McAuley’s World Comments in Bold Blue
Rigs, ships moving away from Gulf oil spill site as Tropical Storm Bonnie approaches
With Tropical Storm Bonnie heading into the Gulf of Mexico and expected to kick up high waves and winds near the Deepwater Horizon oil spill site this weekend, crews on Thursday began disconnecting the rigs drilling two relief wells in the Gulf, effectively delaying the effort to permanently plug the blown-out Macondo well by nearly two weeks. Late Thursday, the federal government ordered dozens of ships to evacuate the spill site.
BP and government officials also said Thursday that the cap now sealing the well and preventing oil from flowing into the sea will remain in place during a storm evacuation.
“Due to the risk that Tropical Storm Bonnie poses to the safety of the nearly 2,000 people responding to the BP oil spill at the well site, many of the vessels and rigs will be preparing to move out of harm’s way beginning tonight,” National Incident Commander Thad Allen said Thursday evening. “This includes the rig drilling the relief well that will ultimately kill the well, as well as other vessels needed for containment. Some of the vessels may be able to remain on site, but we will err on the side of safety. ”
Allen said BP will continue with the well shut-in procedure while the work to kill the well is temporarily suspended. “I have also directed BP to take measures to ensure the vessels operating the ROVs are the last to leave, and the first to return in order to maximize monitoring of the well,” Allen said. “Monitoring of the site during the well integrity test remains one of the government’s highest priorities. ”
Allen acknowledged that these actions will delay the effort to kill the well for several days, but he said “the safety of the individuals at the well site is our highest concern. We are staging our skimming vessels and other assets in a manner that will allow us to promptly restart oil mitigation efforts as soon as the storm passes and we can ensure the safety of our personnel,”
The National Hurricane Center named Tropical Storm Bonnie on Thursday about 5:15 p.m. after an Air Force reconnaissance plane recorded surface winds of 40 mph near the Bahamas. It is the second named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season.
Tropical storm force winds and seas of up to 8 feet are forecast over Gulf waters, including the site of the Deepwater Horizon blowout, by Saturday, according to the Slidell office of the National Weather Service. Tides along Louisiana’s coast could increase by 2 to 3 feet above predicted levels because of strong easterly and southeasterly winds, and rainfall could total 2 to 4 inches, with some isolated higher amounts possible through Monday. The chance of rain in New Orleans will rise to 40 percent on Saturday and 60 percent by Sunday.
Relief well drilling halts
Although it had yet to reach the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday night, the storm had already affected all facets of the oil spill response effort.
BP temporarily suspended work on its primary relief well Wednesday morning by plugging it with a stopper. On Thursday night, the company said it will disconnect the rigs from the well and move them out of the way of the storm, though they will remain in the Gulf.
BP is drilling two relief wells in the Gulf, a primary and a backup. The primary well had been expected to intercept the Macondo well at the end of this month, pumping it with heavy mud and cement to seal it shut. But because of the storm, drilling is not expected to resume for eight to 10 days, the time it will take for the weather to clear and the drilling rigs to move back on site and be reconnected. [Thank God, the well is capped or this storm would mean 10 days of uninterupted oil flow into the Gulf]
That pushes back the planned interception of the Macondo well by nearly two weeks to mid-August. It could take anywhere from days to a few weeks to fill the well with mud and seal it after it is intercepted.
The two vessels drilling the relief well are the first to be removed because they take the longest to disconnect and move the most slowly. Other vessels, including the Q4000 and the Helix Producer, require shorter amounts of time to disconnect.
After the rigs are reconnected to the relief wells and the primary well is lined with casing — one of the final steps before the wells intercept — BP will likely attempt a “static kill” of the Macondo well, Wells said. The procedure, which involves pumping heavy mud into the well at low pressure and rates of speed until it pushes oil back into the reservoir, has received preliminary approval from Allen, Wells said. Were it not for weather, the maneuver could have been tried this weekend. BP will seek Allen’s approval again before executing the kill, Wells said.
Cap will stay in place
In a bit of bright news, BP and government officials also said Thursday that they will leave the well capped, even if a storm forces all of the vessels monitoring the cap out of the way. The well has been capped for just more than a week as BP crews and scientists study the pressure inside to determine whether the well has integrity, meaning it is intact, or whether there are holes somewhere beneath the seafloor where oil is escaping. Pressure inside the well was at 6,863 pounds per square inch and still slowly climbing Thursday afternoon.
Before it was capped last week, the well had been gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico for nearly three months, since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank 50 miles off the Louisiana April 20. Eleven people died in the accident.
Officials had been weighing whether the well could remain shut if the site was evacuated for a storm, because there would be little in the way of surveillance at the site to notify officials if something went awry. [and just why would you “remove” the cap and let oil flow into the Gulf unchecked, to prevent the cap from “leaking” … these peopel have no idea what they are talking about… ]
But Allen said scientists studying pressure readings and seismic and sonar indicators at the site now feel comfortable leaving it shut in.
“We have determined that if we have to leave the site we are prepared to leave the well capped,” Allen said. The decision came on the recommendation of Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Allen said.
If an evacuation were necessary, the last vessels to leave would be the ones operating the vehicles that are monitoring the well and conducting surveillance in search of oil leaks subsurface.
Wells said scientists are also looking at ways of recording data from the site if the remote operated vehicles are evacuated.
The storm is also impacting oil response efforts on the surface and shore. Surplus response equipment, including boom, that had been staged in low-lying areas is being trucked to staging facilities on higher ground, said Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft, who is leading the surface response. The equipment can be returned in six to eight hours, Zukunft said. Boom was also being removed Thursday from marsh areas where oil is not threatening the shore to prevent damage from heavy equipment.
Meanwhile, more than 1,000 vessels that had been operating in the Gulf in various capacities, including as skimmers or as vessels of opportunity working to place boom, have been decontaminated and brought to shore in advance of the approaching storm.
“They’re being put in a position where they would be ready to respond if weather improves,” Zukunft said.
So far, there are no signs that suggest workers will need to be evacuated, Zukunft said. But if that changes, they will be evacuated before an official order for evacuation is made by various parish presidents so as not to impede the evacuation process of coastal residents.
Bonnie was predicted to make landfall near Morgan City on Sunday about 2 p.m., with the potential error bubble stretching from an area west of Galveston, Texas, to Mobile, Ala., according to a forecast released by the National Hurricane Center late Thursday afternoon.