WITH a tight cap freshly installed on its leaking well in the Gulf of Mexico, BP planned gradual tests starting last night to see if the device can stop oil from pouring into the sea for the first time in nearly three months.
The cap would be just a temporary solution, but it offers the best hope yet for cutting off the crude that has fouled the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon rig leased by BP exploded April 20, killing 11 workers. Engineers were to shut down slowly three valves that let oil flow through the 75-ton capping device to see if it can withstand the pressure of the erupting crude and to watch if leaks spring up elsewhere in the well. National Incident Commander Thad Allen said the process of closing the valves, one by one, would start later last night.
If pressure inside the cap stays in a target range for roughly six hours after the valves are closed, there will be more confidence that the cap can contain the oil, Allen told a news briefing at BP’s US headquarters in Houston. That target range is 8,000 to 9,000 pounds per square inch, he said. Anything lower could indicate another leak in the well.
Allen and BP officials repeatedly cautioned that there are no guarantees about the delicate work a mile below the sea. Allen urged Gulf Coast residents watching the possible fix evolve to be patient.
“They ought to be interested and concerned but if they hold their breath, they’ll run out of oxygen. I won’t be,” Allen said after the briefing.
The tests could last anywhere from six to 48 hours, Allen and BP said.
Kent Wells, a senior vice president at the oil giant, declined to talk about BP’s next steps until the test results are in hand.
The cap’s installation after three days of undersea preparations was good news to weary residents of the coast from Texas to Florida, who have waited for BP to make good on its promise to clean up the mess. Still, even if the oil is stopped, the consequences are far from over.
“I ain’t excited about it until it’s closed off completely,” said James Pelas, 41, working on his shrimp boat at a marina in Venice, Louisiana. “Oil’s scattered all over the place.”
BP expects no oil will be released into the ocean during the tests, but remained cautious about the success of the system. Even if the cap works, the blown-out well must still be plugged.
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