Relief well may be delayed

NEW ORLEANS - Just as things were beginning to look up for the relief well, tropical weather may force the relief well to be delayed.

The federal government’s spill chief said a relief tunnel should finally reach BP’s broken well by the weekend, three months into the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster. But rain storms moving toward the Gulf Wednesday are now threatening to halt undersea efforts to seal the ruptured well.

The relief would have meant the gusher could be stopped for good within the next two weeks. Now, according to retired U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, an evacuation could delay operations as much as two weeks before work would resume to kill the well at the bottom.

Allen said tropical weather could force crews on the water to abandon their watch over the experimental cap that’s been bottling oil a mile below the surface of the water for nearly a week.

Scientists have been closely watching to determine if the cap is displacing pressure and causing leaks underground. If the cap cannot be observed because of bad weather, Allen says they may decide to reopen the cap to avoid missing signs the well is buckling. The weather could force observers out of the region for up to four days.

The well’s stability has been cause for concern, but a leaky cap has kept the oil mostly bottled up for the past several days. Allen said Tuesday that engineers had concluded the likelihood of a bigger blowout was minimal. He added that engineers were getting closer to pumping mud into the column to permanently seal it.

It could take several days to evacuate ships from the well site, which lies 50 miles off of Louisiana’s coast. And Shell has already begun evacuating personnel not essential to producing and drilling on their operations in the Gulf.

Allen says BP and government scientists were meeting to discuss whether the cap could be monitored from the shore. According to Allen, this will be a judgment call.

Originally, Allen wanted to relieve the pressure by opening up the cap and siphoning oil up to ships on the surface. However, they have backed off that idea over the past few days. Now BP wants to leave the cap on as they finish working on the relief well. If BP had continued with their original plan, opening the cap would have required allowing millions of gallons oil to escape into the sea again for a few days while plumbing was hooked up.

Fears were also briefly raised when seepage was detected from the sea floor. They feared that the well was in danger, but Allen says that another well is to blame. The seepage is closer to the older well than to the one that blew out, he explained.

Within two miles of BP’s Deepwater Horizon, there are two wells. One of the wells is abandon and the other is not in production. According to an Associated Press investigation this month, about 27,000 abandoned wells in the Gulf are not checked for leaks.

Crews, before the weather talk began, were getting closer and closer to readying a relief tunnel, drilling sideways into the blown-out well and intercept it by the end of July, said BP vice president Kent Wells. The relief well is necessary for the well to be plugged permanently.

Once the relief well is drilled into the blown-out well, crews can and will begin the kill procedure, which means pumping mud and cement into a hole a mile underwater to seal the Deepwater Horizon well. This process could take BP anywhere from five days to a couple of weeks. Engineers had also begun considering using the temporary cap to increase the chances that the attempt to kill the well succeeds. If they choose to go the surface kill route, they would shoot drilling mud down through the cap.

The storm system is likely to move into the Gulf over the weekend, although it does appear to be weakening, according to forecasters. Right now, they have the system at a 60 percent chance of becoming a tropical depression or storm within the next 48 hours.

The BP-leased rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers and led to one of America’s worst environmental crises. The well, to date, has spewed somewhere between 94 million and 184 million gallons into the Gulf and BP’s cost of dealing with the spill has now reached nearly $4 billion.

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