New evidence of well failure splits BP, Feds
There is new evidence that the BP Deepwater well has been damaged and is leaking oil or natural gas into the surrounding seabed, a worst-case scenario that the company has portrayed as extremely unlikely since the runaway well was closed on Thursday afternoon to test for damage.
In a terse letter sent Sunday night by National Incident Commander Thad Allen to BP director Bob Dudley, Admiral Allen cited a “detected seep a distance from the well and undetermined anomalies at the well head…” Both are possible indications of damage to the well that exploded in April, killing eleven people outright and releasing millions of barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico for over three months.
Earlier in the day, Allen released a statement expressing concern over the “lower than expected pressure readings” from the well test.
Last week, officials said that to guarantee “well integrity” scientists were looking for a reading of 8,000 pounds per square inch (psi) or above after 48 hours. Below that number, the results would be ambiguous, with confidence in the well falling proportionally. The pressure rose quickly to 6,700 psi and unexpectedly leveled-off.
After the pressure failed to reach the levels announced by officials, the term “reservoir depletion” entered the BP disaster lexicon. Perhaps, this theory went, the failure to reach the anticipated pressure was because so much oil had already leaked into the gulf. Less oil down in the reservoir might explain the diminished pressure.
At a press conference on Friday, Allen announced that a reading of 7,500 psi would indicate “high integrity” and, he added, “low potential for any loss of flow out of the wellhead.” Factoring in the possible depletion, however, could result in a lower number. But no hard-and-fast pressure standard was offered. As long as the level didn’t begin to drop, whatever pressure was reached could be deemed acceptable evidence of a structurally sound well. Any gap between the original standard and the test result could be chalked up to “depletion.”
On Sunday morning, BP’s chief operating officer Doug Suttles was upbeat at a press conference. He assured reporters that all testing “continues to show encouraging signs. We’re not seeing any problems…” Suttles was so encouraged – he used the word a dozen times in 15 minutes – that BP planned to leave the well closed permanently.
“We’re hopeful that if the encouraging signs continue,” Suttles said, “we’ll be able to continue the integrity tests all the way to the point that we get the well killed. Right now there is no target set to open the well back up to flow.”
But that was never the plan Allen had approved. He had been clear all along that following the tests, the well would be hooked up to a riser pipe feeding oil to vessels on the surface with the capacity to capture all the oil from the well. The purpose of the test was to ensure that the well bore and casing were sufficiently strong to allow the well to be closed for brief periods if a hurricane forced the oil-collecting ships into port.
BP has good reason to change that plan and leave the well capped, however, even with test results inconclusive and other evidence now indicating that the well is failing.
If the well is opened according to plan, the government will, for the first time, be able to accurately measure the rate at which oil has been flowing into the Gulf. That number will determine how much BP will have to pay in fines – at $4,300 per barrel. As things stand now, BP’s lawyers can be expected to argue that any estimate made by the government is arbitrary and probably too high. A scientific measurement of the flow could force BP to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in fines that they might otherwise be able to argue down in court.
Suttles stated repeatedly that “no one wants to see oil flowing back into the sea,” and warned that opening the well again could unleash the torrent of oil for “potentially up to three day.”
A few hours after Suttles’ press conference, Adm. Allen issued his statement expressing concern over the low pressure readings (which Suttles had said were just where they were supposed to be, factoring in depletion). Allen went further. For the first time since assuming the post of National Incident Commander, the Admiral fired a warning shot across BP’s bow.
He wrote: “Per my conversation with BP Executive Bob Dudley as recently as 11 a.m. EST today, nothing has changed about the joint agreement announced yesterday between BP and the US government.”
The agreement was that the test period would end later on Sunday to be extended one day at a time and discontinued when Allen made that decision. The government was not buying into BP’s plan to keep the well closed until late August or September when the gusher could be plugged from below.
The Admiral followed this up with his Sunday “Now Hear This” letter to BP’s Bob Dudley.
Allen ordered Dudley to make monitoring of the seabed a top priority, and he issued specifics on what that means.
- Quickly investigate when seeps are detected and report the findings to the government in no more than four hours.
- Provide me a written procedure for opening the choke valve as quickly as possible without damaging the well should hydrocarbon seepage near the well head be confirmed.
- Provide me a written update within 24 hours of your intentions going forward.
At roughly 3 AM EDT, Monday, BP issued a statement that included measured contrition and a return volley at the Admiral.
According to the statement, “BP continues to work cooperatively with the guidance and approval of the National Incident Commander, etc.”
As for the plan to open the well and contain oil, BP gave this warning: “The sealing cap system and many of the other containment systems have never before been deployed at these depths or under these conditions, and their efficiency and ability to contain or flare the oil and gas cannot be assured.”
The pressure inside the well, they report, has reached 6,792 psi, an increase of 1.3 percent since Friday morning.