Oil giant BP began its highly anticipated "static kill" operation late on Tuesday, which it is hoped will permanently plug its leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico.
AFP - BP began operations to permanently plug the runaway well that has brought environmental and economic ruin to the Gulf of Mexico and spilled more oil into the sea than ever before.
Engineers launched their long-awaited static kill at 2000 GMT Tuesday, ramming heavy fluid into the blown-out Macondo well to force the crude back down into a reservoir almost 3.5 miles (5.7 kilometers) beneath the surface of the sea.
BP was optimistic after conducting "text-book" tests that showed the oil could be subdued, though senior vice president Kent Wells said it was too early to know if the process would take hours or days.
Once the heavy drilling fluid, known as mud, is holding down the oil, the aim is to pour in a cement plug that will permanently seal off the reservoir.
Any leaks in the steel casing of the well would complicate matters as it would mean the area between the pipe and the outer well bore, known as the annulus, would also have to be filled up with mud.
The best case scenario could see the well put permanently out of action by Wednesday, although a "bottom kill" will be performed through a relief well in mid-August to cement in the outer well bore and be certain of success.
If the well casing has leaks, a decision could be taken to hold off on the cement job until the relief well is ready.
"We're so early in the process there's no way for me to give you any early indication. The only thing I would say is the injectivity test went well and so that gives us the encouragement," said Wells.
Thad Allen, the US government point man in the disaster, was emphatic that the static kill "will increase the probability that the relief well will work." In the long run, "drilling into the annulus and into the casing pipe from below, filling that with mud and then filling that with cement is the only solution to the end of this," he told reporters.
The extent of the spill was confirmed when US government experts on Monday announced that the oil had been pouring out at a rate of 62,000 barrels a day -- more than 12 times faster than BP originally admitted.
This was also higher than any previous official estimate, and meant 4.9 million barrels of crude -- more than 205 million gallons -- spewed into the Gulf in the 87 days it took to cap it, making it the biggest maritime spill ever.
If BP is found guilty of negligence, the flow rate means it could face up to 17.6 billion dollars in fines. The firm has also set up a 20 billion dollar fund to pay claims from individuals and businesses hit by the disaster.
Shutting the well will bring some relief to coastal residents who have been uncertain about their future and frustrated at the cleanup effort since the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in April and sank to the bottom of the Gulf.
The full economic and environmental cost of the spill will remain unknown for some time, but a hint of what is to come was found in a report out Tuesday by researchers at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness (NCDP) at Columbia University.
Of 1,200 coastal Gulf coast residents the researchers surveyed last month, 40 percent said they had been directly exposed to the spill, a third said it had affected their kids, and 20 percent said it had hit their wallets.
Parents reported that their children had developed mental, behavioral or physical problems -- everything from respiratory problems and rashes to feelings of sadness or nervousness, difficulty socializing with other children, or trouble getting to sleep.
One in five residents told the Columbia researchers that their household income had fallen, with poor residents -- those who earned less than 25,000 dollars a year -- feeling the pinch more than the better-off.
While there is hope that Louisiana's marshes and fragile wetlands may recover relatively quickly, no one knows the real spill impact on the Gulf food chain.
Fishermen don't know when they will be able to fish again, if the fish will still be there, or if they will be safe to eat. They are also likely to lose BP clean-up jobs in the coming weeks as the surface oil is all mopped up.
Oil workers face lay-offs due to President Barack Obama's moratorium on new deep sea drilling permits, and tourists are likely avoid the coastal region for years to come.
BP, which replaced its under fire British chief executive Tony Hayward last week with US-born Bob Dudley, also faces a rocky road to recovery.
The company, which has already agreed to sell off key assets, last week posted a quarterly loss of 16.9 billion dollars and set aside 32.2 billion dollars to pay spill costs.
Date created : 2010-08-03