Energy giant BP told Canadian regulators that relief wells are an "after-the-fact tactic" in controlling oil well blowouts in March, less than a month before the catastrophic spill in the Gulf of Mexico -- which the company hopes to stop by drilling two relief wells.
A relief well is the oil industry's gold standard for killing a blowout. In the Gulf, BP's drillers are guiding the two wells to intersect the 7-inch well pipe of the uncontrolled well; the pipe could then be plugged with cement.
"This is the long-term definite solution to closing off this well," BP spokesman Jason French told reporters last month. "We're applying all the necessary resources, from a personnel standpoint, from the equipment standpoint."
But the first rig wasn't able to set its drill bit into the mud until 13 days after the April 20 blowout on the Deepwater Horizon; the second rig, 28 days after the accident. French said it would take an additional 90 to 120 days to reach the damaged well pipe.
That means months of gushing oil that BP never contemplated in the exploration plan that it submitted to the federal Minerals Management Service. The plan merely affirmed that BP could pay for a relief well. MMS approved the plan in April 2009.
The Canadian Policy
Yet earlier this year, BP told the Canada's National Energy Board, which regulates offshore oil drilling in the country, that it should repeal a 34-year-old policy on relief wells. The company said relief wells can be superseded by the technology and sophistication of modern drilling rigs.
The policy applies to the Beaufort Sea, stretching across the top of the Northwest Territories and the Yukon next to Alaska. The drilling season there is cut short by ice. The policy isn't even all that strict.
"An operator needs to demonstrate that there is a viable system that can be deployed to drill a well, a relief well, in the same season as the original well, should the original well go out of control," said Bharat Dixit, leader of the NEB conservation-of-resources team.
In fact, the policy is called "same-season relief well capability," making clear that a company doesn't actually have to drill the relief well unless there's a blowout; it just has to be prepared.
As recently as March, the oil industry said even that isn't necessary.
"What operators are proposing is that their methodologies, their additional training, their new tools provide for a similar degree of comfort," Dixit said.
In its submission to the energy board, dated March 22, BP said that if one of the Beaufort wells went out of control, there probably wouldn't be enough time to drill a relief well before the ice came in. It called relief wells an "after-the-fact tactic."
Questions After Gulf Disaster
Instead, BP emphasized preventive technology and practices, many of which have now been called into question because of the catastrophe in the Gulf.
Most notably, the company said it has a "rigid policy requirement," calling for two barriers to hold down the surging oil and gas in a well: heavy drilling mud in the pipe, and a blowout preventer at the wellhead.
The drilling mud was intentionally removed on the Deepwater Horizon rig before a cement plug was installed. The blowout preventer then failed.
Dixit says the incident will change the National Energy Board's approach to the same-season relief well question.
A spokeswoman for BP Canada didn't respond to an interview request.
Meanwhile, in the Gulf, anxiety continues to rise as BP's relief wells are months away and other fixes have failed.
Marine conservation consultant Rick Steiner, a board member of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility -- which is critical of the way Washington oversees oil drilling on federal property offshore -- argues that relief wells should be drilled simultaneously with production wells.
If that had happened, he says, the situation would be different now.
"They would've been weeks away from a kill of the well blowout, rather than months," Steiner says.
Instead, the relief wells should be finished in August, if all goes as planned.