OIL SPILL -- July 16, 2010 at 3:22 PM ET
The Oil Cap Is Holding -- Now What?
For now, at least, there is no oil flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.
That could last until Saturday, if BP carries out its well integrity test for a full 48 hours. Engineers are checking pressure inside the well every six hours, trying to determine if the well and casing are intact.
If it works...
BP engineers want pressure to rise. Readings of 8,000 to 9,000 psi would mean the well casing is intact, and the well could be closed from the top. That would allow surface ships currently collecting oil to disconnect during hurricanes or other severe weather, instead of simply letting more oil spill unabated.
BP reported this morning that pressure is at 6,700 psi and rising.
If it doesn't...
Lower pressure at or below 6,000 psi would be a sign oil and gas were leaking from sides of the piping and cement holding the well open and possibly breach the sea floor.
A low-pressure result could complicate or lengthen the relief-well effort as cracks and leaks are plugged along with the well itself.
What could go wrong?
In a worst-case scenario, the oil would be forced down into the bedrock and cause an irreparable rupture in the seafloor. Engineers also could discover leaks deep in the well bore, which would mean that oil would continue to flow into the Gulf. And there is the possibility of another explosion, either from too much pressure or from an undiscovered and unstable piece of piping.
Pass or fail, this test is most likely a temporary stop in the flow of oil. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said in a statement Thursday that it "remains likely" that after the test is over, BP will return to a containment strategy of bringing the oil up to surface ships to be processed or flared off.
The new capping stack allows four surface ships to connect to the ruptured well, and both BP and the Coast Guard say as much as 80,000 barrels (960,000 gallons) of oil a day could be collected.
- The Helix Producer, which is already onsite and can process 25,000 barrels of oil per day;
- By the end of July, the Toisa Pisces, capable of processing 25,000 barrels per day, will replace the Q4000, which has flared around 8,000 barrels of oil a day since June 16;
- Transocean's Discoverer Enterprise, which captured around 15,000 barrels of oil a day between June 3 and July 10, and Transocean's Discoverer Clear Leader can each be connected to the new cap.
Plugging the well for good ultimately depends on two relief wells, which are on track to intercept the Deepwater Horizon's well in early August.
When the spill finally, really stops...
Cleanup will take years. Or maybe decades.
Lawrence Palinkas, a University of Southern California anthropologist, speaking to a group of health care and social service providers Thursday at Tulane University Medical School, noted the long-term impact of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska:
"If you look under the rocks in the Gulf of Alaska, you'll still see oil," Palinkas said. "One thing high-pressure hoses can't eliminate is the psychological trauma."
As Bill Barrow of The Times-Picayune reports, problems go far beyond poisoned water and a wrecked local economy:
Just as in Alaska, the most vulnerable populations, Palinkas said, are children, cleanup workers and coastal natives who have seen both their economic well-being and cultural identities threatened by the spill. On the heels of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, he added, the negative effects are intensified for everyone involved.
He cited depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, and he noted their links with social problems such as domestic violence and abuse of alcohol or drugs, along with their contribution to physical maladies such as high blood pressure, thyroid dysfunction, ulcers, asthma and heart disease.
As always, you can keep track of the NewsHour's oil coverage here.