At Day 60 of frustration and failure in the Gulf of Mexico, a grim reality has set in: There will be no plugging this monstrous deep sea gusher — at least not until relief wells are drilled, a job BP still expects to take until August.
With the slick spreading across Florida Panhandle waters and the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spewing into the Gulf every four to seven days, the already disastrous effects on the environment and economy promise to get worse before they get better.
But for the first time, there are glimmers that the British oil giant, under intense pressure from an irate American public and president, may finally have a viable plan to begin controlling a raging well one expert called a “warhorse” that is flowing as strongly as any sunk into the Gulf’s rich oil and gas fields.
Since aborting a ‘top kill” plan to plug the hole with dense drilling mud late last month — largely over concerns of triggering a more catastrophic blowout deep down a well of uncertain integrity — BP has shifted strategy from capping to capturing flow. That effort, which comes with its own considerable risks, is proving at least a partial success.
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Though oil and gas continue to pour from a leaky, ill-fitting coupling on the well’s impotent blowout preventer, BP reported Friday that two ships now on site sucked up or burned off 25,000 barrels of oil in the previous 24 hours alone — roughly 40 to 70 percent of the estimated daily flow. In just over two weeks, BP claims to have recovered 204,200 barrels directly from the well. That’s about 40 percent of the volume of oil-water scum crews have skimmed from the surface in two months.
Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the national incident commander, wasn’t prepared to pronounce the tide turning but stressed progress at the sea floor during briefings Thursday and Friday. There had even been days, he said, when more oil was being recovered than continued to leak into the Gulf.
“This is a significant improvement moving forward,” he said. “However, we know because of the new flow rate numbers that we need to increase capacity.”
After demands from the Coast Guard for a faster and larger response, BP early this week announced scaled-up plans to add another production ship and tanker to handle a total of up to 53,000 barrels a day by month’s end.
By mid-July, plans call for affixing a new 45-ton coupling called an “overshot tool” with steel walls 10 inches thick atop the damaged well and setting up twin pipelines that could feed up to 80,000 barrels a day into two tankers. With flows estimated from 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day, that could, at least potentially, reach the 90 percent containment target set by President Barack Obama.
Environmentalists and other critics remain skeptical, saying the company has grossly low-balled the gusher volume, downplayed its impacts to Gulf waters and wetlands and dragged its feet on long-shot fixes like “junk shots” and “top-kills.”
“We didn’t trust them when they misled us early on. We don’t trust them now when they refuse to answer basic questions from Congress and I don’t think we can trust them to make this right,” said Jeremy Symons, senior vice president of the National Wildlife Federation.
Still, some drilling experts believe the capture plan may be BP’s only remaining option until the drilling ships complete two relief wells.
“What BP will not say is that they can’t shut the well down,” said Robert Cavnar, a an industry veteran who recently retired as president of a Houston-based oil and gas company.
The probable cause for BP’s rapid retreat from its “top kill” effort was the discovery of damage or a breech deep in the well, which likely allowed dense drilling mud to escape into adjoining rock, Cavnar said.