May 31, 2010 5:49 PM by Letitia Walker
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - 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 more
than two miles into the earth, and is anything but a sure bet on
the first attempt.
Bid after bid has failed to staunch what has already become the
nation's worst-ever spill, and BP PLC is readying another attempt
as early as Wednesday to capture the oil, this one a cut-and-cap
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 bid 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 then
pump mud and cement through pipes to ultimately seal the well.
As the drilling reaches deeper into the earth, the process is
slowed by building pressure and the increasing distance that well
casings must travel before they can be set in place.
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. BP already has a good picture of the
different layers of sand and rock its drill bits will meet because
of the work it did on the blown-out well.
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, Patzak said.
"I don't admit the possibility of it not working," he said.
A third well could be drilled if the first two fail.
"We don't know how much oil is down there, and hopefully we'll
never know when the relief wells work," BP spokesman John Curry
The company was starting to collect and analyze data on how much
oil might be in the reservoir when the rig exploded April 20, he
BP's uncertainty statement is reasonable, given they only had
drilled one well, according to Doug Rader, an ocean scientist with
the Environmental Defense Fund.
Two relief wells stopped the world's worst peacetime spill, from
a Mexican rig called Ixtoc 1 that eventually dumped 140 million
gallons off the Yucatan Peninsula. That took nearly 10 months
beginning in the summer of 1979. Drilling technology has vastly
improved since then, however.
So far, the Gulf oil 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. The company hopes it will capture the majority of the
oil, sending it to the surface.
"If you've got to cut that riser, that's risky. You could take
a bad situation and make it worse," said Ed Overton, a Louisiana
State University professor of environmental sciences.
The latest attempt to capture the well comes after BP failed to
plug the leak Saturday with it's top kill, which shot mud and
pieces of rubber into the well but couldn't beat back the pressure
The location of the spill couldn't be worse.
To the south lies an essential spawning ground for imperiled
Atlantic bluefin tuna and sperm whales. To the east and west, coral
reefs and the coastal fisheries of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi
and Texas. And to the north, Louisiana's coastal marshes.
More than 125 miles of Louisiana coastline already have been hit
with oil. "It's just killing us by degrees," said Tulane
University ecologist Tom Sherry.
It's an area that historically has been something of a
superhighway for hurricanes, too.
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. Plugging the Ixtoc was also hampered by hurricane season,
which begins Tuesday and is predicted to be very active.
Three of the worst storms ever to hit the Gulf coast - Betsy in
1965, Camille in 1969 and Katrina in 2005 - all passed over the
On the Gulf coast beaches, tropical weather was far from some
On Biloxi beach, Paul Dawa and his friend Ezekial Momgeri sipped
Coronas after a night gambling at the Hard Rock Casino. Both men,
originally from Kenya, drove from Memphis, Tenn., and were chased
off the beach by a storm, not oil.
"We talked about it and we decided to come down and see for
ourselves" whether there was oil, Momgeri said. "There's no oil
Though some tar balls have been found on Mississippi and Alabama
barrier islands, oil from the spill has not significantly fouled
Still, the perception that it has soiled white sands and fishing
areas threatens to cripple the tourist economy, said Linda Hornsby,
executive director of the Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association
"It's not here. It may never be here. It's costing a lot of
money to counter that perception," Hornsby said. "First it was
cancelations, but that evolved to a decrease in calls and there's
no way to measure that."
Yet there was fear the oil would eventually hit the other Gulf
coast states. Hentzel Yucles, of Gulfport, Miss., hung out on the
beach with his wife and sons.
"Katrina was bad. I know this is a different type of situation,
but it's going to affect everybody," he said.