Gulf Oil Spill: Drilling of Relief Well Still Needed

Tests show that static kill did not permanently stop BP well.

August 13, 2010, 1:00 PM

August 13, 2010 — -- After 116 days, 206 million gallons of leaking oil that harmed wildlife and livelihoods, and 11 attempts to plug BP's broken well head, officials said the well is still not dead and work will continue to drill a relief well.

"Everybody is in agreement we need to proceed with the relief well; the question is how to do that," said retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the Obama Administration's point man for the government's spill response.

Allen met with local parish leaders and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal today.

Jindal said he was glad the relief well would proceed, so long as there is no risk of damaging the temporary plug that's so far choked off the flow of crude.

"If it's a nearly redundant safety measure, that makes sense to us," said Jindal.

The well is technically dead but it may have some venom left. A pocket of 42,000 gallons of oil may be trapped between the inner piping of the well and its outer casing.

Mike Utsler, BP's new point man in the Gulf, said the trapped oil could stall efforts to remove the blowout preventer, that 50-foot-tall stack of valves that failed to close at the first sign of the leak.

The Department of the Interior plans to raise the blowout preventer to the surface in hopes of discovering exactly what went wrong and who's to blame.

Watch 'World News with Diane Sawyer' for the latest on the oil spill tonight on ABC.

Yesterday, scientists and BP thought the drilling of the relief well might no longer be necessary because there were indications that the so-called static kill, completed a little over a week ago, had successfully plugged the well.

Last month, engineers placed a temporary cap on the broken well head, essentially stopping the oil that had been leaking since the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion on April 20 that killed 11 workers. The "static kill" pumped heavy drilling mud and cement from above the well.

Engineers said there are indications that during the static kill, some of the cement may have gone down into the reservoir of oil, come back up and plugged the space between the inner piping and outer casing, essentially what the bottom kill will do. Test results were inconclusive in proving that the static kill permanently dead.

Allen said that test results of the pressure beneath the cement plug currently in place showed that pressure rose during testing.

Steady pressure would have indicated the presence of cement in the space between the inner piping and outer casing, meaning that the well is permanently sealed. Since pressure rose during the testing, the scientists concluded that drilling of the relief well must continue.

Relief Well Halted By Bad Weather

For months, officials have said that the only way to permanently plug the well would be by drilling an 18,000-foot relief well that would perform a "bottom kill," pumping drilling mud and cement into the tubing below the leak. The relief well is meant either to stop the oil that the static kill missed, or to make sure that the well is permanently plugged.

Work on the relief well and a backup well was stopped earlier this week because of bad weather.

Drilling of the first relief well began in early May. Now the drill bit is within 30 to 50 feet of the target. The drill is about as wide as a grapefuit and its target is less than half the diameter of a dartboard.

"Nobody in BP would be more delighted to demonstrate they can drill down over 17,000 feet below sea level and hit a seven-inch pipe," Allen said.

The continuation of the relief well, still anticipated to be five to seven days away at the earliest, depends on weather. Allen will issue the directive to start drilling the relief wells again when the conditions are right.

"The relief well will be finished," Allen said. "We will kill this well."

Spill's Impact On Birds Spikes

Meanwhile, scientists are still uncovering more evidence of the spill's impact. The number of dead birds spiked 30 percent over the last ten days, bringing the total to 4,080 dead birds and 1,901 birds found oiled but alive.

When ABC News motored into the bays of southern Louisiana, where shrimping season opens Monday, crabs, some dead, some alive, scurried through a river of sludge. A trip to the marshes three months after persistent cleaning shows the same result every time: oil

Four hundred miles away from these marshes, the Obama family will spend the weekend in Panama City, Florida, hoping to send a message that Gulf beaches are safe for family vacations.

Panama City Beach may be clear of oil, but not the rest of the gulf.

"If you take a kid to dig a hole in the beach to try to build a sand castly, then they're going to dig the oil out," said Ping Wang, an oceanographer at the University of South Florida.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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