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Jul 10, 2010 3:17 PM by Chris Welty

Cap on Gushing Well Removed, Oil Flows Freely

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Robotic submarines removed the cap from the
gushing well in the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday, beginning a period
of at least two days when oil will flow freely into the sea.
It's the first step in placing a tighter dome that is supposed
to funnel more oil to collection ships on the surface a mile above.
If all goes according to plan, the tandem of the tighter cap and
the surface ships could keep all the oil from polluting the fragile
Gulf as soon as Monday.
BP spokesman Mark Proegler said the old cap was removed at 12:37
p.m. CDT on Saturday.
"Over the next four to seven days, depending on how things go,
we should get that sealing cap on. That's our plan," said Kent
Wells, a BP senior vice president.
It would be only a temporary solution to the catastrophe
unleashed by a drilling rig explosion nearly 12 weeks ago. It won't
plug the busted well and it remains uncertain that it will succeed.
The oil is flowing mostly unabated into the water for about 48
hours - long enough for as much as 5 million gallons to gush out -
until the new cap is installed.
The hope for a permanent solution remains with two relief wells
intended to plug it completely far beneath the seafloor.
Engineers now begin removing a bolted flange below the dome. The
flange has to be taken off so another piece of equipment called a
flange spool can go over the drill pipe, where the sealing cap will
be connected.
The work could spill over into Sunday, Wells said, depending on
how hard it is to pull off the flange. BP has a backup plan in case
that doesn't work: A piece of machinery will pry the top and the
bottom of the flange apart.
On Friday, National Incident Commander Thad Allen had said the
cap could be in place by Monday. That's still possible, given the
timeline BP submitted to the federal government, but officials say
it could take up to a week of tests before it's clear whether the
new cap is working.
The cap now in use was installed June 4, but because it had to
be fitted over a jagged cut in the well pipe, it allows some crude
to escape. The new cap - dubbed "Top Hat Number 10" - follows 80
days of failures to contain or plug the leak.
BP PLC first tried a huge containment box also referred to as a
top hat, but icelike crystals quickly clogged the contraption in
the cold depths. Then it tried to shoot heavy drilling mud into the
hole to hold down the flow so it could then insert a cement plug.
After the so-called "top kill," engineers tried a "junk shot" -
using the undersea robots to try and stuff carefully selected golf
balls and other debris to plug the leak. That also met failure.
The company is also working to hook up another containment ship
called the Helix Producer to a different part of the leaking well.
The ship, which will be capable of sucking up more than 1 million
gallons a day when it is fully operating, should be working by
Sunday, Allen said.
The plan had originally been to change the cap and hook up the
Helix Producer separately, but the favorable weather convinced
officials the time was right for both operations. They have a
window of seven to 10 days.
The government estimates 1.5 million to 2.5 million gallons of
oil a day are spewing from the well, and the existing cap is
collecting about 1 million gallons of that. With the new cap and
the new containment vessel, the system will be capable of capturing
2.5 million to 3.4 million gallons - essentially all the leaking
oil, officials said.
In a response late Friday to Allen's request for detailed plans,
BP managing director Bob Dudley confirmed that the leak could be
contained by Monday. But Dudley included plans for another
scenario, which includes possible problems and missteps that could
push the installment of the cap back to Thursday.
And the latest effort is far from a sure thing, warned Louisiana
State University environmental sciences professor Ed Overton.
"Everything done at that site is very much harder than anyone
expects," he said. Overton said putting on the new cap carries
risks: "Is replacing the cap going to do more damage than leaving
it in place, or are you going to cause problems that you can't take
care of?"
Containing the leak will not end the crisis that began when the
Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded April 20, killing 11
workers.
The relief wells are still being drilled so they can inject
heavy mud and cement into the leaking well to stop the flow, which
is expected to be done by mid-August. Then a monumental cleanup and
restoration project lies ahead.
Some people on Louisiana's oil-soaked coast were skeptical that
BP can contain the oil so soon.
"This is probably the sixth or seventh method they've tried,
so, no, I'm not optimistic," said Deano Bonano, director of
emergency preparedness for Jefferson Parish.
He inspected beaches at Grand Isle lined with protective boom
and bustling with heavy equipment used to scoop up and clean sand.
"Even if they turn it off today, we'll still be here at least
another six weeks, on watch for the oil," he said.

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