The tip of the relief well in the Gulf


`The engineers will tell you that they have a 95 percent chance of success,' said expert Bruce Bullock. ``But that depends on how you define success.'

WASHINGTON -- The saga of BP's runaway Deepwater Horizon well, already in its third month, has entered a crucial phase that will determine whether the Gulf of Mexico gusher ends in mid-August or persists, perhaps for months.

Unlike the previous public drama, this act will unfold miles below the seabed, as drill technicians begin delicately maneuvering to direct a relief well that they hope will pierce and cap the gushing oil well.

On Friday, BP announced that it had begun using sensitive electronic equipment to detect differences in the rock's electromagnetic field in an effort to pinpoint the metal pipes inside the Deepwater Horizon wellbore. Based on what those tests find, the drillers will make adjustments every few hundred feet in the relief well's trajectory in an effort to intercept those pipes and kill the gusher by pumping it full of tons of heavy drilling mud and then concrete.

The stakes riding on those adjustments are enormous, and the chance of failure, at least on the first try, is huge.

``The engineers will tell you that they have a 95 percent chance of success'' in killing a runaway gusher with a relief well, said Bruce Bullock, the director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. ``But that depends on how you define success. It's quite unlikely they'll hit it on the first stab.''

``They're aiming at a salad plate thousands of feet down,'' Bullock said: a seven-inch pipe buried in concrete, 12,000 feet below the seafloor.

Every time a relief well misses, its crew must back up the drill bit and try again. Last year, a relief well aimed at capping a blowout in the Timor Sea off Australia missed its target four times before connecting. Each new effort took an average of another week of drilling, for a total delay of 27 days after the drillers began closing on their target.

The precision of the relief well tells us something about the engineering that goes into the offshore drilling business. I believe they will eventually get this well under control. The efforts of the crews on the two relief wells tells us something about the men that the administration is keeping off the other deep water rigs right now.


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