MIAMI — After a day of delay over concerns of potentially triggering a new and uncontrollable blowout deep beneath the sea floor, the federal government gave the yellow light to BP’s latest scheme to stem the geyser of crude poisoning the Gulf of Mexico.
BP was poised to begin 48 hours of critical pressure tests Wednesday night on a massive 75-ton fitting placed on the broken well over the weekend, a tighter coupling the company believes could finally do what a frustrated American public and president have been pleading for nearly three months: Plug the hole.
The oil giant was operating under orders from the Obama administration to proceed with caution, slowly shutting down valves while watching that the proposed fix doesn’t make things worse by — in the worst-case scenario — rupturing a well of still-uncertain condition.
Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, commander of the federal cleanup task force, said U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and a team of federal and industry scientists and geologists had raised questions about BP’s planned “well integrity test” that in an “overabundance of caution” needed to be addressed.
“This has been a substantial impact on our environment, this has been a substantial impact on the Gulf Coast, the people, the culture,” said Allen. “What we didn’t want to do is compound that problem by making an irreversible mistake.”
Along Pensacola Beach, where portable hand-washing stations have been placed along the beaches clean off tar ball smudges, tourists were disappointed but not particularly surprised by the latest delay.
“I’m done believing anything they have to say,” said Sandy Seymour, 52,
visiting from North Ocean Springs, Mississippi. “I’ll believe them when it’s finally done.”
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, in Miami to discuss the economic ripple effects with South Florida leaders and push a proposed state ban on offshore drilling, said it was only natural to remain doubtful after initial gross under-estimations of the spill volume and setbacks with “top kill’ and “junk shot” efforts to seal the well.
“I have hopes they get it done,” said Crist. “I think we’re all a bit skeptical.”
Kent Wells, a BP senior vice president, was cautiously optimistic.
The company designed the beefier, more sophisticated “cap stack” to capture most, and possibly all of the oil now flowing into the Gulf, a volume estimated at 35,000 to 60,000 barrels each day.
One option is to channel the flow through pipes and lines to as many as four collection ships with a capacity of up to 80,000 barrels a day. But if pressure tests shows that the well casing — the pipe that runs three miles below the ocean floor — can withstand the pressure, Wells said BP could potentially use the cap as a temporary cork, shutting off the flow entirely until relief wells permanently plug the gusher.
The company had earlier downplayed that possibility, but subsequent testing has raised confidence, he said.
“We actually have always had in mind that if we put the capping stack in place we might have the opportunity to shut in the well,” he said.
After additional analysis, including seismic testing that found no existing leaks around the well head, Allen said the federal expert team signed off on BP’s plan.