BP lowered a new, tight-fitting containment cap over its renegade well in the Gulf of Mexico late Monday, a move that may give the company the ability to shut off the flow of oil completely, if tests show the well is in good enough structural shape to stand being bottled up at the top.
Live video from undersea robots showed the massive piece of machinery being lowered onto the well Monday evening, raising the possibility that after 84 days of gushing oil, the wound in the earth a mile below the ocean surface could soon be stanched.
In Washington, meanwhile, the Obama administration chose to re-open a high-stakes legal and political battle by introducing a new moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
Last month, a federal judge ruled the administration likely acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” in issuing the original moratorium in May. The administration’s renewed push was sure to add fuel to a debate between Americans worried about the oil companies’ disaster preparedness and others, including Louisiana officials, who say the moratorium will cost an already beleaguered region thousands of jobs and increase U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
BP’s announcement came couched in caveats, given its numerous failed attempts at solving the problem since the rig it was leasing exploded April 20 off the coast of Louisiana: A company press statement noted the cap system had “never before been deployed at these depths under these conditions,” and that its effectiveness “cannot be ensured.”
But there were also signs of cautious optimism Monday: overnight Sunday, the company was able to install a crucial piece of equipment called a transition spool, which attached to the existing hardware on the well.
“The riskiest part is now over with,” said Eric Smith, associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute.
The spool allowed remotely operated submarines to attach the 18-foot high, 150,000 pound cap, equipped with three hydraulic rams that should have the ability to stop the oil from flowing, according to Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer for exploration and production.
Today, in a process that could take six to 48 hours or more, tests of the pressure inside the well will be conducted and analyzed by BP and government experts.
If the pressure is high, it likely means that the deep well beneath the ocean floor is in good shape; “At that point,” Suttles said, “We would be able to leave the well shut in.”
However, if the pressure is found to be low, it could indicate there is a problem with the integrity of the well – a concern government and other experts have voiced since at least May.
If the oil has been leaking outside of the well casing, affixing the cap could push more of it out and up to the sea floor in the area around the well. And that could potentially create a wide, unmanageable crater of gushing oil, said Iraj Ershaghi, a professor of petroleum engineering at the University of Southern California.
“That would be disastrous,” Ershaghi said. “There’s a lot of risk involved here.”
If the well fails the test, Suttles said, the company will unseal the containment cap and continue its constantly evolving plan of collecting oil at the wellhead and sending it through riser pipes to ships on the sea surface.