BP Cap Plugs Gulf Oil Leak ...at least for now
A welcome dry well: BP stops spill, at least for now
After a round of pressure tests, company will try to capture what's now being shut inside Macondo well
The Gulf of Mexico received at least a temporary reprieve from the spewing Macondo oil well Thursday afternoon when BP stopped the flow for the first time since the well blew out and triggered one of the nation's worst-ever environmental disasters.
After several delays, BP said it closed the last line on the newly installed containment cap at 2:25 p.m. Thursday and began monitoring pressure gauges to test the integrity of the well casing below the sea floor.
Since April 20, when the Macondo well blew out, destroying the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and killing 11 crew members, as much as 185 million gallons of oil have spilled from the well, according to official estimates.
"As you can imagine it felt very good not to see any oil going into the Gulf of Mexico," said BP's Kent Wells in a technical briefing with reporters. "Where I'm holding back my emotion is that we're just starting the test, and I don't want to create a false sense of excitement."
Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, head of the federal spill response, said in a conference call with media that the capping stack used to shut in the well has been under development for many weeks. "There have been a range of capping devices that have been developed, probably over 10. They're all developed under different scenarios," Allen said.
The systems had to be built and tested onshore.
The one that has shut in the oil flow at least temporarily was developed first as a means to increase the amount of oil that could be captured, Allen said.
The well integrity test now under way could last up to two days. Pressure gauges on the shut-in equipment will be monitored, and remote control submarines will monitor the sea floor for any indications of leakage.
Higher pressure readings will indicate the oil and natural gas is staying in the well and not escaping into the surrounding strata. Lower readings, or a drop in pressure, would indicate hydrocarbons are escaping.
"If at any point the tests need to be suspended, we will do that," Wells said.
In that case, or if the 48-hour test reveals no leaks, BP will reattach containment equipment connecting the well with surface vessels that BP believes have the capacity to capture all the oil that's flowing.
After collecting new seismic data from around the well site, officials will decide if it's safe to shut the well in again until two relief wells nearing completion plug the Macondo permanently at its source 13,000 feet below the sea floor.
With the addition of two new feed lines attached to the containment cap, the system should be able to capture up to 80,000 barrels of oil per day, officials said, which is more than the top end of the official spill flow estimates.
BP stock rallied late Thursday following the news the oil had stopped flowing, closing up $2.74 at $38.92.
"This is very good news but too early to declare victory," said Fadel Gheit, managing director of oil and gas research for Oppenheimer & Co. "If successful, it is great news."
'Wait and see'
Oysterman Wilbert Collins of Golden Meadow, La., was following the developments with cautious optimism.
"We're doing a little bit of celebrating, but not too much," he said. "We've got to wait and see if the cap works. And then we've got to wait until the Gulf clears up.
"I think things are going to get better and better," said Collins, who has been in the family oyster business for 60 years.
Industry groups and members of Congress offered measured praise for the successful shut-in.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., called the beginning of the test "fantastic news that should provide some glimmer of hope to the besieged residents of the Gulf Coast." But he noted that the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, of which he is a member, still plans a hearing next Thursday looking into the oversight of the industry by the Department of the Interior.
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said BP should use the test as an opportunity to get a more precise measurement of the full flow of the oil. A government panel of scientists called the Flow Rate Technical Group estimates the flow rate at 35,000 to 60,000 barrels per day — up to 2.5 million gallons.