HOUSTON (Reuters) - While U.S. officials welcomed the initial success of BP’s latest attempt to plug its Gulf of Mexico oil well, the company still has backup options in the event something goes wrong again.
Early on Wednesday, BP said its “static kill” involving heavy drilling mud pumped into the stricken well from the top was controlling pressure and keeping oil still, or static. Backup systems to collect leaking oil are on the back burner.
“I’m not sure that’s going to be required, but we have it out there in case we need it,” retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said at a recent briefing.
A cap on the wellhead has shut off oil flow since July 15.
The White House hailed the “beginning of the end” of efforts to seal the nearly 3-month-old BP oil spill, which has damaged the environment and economies of the Gulf Coast states and caused political problems for President Barack Obama.
The spill began after an April 20 explosion on the deepwater rig that killed 11 workers.
Once the static kill is declared finished, which could take several days, the next step would be to pump cement into the well, or wait for a relief well to bore into it and pump in more mud and cement from the bottom, BP said.
Either way, the relief well remains the final step, Allen said.
“There should be no ambiguity about this. I’m the national incident commander and that’s the way this will end,” he said.
And if that first relief well fails, a second relief well is on deck to intervene.
In the unlikely scenario that the static kill and both relief wells cannot kill the well, some ships and rigs are at the spill site, 50 miles/80 km off the Louisiana coast, ready to resume oil-capture operations if necessary. All the pieces needed for BP’s full four-vessel capture system aren’t yet ready, however. Allen said work on the static kill/relief well combination took precedence.
“The most important work right now is to finish that,” Allen said.
Two vessels are ready to hook up for the capture system within a few days, he said, and oil could briefly gush into the sea again in the interim. The government has directed 22 large skimmers to be on standby, Allen said.
The other containment options include completing a floating underwater pipe to transport oil from the leak to a ship.
Also, BP had assembled equipment needed to build a new seabed pipeline that could transport oil from the Macondo well to an old reservoir or to a platform.
Both options were put on hold as BP intensified monitoring of the well once July’s temporary seal was in place, it said.
Nansen Saleri, former head of reservoir management for Saudi Aramco and now CEO of Quantum Reservoir Impact in Houston, said oil-capture won’t be necessary given the “very high probability” that the relief wells will finish the static kill’s work and plug the leak.
“There is no question that they’re going to go with the relief wells and kill it from the bottom,” Saleri said. “That doesn’t mean they cannot get this thing under full control through the static kill.”
He called the oil-capture systems “extraordinary insurance policies” required by “the gravity of the tragedy that happened and the environmental damage that followed.”
Tad Patzek, chairman of the University of Texas Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering, said the backup plans are required contingencies.
“The times of wishful thinking and emergency response plans copied from a common original are over,” he said, referring to oil companies’ nearly identical plans to handle major offshore spills blasted at a congressional hearing in June. All contained failed techniques that BP tried early on.
Editing by Doina Chiacu