Don’t Drink The Water, Part III: Put On Your Caps, Everybody

Henry Fountain and Liz Robbins in NYT:

Oil stopped gushing into the Gulf of Mexico for the first time in nearly three months, as BP began testing the containment cap atop its stricken well, a critical step toward sealing the well permanently.

“I am very excited that there’s no oil in the Gulf of Mexico,” Kent Wells, a senior vice president for BP said in a teleconference on Thursday, “but we just started the test and I don’t want to create a false sense of excitement.”

Oil stopped flowing at 2:25 p.m. local time, Mr. Wells announced, when engineers closed the choke line, the final seal of the well. Engineers and scientists will now examine the results of the pressure tests every six hours to determine the pressure levels. Read the updated article on the cap.

Steve Benen:

Watching the live feed, it’s clear the oil that was gushing into the Gulf of Mexico has, at least for now, stopped entirely. To put it mildly, it’s a welcome sight.

The new containment mechanism has been delayed a bit in recent days, but officials shut the various valves today as part of a long-awaited “integrity test,” and so far, so good. The “pressure test” will continue over the next 48 hours.

So, are we in the clear? Crisis over? Not yet. The seismic tests will tell us whether to the cap should stay on.

Bradford Plumer at The New Republic:

Still, the Macondo site won’t be fully and permanently plugged until BP finishes drilling a relief well. Kate Sheppard has a great piece today about some of the challenges involved there, including this useful warning: “A relief well drilled to quell last year’s Montara blowout off the coast of Australia took five tries before it succeeded—with an average of one week between them.” Now, BP claims it can bottle up the well once and for all by July 29, though do note that just happens to be the date of BP’s second-quarter shareholder meeting.

And this doesn’t mean the oil-spill disaster is over. There’s a lot of crude bobbing along in the Gulf right now: Scientists estimate that between 92 million and 182 million gallons have gushed out into the ocean since the Deepwater Horizon platform first blew up back in April. BP is still using dispersants to break up the oil and send it down to the sea floor, even though no one quite knows how the chemicals might affect marine life in the area. And note that oil’s still washing ashore, and Bobby Jindal’s artificial “barrier islands,” which were supposed to protect Louisiana, are now crumbling.

Patrik Jonsson at The Christian Science Monitor:

Six weeks ago, Robert Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, received a late-night call from an apologetic “mystery plumber.” The caller said he had a sketch for how to solve the problem at the bottom of the Gulf. It was a design for a containment cap that would fit snugly over the top of the failed blowout preventer at the heart of the Gulf oil spill.

Professor Bea, a former Shell executive and well-regarded researcher, thought the idea looked good and sent the sketches directly to the US Coast Guard and to a clearinghouse set up to glean ideas from outside sources for how to cap the stubborn Macondo well.

When Bea saw the design of the containment cap lowered onto the well last week, he marveled at its similarity to the sketches from the late-night caller, whose humble refusal to give his name at the time nearly brought Bea to tears.

“The idea was using the top flange on the blowout preventer as an attachment point and then employing an internal seal against that flange surface,” says Bea. “You can kind of see how a plumber thinks this way. That’s how they have to plumb homes for sewage.”

BP has received 300,000 ideas from around the world for how to cap the well after decades-old methods failed. Everyone from amateur inventors to engineers, Hollywood stars to hucksters, have swamped the unified command with ideas.

BP executive Doug Suttles says the new containment cap design came from weeks of trial and error. “We’ve been adding and trying new things constantly,” Mr. Suttles said last week.

The design was originally intended to increase BP’s ability to siphon oil from the well to containment ships on the surface. But in the past two weeks, it became clear to the company that the design, if it passed certain well integrity tests, could also be used to stop the flow altogether. If successful, the containment structure will be a turning point in the Gulf oil spill drama.

BP spokesman Mark Salt says, “There’s no way of finding out at the moment” whether Bea’s forwarded suggestion from the self-described “lowly plumber” made it into the design. “There’s also a good chance that this was already being designed by the time this [tip] came in.”

On the other hand, Mr. Salt adds, “I’m sure we’ve used bits and pieces of suggestions [from the outside] and have picked things out that could be used going forward.”

Tigerhawk:

The psychological impact of our inability to cap this damned hole in the bottom of the sea has been huge, and perhaps the hidden and unverifiable source of more economic damage than the actual spill. It was depressing and contributed to a wider sense that things are seemingly spinning out of control. The work is not done, but imagine the relief of those engineers, workers and executives — the unloved heroes — who have been struggling to deal with this problem for almost three months. I hope they get a few cold beers tonight, and maybe a nice steak.

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