Perhaps remembering the company’s repeated failures to stanch the flow over these past months, some officials are calling the maneuver only one possible solution. National Incident Commander Thad Allen said:
“Static kill is not the end all, be all.” [The Telegraph]
Still some hope it is; said Darryl Bourgoyne, director of the Petroleum Engineering Research Lab at Louisiana State University:
“It could be the beginning of the end.” [AP]
Temporary fix or permanent plug, here’s how BP will do it:
Step 1 — Temporary Cap (Check.)
As DISCOVER blogger Andrew Moseman put it on July 16th, “Do you hear that? That’s the sound of oil not gushing uncontrollably into the Gulf of Mexico from BP’s leak, for the first time in nearly three months.” BP has had a temporary seal in place for two weeks and it seems to be holding. But leaving just that seal in place would be foolhardy, experts say:
“No one has come out and said the well has full integrity,” said Greg McCormack, program director of the Petroleum Extension Service at the University of Texas, Austin, suggesting that it was still possible for the well to leak before the relief well was completed. For that reason, he said, the static kill operation makes sense to potentially kill the well two weeks earlier than the relief well would. “This is just an ultraconservative approach,” Mr. McCormack said, “and at this point in time we should be taking the most conservative approaches. I can’t see any risk.” [New York Times]
Step 2 — Static Kill: First Mud, Then Concrete
While the temporary cap keeps the oil under control from above, the static kill will require the company to block the flow from underneath the seal–a “bottom kill”–providing multiple layers to protect the Gulf from more oil. First engineers will pump mud underneath the cap. If the pressure remains stable and the mud forces oil down into its reservoir, then they will follow the mud with concrete. Engineers installed the lines to pump these materials into the Gulf’s depths during a similar (failed) top kill effort.
If the static kill attempt sounds familiar, that’s because it is. The company tried a similar process, called a top kill, to choke the well with mud in May. It failed partly because the mud couldn’t overcome the flow of the oil. There’s reason to hope this time will be different. For one, the oil is no longer freely flowing from the well, thanks to the temporary cap. That means that engineers won’t have to pump in mud with as much force, [BP executive Kent] Wells said. [AP]
Step 3 — Relief Wells and Clean Up
Even if the static kill appears to succeed, BP will continue to dig two relief wells as another backup. The relief wells are expected to intersect the original pipe just above the spot where it enters the oil reservoir (about 18,000 feet below the ocean’s surface), and will be used to pour in mud and cement.
Of course, another next step is to continue cleaning up the oil. As many reported last week, that oil seems to be disappearing from the Gulf’s surface, apparently as a result of evaporation, oil-eating bacteria, dispersion from storms, and clean-up efforts, such as controlled burns. But as tar balls continue to land on Gulf shores, some question the oil’s deeper damage.
“Less oil on the surface does not mean that there isn’t oil beneath the surface, however, or that our beaches and marshes are not still at risk,” Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said in a briefing on Tuesday. “We are extremely concerned about the short-term and long-term impacts to the gulf ecosystem.” [New York Times]
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