BP gears up for well 'kill'

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, Aug 2, 2010 (AFP) - BP geared up Monday for its long-awaited "static kill," hoping to plug the Gulf of Mexico oil well and take a major step towards ending the region's worst ever environmental disaster.

Heavy drilling fluid, known in the trade as "mud," is to be pumped down into the well on Tuesday morning to shut the giant gusher that has threatened the Gulf's fishing, tourism and oil industries with financial ruin.

Engineers performed a dry-run of "injectivity tests" on Monday, but BP then said it had to delay the last-minute tests before its kill shot due to a hydraulic leak in the cap sealing the well.

This US Coast Guard handout image shows rigs drilling a relief well and preparing the static kill are seen at the site of the Deepwater Horizon well about 40 miles (64km) from the southern Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico July 31, 2010. AFP

The leak was not expected to significantly delay the planned Tuesday start of the kill operation.

"It is anticipated that the injectivity test and possibly the static kill will take place Tuesday," BP said in a statement.

Even as authorities aimed to shut down the Macondo well once and for all, they gave a more precise picture Monday of how much crude it spewed, saying it gushed at the rate of 62,000 barrels of oil per day initially -- more than 12 times faster than BP had admitted shortly after the blowout in April.

An estimated 4.9 million barrels, more than 205 million gallons, spewed from the ruptured well in the 87 days from the beginning of the disaster until the leak was finally capped on July 15, BP and the US government said in a statement.

Some 800,000 barrels were captured during containment operations, but the 4.1 million uncontained barrels now estimated to have flowed into the water make it the biggest unintentional oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.

The new numbers could play a crucial role in determining how much BP is fined under the Clean Water Act, which allows the US government to seek civil penalties for illegal oil discharges.

Fines under the law range from 1,100 dollars per barrel spilled to as high as 4,300 dollars per barrel spilled, if negligence is proven, meaning BP could theoretically face fines of up to 17.6 billion dollars for the 4.1 million barrels that poured into the sea.

As for shutting down the runaway well, if its integrity is intact it should only be a matter of hours before it becomes evident that the "mud" is successfully pushing the oil back down into the source rock.

"We want to confirm that we can inject the oil that's in the wellbore back into the reservoir," BP senior vice president Kent Wells told reporters Monday.

But US spill response chief Thad Allen cautioned that the operation could take several days if the casing of the pipe has a leak through to the outer well bore.

"A decision on whether or not to put cement in after the mud will be completely dependent on the assessment of the integrity of the casing and the well bore," said Allen.

In addition to the static kill, engineers could also launch a "bottom kill" that would see cement injected into the wellbore through relief wells that would intersect it thousands of feet below the sea floor.

BP says the first of two relief wells will not intercept the stricken well until some time between August 11 and 15, assuming no additional weather or procedural delays.

The Macondo well gushed noxious crude into the sea for nearly three months since the Deepwater Horizon rig sank in April, devastating fragile habitats and bringing misery to many residents along the US Gulf Coast.

While the last surface patches of toxic crude biodegrade rapidly in the warm waters, the long-term impact of the disaster may not be realized for decades.

As the focus shifts to the clean-up of marshes and beaches, so it does to the restoration of the industries devastated by the spill.

And while locals are eager to see the well plugged for good, there are fears that a successful kill operation will prompt a mass exodus of officials brought into the region to respond to the crisis.

BP dismissed its vilified chief executive Tony Hayward last week, replacing him with an American, Bob Dudley, who has promised not to abandon Gulf residents in their time of need.

Also last week the company posted a quarterly loss of 16.9 billion dollars and set aside 32.2 billion dollars to pay spill costs, including a 20-billion-dollar fund to pay compensation to the battered fishing, oil, and tourism industries.

BP, which leased the rig that exploded April 20, killing 11 workers and triggering the spill, has sought to reassure residents it will remain engaged and work to restore the area.

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