Nearly four months after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico the struggle against the BP oil spill is nearly finished, in one sense. BP’s ruptured well is no longer leaking. It hasn’t leaked since July 15, in fact.
With the well capped from the top, BP is now moving in for the final bottom kill – completion of a relief well that should seal the problem for good. On Monday administration officials announced that sometime late this week the teams drilling the relief well should be in position to penetrate the original Macondo well shaft.
“What is clear is that the battle to stop oil from flowing into the Gulf is just about over,” said President Obama on Monday at a White House ceremony honoring the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints.
But the war against the BP spill, the worst environmental disaster in US history, will continue, say administration officials. They say the struggle to clean up the mess and restore the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people in the Gulf region has just begun.
“Our focus now has to be on the areas that are impacted ashore,” said retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, Gulf National Incident Commander, in a Monday press briefing.
$3 billion deposit
BP, for its part, announced Monday that it had made an initial deposit of $3 billion into a planned $20 billion spill recovery fund. Another $2 billion will be added in the fourth quarter of this year, BP officials said.
After that, the firm will add another $1.25 billion every quarter until the $20 billion limit is reached.
The oil giant agreed in June to establish such a fund after they were pressured to do so by President Obama and other top US officials. It made its initial deposit after completion of negotiations with the Justice Department over fund details.
Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli said that BP had taken “an important step toward honoring its commitment to the president and the residents and business owners in the Gulf region”.
After months of watching a steady flow of oil into Gulf waters from the ruptured well head, the White House is clearly relieved that the end of the BP spill itself is near.
The relief well is now less than 100 feet from the original well, Allen said Monday. But the last few feet are the hardest, as drillers proceed thirty feet or so, then withdraw the bit to send down sensing wires that enable them to aim precisely at their target.
Later this week, drilling teams should be in position to break through the Macando shaft, and then pump in cement and mud to seal the area around the well lining.
“There are mud and cement boats on the surface that are ready to move in and begin the bottom kill ... when the intercept is complete,” said Allen.
With the source of the leak almost controlled, the focus now has to be areas that are affected onshore, said Allen. There are still tarballs washing up on beaches in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, he said. Teams are also working in the fragile marsh areas that extend from the eastern end of the Mississippi Sound around to Timbalier Bay and Terrebonne and areas to the west.
“That is where we have the largest area of oiled marshes, which is the main focus of our response,” said Allen.
The government estimates that 4.9 million barrels of oil flowed into the Gulf as a result of the BP spill. Much of that has been burned off, skimmed up, or has evaporated, although the exact amount remains a contentious issue. But the US estimates that about one-quarter of the oil spill total remains a threat to shore.
“Some of it may continue to come onshore ... the good news is we’re not seeing huge amounts of oil on our beaches and in our marshes,” said White House energy adviser Carol Browner on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday.