USCG says Macondo can stay capped, unattended in storm

(updated July 23 with decision to move drilling rigs, vessels)

Paula Dittrick
OGJ Senior Staff Writer

HOUSTON, July 22 -- Growing confidence in the sealing cap on BP PLC’s deepwater Macondo well has convinced scientists it’s safe to leave the well capped for a few days if needed during tropical weather, National Incident Commander and retired US Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said.

“The decision has been made to leave the cap on, even if the well is unattended,” Allen told reporters on July 22. Hours later, he authorized BP to start moving at least some vessels away from the Macondo site on Mississippi Canyon Block 252.

Allen authorized the move of the Development Driller III and the Development Driller II semisubmersibles, which are drilling the relief wells. "Some of the vessels may be able to remain on site, but we will err on the side of safety," Allen said.

The sealing cap stopped the flow of oil and gas from the well starting on July 15 for a well integrity test. Meanwhile, crews drilling a relief well previously placed a storm packer in the relief well as a precaution in case the Development Driller III had to leave the Macondo site because of weather (OGJ Online, July 21, 2010).

Kent Wells, BP vice-president for exploration and production, said a pressure reading at the top of the well was 6,863 psi on July 22, and monitoring continues using remotely operated vehicles. If the storm were to disrupt monitoring, the ROVs would be the last equipment to be removed, and the ROVs would be among the first equipment to be returned, both Wells and Allen said. 

Monitoring of the site as closely as possible while also keeping the workers safe from severe weather remains a priority, Allen said. The Gulf of Mexico oil spill followed a well blowout on Apr. 20 that resulted in a fire and explosion to Transocean Ltd.’s Deepwater Horizon semisubmersible, killing 11 crew members. 

Allen said he was in close contact with forecasters at the US National Hurricane Center in Miami. Tropical Storm Bonnie was expected to reach the gulf on July 24.

USCG Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft on July 22 directed workers to remove booms from marsh areas along the coast. He established boom staging areas on high ground in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.

“I will begin relocating resources to these staging areas, which will also serve as the rapid response distribution center for each of the affected states,” Zukunft said. Boom in low-lying areas offers no protection from oil in high wind and waves, he said.

He noted that 750 skimming vessels were involved in the spill response as of July 21 compared with 330 skimming vessels involved as of June 15.

Contact Paula Dittrick at paulad@ogjonline.com.

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