A drilling rig began sealing off BP’s infamous well Friday, pumping cement nearly three miles below the Gulf of Mexico seabed to complete a no-doubt, double-kill procedure ordered by the Obama administration.
The second and final plug, expected to be done by today, is a milestone that will allow the oil giant and federal government to finally and officially declare: ding-dong, the wicked well is dead.
It appeared to be a mercifully uneventful end to the nation’s worst offshore oil spill. BP reported Friday its relief well sensors detected no oil or gas in the annulus — the gap between the bore hole and casing that was the last possible escape outlet — meaning the ‘top-kill’’ of mud and cement forced down the well’s throat six weeks ago had effectively choked the once-raging gusher.
Though the effort to kill the well was over, the spillover on everything from the Gulf Coast’s economy to national energy policy remained a long way from resolution. The summer-long spill and prolonged struggle to stop it sparked public and political outrage, a moratorium on deepwater drilling that won’t expire until at least Nov. 30, a still unsettled overhaul of lax federal regulation of the offshore drilling industry and a slew of on-going investigations and lawsuits.
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As BP’s engineers closed out their work, for example, company lawyers were in a federal court in New Orleans for opening hearings in a mass litigation case combining some 400 spill-related lawsuits involving thousands of plaintiffs seeking billions of dollars in compensation.
“The legal matters will go on, at a bare minimum, five to seven years. I think realistically, you’re looking at eight to 12 years,” said attorney Jeffrey Bernaird, as he prepared Thursday to represent hundreds of clients before U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier. ‘We’re just getting started.”
Legal experts expect the case to easily prove as complex and contentious as the lawsuits that followed the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, which went on for two decades.
For starters, it entangles not one but three big corporations that have all pointed fingers at each other — BP; Transocean, which owned and operated the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig; and Halliburton, which was contracted to plug what was supposed to be an exploratory well with cement.
BP released an internal review admitting errors this month but said its partners shared blame for the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers, sunk the rig and spewed some 4 million barrels into the Gulf, roughly 15 times more than the Exxon Valdez.
BP has pledged to set aside up to $32 billion to cover cleanup costs and legal claims but is pushing to delay any trials until an administrator of an initial $20 billion fund it established can review claims.
Bernaird said delay will likely be one of BP’s primary legal tactics, as the company pushes to limit its liability by settling with victims hit hard by the lengthy spill.
“If you’re a shrimper waiting for your check, three or four years sounds like a long time,” he said.
BP spokesman Daren Beaudo told The Associated Press that his company will “make things right’’ and that its $20 billion fund “is neither a floor nor a ceiling ... It will be a long process but one we are committed to seeing through.”
Though the slick has dissipated and federal fisheries managers have steadily reopened most of the once-tainted waters, many coastal residents suffered emotional and financial wounds they don’t see healing anytime soon. They worry when and if fish and tourists will return.
“I’m dealing with anxiety,” Mike Helmer, a Lafitte, La., fishing guide told The AP. ‘‘It affects your quality of life, your property values. There’s just so many ways this affected us but nobody is talking about that.”
The drilling industry, a huge employer in the region, contends a spill caused by one careless operation has cost them dearly as well. They complain the economic impact on the Gulf has only been exacerbated by the Obama administration.