As BP well nears death, pressure test needed

Published 12:14 am Sunday, September 19, 2010

Crews working to seal BP’s blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico once and for all need to finish one more test on a cement plug before declaring the well permanently dead, officials said Saturday.

Once the pressure and weight test is finished and officials are confident the seal will hold permanently, the well will be declared dead, said Rich Robson, the offshore installation manager on the Development Driller III vessel. He said the 74 barrels of cement pumped in Friday has dried.

Although the declaration will be a significant milestone, Robson said it would be difficult to celebrate too much given the tragedy of the oil spill.

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“It’s kind of bittersweet because we lost 11 men out here,” he said. “There isn’t going to be any real celebration. To a lot of people, the water out here is a cemetery.”

Still, to mark their accomplishment, he said the crew planned to share a meal of prime rib together.

The Associated Press is the only media outlet with a print reporter and photographer on board the vessel, which was used to drill the relief well that allowed engineers to pump in the cement. That relief well, 2.5 miles beneath the seafloor, intersected BP’s well on Thursday.

Robson said the pressure test will happen around 11 p.m. CDT and will take about half an hour. The test is the only way to ensure the well is dead. He said crews must wait until then because workers must first remove the drill pipe from the relief well, then lower the equipment needed to conduct the pressure test. There may not be an official announcement that the well has been killed until sometime Sunday, he said.

Engineers will exert 15,000 pounds of weight against the cement plug to make sure it won’t budge and should know by midnight CDT if the seal will hold. They also will exert 1,150 pounds per square inch of pressure to test the seal.

Until then, men in red work suits and mud-splattered hardhats were operating heavy hydraulic machines being used to lift the drill pipe back to the deck of the DDIII vessel. Two men sitting in black leather chairs used joysticks to maneuver the massive machines on the deck, which were lifting the equipment that was thousands of feet below.

At lunchtime on the deck, a huge, industrial-sized grill cooked up ribeye steaks, rabbit and chicken. Tim Speirs, BP’s wellsite leader aboard the DDIII, said he was pleased that the cement plug had dried.

“I was proud that what we had done had been effective,” he said. Once the pressure test is finished, Speirs said everything will be business as usual on the ship — no sirens, no lights flashing. In fact, most of the crew will already be asleep, he said.

Engineers initially had planned to pump in mud before the cement, but a BP spokesman said that wasn’t necessary because there was no pressure building inside the well.

Once the well is declared dead, it will mark the first time in five months that Gulf Coast residents can be completely assured oil will never spew from the well again. The catastrophe began April 20, when an explosion killed 11 workers, sank a drilling rig and led to the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

The relief well was the 41st successful drilling attempt by John Wright, a contractor who led the team drilling the relief well aboard the DDIII vessel. Wright, who has never missed his target, told The Associated Press in August that he was looking forward to finishing the well and celebrating with a cigar and a quiet getaway with his wife.

He told the AP Saturday he plans to make good on that promise. He planned to head back to Houston and then leave for a vacation with his wife, probably to California. For him, the difficult work is finished.

“In my mind, it’s already over. It’s been a long, exhaustive process,” he said, citing “the media attention, the government involvement, the stress levels, the pressure levels — not just on me, but on the entire team.”

The Gulf well spewed 206 million gallons of oil until the gusher was first stopped in mid-July with a temporary cap. Mud and cement were later pushed down through the top of the well, allowing the cap to be removed. But officials will not declare it dead until it is sealed from the bottom.

BP PLC is a majority owner of the well and was leasing the rig from owner Transocean Ltd.

The oil spill was an environmental and economic nightmare for people along the Gulf Coast that has spawned civil and criminal investigations. It cost gaffe-prone BP chief Tony Hayward his job and brought increased governmental scrutiny of the oil and gas industry, including a costly moratorium on deepwater offshore drilling that is still in place.

With oil still in the water — some of it still washing ashore — people continue to struggle. Fishermen are still fighting the perception their catch is tainted, and tourism also has taken a hit.