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‘The Well From Hell’

THE NEW YORK TIMES

Published: July 24, 2010

Derick E. Hingle/Bloomberg News

LOCKED DOWN TIGHT

The News BP and the government decided to leave the cap closed on the company’s stricken oil well on the Gulf of Mexico’s floor, preventing any oil or gas from escaping the well.

Behind the News Initially, the cap’s valves were closed as a test to see if the well was intact below the sea floor, and the plan was to reopen them afterward to relieve the pressure, with escaping oil collected at the surface. Methane gas was found seeping up two miles away, but scientists concluded it was a natural occurrence. With the well apparently holding tight under the pressure, Thad W. Allen, the retired Coast Guard admiral in charge of the federal response, approved keeping the cap closed.

‘STATIC KILL’

The News BP said it was looking into an alternative approach to sealing the well permanently: a “static kill,” which could get the job done much sooner than the relief wells the company is drilling, which still won’t yield results for at least several weeks.

Behind the News The static kill calls for pumping heavy drilling mud into the well, forcing the oil and gas back down and sealing the well bore. Engineers said it had a much better chance of working than the “top kill” BP tried in late May. That attempt depended on pumping in mud faster than the gushing oil and gas could expel it, which proved impossible. Now, with the well cap closed, there is no flow to fight.

RED FLAGS

The News In the weeks before the fatal April 20 explosion and fire on a drilling rig that left the well gushing out of control, some pieces of equipment were in poor condition, others had gone uninspected for years, and workers were worried about unsafe practices but were afraid to speak up, according to confidential reports to Transocean, the owner of the rig that BP leased.

Behind the News Former rig workers testified before an investigating panel that the well had been plagued with problems from its inception — one called it “the well from hell” — and that a culture of fear and of putting cost control ahead of safety prevailed on the rig. The company denied the accusations.

READY FOR NEXT TIME

The News Four giant oil companies said they would commit a total of $1 billion to create a rapid-response system that could deal with future deepwater oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico.

Behind the News The companies — Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Royal Dutch Shell — said the system would take six months to set up. The idea is to be able to cope with a blowout under 10,000 feet of water (twice the depth of the stricken BP well), recapture up to 100,000 barrels of spilled oil a day, and reach a spill within 24 hours. The plan is part of an effort by the oil industry to influence federal regulation by showing that it can improve safety procedures on its own.

WEATHER DELAYS

The News Most work at the well site was halted and ship and rig crews prepared to evacuate the area, about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast, after Tropical Storm Bonnie formed off the Bahamas and started heading west toward the Gulf.

Behind the News The storm’s path and eventual intensity were far from certain, but forecasters said that rough weather seemed likely to reach the well area over the weekend. Rather than risk being caught while performing a critical procedure, BP suspended work on its relief wells on Wednesday and began the long job of disconnecting the drilling rig. Officials said the cap on the blown well would be left shut.

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