Workers clean tarballs from a beach in Pass Christian, Miss. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images
Officials could move forward by the weekend with an operation to begin permanently sealing the Gulf of Mexico oil leak, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen told reporters Wednesday. The strategy, called a “static kill,” would pump heavy mud down through the cap currently sitting atop the well, in an effort to push the oil out of the well and back into the reservoir so the well could be permanently sealed.
Right now, no oil is flowing into the Gulf, because the cap is closing off the top of the well. But the cap was always intended to be a temporary measure, as scientists and engineers worried that holding in the oil that way could compromise the well’s integrity and cause oil to start leaking elsewhere through the sea floor.
Officials have been taking it one day at a time, renewing BP’s permission to keep the well closed as scientists continue to keep a close eye on pressure readings in the well and to monitor for oil and gas leaks around it. On Tuesday, Allen said that none of the small gas leaks found in the vicinity so far have been consequential.
And on Wednesday BP said that pressure readings in the well are at 6,844 psi and continue to rise slowly — a good sign that the well is intact.
Officials have long said that the permanent solution to the oil spill will be the relief wells being dug nearby. Those relief wells are intended to intercept the leaking oil at the bottom of the well — 13,000 feet below the sea floor — to allow heavy mud to be pumped in there.
But this week, Allen and BP officials said that they are also considering using the static kill technique.
At a press briefing Tuesday, BP senior vice president Kent Wells said that beginning a static kill would not mean that the company was “taking its eye off the ball” on the relief wells — and that the two operations would actually complement each other.
“Working in tandem could give us the ability to have the well completely killed in less time, and reduce the execution risk,” he said.
The static kill is similar to the failed “top kill” operation that the company tried earlier, in which the company tried to pump heavy mud at very high pressure in through the top of the then-still-spewing leak. But because the spill is now contained, the “static kill” would pump mud directly into the well at lower pressure and the operation has a higher likelihood of success, Wells said.
The first relief well is scheduled to be completed by the end of the month, although it could take days or weeks after that to accurately intercept the well bore and kill the well.
Meanwhile, officials are also keeping a wary eye on the weather. A possible storm system in the northern Caribbean — which forecasters say has a 60 percent chance of turning into a tropical storm by Friday — could delay work on both the static kill preparations and the relief wells by up to two weeks.
“Any operations out there would have to be suspended whether it’s containment or the relief well,” Allen told reporters.