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BP: Gulf oil spill could be stopped this month

washingtonpost.com

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 8, 2010; 8:47 AM

The end may be near for the runaway gulf oil well, according to the most optimistic statement yet from a BP executive.

The long-anticipated “bottom kill” of the well — a massive dose of mud and cement shot through a relief well now being drilled in order to stop the gushing of oil from the well that exploded nearly three months ago — could take place before the end of July.

“In a perfect world with no interruptions, it’s possible to be ready to stop the well between July 20 and July 27,” BP managing director Bob Dudley said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

The relief well is currently moving almost parallel to the blown-out “Macondo” well, just 12 feet away laterally, and with only about 200 feet to go before it reaches the interception target.

The final approach is slow and painstaking. The engineers aboard the Development Driller III will penetrate the rock formation only 10 feet at a time before withdrawing the drill bit and sending down a probe that detects the magnetic signal of the steel casing and pipe in the Macondo well.

Dudley offered a similarly optimistic timeline to NBC Wednesday as he toured the drill ship Discoverer Enterprise . But top BP spokesman Andrew Gowers on Thursday morning sought to temper public expectations, saying the company hasn’t changed its target date of an August completion of the well-killing operation.

“It is true that we are proceeding on exactly the same schedule as before, which means that it is most likely to happen in the first half of August,” Gowers said in an-email. “You will note Bob Dudley’s comment to the Journal that it is theoretically possible but UNLIKELY that it could happen a bit sooner.” Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander, has also been more cautious, saying he prefers to underpromise rather than overpromise. “While it’s nice to be slightly ahead of schedule, I’m sticking to the middle of August because we don’t know the condition of the wellbore until we penetrate her,” Allen said Wednesday.

The blown-out well will be intercepted at a point where there is both a 9-inch steel casing and a 7-inch pipe inside of it. It is unknown whether the oil and gas is flowing inside those structures or in the space between them, or both. Oil and gas may be surging between the original wall of the hole and the outside of the steel casing — a space that was cemented before the well erupted April 20. Or the flow could be taking place in the “annulus” between the casing and the pipe. Or it could be within the pipe itself — or some combination of all that.

More than one mud shot may therefore be necessary in order to to fill the spaces where hydrocarbons are surging to the surface. After the mud comes cement. Each mud and cement shot could take a week to 10 days, Allen said.

The uncertainty about the condition of the well, along with the possibility of tropical storms that can disrupt operations, confounds any firm prediction of when the gusher may be terminated from below.

High seas in the past two weeks have slowed efforts to hook up a new containment system for capturing leaking oil, but they have not so far slowed the drilling of the two relief wells by two large rigs that are each floating about half a mile from the Discoverer Enterprise, which is directly atop the Macondo well.

Officials expect seas to calm further by the end of this week, with favorable weather in the short-term forecast.

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