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.
Although officials say the whole procedure is nearly 100 percent safe and BP has "backups to the backups," there can be complicating factors.
With static kill, adding mud at the top to push oil back down the well involves some risk of damaging the integrity of the well. And with bottom kill, intercepting the well with the relief well is difficult. Past attempts on other blown-out wells have sometimes gone on for weeks as drillers attempt to get the right approach and angle deep in the bedrock.
Skimming efforts winding down
In other developments Friday, Allen met with local and state officials in Louisiana to discuss the plight of the Vessels of Opportunity program, which has hired out-of-work fishermen to contribute to the relief effort. With less oil in the water, it appears there will be a gap between when workers are needed and when fishing areas reopen.
This week, BP listed 1,584 vessels of opportunity working the Gulf, each of which is making about $3,000 per day plus $300 per deck hand. If relief work winds down, some of those boat captains will have to become part of the BP claims process now overseen by a federally appointed administrator, Kenneth Feinberg.
Allen adds that relief officials are now scrambling to ensure continued work for those boat captains and crews. Potential tasks include fishing missions to help the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration test seafood for toxicity and helping with removal and cleanup of some 11 million feet of boom laid to protect the coast against the oil spill.
Some 600 miles of beaches and marshlands have been affected by the spill, and 60,000 square miles of prime fishing grounds remain closed.
BP's new chief executive, Mississippi-born Bob Dudley, confirmed to reporters Friday that the relief effort may soon be scaled back. But with news reports increasingly suggesting that the oil spill was not as damaging as initially feared, he was careful to add: "Anyone who thinks this isn't a catastrophe must be far away from it."