June 1, 2010 in Nation/World

Relief well best chance, not likely until August

Matthew Brown Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Smoke rises from a controlled oil burn near the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill near the coast of Louisiana on Monday.
(Full-size photo)

By the numbers

43 million: High estimate, in gallons, of oil the well has leaked

100,000: Number of gallons per day by which the spill would increase temporarily as the cap-and-cut method is tried

3: Estimated number of months it will take to drill relief wells to stop the spill permanently

NEW ORLEANS – The best hope for stopping the flow of oil from the blown-out well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico has been compared to hitting a target the size of a dinner plate with a drill more than two miles into the earth, and is anything but a sure bet on the first attempt.

Bid after bid has failed to stanch what has already become the nation’s worst-ever spill, and BP PLC is readying another patchwork attempt as early as Wednesday, this one a cut-and-cap process to put a lid on the wellhead so oil can be siphoned to the surface.

But the best-case scenario of sealing the leak is two relief wells being drilled diagonally into the gushing well – tricky business that won’t be ready until August.

“The probability of them hitting it on the very first shot is virtually nil,” said David Rensink, incoming president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, who spent most of his 39 years in the oil industry in offshore exploration. “If they get it on the first three or four shots they’d be very lucky.”

For the relief well to succeed, the bore hole must precisely intersect the damaged well. If it misses, BP will have to back up its drill, plug the hole it just created, and try again.

The trial-and-error process could take weeks, but it will eventually work, scientists and BP said. Then engineers will pump mud and cement through pipes to seal the well.

Still, the three months it could take to finish the relief wells – the first of which started May 2 – is quicker than a typical deep well, which can take four months or longer, said Tad Patzek, chair of the Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department at the University of Texas-Austin.

On the slim chance the relief well doesn’t work, scientists weren’t sure exactly how much – or how long – the oil would flow. The gusher would continue until the well bore hole collapsed or pressure in the reservoir dropped to a point where oil was no longer pushed to the surface, Patzek said.

“I don’t admit the possibility of it not working,” he said.

So far, the spill has leaked between 19.7 million and 43 million gallons, according to government estimates.

In the meantime, BP is turning to another risky procedure federal officials acknowledge will likely, at least temporarily, cause 20 percent more oil – at least 100,000 gallons a day – to add to the gusher.

Using robot submarines, BP plans to cut away the riser pipe this week and place a cap-like containment valve over the blowout preventer.

Meanwhile, the location of the spill couldn’t be worse.

It’s an area that historically has been a superhighway for hurricanes.

If a major storm rolls in, the relief well operations would have to be suspended and then re-started, adding more time to the process. Hurricane season, which begins today, is predicted to be very active.

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