Relief bore reaches BP’s damaged well; endgame in sight

An emergency relief well has successfully intersected BP’s damaged Gulf of Mexico oil well, federal officials announced Thursday night.

“Through a combination of sensors embedded in the drilling equipment and sophisticated instrumentation that is capable of sensing distance to the well casing, BP engineers and the federal science team have concluded that the Development Driller III relief well has intersected the Macondo well,” retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the federal spill commander, said in a statement.

Next, crews will prepare to pump cement into the well’s outer ring “and complete the ‘bottom kill’ of the well,” Allen said. That is expected within days.

The breach of BP’s renegade well, after months of emergency drilling to more than two miles below the ocean floor, sets up a rapid endgame to a five-month saga that began April 20, when an explosion and ensuing fire aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig killed 11 workers and sent the vessel to the seafloor two days later.

The gush of oil from the blown-out well became the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, spewing 205.8 million gallons until engineers affixed a cap to the well in July.

The disaster closed fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico, sidelining workers and dealing a heavy blow to the seafood industry and beach towns from Louisiana to Florida. It is blamed for the death of at least 5,939 birds, 584 sea turtles and more than 60 dolphins, although scientists think the hidden toll is much higher.

The spill also led to a moratorium on deep-water drilling that has been the subject of court battles and political fighting between the Obama administration and largely Republican elected officials along the gulf and elsewhere.

BP’s market value plummeted, and as of Sept. 16 the oil giant had shed 34% of its market capitalization compared with its December 2009 value. BP estimates it has spent more than $6 billion on cleanup and compensation over and above the $20 billion it has deposited in an escrow fund to compensate for economic losses.

At its height, the cleanup effort involved thousands of vessels and tens of thousands of workers deployed in four states. The mixture of Louisiana light crude and chemicals used to disperse it soiled 966 miles of shoreline.

Of the 4.9 million barrels of oil that gushed from the well, about 25% was burned, skimmed or piped to tanker ships, according to an August report released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Another 25% has evaporated or dissolved. A third 25%, which the government calls residual oil, made its way into the ocean as a light sheen on the water or as tar balls.

The remaining 25% is thought to be deep below the surface of the gulf in vast clouds of atomized droplets that could alter links in the chain of sea life that scientists are only beginning to understand.

This dispersed oil was broken into droplets by the 1.8 million gallons of the chemical dispersant Corexit, which was sprayed on the ocean’s surface and deep in the sea.

A massive federal effort to map and study these plumes, some of which are 1,200 to more than 4,000 feet below the surface, is underway.

Fausset reported from Atlanta and Boxall from Los Angeles.