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Gulf crews are back, preparing to seal crippled well

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Ships back in Gulf; no new oil seen
  • Thad Allen says "static kill" effort could begin next week
  • Sealing well from the bottom would take place after that
  • Crews are back at well site after leaving ahead of Tropical Storm Bonnie
  • All signs show the well is structurally sound

New Orleans, Louisiana (CNN) -- Crews are back at BP's crippled oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, preparing for two efforts to seal the well, after activity was halted over the weekend because of bad weather.

And the U.S. official overseeing the effort, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, now says he expects the first step to begin early next week, provided that there are no more weather delays. The "static kill" involves pouring mud and cement into the well from above.

That would be followed by a second effort to plug the well, sealing it permanently from the bottom through a relief well, which could begin August 7 to 9.

Before either move can take place, BP will have to cement casing into place on the well. That work should begin this week.

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Allen outlined the timetable as rigs drilling the relief wells and other ships returned to the scene amid calmer waters; they left last week ahead of Tropical Storm Bonnie. The evacuations delayed efforts to seal the well about a week.

Allen said crews have resumed full monitoring on the well through a range of methods to check its integrity. These include visual inspections by robots, temperature readings, checking vibrations and acoustics, and seismic tests.

All indicate that the well is structurally sound 11 days after valves on a new containment cap were closed, stopping oil from flowing into the Gulf after three months of relentless spills.

The latest readings showed pressure of about 6,900 pounds per square inch, meaning the well is holding, and there don't appear to be any leaks.That's essential before it can be sealed from the top and bottom through the two methods.

Then there's the matter of cleaning up oil in the Gulf.

The oil is harder and harder to find from the air.

The federal on-scene coordinator, Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft, went looking for it in two flights over the weekend, finding only a large patch about 12 miles off Grand Isle, Louisiana. It was emulsified, or broken into many tiny droplets.

No oil could be seen in Louisiana's Lake Borgne, Lake Pontchartrain or Chandeleur Sound, while only a light sheen was visible in other parts of the Gulf.

Zukunft said surface oil is breaking down "very quickly" and naturally now that the flow of crude has been cut off beneath the surface.

More than 790 skimming ships have been pressed into service to collect the surface oil. At the height of the spill, they were collecting 25,000 barrels of oil a day, but one day last week, they managed to get only 56 barrels.

But what about oil that may be lurking below the surface?

Zukunft said Monday that he'll be overseeing a "very aggressive process of monitoring" that involves breaking the Gulf into grids and searching for oil below the surface in several ways. One involves placing "sentinels" in the water: like crab pots but with absorbent material to collect oil. Another involves slowly trawling to check for tar balls.

Zukunft said it's too early to outline a timeline on how the effort will unfold. But he said he'll be meeting with parish presidents Thursday to discuss the process.

In another tactic, dispersants have been used to try to break up the oil, drawing criticism from some who worry about the environmental impact. But Zukunft said that with no oil flowing into the Gulf, it's been more than a week since workers have last used dispersants. He said 200 gallons were used on a patch of oil about 30 miles off Louisiana's coast. The last time dispersants were used previously was about a week before, when 1,000 gallons were used.

BP crews managed to temporarily cap the undersea well at the heart of the 3-month-old disaster July 15.

Oil had gushed from the ruptured well for nearly three months after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, leaving 11 workers dead. Officials have said a relief well is the only permanent solution to the disaster, which saw as much as 60,000 barrels (2.5 million gallons) of crude spewing into the Gulf every day.

On Sunday, Allen said that officials were examining new oil deposits on the shoreline created by the storm. He said booms that were in sensitive marsh areas caused damage during the storm and may need to be removed before another surge happens.

Meanwhile, rumors swirled Monday about the fate of the man who's headed BP throughout the crisis: Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward, who has become a lightning rod for criticism.

The company released a statement saying, "BP notes the press speculation over the weekend regarding potential changes to management and the charge for the costs of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. BP confirms that no final decision has been made on these matters."

BP spokesman David Nicholas said Monday that any management change would be announced along with the company's release of its quarterly earnings, scheduled for 7 a.m. Tuesday (2 a.m ET).

"I would not expect an announcement tonight," Nicholas said Monday. "I would expect announcements to be made in time for the UK market."

He confirmed that the BP board would be meeting Monday evening at its company headquarters in London, England.

CNN's Allan Chernoff, Vivian Kuo, David Mattingly, Rich Phillips and Matt Smith contributed to this report.

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