By Anthony Ricigliano: After having held gushing oil in place since the middle of July, crews from BP are carefully drilling a secondary relief well which, when completed, will deliver a permanent plug into the oil well that has become the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. The drilling of the last phase of the relief well must be done with extreme caution to ensure that it intersects the broken well line. It is hoped that the relief well can reinforce the initial cap and provide a permanent solution by pumping more mud and cement into the well.
With the oil stopped since July 15th, all eyes will be on the "bottom kill" operation which is designed to both permanently seal the well and allow for options on reopening it in the future. Prior to the temporary seal going in, oil flowed out of the broken well for almost three months after Deepwater Horizon rig, which BP had leased, exploded on April 20. The explosion killed 11 employees on the platform and released over 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf. Investigations are ongoing as whether BP cut corners in their operations in order to save money in the days preceding the blowout.
The first test after the connection of the relief well will be to see if pressure gradually builds up at the point of the seal. The lines which have been releasing oil and gas to surface ships to minimize pressure on the cap would be closed to see if pressure builds naturally within the well. Increasing pressure would indicate that the two and a half miles of casing which lines the well bore is intact which could lead to an oil capture scheme with surface ships capturing oil from the well. Estimates are that four ships could capture up to 60,000 barrels a day. If pressure does not build in the well it would indicate that the casing is damaged and testing would be halted. The relief lines which have been shut would reopen and testing of the casing would commence.
The operation to finally seal the well should provide relief to the cleanup efforts, but for many the damage has already been done. With the Fall shrimping season set to open on August 16th, many of the fishing grounds will remain closed as federal authorities monitor toxin levels in shrimp, crabs, and other seafood. The reminder of these closures was evident as the pre-season “Blessing of the Boats” ceremonies saw barbequed sausage, chicken, and other items on the menu but no sign of the shrimp and crab dishes that are the traditional fare for the celebrations.
There hasn’t been much talk about future plans for the well but it seems unlikely that it will remain closed permanently. While establishing another rig may be extremely unpopular with residents around the Gulf, the sheer volume of oil in the well and BP’s desire to recoup some of the $6.1 billion in costs related to the blowout make it likely that surface ships will eventually be replaced by another platform along the lines of Deepwater Horizon. One certainty in that situation is that it will be closely watched with highest safety standards possible. BP owes nothing less than that to everyone and everything that has been affected by this ecological disaster.