Oil giant BP has started sawing through the bent pipe that sits atop the Deepwater Horizon well spewing oil and gas at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said Tuesday.
The move is a key step in the latest effort to capture the oil and gas leaking into the Gulf.
Allen, the national incident commander, made it clear that other BP ideas to plug the well — including another blowout preventer that could be put atop the broken one and a valve that could be installed there — are off the table.
"I think the first thing to understand is we're not talking about capping the well anymore," he said. "We're talking about containing the well."
That involves capturing the oil and gas that comes out of the well and piping it to the surface. Capping the well from above is too risky. It turns out that the well pipe under the seabed is possibly in much worse shape than BP realized before it tried the ultimately unsuccessful top kill maneuver.
"We don't want to restrict the flow and put pressure down that well bore, because I don't think we know the condition of it given the results of the top kill data we got back," Allen said.
Plugging the well at the top could end up forcing oil and gas out the sides of the well and into the ocean, which would be much harder to deal with than a gushing pipe. So, the plan is to capture the oil from the pipe.
To do that, BP is first going to chop off the bent pipe at the top of the well, coming out of the blowout preventer. That will actually increase the flow of oil — BP says by 10 percent; Allen says quite possibly by more.
"We could see, during that period before the cap goes on, a 20 percent increase in oil flow," Allen said. "And we have discussed with ... [BP] mitigating measures regarding undersea dispersant used and so forth, as we move forward to try mitigate the impacts."
That could spew for 24 to 36 hours or longer, but at some point BP plans to lower a gadget over the freshly cut pipe to capture the flow and convey it to the surface. Allen says they have two connecting devices to choose from, depending on how clean the pipe cut turns out to be: One has a rubber seal; the other one a loose fit.
"I don't want to trivialize it, but it's kind of like the difference between having a garden hose with a rubber gasket in it or not," Allen said.
The well will flow until at least August, which is when BP hopes to pump cement into the bottom of it from a second well. As a result, BP is now working on a plan so its oil-capture system will work regardless of the weather, which could be a challenge in the form of the hurricane season that started Tuesday.