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BP Starts ‘Static Kill’: Beginning of the End for Gulf Oil Well?

August 3, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid hit a stumbling block in an effort to pass a bill that would have lifted an oil spill liability cap. Judy Woodruff speaks with Washington Post reporter Joel Achenbach about the latest on efforts to permanently seal the Gulf oil well.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: There was other fallout from the spill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that he didn’t have enough votes to pass a scaled-back bill connected with the disaster. The measure would have lifted an oil spill liability cap, created tougher drilling standards, and included a few modest energy measures.

But most of tonight’s attention focused on efforts to kill the well.

And, for more on that, we’re joined again by The Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach.

Joel, thank you for being with us again.

JOEL ACHENBACH, The Washington Post: It’s great to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, this really could be the beginning of the end of this well?

JOEL ACHENBACH: Could be. Is this going to be the silver bullet that finally ends this thing? I certainly hope so, but I just got off the phone with Energy Secretary Steve Chu and one of his top scientists, Tom Hunter.

And what they made clear is that, although this is very promising so far — I mean, the early signs, the early testing on this well, with this procedure, were exactly what they wanted to see — it may be that this has kind of a muddy ending. In other words, the static kill may work as they hope it will, but they’re going to want to go in at the bottom and send cement in at the bottom, almost no matter what.

So, as far as being able to report, you know, in the next 48 hours, well, this thing is over, I don’t think it’s going to be that clean of a kill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, help us understand that, because, you know, we have heard all these explanations about how they’re putting this drilling mud in. We just showed a — a graphic showing how that works. Why isn’t that enough to secure this well?

JOEL ACHENBACH: Well, I think the well in reality is not as clean and perfect and immaculate as it is on those graphs and in those diagrams, because you see — in the animation, you see the mud going down, and then maybe it will force all the oil back down into the rock reservoir, and then you could follow the mud with a cement plug, the cement goes down, and will cement the well.

The problem is, is that they don’t really know where the hydrocarbons are flowing. I mean, this is actually — you know, it’s a pipe within a pipe. And that second pipe is in a hole. And there’s multiple avenues where you could potentially have this stuff coming up.

And, you know, this is a, I don’t know, two-and-a-half-mile-long well. 13-something feet. And, so, it may not all go just as perfectly as it seems to work in those diagrams.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, are you saying there still could be leaks in there?

JOEL ACHENBACH: Well, what could happen is, you could — yes, you could — not only could you just sort of partially kill the well or — or control the pressure to a certain degree, but what I was told today by Dr. Chu was that this is sort of like a dynamic entity, this well.

So, you send the mud down. It’s hot down there. The mud can change form. The well can actually start to kind of reassert itself. You could — Chu made an interesting — sort of painted a picture of the hydrocarbons could kind of finger their way through the mud and try to start going up the well again.

So, based on what they told us this afternoon, I think that, even though this is going really well so far with this, the initial signs, almost certainly, they are going to have to go in with the relief well at the bottom and — and give it the sort of uppercut punch from below to really end this thing conclusively.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And do they still think that will end it? If they’re now sounding unsure about how final this is, how certain are they that that is going to work?

JOEL ACHENBACH: Well, I mean, this has had a lot of surprises all along, this — this whole disaster. But they’re a lot more confident now than they were just a couple of weeks ago.

I think, when I was on this program a couple weeks ago, we didn’t know what was going to happen when they sealed the well, when they shut it down. And it turned out the well seems to have integrity. It didn’t go kablooey out the sides. It didn’t cause new leaks from the seafloor. It seemed to be able just to hold there at about 7,000 pounds per square inch.

So, they’re feeling more confident in general. The tests today — the first thing they did today, by the way, is they sent down some heavy oil that’s heavier than the oil that is coming up the pipe, and that seemed to go in just as they wanted it to go.

And then, late this afternoon, they’re just starting to send in the heavy mud. They — I do think that they believe the relief well is going to work.

Now, the other issue, of course, is the weather. If you have a hurricane, you can’t just ride it out with these big drilling rigs. You have to move the rig away, finding calmer waters. And so if you have a big storm blow in the Gulf in August, which happens almost, you know, like clockwork, that could delay it into September.

But, you know, right now, things are going pretty much as they’re hoping it would go.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Joel, let me ask you about the new information today about the size of the — of the spill. They’re saying now over 200 million gallons. Put that in some context for us in terms of size.

JOEL ACHENBACH: Well…

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s hard to imagine.

JOEL ACHENBACH: It’s 18.5 Exxon Valdezes, OK? I mean, it’s — the largest spill, offshore spill ever, was this Ixtoc spill, 138 million gallons in 1979.

This is over 200 million gallons. At its — at its early, you know, peak, this well was gushing at 62,000 barrels of oil a day. There’s 42 gallons per barrel. So, that is at the very, very high upper end of what the estimates were. And, in fact, it’s 12 times what the estimate was. For many weeks early in this crisis, BP and the government said 5,000 barrels a day.

Well, no, it was more like 62,000. So, the — I guess the bad news is, this was bigger. It was worse than most people thought in terms of the volume of oil. Now, the mystery is, where did all the oil go? Because, as we have seen, some of the environmental impacts have not been as bad as people had feared.

I mean, there was a lot of apocalyptic talk about, this is going to kill the Gulf of Mexico. We talked about the oil getting in the loop current, going around Florida, hitting the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

JOEL ACHENBACH: That didn’t happen. A lot of it evaporated. A lot of it has been perhaps eaten by microbes. Some of it went into the marshes, on the beaches.

And then there’s the question of, is a lot of it just suspended in the water column, still out there unaccounted for?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And they’re still trying to figure out the answers to those questions. And we know the scientists are working on that.

All right, Joel Achenbach at The Washington Post, thank you.

JOEL ACHENBACH: All right. Thank you.