BP Seeks to Divert Oil Flow Until Relief Well Is Done

BP Effort Turns to Capturing Oil, No Plugging Before August
BP has given up trying to plug its leaking well in the Gulf of Mexico any sooner than August. Photographer: Patrick Kelley/U.S. Coast Guard via Bloomberg

BP Plc said it won’t be able to stop the flow of oil from a gushing well in Gulf of Mexico until August when a relief well can be finished, and in the meantime it will divert as much of the oil as it can to surface ships.

The diversion strategy, unlike capping the flow, is subject to disruption by tropical storms and hurricanes.

The oil spill, the worst in U.S. history, so far has soiled 100 miles (161 kilometers) of coastline, brought the Gulf’s exploratory deep-water drilling to a halt, shut down more than a fourth of its fishing areas and cost BP almost $1 billion.

Interim efforts to stop the leak, estimated by government scientists last week at 12,000 barrels to 19,000 barrels a day, are over after the failure of an attempt to stanch the flow called “top kill,” Thad Allen, the U.S. government’s national commander for the incident, said.

“We’re talking about containing the well,” Allen said. “We don’t want to restrict the pressure or flow down that well bore because I don’t think we know the condition of it after the top kill.”

BP had hoped to plug the well before today’s arrival of hurricane season in the Gulf, where warm waters can help create devastating storms. In 2005, hurricanes Katrina and Rita tore through the Gulf with winds of 170 miles per hour, toppling production platforms, setting rigs adrift and rupturing pipelines.

Hurricane Plans

BP is preparing for storms by installing a free-standing riser pipe later this month that will terminate 300 feet below the water’s surface. The pipe will have flexible coupling to allow tankers to depart ahead of a hurricane and safely return when seas have calmed, BP said today in a statement. The oil company didn’t say what happens to the flow of oil if the ship has to disconnect.

The U.S. Justice Department is investigating whether any criminal or civil laws were violated in the spill, Attorney General Eric Holder said today.

BP fell the most in 18 years in London trading today. The shares closed at 430 pence, down 13 percent. The company has dropped 34 percent since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded on April 20.

Undersea robots began sawing away damaged pipe today, preparing for the installation of a snug-fitting “top cap” over the gusher within 24 hours to 48 hours once the robots complete severing the pipe, Allen said.

‘Clean Cut’ Sought

To get a good seal, BP needs a clean cut at the top of the blowout preventer, a five-story stack of valves that failed to prevent an April 20 blowout that killed 11 people and started the spill, Allen said. Should the jet of oil and gas drive the cap aside, another cap designed to let more oil escape will be tried, Allen said.

The focus is now to allow the well to flow unrestricted to the surface, Allen said today. BP has two enhancements in the works to maximize the flow and minimize disruption during storms, Managing Director Robert Dudley said today on NBC’s “Today” show.

Engineers plan “in a couple of weeks” to reverse the system of pipes and hoses that injected mud into the well for the top kill, achieving another route to storage on the surface, he said. As part of the top-kill effort, BP had to remove a tube from the riser that had captured as much as 6,100 barrels a day from the well.

Relief Wells

The drilling of a second relief well resumed May 30, Allen said. It had been suspended for several days as BP and government officials, including Energy Secretary Steven Chu, weighed whether to use the rig that was drilling it to install a second blowout preventer atop the damaged one. BP decided not to, Allen said.

Video on BP’s oil-spill website showed a circular saw making preliminary cuts on a smaller pipe that’s part of the riser, the cluster of lines that once extended from the well to the drilling rig, said Jon Pack, a BP spokesman. Shears were already grasping the riser, he said.

Forecasters said southwest winds predicted in two days will push oil toward Mississippi, which has so far escaped oiling, and Alabama, polluted only by easily collected balls of tar, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a May 31 statement on its website.

The Coast Guard will investigate reports of oil in western Mississippi Sound, and strips of heavy oil approaching Dauphin Island, Alabama, Allen said today.

Damage Claims

BP has spent $990 million on the spill response, according to a statement today. The company has paid $39.4 million in damage claims as of May 31, the unified command for the spill response reported yesterday. BP reported 30,619 claims and has denied none, it said.

BP needs the equivalent of a lottery win to succeed with its first attempt with a relief well, David Rensink, president-elect of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, said in an interview.

The relief well aims to intercept the damaged hole at an angle thousands of feet below the seabed and permanently close it with heavy mud and cement. The method is the surest way for BP to end the largest oil spill in U.S. history, yet initial failure is “almost a certainty,” Rensink said.

“What you’re doing is trying to intersect a well bore that is probably roughly a foot across with another well that is about a foot across,” he said. “It’s a hit-or-miss sort of thing. Ultimately the relief well will work. It’s just a matter of time, of continuing to poke at it until you intersect it.”

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