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BP Aims to Contain Flow of Gulf Well Within Days

Admiral Thad Allen
Admiral Thad Allen, U.S. Coast Guard National Incident Commander speaks to the media in the briefing room of the White House in Washington. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

BP Plc may contain all of the flow from its Gulf of Mexico oil gusher within the next four days by accelerating installation of a tight seal between the damaged wellhead and surface production vessels, said Thad Allen, the government’s national incident coordinator.

Potential setbacks could lengthen the timeline to nine days, Robert Dudley, chief executive officer of BP’s Gulf Coast Restoration unit, said in a letter to Allen, released late today.

The quickened timeline is necessary to complete surface and subsea connections needed before another storm roils the Gulf, stalling work, Allen said today at a press conference in New Orleans. It may also result in thousands of additional barrels spilled over several days while the work is done.

Obama administration officials probably will tell BP to begin as early as tomorrow replacing a leaky cap atop the well that has been routing about 16,000 barrels of oil a day to the surface. Today, crews are connecting to the well a ship BP has estimated can take as much as 25,000 barrels per day beginning July 11, Allen said.

“This is in anticipation of a weather window that will allow us seven to 10 days of good weather,” Allen said. “We’d like to take advantage of that.”

Rough Seas

Rough seas after the passage of Hurricane Alex southwest of the well site last month delayed connection of the Helix Producer I and forced more than 500 oil-skimming vessels into port. Allen reiterated today he doesn’t expect BP to stop the gusher with a relief well 13,000 feet (3,962 meters) below the seafloor before mid-August.

In the letter to Allen, Dudley said the company expects the relief well to have stopped the flow of oil from the leak by Aug. 13.

The Helix vessel, capable of handling 25,000 barrels of oil a day, may be connected today for tests, he said.

BP collected 24,395 barrels of oil yesterday, with 16,305 barrels processed aboard the drillship Discoverer Enterprise and 3,090 barrels flared from the Q4000, an offshore rig, as oil and gas continued to gush around the loose-fitting cap. As much as 60,000 barrels a day may be flowing from the well, a committee of government and academic scientists estimated.

The disaster began 82 days ago when a BP well drilled by the Deepwater Horizon rig blew out, killing 11 crew. The rig sank April 22 after burning for more than a day, leaving the mile of pipe that had connected it to the well crumpled on the seafloor.

Tight Seal

To make a tight seal, the drillship and its cap will be moved away so underwater robots can unscrew six bolts holding the stump of pipe left after a robot sheared away most of it June 3, Allen said. A purpose-built sealed cap with connections to the surface would be bolted in place, with the whole process taking three to four days, he said.

Dudley’s letter to Allen outlined four potential situations that could set the process back a total of four days. The contingencies include difficulty unbolting the flanges and changing the installation point of equipment.

“The expectations now are that they are successful in making a switch,” Brian Youngberg, an analyst at Edward Jones in St. Louis who rates BP shares “sell” and owns none, said in a telephone interview. “If they have problems with it, I think the market would view this negatively.”

Killing the Well

Until this week, BP and the U.S. Coast Guard had planned to wait until the Helix Producer I was connected and drawing oil and gas through a line connected below the top of the well, reducing the size of the gusher and the pressure that may buffet the robots during the cap replacement. They’d planned to take a number of days to determine the next step, Allen had said.

Today, Allen said quick work reduces the risk of further delays, and that the sealed cap improves BP’s chances of successfully plugging the well from the bottom by injecting mud followed by cement through a relief well. With a tight seal at the top, engineers will get accurate flow and pressure readings, clues to the condition of the well bore, he said.

“If they have that cap in place, they have an added advantage in trying to kill the well,” said Don Van Nieuwenhuise, director of professional geosciences at the University of Houston. “It should ensure the kill will work.”

Controlling flow atop the well will assure that cement injections have a chance to set, he said.

BP, the government and outside petroleum experts have speculated that the blowout occurred because the well bottom was improperly sealed, allowing oil and gas to gush to the surface around the drill pipe itself. Pressure readings may indicate whether that occurred and suggest how BP should move to kill the well at the bottom, Allen said.

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