Posted on 12 Jul 2010
BP will put a massive new cap on top of the leaking gulf oil well Monday and, if all goes as planned, begin an "integrity test" that will completely shut down the flow, at least temporarily and possibly permanently.
There have been many critical moments in the gulf oil disaster, and suddenly they are arriving in batches. Several events in the coming hours and days could determine if crude will continue to surge into open water.
The news from the gulf Monday morning, delivered in a conference call with reporters by BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles, is mixed.
The effort to attach a ship named the Helix Producer to the well's blowout preventer, and then siphon 20,000 to 25,000 barrels a day to the surface, has been delayed by leaks in two different lines used in the operation. By the end of the day Monday, however, that containment system should be in place, Suttles said.
More important, engineers succeeded in the tricky job of putting a "transition spool" on top of the dysfunctional blowout preventer. That will enable the lowering of the new cap, a 30-foot structure fitted with three rams that can close the well. That installation job should take place at some point Monday morning, Suttles said. This is the third day of a job projected to take four to seven days.
"We remain on track," Suttles said. "At this point our confidence is growing."
Much could still go wrong with the new capping effort. Suttles cautioned that the formation of ice-like methane hydrates in the pressurized deep-sea environment could prove problematic, as it has in previous maneuvers.
After the new cap, or stack, is in place, oil and gas will flow out a perforated pipe. The next move will be the termination of collection efforts by the rig Q4000, which has been capturing about 8,000 barrels of oil a day, plus gas, and flaring both at the surface.
Then comes the integrity test. It's really a pressure test.
BP will gradually shut down the flow of the well, until it flows no more. BP engineers and government scientists will be closely eyeballing the amount of pressure building in the well. The integrity test will last at least 48 hours, Suttles said.
"Higher pressures are good news. They indicate that the well bore has integrity," Suttles said.
For more than a month, a major unknown has been the condition of the well below the gulf floor. If pressure builds in the well, that suggests that it hasn't blown out horizontally into the rock formation. The worst-case scenario has always been one in which, instead of engineers battling a single gusher, they would have to fight multiple leaks from the sea floor. The top kill procedure in late May was ended in part because of fears that pumping mud into the well at very high pressure could damage the well bore.
If the pressure test suggests that the well hasn't been compromised, BP will leave the well "shut in."
That won't mean the well is dead yet. The killing of the well is still the job of the relief well being drilled by a rig at the site. That well is within five feet of the so-called Macondo well and has another 30 feet vertically to drill before engineers set the last string of steel casing.
After that, sometime around the end of this month, Suttles said, BP will intercept the Macondo well and attempt to kill it with heavy mud and then cement.