GULF OF MEXICO — The oil that poured into the Gulf for more than 12 weeks has been forced back underground and BP engineers expect to spend this week drilling the final leg of a relief well to complete the “bottom kill” designed to permanently seal the leaking well.
BP and the government have said for months that intersecting the blown-out well and shoving more mud and cement into it is the ultimate solution to making sure it never spews crude into the ocean again.
The oil is already back at its source, thanks to the “static kill,” which involved thousands of gallons of mud and cement being poured last week through a cap that had been keeping the crude out of the water since July 15. The cement cap poured on top of the oil hardened enough over the weekend so engineers could begin digging the final 100 feet of the well again, according to a news release from the company.
Before the weekend began, BP senior vice president Kent Wells said he expected drilling to resume last night, but the company didn’t verify if that had happened.
No one at BP or with the government has been willing to declare victory over the spill before the relief well is finished, but retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government’s point man overseeing the cleanup operation, said there is virtually no chance the oil will leak again.
An estimated 207 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded off Louisiana April 20. The explosion killed 11 workers and sent crude into delicate coastal marshes and tar balls washing on to beaches.
BP’s cost to respond to the spill has risen to $6.1 billion, the company said in a news release today.
With the oil stopped, attention this week turns to the so-called “bottom kill.” Once the wells intersect, engineers will pump more mud and cement into the busted well to completely seal it.
Workers will drill the relief well 20 to 30 feet at a time, then pause to make sure it is still lined up properly and everything is OK with the capped well.
BP and the federal government didn’t appear to be on the same page for part of last week after the oil giant suggested it might use the relief well for something other than the bottom kill.
“I wouldn’t put it government versus BP,” Wells said Wednesday. “This is just about some really smart people debating about what’s the best way to do things.”
But Allen told CBS’ “Face the Nation” he went directly to BP’s incoming CEO to tell him there was only one option.
“I’ve discussed this with Bob Dudley,” Allen said yesterday. “The relief well will finish.”
One factor that could complicate drilling and cleanup work this week is a cluster of storms off the eastern coast of Florida expected to move across the state and along the northern Gulf.
The National Weather Service only gives it a slim chance to develop into a tropical storm in the next few days, but it should still bring a greater chance of heavy rain and thunderstorms by Wednesday. And if it does develop further, gusty winds and choppy seas could follow, said Tim Destri, a senior meteorologist with the weather service’s New Orleans office.
Along the Gulf Coast, life is different. In tiny Theriot, La., the bayou-country, pre-shrimp season tradition known as the “Blessing of the Boats” went on with barbecued chicken, smoked sausage and potato salad instead of the usual shrimp and crab.
Louisiana has set Aug. 16 as the opening for a fall shrimp season along the coast, but some waters will likely remain closed as federal authorities test the safety of the seafood.
“I got a boat that’s ready,” said Ravin Lacoste, 57. “But we don’t know what’s going to open up.”
And even though the flow of oil has stopped, Allen told CNN’s “State of the Union” the response to the spill will continue for a long time.
“It’s still an environmental disaster and if folks haven’t come back to the Panhandle of Florida, it’s still a disaster,” he said. “I think what we need to understand is there’s a lot of oil that’s been taken care of, there’s a lot of oil that’s still out there. There’s a lot of shoreline that needs to be cleaned.”