Special Reports

Officials urge relief well for permanent fix

BY MICHAEL VASQUEZ

Miami Herald

Though oil has stopped flowing into Gulf waters, the containment cap BP is using to plug its deep-water well still isn’t registering the pressure readings scientists had hoped for, prompting the federal government to emphasize Tuesday the importance of finishing a relief well in order to achieve a reliable, permanent closure.

BP, while working fast to complete such a well in the coming weeks, is also contemplating blasting mud, yet again, into the abyss.

In the next day or two, BP hopes to receive federal approval for a “static kill” procedure, which would not replace the existing cap but seek to further seal the oil well by pumping heavy mud into it.

The static kill is similar to a “top kill” closure method that BP previously — and unsuccessfully — attempted. The difference now, according to BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells, is the top kill tried to stop oil that was gushing full blast into the Gulf. This time, with the cap already in place and the flow stopped, there will be no need to pump mud in at high rates and pressures.

Ultimately, BP envisions the static kill working in tandem with the relief well — speeding up the permanent closure process while also making that closure easier to execute.

The cap plugging the well has been in place for almost a week, but continues to be evaluated day to day.

Federal responders and BP officials still don’t have an agreed-on explanation for why pressure readings from the now-closed oil well are less than what scientists expected: about 6,800 pounds per square inch instead of the desired 8,000 to 9,000 psi.

Lower pressure readings could mean leaks somewhere in the well casing, and worst-case scenarios for such a leak involve oil and gas flowing into the bedrock and mud, perhaps leading to a problematic collapse of the well. For now, though, even though the pressure readings aren’t quite perfect, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said all the leaks that have been observed are minor and insignificant so the cap will stay put. “We’ve been trying to come to grips with the pressure readings,” said Allen, the man in charge of the federal response to the spill.

He spoke to reporters Tuesday afternoon, shortly after authorizing the cap to remain for another 24 hours. He stressed that a relief well — two are still under construction and weeks away from completion — is “the ultimate way to solve the problem.”

The containment cap could well stay in place until the relief well is finished, even if its pressure readings are never perfect enough to instill full confidence.

After the well is permanently closed, the massive cleanup of the nation’s worst-ever oil spill will continue, with no clear end in sight. Since the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 people, millions of gallons of crude have spilled into the Gulf, soiling the coastlines of all five Gulf Coast states.

About 87 miles of coastline in the Florida Panhandle has been “oiled,” according to Gov. Charlie Crist’s office. While the Panhandle will continue to feel the effects of tar balls washing ashore in the coming days, state officials do not expect oil to hit other parts of Florida in the immediate future.

The long-term outlook for where the mammoth slick will spread is difficult to forecast. One thing is certain: The economies of all states in the Gulf stand to suffer, especially tourism-dependent Florida.

A Moody’s economic report released this week estimated the BP spill could cost the Gulf Coast region about 17,000 jobs and about $1.2 billion in lost economic growth by year end. The report predicted Louisiana and Florida as the states likely to suffer most — Louisiana because of its huge fishing and oil-extraction industries, Florida because the state relies on pristine beaches to attract visitors.

Florida has long been the only Gulf state to resist opening its waters to offshore drilling yet the state got hit anyway.

Grover Robinson, a commissioner in Escambia County, home to Pensacola, said Florida should get any aid first because it had no role in the catastrophe.

“I know we’re all in it together,” he said. “But Florida’s injuries are greater because we don’t do this stuff.”

Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.

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