Oil Well Will Remain Capped During Possible Storm

BY Lea Winerman  July 22, 2010 at 4:30 PM EST

Federal authorities have decided that it will be safe to leave a sealing cap on the Gulf oil well even if all ships have to leave the area during a possible tropical storm this weekend, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said at a news conference Thursday. That means that the well will remain sealed, hopefully preventing any further oil from leaking into the Gulf.

“We have determined that if we have to leave the site, we will leave the well capped,” Allen said. “We will conduct surveillance as long as we can.”

Allen said that authorities made the decision based on “growing confidence” in the data that showed the well’s structural integrity is intact. Scientists had been worried that capping the well at the top could lead oil to leak out elsewhere through cracks in the sea floor. But a week of monitoring the well via seismic and sonar tests as well as visual monitoring with remote operated vehicles seems to have allayed that fear.

Allen said that authorities made the decision to leave the well capped based on the recommendation Energy Secretary Steven Chu — a Nobel-prize winning physicist — and the rest of the science team.

Meanwhile, preparations are already underway for ships to leave the area if necessary, although a decision won’t be made about pulling the first ships out until about 8 p.m. Thursday, Allen said. Forecasters have said the weather system could turn into a tropical storm and reach the Gulf area by Saturday morning. But the decision to leave must be made in advance of the storm because it takes a long time to fully disconnect many of the ships.

Drilling operations have been halted on both relief wells, and a decision will be made around 8 p.m. about whether to begin disconnecting the drillships — the Development Driller II and Development Driller III — and removing them from the area. The storm could delay the relief wells — the first of which was nearing completion — by up to three weeks.

Other vessels that don’t take as long to leave the area will remain longer.

Allen said that it’s possible that the ships connected to the ROVs monitoring the cap could stay throughout the storm:

“It’s possible if the waves don’t rise too high, we might be able to leave them the whole time,” he said. “Although we know it’s possible we might have to leave [the well] unsurveilled.”