STEVE INSKEEP, host:
You know, the best chance for BP to stop the gusher in the Gulf is still a pair of relief wells being slowly drilled now. They're meant to tap into the existing well pipe and plug it with cement.
But back in March, less than a month before this blowout, BP told government regulators in Canada that relief wells are not really necessary - not with all the technology and sophistication of modern drilling rigs.
NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY: A relief well is the oil industry's gold standard for killing a blowout. Here's BP spokesman Jason French speaking with reporters, recently, out on the Gulf.
Mr. JASON FRENCH (Spokesman, BP America, Inc.): This is the long-term, you know, definite solution to closing off this well. We're applying all the necessary resources, from a personnel standpoint, from an equipment standpoint.
OVERBY: But they can't drill a relief well overnight, or even over several nights. French said the first relief well got started two weeks after the April 20th blowout on the Deepwater Horizon; the second one, two weeks after that. And then the drilling rigs need more time.
Mr. FRENCH: Ninety to 120 days.
OVERBY: That's an additional three to four months of drilling down to reach the damaged well pipe - months of gushing oil that BP never contemplated in the exploration plan that it submitted to the federal Minerals Management Service. All the plan did was affirm that BP could pay for a relief well. The MMS okayed the plan in April 2009.
And earlier this year, BP told regulators in Canada that they should repeal their policy on relief wells. Canada's policy dates from the 1970s, it applies to the Beaufort Sea up at the top of northwest territories and the Yukon next to Alaska, up where the drilling season is cut short by ice. The policy isn't even all that strict.
Bharat Dixit is the leader of the conservation-of-resources team at Canada's National Energy Board.
Mr. BHARAT DIXIT (Conservation-of-Resources Team, Canada National Energy Board): 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.
OVERBY: This is called same season relief well capability. A company doesn't 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 is not necessary.
Again, Bharat Dixit.
Mr. DIXIT: I think what operators are proposing is that their methodologies, their additional training, their new tools provide for a similar degree of comfort.
OVERBY: BP told the energy board 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. And it called relief wells a, quote, "after-the-fact tactic."
Instead, BP emphasized preventive technology and practices, many of which have now been called into question due to the catastrophe in the Gulf.
Most notably, BP says it has a rigid policy requirement, always to use two barriers to hold down the surging oil and gas in a well. First, heavy drilling mud in the pipe, and second, a blowout preventer at the wellhead.
On the Deepwater Horizon, the drilling mud was intentionally removed and then the blowout preventer failed.
Dixit says that accident will completely 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.
And down in the Gulf, anxiety continues to rise as BP's relief wells are months away and other fixes have failed.
Rick Steiner is a marine conservation consultant. He is also a board member of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a group that's highly critical of the way Washington oversees oil drilling on federal property offshore.
Mr. RICK STEINER (Marine Conservation Consultant, Board Member, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility): Let's just imagine if the Deepwater Horizon was drilling their exploratory well, and a mile away, the development driller three, which is now drilling the relief well, let's just say it was drilling alongside and then the Deepwater Horizon blew out, they would have been weeks away from the kill of the well blowout, rather than months.
OVERBY: Instead, the relief wells should be finished in August, if all goes as planned.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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