A work boat (left) operates Tuesday near the Helix Producer (right) as it burns off excess natural gas in the area of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
A work boat (left) operates Tuesday near the Helix Producer (right) as it burns off excess natural gas in the area of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Dave Martin/AP
BP has started testing a cap designed to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico for the first time in almost three months.
Kent Wells, a senior vice president in the company, said at a Wednesday news briefing that the valve on the top portion of the cap was shut, meaning the oil had stopped pouring out from there. It was working to shut off the other two valves to completely close the oil in.
The federal government had ordered the testing held up until BP could answer questions about whether the work could further damage the leaking well, but at a news conferece Wednesday national incident commander Thad Allen said that testing will go ahead.
BP says the testing will take up to 48 hours before it knows whether the cap works as planned.
Earlier Wednesday, BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles told The Associated Press he did not know whether the company would get approval to go ahead with the cap test — intended to see whether the well that extends 13,000 feet below the seafloor is in good enough shape to be sealed off.
He said the government wants to verify that the leaking well's cement casing would remain intact, and that the company is awaiting the outcome of a Wednesday afternoon meeting between BP and federal officials.
The test involves gradually closing off a series of valves on the temporary cap while carefully monitoring pressure readings in the well to make sure it's safe to continue. There's a slight chance that allowing pressure to build up in the well could increase damage below the seabed and complicate efforts to put a cement plug in the well.
BP was on the verge of running the test late Tuesday, a company official told NPR. But at around midnight, retired Allen announced that it would be suspended pending further study. Hours later, BP said it had temporarily halted drilling on a nearly complete relief well as a precaution.
Oil emerges from the damaged wellhead Tuesday morning in the Gulf of Mexico.
Oil emerges from the damaged wellhead Tuesday morning in the Gulf of Mexico. BP PLC/AP
Engineers had compiled an extensive seismic survey in preparation for the test to determine the state of the undersea rock and spot potential dangers, such as gas pockets, that could threaten the well's integrity under pressure.
Allen said he then met with Energy Secretary Steven Chu, U.S. Geological Survey chief Marcia McNutt and BP officials to discuss the seismic data and decided that "the process may benefit from additional analysis."
Engineers will now be looking for high-pressure readings of 8,000 to 9,000 pounds per square inch. Any result lower than 6,000 might indicate previously unidentified leaks in the well.
The cap, if it works, will enable BP to stop the oil from gushing into the sea, either by holding all the oil inside the well. If experts determine the pressure would be too great, the cap would be used to channel some of the crude though pipes to collection ships.
BP is ramping up an additional system to collect oil from the blown-out well. A ship called the Helix Producer has been processing some oil and eventually could handle 20,000 to 25,000 barrels a day. A second ship is burning off an additional 8,000 barrels a day.
The cap is only temporary while two relief wells are completed, possibly by late July. The permanent fix would involve infusing heavy drilling mud and cement down one or both of the relief wells to choke off the flow.
Along the Gulf Coast, where the spill has heavily damaged the region's vital tourism and fishing industries, people anxiously awaited the outcome of the painstakingly slow work.
"I don't know what's taking them so long. I just hope they take care of it," said Lanette Eder, a vacationing school nutritionist from Hoschton, Ga., who was walking on the white sand at Pensacola Beach, Fla.
"I can't say that I'm optimistic — it's been, what, 84 days now? — but I'm hopeful," said Nancy LaNasa, 56, who runs a yoga center in Pensacola.