bubble forming. It’s going to be ‘Katy, bar the door.’ ”

In the event that their efforts don’t work, BP officials are also finalizing plans to collect as much as 80,000 barrels of oil a day on the surface. Allen said that could mean more pollution for the Gulf.

Meanwhile, weather in the area, which can turn extremely violent from hurricanes, appears to be cooperating. A weak depression forming east of the Gulf appears unlikely to develop into a severe storm, Allen said.


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