Ships converge to kill Deepwater Horizon oil well

ABOARD THE DISCOVERER ENTERPRISE — For most of three months, this drilling ship was a front-row seat to roaring infernos of petroleum, pillars of smoke that eclipsed the sky and multicolored slicks of crude that drifted across the Gulf of Mexico.

On Saturday, that apocalyptic spectacle was gone, replaced by drama nearly a mile under the Discoverer Enterprise drilling ship. Oil company BP is on the brink of killing its deadly and destructive well blowout with heavy mud and then entombing it under cement.

“It’s fair to say we won’t see any more oil spilling,” said Jason Braquet, manager of the Transocean rig, speaking to a small group of visiting journalists.

It has been 104 days since the Deepwater Horizon rig working for BP was engulfed in an explosion and fire, fueled by a gush of oil and gas the drilling industry was little prepared for. The rig sank April 22 in water 4,992 feet deep, rupturing the plumbing of a newly drilled well that extends 13,293 from the seafloor into a potent reservoir of crude.

Most of BP’s response tactics — including a giant container, “top kill,” “junk shot” and an insertion tube — did little to lessen the gush of oil.

Now the company thinks it has engineered an endgame that within weeks will permanently defeat a blown-out well that could rank ultimately as having caused the Gulf’s and the nation’s most catastrophic spill.

Elation was brief when the well was capped July 15 with a temporary device. Since then, BP and federal authorities have worried the pressure within the well could cause an underground eruption, allowing petroleum to escape uncontrollably through seafloor fissures.

Although contained, the well remains like a bomb, alive and dangerous. Pressure Saturday edged closer to 7,000 pounds per square inch or eight times more than the pressure of steam in a nuclear plant.

A final assault on the damaged well could begin as early as Monday with the “static kill,” a delicate procedure of brute force.

A trio of vessels will pump drilling mud weighing 13.2 pounds per gallon into the well at a pressure slightly higher than the pressure of oil and gas. The initial flow rate will be a relative trickle, about 100 gallons a minute.

In that fashion, the well won’t be beaten to death but nudged to its grave.

As more mud is pumped into the top of the well, it could gain enough weight to counteract the upward pressure of the oil and gas. BP has calculated that enough mud, as much as 85,000 gallons, will bully the petroleum back into its reservoir.

If that happens, the well will be dead. The temporary cap could be removed, and nothing would happen.

But a dead well still needs a burial under many hundreds of barrels of cement pumped beneath the Gulf floor.

BP officials think the static kill has potential to do most of the work of killing and plugging the blowout.

Or it may get very little of either job done. Then it will be up to the relief well to complete the task.

As soon as the static kill is complete, roughnecks on the Development Driller III rig will punch the last 100 feet of hole to enter the bottom of BP’s damaged well. That could happen Aug. 11. What happens after that will resemble static-kill procedures of pumping mud and cement.

When arriving at the heart of the disaster by air, the armada of oil-patch vessels that appears through a helicopter’s window is such a dense gathering of huge vessels it has an unreal quality of a computer-generated image for a movie.

BP calls this section of Gulf the “Macondo” prospect, a name also given to the fictional city in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

But the floating metropolis miles south of Louisiana is real and includes many of the most capable vessels in offshore drilling.

The 835-foot Discoverer Enterprise is on standby should something go terribly wrong. For 40 days, the drilling ship was connected to the well via the “top hat” and collected 600,000 barrels of oil, while burning methane in a thundering, 100-foot flame.

Enterprise has improved equipment to do that again if needed.

“We are set if we have go back and contain that oil,” said Braquet, the rig manager.

Within a mile is the trio of vessels for the static kill. The Q4000, an enormous construction boat, will serve as mother ship. Nearby are the HOS Centerline, a 370-foot petroleum and chemical tanker; and the 300-foot Blue Dolphin, a juggernaut of powerful pumps.

Drilling the relief well is the Development Driller III, which is as massive as the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon resting now in mud a quarter-mile from the wellhead.

A month ago, the vessels were at the center of a galaxy of thousands of crude-oil slicks, snaking outward in shades of brown, red and milky white.

More than 800 skimmer boats are spread across the Gulf but are now having trouble finding oil on the surface. It is sinking into the depths, evaporating under the sun and being eaten by bacteria.

Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said last week that scientists will estimate “how much oil has been skimmed, burned, contained, evaporated and dispersed.”

BP predicted early on that it could take until August to plug the well. But the company also has warned of potential setbacks.

The static-kill operation could rupture the well.

The relief well could fail to hit its target, as one did four times last year in Australian waters. After missing the first three times by 15 feet, 2 feet and 1 foot, the director of the Australian operation said he was pleased to be that close. But that well was horizontal and harder to hit. The BP well is vertical, and parallel to it, 4 feet away, is the relief well in a careful trajectory to an intercept point.

Bill Abel, founder of Abel Engineering &Well Control Co., summarized what other expert observers have been thinking.

“I do believe you can drill these relief wells a lot faster,” Abel said. “I can understand them saying, ‘Let’s go with what works.’ “


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