A summary of events Tuesday, July 13, Day 84 of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill that began with the April 20 explosion and fire on the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, owned by Transocean Ltd. and leased by BP PLC, which is in charge of cleanup and containment. The blast killed 11 workers. Since then, oil has been pouring into the Gulf from a blown-out undersea well.
After securing a new, tight-fitting cap on top of the leaking well in the Gulf of Mexico, BP prepared Tuesday to begin tests to see if it will hold and stop fresh oil from polluting the waters for the first time in nearly three months. The oil giant expects to know within 48 hours if the new cap can stanch the flow. It landed Monday after nearly three days of painstaking, around-the-clock work a mile below the Gulf's surface. The solution is only temporary, but it offers the best hope yet for cutting off the gush of billowing brown oil.
The cap's installation was good news to weary Gulf Coast residents who have warily waited for BP to make good on its promise to clean up the mess. Still, they warned that even if the oil is stopped, the consequences are far from over. "I think we're going to see oil out in the Gulf of Mexico, roaming around, taking shots at us, for the next year, maybe two," Billy Nungesser, president of Louisiana's oil-stained Plaquemines Parish, said Monday. "If you told me today no more oil was coming ashore, we've still got a massive cleanup ahead."
The cap will be tested by closing off three separate valves that fit together snugly, choking off the oil from entering the Gulf. BP expects no oil will be released into the ocean during the tests, but remained cautious about the success of the system. Pipes can be hooked to the cap to funnel oil to collection ships if BP decides the cap can't take the pressure of the gusher, or if low pressure readings indicate oil is leaking from elsewhere in the well. BP will be watching pressure readings. High pressure is good, because it would mean the leak has been contained inside the wellhead machinery. But if readings are lower than expected, that could mean there is another leak elsewhere in the well.
Even if the cap works, the blown-out well must still be plugged. A permanent fix will have to wait until one of two relief wells being drilled reaches the broken well, which will then be plugged up with drilling mud and cement. That may not happen until mid-August.
Even if the flow of oil is choked off while BP works on a permanent fix, the spill has already damaged everything from beach tourism to the fishing industry. Tony Wood, director of the National Spill Control School at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi said the sloppiest of the oil — mousse-like brown stuff that has not yet broken down — will keep washing ashore for several months, with the volume slowly decreasing over time. He added that hardened tar balls could keep hitting beaches and marshes each time a major storm rolls through for a year or more. Those tar balls are likely trapped for now in the surf zone, gathering behind sand bars just like sea shells.
Rebuffed twice by the courts, the Obama administration is taking another crack at a moratorium on deep-water drilling, stressing new evidence of safety concerns and no longer basing the moratorium on water depth. But those who challenge the latest ban question whether it complies with a judge's ruling tossing out the first one. The new order does not appear to deviate much from the original moratorium. It still targets deep-water drilling operators but defines them in a different way.
The first public hearing by a presidential oil spill panel Monday zeroed in on the relationship between BP and the company it hired to drill the now exploded rig. In an effort to fight a new drilling moratorium, a rival drilling executive and a Louisiana congressman said other oil operators shouldn't be tarred because of one bad apple: BP's Deepwater Horizon rig. Larry Dickerson, president of a rival drilling company, told commissioners the April 20 explosion and resulting oil spill were "the result of reckless operating mistakes." He said errors were likely made in monitoring drilling mud, in decisions on when to use the blowout preventer and about whether BP PLC or its contractor, Transocean Ltd., was in charge of safety.
The Coast Guard has modified a policy on safety zones around boom deployed on oiled coastlines, a policy news organizations had said unnecessarily restricted coverage of the impact of the BP oil spill and efforts to clean it up. In a statement Monday night, the government's point man for the spill, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, said new procedures permit credentialed news media free travel within the boom safety zones. He says "clear, unfettered access" has two exceptions: safety and security concerns. News organizations, including The Associated Press, had argued being kept at least 65 feet away from the boom impeded the ability to cover the spill.