BP oil spill: new cap ‘successfully installed’ on leaking well

BP to begin tests to close valves on new containment cap, amid hopes of a turning point in efforts to stop deep-sea gusher

BP gulf oil spill capGulf of Mexico oil leak: the old cap on the wellhead was not stopping all the oil from flowing into the sea. Photograph: AP

BP has installed a larger, tighter-fitting containment cap on the ruptured Gulf of Mexico wellhead that has been gushing with oil since theDeepwater Horizon explosion on 20 April, raising hopes of limiting damage during the looming hurricane season.

Crude oil continues to spill into the sea, but the company will begin testing the new cap’s internal pressure this morning by closing its valves. It hopes to stop the flow until more permanent measures can be taken.

"It is expected, though cannot be assured, that no oil will be released to the ocean for the duration of the test," BP said. "This will not, however, be an indication that flow from the wellbore has been permanently stopped."

Work on installing the cap using robots a mile below the surface of the sea was successfully completed last night as efforts intensified to capture all the oil that has spilled out since the explosion that killed 11 people on 20 April.

The tests on the internal pressure in the well will take between six and 48 hours to establish whether the flow has been stopped or leaks remain elsewhere. The developments may mark a turning point in efforts to stop the flow until more permanent measures, including the drilling of two relief wells, can be completed by the middle of next month.

BP said this was the first time a sealing system of this type had been deployed at such depths or under such conditions.

It replaces a previous cap, fitted last month, which managed to contain only about half the escaping oil. Estimates put this at between 35,000-60,000 barrels a day. The new cap, it is hoped, will be able to siphon the entire flow for collection on the surface.

Former US coastguard Admiral Thad Allen, who is overseeing the US government response, said measurements during the test would provide valuable information about the condition of the well below sea-level. "[This] will help determine whether or not it is possible to shut the well for a period of time, such as during a hurricane or bad weather, between now and when the relief wells are complete," he added.

Allen said the tests could continue for more than two days if necessary, but that the government would stop "if the risks of doing further damage to the surrounding formation are significant".

The news comes as BP says the cost of clearing up the environmental and economic disaster in the Gulf and on its damaged shoreline has reached $3.5bn (£2.33bn).

There is also a growing public row over Barack Obama’s efforts to stop new drilling projects in the Gulf. His administration has outlined a more limited ban following the anger at the president’s attempts to implement a six-month moratorium. A federal court in Louisiana had struck down earlier proposals saying they were too broad.

The new cap-and-seal stack is larger than the previous one and is bolted over the top of the wellhead rather than clamped loosely over it. Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer of exploration and production, suggested the cap might be used to keep the well closed for a longer stretch. "Depending on the results, we’ll either continue to contain the flow while we wait on the relief well or potentially be able to close the flow in," he said.

For the duration of the tests, the two underwater oil-siphoning systems, one of them just brought online on Monday, will be turned off, BP said.

Suttles said that even if the cap could shut off the flow, BP must still finish the relief well at an even greater depth so it can pump heavy drilling fluid and then cement to permanently plug the leak. Yesterday the first of two relief wells, begun on 2 May, was about 190ft (58m) from intersecting the blown-out well 13,000ft beneath the seabed, Suttles said. The relief well could reach its target by the end of this month, BP said, keeping it on schedule to actually kill the leak by mid-August.

If the relief wells fail, BP could install a new permanent oil-capture system by late August or early September, Kent Wells, senior vice president of exploration and production, told Obama’s commission investigating the spill.


BP oil spill: Barack Obama’s investigation hears of ‘friction’

• Commission told Transocean should have shut well
• Inquiry on rig blast starts with effects of disaster

Deepwater Horizon

Boats tackle the blaze on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded in April. Photograph: KPA/Zuma/Rex Features

A commission appointed by Barack Obama to uncover the cause of America’s worst environmental disaster turned its sights today on the clash of wills between BP and the operator of the doomed Deepwater Horizon rig.

In the high-stakes world of offshore drilling, there was in-built conflict between oil companies, such as BP, and rig operators, such as Transocean, the commission was told on the opening day of public hearings at a New Orleans hotel.

"There is natural friction between safety and caution and meeting schedules," said Larry Dickerson, who is the chief executive of Diamond Offshore Drilling, Transocean’s main rival. "Our customers push us."

But he said the rig operator – in this case, Transocean – should have exercised its power to shut down BP’s well operation before the blowout. "The drill company is sitting there with its hands on the brake," he said. "They have the responsibility to do that."

With the spill entering its 13th week, BP said it had successfully fitted a tighter cap over the well, a step towards a containment system that could potentially trap all the leaking oil.

The oil company will test the cap and pressures in the well for much of Tuesday, before determining whether it can begin capturing more oil.

Kent Wells, a senior vice-president for BP America, told the hearing it would take two or three days to determine the effectiveness of the seal.

Bob Graham, the former Democratic senator who is co-chair of the commission, opened the hearings by promising to press hard to shed light on oil industry safety practices as well as government oversight. "Was the Deepwater Horizon an oil rig that operated outside the normal standards of safety, or was it representative of other rigs?" he said.

The commission was almost swept off course by the controversy over Obama’s efforts to put a stop to new drilling projects in the Gulf. Many are furious at Obama for seeking a six-month ban on new deepwater drilling. The administration issued a new, more limited ban today.

Members of Congress and oil executives argued that the administration had gone too far in restricting drilling, and that the catastrophe in the Gulf was a one-off caused by BP’s recklessness. "The Macondo well was a highly unstable and volatile well even before the blow-out," said Steve Scalise, a Republican member of Congress.

However, Cynthia Sarthou of the Gulf Restoration Network noted that Chevron and Exxon had a similar history of safety violations, and Chevron had been fined more than $1.2m in the last 10 years

The commission has until 15 December to produce a definitive account of the causes for the explosion, and offer recommendations to prevent a repeat.

Graham said he would not be satisfied with a nuts-and-bolts explanation. "There is almost a cultural issue in the industry and in the government agencies responsible for monitoring industry," he said.

William Reilly, the commission’s other chairman, who was head of the Environmental Protection Agency when the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground in Alaska 20 years ago, also promised a far-ranging investigation. "We will follow the facts wherever they lead and determine the cause and the root cause of the event."

Other commission members said today the team had deliberately opted for a softly-softly launch to the investigation, hoping to draw attention to the economic and environmental consequences of the spill.

That approach won over some locals. Sal Sunseri, owner of a century-old oyster firm, appeared at the commission to say his business was facing ruin. "What I am focused on is capping the well … cleaning it up," he said. Determining the causes of the explosion came second.

But members of the public were not so easily satisfied. At the end of the day, dozens lined up to demand BP pay up for business losses, a sweeping ban on oil exploration, and for the governent to undertake largescale restoration projects.

Drew Landry, a fishermen who said he had been turned away when he volunteered to help with the clean-up, brought a guitar to sing a song he wrote about the spill.