BP placed a new cap late yesterday on the well that's been belching oil into the Gulf of Mexico for an excruciating 84 days, since April 20. The cap was installed by sophisticated robotic submersibles and will be tested today to determine stability. Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer for exploration and production, said at a briefing, “The best case scenario is that pressures rise to the point we anticipate they would. We’d likely be able to keep the well shut in.”
But there is concern that if pressures are lower than expected, the well could be damaged and oil and gas could leak into the surrounding rock. This would only add to BP’s long list of safety and environmental violations. A scathing piece in The New York Times today picks apart BP’s safety record over the years, citing mechanical errors and shortcuts taken on everything from its Thunder Horse oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico to the deadly explosion at its Texas City, Texas, plant in March 2005, which killed 15 workers and injured more than 180 people. For that incident alone, BP was fined $21.5 million for safety violations.
The tight-fitting cap could reduce the flow of oil, but it won’t completely stop it until the drilling of two relief wells is completed in mid- to late August. To date, according to government estimates, between 89 million and 176 million gallons of oil have entered the Gulf.
Thad Allen, who is leading the government’s containment efforts, said that with the new cap in place, “BP will perform a well integrity test. This involves closing one or more of the valves for a period of time to allow BP to measure pressures in the well.”
Allen said the measurements “will provide valuable information about the condition of the well and help determine whether or not it is possible to shut the well for a period of time, such as during a hurricane or bad weather, between now and when the relief wells are complete.” Tests will take anywhere from six to 48 hours.
Meanwhile, on Monday, the Obama administration issued a new moratorium on offshore drilling through November 30th. Unlike the earlier ban, which suspended drilling in waters of more than 500 feet and which was struck down by the courts, the new moratorium bans the kinds of rigs typically used in the Gulf. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who made the announcement, said that oil and gas companies must create safety measures to reduce risks and be prepared to handle spills.
Also on Monday, President Obama’s oil commission began hearings in New Orleans; Co-chairman Bob Graham sounded a wistful note when he commented, “I wish we had the power to bring immediate solutions.” The seven-member bipartisan panel heard from numerous Gulf residents, among them Cherri Foytlin, 37, who urged lifting the moratorium to save jobs in coastal Louisiana. She told the commission, “We don't have a lot of faith in Washington down here because of [Hurricane] Katrina. I hate to say that.”
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