by Suzanne Goldenberg, Guardian
BP held out hope today that it had finally brought America’s worst oil spill under control, when a senior executive expressed optimism about a new cap that for the first time since April has stopped oil gushing from a deepwater well.
The vice-president, Kent Wells, said pressure was holding up inside the cap, indicating oil was being successfully contained under the 75-ton device. Valves on the cap were shut late yesterday and pressure will be tested regularly over the next 36 hours. A fall in pressure would indicate another leak.
BP is also planning to start drilling again on a relief well that will cut into the compromised well and enable it to be sealed permanently. The BP share price, which has lost almost 50% of its value since the original blowout on 20 April, rose almost 4% in London after the developments, though executives and officials were still warning that the nightmare wasn’t over yet.
"I think that it is a positive sign," President Barack Obama said, after the initial announcement that oil had stopped spewing from the well.
"It’s far from the finish line. It’s not the time to celebrate," added the BP chief operating officer, Doug Suttles.
Suttles said engineers would be checking carefully to make sure no oil was escaping from previously undiscovered leaks.
It took about two hours yesterday to close off all the valves to the containment cap. But after it was done, there was a welcome sight for Gulf coast residents, many of whose livelihoods have been hammered by the spill: for the first time, video from BP’s live feed on the ocean floor showed no sign of crude billowing out of the crippled well.
The new cap is at best a temporary solution. The U.S. oil spill incident commander, Thad Allen, said engineers might reopen the seal and collect the flow of oil, though he noted that a new, improved containment facility would reduce the amount of crude fouling the Gulf. "It remains likely that we will return to the containment process using this new stacking cap connected to the risers," he said.
BP hopes it can prevent the flow of any more oil into the Gulf until it manages to intercept the well and seal it off permanently with heavy drilling mud and cement some time in August. Suttles told CNN the relief well was about 4ft away from reaching the main well.
But the BP executive also acknowledged the Gulf would be feeling the effects of the spill for some time, a thought voiced by several others. "This is like the very early stages of a bone marrow transplant," Ed Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat who is leading a congressional investigation into the environmental effects of the spill, told CNN. "There is still a possibility that the well cannot, in fact, take this pressure, but we are all hoping and praying that it will."
Even if the well does hold, BP and the Obama administration acknowledge there will be tar balls washing up on the beaches of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida for months.
Cleansing sensitive Louisiana wetlands of oil could take several more months, if not years, and marine biologists have warned it could be decades before the full impact of the oil, and the dispersants used to break up the slick, is fully understood.
Aside from the cost to BP, which has spent more than $3 billion on the cleanup, seen its share price plummet and had to set aside $20 billion, the spill has caused widespread economic harm across the Gulf. Vast areas of water remain closed to fishing and there has been a rash of hotel cancellations during the school holiday season.
"This body has lost a lot of blood," Norm Coleman, a former Republican senator, told CNN. "This is good news but that doesn’t mean that the pressure is off."
Yesterday’s success followed days of uncertainty about how the sealing cap would perform, and whether it could stop the oil without blowing a new hole in the well. The administration put a 24-hour hold on BP’s plans while it reviewed the risks of the operation.