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Officials still unsure when relief well will be ready

GULF OF MEXICO — A relief well being drilled deep into the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico to shut down the gushing well could be completed ahead of a long-set deadline of mid-August only if conditions are ideal, according to government and BP officials.

The relief well is currently the best hope for stanching the oil leak set off by the April 20 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which killed 11 workers and began an environmental catastrophe for the region.

National Incident Commander and retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said yesterday that the relief well is expected to intercept and penetrate the Deepwater Horizon well pipe about 18,000 feet below sea level within seven to 10 days.

But they won’t know how long it will take to stop the oil until they get there. The gushing well has several concentric rings, and oil could be coming up through multiple rings, Allen said.

The plan is to pump heavy mud and then cement into the well to overcome the upward pressure of the huge oil reservoir below.

If the oil is coming through the outer ring of the well, then they will have to pump in mud and cement to stop that layer first. Then they would have to drill through the hardened cement and repeat the process in each ring until they reach the center pipe and do it again.

That scenario would push into the middle of August, which is the timeline the company and government officials have held to for weeks, despite repeated reports that the drilling was ahead of schedule and the oil could be stopped as soon as late July.

“If you have to exhaust all means for the ways that hydrocarbons are coming up the pipe, then that puts you into middle August,” Allen said.

If the oil is only coming up the center pipe, then it’s possible to stop the leak sooner.

“We’re a bit ahead of schedule, but it just takes one storm to change that,” BP spokesman Scott Dean said.

Though workers are getting “tantalizingly close to the well,” they are also entering a delicate part of the operation that requires slow, methodical action, Dean said. That’s why the company is sticking with mid-August.

Shaving even days off timeline would stop millions of gallons of oil from escaping into the Gulf. The broken well has spewed between 86 and 169 million gallons of oil, according to federal estimates. That’s enough oil to fill about 3.4 million standard bathtubs.

Allen declined to comment about BP’s internal workings when asked whether speculation about a July goal could be tied to the release of the British oil giant’s second-quarter earnings on July 27. Company managing director Robert Dudley told the Wall Street Journal yesterday that a “perfect case” would have the oil well capped between July 20 and July 27, though he said it was unlikely.

The company’s stock is closing in on a second straight weekly gain as the relief wells get closer to the gusher and the company has taken steps to reassure business partners in the Middle East and Russia that it remains a viable company.

“My board of directors is the American people,” Allen said.

Even if everything goes well deep below the seafloor, the weather will have to cooperate. Lingering tropical weather that began last week with the faraway Hurricane Alex halted offshore skimming operations and caused high seas that have delayed the hookup of a third vessel expected to suck oil from the gushing well head.

Another tropical depression formed in the Gulf Wednesday and was closely following the path of Alex to the coast at the border of Texas and Mexico. It was expected to have little effect on the eastern Gulf.

Improved weather was forecast this weekend before more rough weather comes, offering a precious window to speed up efforts to capture more leaking oil.

That could help crews at sea attempting to hook up a third containment vessel to collect oil from the gushing well head at the seafloor. Hooking up the Helix Producer to a cap over the well head could double the capacity of oil being collected.

Allen also said yesterday morning that he has asked BP to respond within 24 hours with detailed plans to place a new containment cap to place over the well head. The current cap is flexible, allowing some oil to escape.

In theory, the new cap should collect most of the gushing oil to be sent to the surface ships for removal or burning. But switching to the new cap would temporarily allow more oil to escape.

Another hope for collecting oil from the surface will be tested more this week: The “A Whale,” a giant skimmer converted from an oil tanker, is supposed to be able to clean more than 21 million gallons of oily water a day.

But tests last weekend were inconclusive because of choppy seas and Allen said yesterday that he doubts its effectiveness scooping up numerous smaller slicks.


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