JUDY WOODRUFF: The Obama administration today issued a new and revised ban on offshore drilling.
Last week, a federal appeals court rejected the government’s effort to restore its initial moratorium, which denied any new permits for deepwater projects and suspended drilling on 33 exploratory wells.
The rules are the administration’s second attempt to ban deepwater drilling. And will apply to any floating facility with drilling activities and deepwater technology.
Meanwhile, in the Gulf, work to reseal the leak with a new tighter cap began this weekend one mile below the sea. If it’s successful, along with other measures, BP hopes to triple the amount of oil captured from the gushing well.
Remote control robotic arms built a connection piece to hold the massive new cap, known as the Top Hat 10, in place. Once that’s bolted down, BP said they would be a week away from capturing the spewing oil and sending it to ships above.
The Helix Producer ship, capable of collecting 10.5 million gallons of the contaminated mixture a day, is expected to come online as early as tomorrow. But the success of the new cap won’t be known until later this week, after a series of tests.
Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who is in charge of the government response, detailed the process this morning on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN (RET.), national incident commander: We’re going to do what’s called a well integrity test. And that will actually tell us whether or not we can actually close all the valves and withstand the pressure that’s inside that, or whether or not we will have to produce oil to relieve the pressure. Either way, we are going to be very close to containing 100 percent of the oil.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Even if those tests show the cap is blocking oil from getting into the water, the leak will continue to spew until a permanent fix is reached.
It is believed the two relief wells being drilled are the only way to permanently stop the oil. BP senior vice president Kent Wells told the presidential oversight panel this morning he believes they will be ready to start the so-called kill procedure at the end of this month.
KENT WELLS, senior vice president, BP: We have found the well. We drilled parallel to it for almost 1,000 feet. And now we’re actually within five feet of it.
JUDY WOODRUFF: BP said the cost of containing the spill has climbed to $3.5 billion, including $165 million spent to pay out individual claims. The company said it had received 105,000 claims by Saturday, and made payments to about half of them.
With BP’s costs estimated to keep rising, it was reported today the company was in talks to sell off billions of dollars in assets from its Alaska operations.
And for more on these latest developments, we turn to Joel Achenbach, who has been covering the story for The Washington Post.
Joel, thanks for being with us. First of all, these new…
JOEL ACHENBACH, The Washington Post: Great to be here.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.
These new rules issued by the Obama administration banning offshore drilling, explain to us how these are different from the previous rules they had issued.
JOEL ACHENBACH: I think they have just reloaded.
I think they’re doing — it’s sort of a do-over, to be honest. The reality is that this industry is not going to be able to drill in deep water until, first of all, they fix this problem. They have to show that they are capable of actually plugging a hole in the bottom of the sea, which they haven’t done yet.
This is why what’s happening today in the subsea environment, you know, at the bottom of the Gulf, is so critical. I think that the administration knows it has the upper hand as long as this thing keeps spewing. And the industry is not going to keep drilling until they can prove that they can stop this well.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Does the administration think this — the new rules, though, will survive legal challenge? The old one didn’t.
JOEL ACHENBACH: You know, the old one didn’t.
And I have yet to see — and we’re still reporting on this here in the newsroom. I have yet to see why this will pass legal muster in the way the previous one did not. But the reality is that the industry has said that they are also going to wait as long as the regulatory rules are so up in the air; they’re not going to do any more drilling in the short run until they find out, you know, what are they going to be allowed to do.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Joel Achenbach, let’s talk about this new cap now.
How is this different from the existing or the previous cap that was on there?
JOEL ACHENBACH: OK. Well, the previous cap was the top hat. All it was, was just a little dome, like a funnel, just sitting loosely and kind of lopsidedly on top of the well.
They yanked that one off. They have come in now with something. Some people have called it Top Hat No. 10. That’s not actually accurate. It’s — it’s — the real name is, if you can believe it, the three-ram capping stack. It’s a huge structure. It’s not just a little funnel, inverted funnel.
This is something that is 30 feet tall, weighs about 150,000 pounds. And the news today — and we’re just sort of figuring this out — is, they think they can seal off the well with this device. They’re going to have what’s called an integrity test.
The integrity test, they essentially just crank down the well, crank it closed. And they’re going to see if the pressures build in the well. If the pressures build like they want them to build, it means that the well has its integrity still and it doesn’t have lots of leaks down below the Gulf floor.
If, however, the pressures don’t build correctly, it means that this well is all blown out sideways down at depth. Then they go back to focusing on containment. But in the next few hours — or days — we’re going to discover whether or not they can actually end the whole gushing, geyser part of this disaster.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But do you sense that they’re confident that this could primarily, mainly, completely stop the oil?
JOEL ACHENBACH: That’s the right question.
I do not know why they seem more confident today about the integrity of the well at depth than they did a couple of weeks ago. I have been covering this for a couple of months now. And it was only in the last, you know, 10, 12, 14 days that I heard them even discuss the idea of sealing the well from the top.
Prior to that, it was always about, well, this will help us with containment. This will help us capture more oil. But now they’re looking at what’s essentially a top kill, in addition to the bottom kill of the relief wells, which are still going to keep going.
And the permanent solution is the mud and the cement down at the bottom of the well with the relief wells. But if they can crank this thing closed and, you know, nothing leaks out sideways, if they don’t create, you know, 27 new leaks at the base of the blowout preventer, then everyone is going to be very, very happy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But you’re saying they are still worried about the potential for leaks, both creating new leaks, as well as existing leaks that they may not know about?
JOEL ACHENBACH: Well, today, we asked Doug Suttles this — I say we — the reporters who were on the conference call, we said, well, could this cause additional problems?
I think the answer is they’re going to do this integrity test very slowly. They’re going to go in there and just gradually shut down the flow and monitor the pressures. And if there’s anything that looks, you know, scary to them, I think they will suspend the test and they will go back to just doing containment to see how much we can capture.
JUDY WOODRUFF: All right.
Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post, thanks very much.
JOEL ACHENBACH: Thank you.