BP Hints at Early Cap for Oil Spill, But Mid-August Still Official Target

While BP is still looking at mid-August to have its gushing oil well in the Gulf of Mexico fully capped, the company said today that the drilling of relief wells is ahead of schedule. If the current pace continues, the gusher could be plugged via the procedure – known as a bottom – by July 27, according to company executive.

“In a perfect world with no interruptions, it’s possible to be ready to stop the well between July 20 and July 27,” BP managing director Bob Dudley told the Wall Street Journal in an interview published this morning.

Of course, as anyone who has been following the spill knows, it’s not a perfect world. At a briefing this morning, National Incident Commander Thad Allen took on a different tone. While he acknowledged that “we’d all jump for joy” if an early capping were to occur, he added that: “We can’t bet on getting it the first time”.

For the bottom kill to succeed, Allen said a mud and cement infusion must strike the blown-out well exactly where the oil is pouring out. The relief well will be in place to penetrate the leaking borehole in seven to 10 days, and filling the hole with mud will take another 10. The filling process might have to be done a number of times, depending on where the oil is coming out, Allen cautioned.

Allen also said that BP may start connecting a third containment vessel to a siphoning system in the next 48 hours. Two vessels are now collecting oil at a rate of about 25,000 barrels a day – the Discoverer Enterprise, which stores the crude, and the Q4000, which burns it in a flare. Once operational, the new ship – known as the Helix Producer – will bring BP’s combined collection capacity to 53,000 barrels per day. Rough seas delayed that operation, but better conditions are now forecast.

Government estimates, last updated on June 16, put the amount of oil coming from the well at 35,000 to 60,000 barrels per day.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is asking BP to respond within 24 hours to questions about the company’s plans to switch well caps to stem the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, according to a letter Allen sent to Dudley.

BP wants to replace the current containment cap with a tighter fitting one, thereby reducing leakage. But BP would have to move one of the vessels currently being used in collection efforts, and there would be a period in which more oil will leak into the sea. BP may have between seven and 10 days of good weather to make the cap change.

The Helix Producer would need to be operational before any of that could happen to reduce leakage while the cap is placed.

Originally, the Helix producer was to be put in place first, followed by installation of the new cap. But the operation has been delayed for almost two weeks by bad weather. The Obama administration now wants them to occur simultaneously.

Allen’s letter asks for details of how the company planned to proceed with attaching the Helix and replacing the cap while minimizing the flow of oil during the swap.

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