The day the BP oil well can be permanently declared dead has been pushed back to late August so experts can devise plans to reduce risks during the final well-killing procedure, the federal government’s spill response chief said Monday.
“There’s nobody that wants to have this happen any quicker than I do, but there’s nobody that wants to incur more risk to this operation,” said Thad Allen, the national incident commander.
“When we finish this thing, this will be a stake in the heart of this well, and that’s my overall intention,” he said.
The runaway well off Louisiana gushed oil for 86 days until it was sealed July 15 with a huge custom metal cap that was affixed to the damaged blowout preventer. Since then, the well has been plugged more extensively with the “static kill” procedure, in which mud and concrete were pumped into the top of the well.
However, experts cannot say whether they have thoroughly plugged the area between the well pipes and the well bore known as the annulus. To ensure that it too is dead, they plan to pierce the annulus with a relief well deep underground and pump it with mud and concrete as well.
But experts have raised the possibility that pumping into the annulus could increase pressure on about 1,000 barrels of oil trapped inside, possibly damaging the seals at the top of the well.
To mitigate any potential trouble, Allen said, experts need more time to analyze two options for dealing with a rise in pressure.
One option would involve building a mechanism on the existing cap that could relieve the pressure. Allen said they hoped oil would not be released into the ocean under this plan.
The other option would involve removing the existing blowout preventer and cap and replacing it with a stronger one that could withstand any pressure increases when the relief well process starts.
Under the plan, the existing blowout preventer would not be removed until pressure tests proved that the concrete inside the well is strong enough to keep it plugged — at least until the new blowout preventer is in place.
The first plan would take about a week to carry out; the second, less time. From there, it would take four days to complete the final 50 feet of drilling and intercept the original well. After the cement is pumped into the relief well, scientists would closely monitor the pressure for a few days before declaring that the undersea drama was finally over.
Allen said a federal science team and Energy Secretary Steven Chu would make a recommendation on the procedures in the next day or two.
In Washington on Monday, the Obama administration announced that it would no longer issue blanket exemptions for deep-water drilling projects that allowed oil companies to avoid extensive environmental reviews.
BP’s problematic well in the Gulf of Mexico was one of the projects that received such an exemption, known as “categorical exclusion,” in April 2009.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, or BOEM, now plans to issue the exemptions on a “more limited basis,” a statement said.
The Obama administration issued a ban covering much of the gulf’s deep-water drilling operations that extends through the end of November.
Deep-water drilling will not be eligible for the exemptions even after the moratorium expires, the statement said.
However, the exemptions will still be available for offshore activities that pose “limited environmental risk.”
“These changes in our regulatory framework and approach will serve to hold offshore operators accountable and ensure that the industry and the country are fully prepared to deal with catastrophic blowouts and oil spills like the Deepwater Horizon,” said Michael R. Bromwich, director of BOEM, which was until recently called the Minerals Management Service.
Representatives of the oil and gas industry — as well as some lawmakers in oil-producing states — are concerned that increased regulation will hamper the industry and threaten jobs in a region already hard-hit by the spill.
Environmental activists gave the move a lukewarm review.
Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, praised the administration for being “rhetorically committed” to ending the exclusions. But he said one shortcoming of the new policy allowed for shallow-water drilling to be exempt from extensive environmental reviews.
“Full environmental review must also be done for these oil-drilling operations” that are also dangerous undertakings, Suckling said.
The government also plans a comprehensive review of how the National Environmental Policy Act applies to offshore oil drilling. The landmark 1970 act requires extensive federal reviews of projects that could affect the environment.
In Louisiana, some fishermen returned to the seas for the opening of the fall shrimp season. However, many areas remain closed to fishing, and there is a lingering concern that fishermen will not be able to market their seafood after all of the negative publicity.
Commerce Secretary Gary F. Locke toured a seafood processing plant Monday in Lafitte, La., a fishing village about 25 miles south of New Orleans, and tried to put out the message that the seafood heading to market is ready for American dinner tables.
“We need to let the American people know that the seafood being harvested from the gulf is safe to eat,” Locke said. “I think there have been a lot of misperceptions out there. A lot of testing is done before we open state and federal waters to fishing.”