Risks Remain With Gulf Well Cap Coming Off, Govt. Offers No Promises Oil Won't Gush
NEW ORLEANS -- The cap that ended BP's three-month oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico
was set to come off Thursday as a prelude to raising a massive, failed
piece of equipment and preparing for a final seal on the broken seafloor
Engineers and the government were not expecting crude to break out
again when the cap is lifted, but the government wasn't offering any
guarantees and oil collection vessels were set to be on standby on the
surface just in case.
The cap is an elongated metal cylinder that was placed on top of the
failed blowout preventer to finally stop the flow of oil and gas July
15. With the cap gone, the old blowout preventer can be removed and a
new one put in place before engineers try to seal the well for good deep
Once the cap and blowout preventer are removed, a lot will be riding
on the stability of a plug that was created when mud and cement were
pumped down into the well from the top. Essentially, the pressure
exerted downward served to counter the pressure coming up.
But Rice University engineering professor George Hirasaki said there
is still uncertainty about whether the cement settled everywhere it
needed to in order to keep oil and gas from finding its way up.
"Just because it didn't flow when they tested it doesn't mean the cement displaced all of the oil and gas," Hirasaki said.
That's why many people have felt that finishing a relief well and
pumping mud and cement in through the bottom would be the ultimate
solution to the crisis, said Hirasaki, who was involved in the oil
containment effort in the Bay Marchand field off Louisiana after a rig
burned in the early 1970s.
The government still plans on ordering BP PLC, the majority owner of
the well, to do the so-called bottom kill operation. But it believes the
wisest course is to put on a new blowout preventer first to deal with
any pressure that is caused when the relief well intersects the
Another potential risk: What happens if the crane attached to the
blowout preventer accidentally drops the 50-foot, 300-ton device onto
That might not, in and of itself, cause more oil to spew, as long as
the plug held, but it would make it difficult to continue the operation,
"It would crush everything," he said. "It would be hard to place
another blowout preventer on top of it. Right now the wellhead condition
is in good condition. But if you dropped it, everything could be opened
Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen,
the government's point man on the oil spill response, told reporters
Wednesday during a visit to BP's U.S. offices in Houston that engineers
believe the crane will be able to handle the weight of the blowout
preventer and some fragile pipe that is believed to be lodged inside.
But if the crane were to swing like a pendulum, that could cause
problems, which is why officials have been waiting for rough seas at the
site to calm down before continuing with the removal of the blowout
preventer. They don't believe the surface conditions will cause problems
with removing the cap, which is why they feel comfortable going forward
with that around midday Thursday.
After the cap is removed, the Helix Q4000 will latch its hooks onto
the blowout preventer and wait for instructions to begin lifting it up.
Engineers are prepared to exert a tremendous amount of pressure to get
the blowout preventer free, but they must be careful not to damage it
because it is a key piece of evidence in ongoing investigations.
Allen said there is no "significant risk" of more oil leaking into
the environment. But he said that after the cap and blowout preventer
are removed, "The goal there will be to secure the annulus as quick as
The annulus is an area between the inner piping and the outer casing.
Based on an updated timeline Allen released Wednesday, the blowout
preventer could begin being raised late Thursday or early Friday, but
Allen cautioned that timeline could be stretched again if high seas
continue to kick up. The final plugging of the well isn't expected until
after Labor Day.
A 12-person government evidence team is waiting to take possession of the blowout preventer when it reaches the surface.
The Deepwater Horizon rig explosion April 20 killed 11 workers and led to 206 million gallons of oil spewing from BP's undersea well.
BP was leasing the rig from owner Transocean Ltd.
Meanwhile, BP PLC said it has spent more than $5 million a week on
advertising since the Gulf oil spill began - more than three times the
amount it spent on ads during the same period last year.
BP told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that it spent a total
of $93 million on advertising from April to the end of July. The
company says the money was intended to keep Gulf Coast residents
informed on issues related to the oil spill and to ensure transparency
about its actions. The increased spending was largely targeted at TV,
newspapers and magazines. A small portion was directed to the Internet.
BP said it actually aired fewer TV spots from April to July than during a similar period last year.