New Orleans – BP planned to start pumping cement into its blown-out oil well in the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday, following up on a key development in the effort to kill the well when mud that was shoved in successfully held back the flow of crude.
After a series of unsuccessful attempts to stem the flow of oil 1 500m underwater, the tide appeared to be turning in the months-long battle to stop the massive oil spill.
BP said on Wednesday it was finally able to force the oil back down to its underground reservoir with a slow torrent of heavy mud in an early step toward plugging the well up for good.
The news came as a federal report indicated only about a quarter of the spilled oil remains in the Gulf and is degrading quickly, with the rest contained, cleaned up or otherwise gone.
Even so, Joey Yerkes, a fisherman in Destin, Florida, said he and other boaters, swimmers and scuba divers continue to find oil and tar balls in areas that have been declared clear.
“The end to the leak is good news, but the damage has been done,” Yerkes said.
Despite the progress in the mud-pumping effort known as the “static kill,” BP executives and federal officials won’t declare the threat dashed until they use the relief well.
Though they haven’t publicly agreed on how to do it.
Federal officials including spill response commander Thad Allen, a retired Coast Guard admiral, insist that crews will shove mud and cement into the reservoir feeding the well through the 5 500m relief well, which should be completed within weeks.
But for reasons that were unclear, BP officials have in recent days refused to commit to pumping cement down the relief well, saying only that it will be used in some fashion.
BP officials have not elaborated on other options, but those could include using the well simply to test whether the reservoir is plugged.
“We have always said that we will move forward with the relief well. That will be the ultimate solution,” BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells said on Wednesday afternoon.
“We need to take each step at a time.
Clearly we need to pump cement. If we do it from the top, we might alter what we do with the relief well, but the relief well is still a part of the solution. The ultimate objective is getting this well permanently sealed.”
The game of semantics has gone back and forth this week, with neither yielding.
Allen clearly said on Tuesday that to be safe, the leak will have to be plugged up from two directions, with the relief well being used for the so-called “bottom kill”.
“There should be no ambiguity about that,” he said then.
“I’m the national incident commander and this is how this will be handled.”
Whether the well is considered sealed yet or not, there’s still oil in the Gulf or on its shores – 200 million litres of it, according to the report released on Wednesday by the Interior Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
That’s still nearly five times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill, which wreaked environmental havoc in Alaska in 1989.
But almost three-quarters of the nearly 784 million litres of oil that leaked overall has been collected at the well by a temporary containment cap, been cleaned up or chemically dispersed, or naturally deteriorated, evaporated or dissolved, the report said.
The remaining oil, much of it below the surface, remains a threat to sea life and Gulf Coast marshes, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said. But the spill no longer threatens the Florida Keys or the East Coast, the report said.
President Barack Obama, while noting that people’s lives “have been turned upside down,” declared that the operation was “finally close to coming to an end”.
An experimental cap has stopped the oil from flowing for the past three weeks, but it was not a permanent solution.
The static kill – also known as bull heading – probably would not have worked without that cap in place.
It involved slowly pumping the mud from a ship down lines running to the top of the ruptured well a mile below. A similar effort failed in May when the mud couldn’t overcome the flow of oil.