Pumped-in mud mix may kill leak for good, BP says

But relief wells, nearly complete, will be finished

By Greg Bluestein
Associated Press / August 3, 2010

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NEW ORLEANS — After insisting for months that a pair of costly relief wells were the only surefire way to kill the oil leak at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, BP officials said yesterday they may be able to do it just with lines running from a ship to the busted well a mile below.

As crews planned testing late yesterday to determine whether to proceed with a “static kill’’ to pump mud and perhaps cement down the throat of the well, BP senior vice president Kent Wells said that if that scheme is successful, the relief wells may not be used, after all, to do the same — weeks later — from the bottom.

The primary relief well and a backup, not far from completion, might be used simply to ensure the leak is plugged, he said. Either way, Wells said, “We want to end up with cement in the bottom of the hole.’’

A plugging plan that abandons use of relief wells, which can cost about $100 million each, does not necessarily mean that time was wasted in killing the leak, which spewed as much as 172 million gallons of oil into the gulf between April and mid-July, when a temporary cap halted the flow.

Officials still say a relief well is the only way to make certain the oil is contained to its vast undersea reservoir, and BP plans to finish drilling those wells.

The company began drilling the primary 18,000-foot relief well May 2, 12 days after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and killed 11 workers, and the second well May 16. The first well is now only about 100 feet from the target, and Wells said it could reach it as early as Aug. 11.

“Precisely what the relief wells will do remains to be seen, given what we learn from the static kill,’’ BP spokesman Daren Beaudo said. “Can’t predict it for certain.’’

Thad Allen, the retired Coast Guard admiral who is the government’s point man on the spill response, said yesterday that the focus now is on making sure the static kill is successful.

One of the biggest variables is whether the area called the annulus, which is between the inner piping and the outer casing, has sprung an oil leak.

Engineers probably won’t be able to answer that question until they drill in from the bottom, he said.

“Everyone would like to have this thing over as soon as possible,’’ Allen said, adding: “We don’t know the condition of the well until we start pushing mud into it.’’

By reconsidering a “bottom kill,’’ the company could be more worried than it has said publicly about debris found in the relief well after it was briefly capped as Tropical Storm Bonnie passed last week, said Ed Overton, a Louisiana State University environmental sciences professor.

Plus, he said, trying to seal the well from the top gives BP two shots at ending the disaster.

“Frankly, if they can shut it off from the top and it’s a good, permanent seal, I’ll take it,’’ Overton said. “A bird in the hand at this point is a good thing, with this deal.’’

Engineers hoped to probe the busted blowout preventer with an oil-like liquid yesterday to determine whether it can handle the static kill. If the test is successful, Wells said, engineers would spend most of today and possibly through Thursday slowly pumping the heavy mud down the well.

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