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BP begins risky cap replacement

The containment cap is lifted off the wellhead at the oil spill site in the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday.  (Associated Press)
The containment cap is lifted off the wellhead at the oil spill site in the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday. (Associated Press)

Process should take three to four days

NEW ORLEANS – In another subsea attempt to control its runaway oil well, BP began a risky procedure Saturday that could contain all of the oil spewing from the Gulf of Mexico within four to seven days.

But the around-the-clock procedure comes with a price: Millions of gallons of oil will spew into the ocean for at least two days until a new cap is mounted. Although it’s the latest in a series of attempts to contain the gusher, it’s not a final fix, either.

By Saturday afternoon, robots had removed a containment cap from the leaking well, a move that caused most all of the oil to freely gush into the ocean. The well has been spewing as many as 60,000 barrels a day since late April.

“What I’d say at this point is, we’re on plan,” BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells said Saturday evening.

In a series of delicate steps, a tighter cap will be placed over the gushing pipe. If all goes according to plan, as many as four ships could draw in between 60,000 and 80,000 barrels a day.

The new cap should be installed within four to seven days during a window of calm seas, Wells said. The cap will be “fundamental to our ability to disconnect and reconnect during hurricanes,” he said.

“There’s a brief period here where we will have more flow,” he said.

While the work is being performed, as many as 8,000 barrels a day will be drawn in through several underwater collection lines and held in vessels including the Q4000, which has been capturing oil and gas since mid-June, said Mark Proegler, a BP spokesman.

The new system is not a permanent fix and it’s not guaranteed to work.

After removing the containment cap, the engineers turned to maneuvering the robots to unbolt a flange below the cap.

As of Saturday evening, crews were working on removing the first of six bolts using hydraulic horsepower, Wells said. He expects work on the bolt removal will last into the night today.

Once the top flange is removed, BP has to push together two sections of drill pipe in the well head. Then a flange transition spool will be lowered on top of the flange using a crane. After the spool is in place, the new cap can be positioned. The cap will allow new connections to collect oil and also has valves that can control the flow of oil.

If complications arise, Wells said other options are available, including installing another containment cap.

“We do have some backups for backups,” he said.

Meanwhile, BP is in the final stages of setting up the Helix Producer, a vessel capable of holding up to 25,000 barrels per day. Wells said the vessel could be in operation as early as today.

The ultimate solution, expected in mid-August, will be the completion of relief wells that intercept the failed well and provide a path to insert heavy mud and cement to plug it.