New BP delay a warning: Don't write obituary on Gulf oil spill yet
The Gulf oil spill drama is about to reach its climax: the killing of the Macondo well. But a setback Friday will delay the start of the operation until Tuesday – and shows that uncertainties still loom.
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BP already has a checkered history in its efforts to contain the Gulf oil spill. Now, a small setback to the timeline for the final "kill" of the runaway Macondo well shows that problems – if not catastrophe – still lurk as engineers attempt to put the final squeeze on the situation.
BP found unexpected debris Friday at the bottom the primary relief well being drilled to intercept the Macondo well. The debris apparently settled in the relief well while the well was plugged in preparation for tropical storm Bonnie, and now it needs to be cleaned out.
The first phase of the multiweek operation to seal the well permanently is now expected to begin Tuesday.
"We're still engaged in this fight," says retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, President Obama's point man in the Gulf. "We should not be writing any obituary for this event until the well is sealed, the oil is gone and we know where it's gone, and state and local officials agree that beaches are clean."
The new timeline
While officials continue to move with a sense of urgency, the fact that the containment cap atop the well remains in place and no new oil is leaking into the Gulf has given the effort to kill the well more latitude for small delays.
What will begin Tuesday is the first phase of a two-pronged effort to seal the well from the top and bottom.
This first phase is called "static kill," and it involves pouring heavy drilling mud into the well from the top to try to force the comparatively light oil 13,000 feet downward into its subterranean reservoir. If successful, BP will then pour concrete into the well to seal it.
About a week after static kill finishes, one of BP's relief well rigs, the Development Driller 3, will drill a final 100 feet to intersect with the seven-inch-diameter well down near the reservoir in a "bottom kill."
First, BP will drill into the well and pour cement into the space – called the annulus – between the well wall and the pipe of steel casing inside the well, sealing it. Then, BP will pierce the steel casing to see if cement from static kill made it down the pipe that far. If BP finds concrete, the procedure will be finished. If there is no concrete, engineers will pour in more, killing the well permanently.