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BP Installs New Cap on Leaking Well, Plans Pressure Test

BP Plc installed a new cap on its leaking Gulf of Mexico oil well and will start testing today whether this will stop the gusher while work continues on a permanent plug.

BP placed a 40-foot (12-meter) stack of valves atop the well yesterday and will use it to halt the oil flow for as long as 48 hours to measure pressure inside the well, Doug Suttles, chief operating officer for exploration and production, told reporters yesterday on a conference call.

The Macondo well has been spewing as much as 60,000 barrels of oil a day into the ocean, according to a government estimate, since an April 20 drilling-rig explosion that killed 11 workers. The test will determine whether BP can seal the well until it can be plugged with cement next month, or must continue capturing the leaking oil and piping crude to ships.

“We need to know what the pressure is inside that cap to know what our next steps are, whether we can shut it in or will have to produce oil to keep the pressure off,” National Incident Commander Thad Allen said yesterday in a CNN interview.

The new cap has pressure-monitoring equipment that wasn’t available in May, when BP abandoned an effort to seal the well from above, company spokesman Bill Salvin said.

BP and Obama administration officials will review the test data to decide whether they can shut the valves and seal the leak. Extending the test another 48 hours also is an option, BP said in a statement.

‘Top Kill’

After the test is completed, oil will resume flowing from the well while officials determine their next step, said John Curry, a BP spokesman. Efforts to capture and funnel the oil to the surface also will resume, he said.

BP and the U.S. government halted previous efforts to stop the leak on May 29, after a so-called top-kill technique in which drilling mud was injected into the well failed. Allen said the concern then was that the well bore might be damaged and that, without pressure monitoring, operators wouldn’t know if shutting the valves forced crude to gush out uncontrolled. BP then focused on capturing the oil.

The new cap contains three large valves, or rams, like those used in blowout preventers, which oil and gas drillers use to halt unexpected surges in pressure, Salvin said. The Macondo well’s blowout preventer failed, BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells told a presidential commission investigating the disaster.

Pressure Test

The well can be sealed if it withstands the expected pressure once the valves on the new cap are closed, Suttles said. Pressure lower than expected would suggest leakage in the well bore, indicating BP should continue to let oil flow to ships on the surface for processing, he said.

Underwater robots have bolted in place a transitional fitting that was placed atop the well overnight, Suttles said. BP’s “confidence is growing” that it can control the well because installing this equipment gave engineers the “most concern” before starting the job, he said.

Installation of the valve stack was postponed by about half a day to assure no hydrates, a slush-like mixture of water and natural gas, form as it is put in place, Suttles said in an afternoon press conference. Hydrates foiled BP’s first effort at containing oil from the well on May 8, by plugging a 40-foot- tall steel chamber that was to have funneled oil and gas to the surface.

“We remain on track to have the sealing cap in place within four to seven days,” Suttles said. “We’re on day three.”

Capture Capacity

Should the well fail the integrity test, BP has two vessels in place capable of capturing as much as 33,000 barrels of oil per day from the well, he said. The Q4000 has been flaring oil and gas. The Helix Producer I, a floating production ship, began drawing oil and gas to the surface for processing yesterday, he said. The valve stack is capable of hooking up two more ships, for total capacity of at least 60,000 barrels a day, later this month, he said.

The remaining portion of the cap installation is relatively easy, said Les Ply, a retired consultant on drilling and plugging wells. The remaining work involves attaching equipment that was tested at the surface, which should be less difficult than earlier stages in which BP had to install parts that had been on the seafloor, he said.

BP began capturing oil and natural gas from the well and piping it to vessels on the surface last month. The company said yesterday it has spent $3.5 billion on the spill, including oil and gas containment, cleanup and damage claims.

Shares Rise

BP rose as much as 10 percent in U.K. trading yesterday after a report in the Sunday Times of London said Exxon Mobil Corp. may consider a takeover bid for the company. Separately, BP is in talks to sell assets to Apache Corp. for a price of less than $12 billion, people familiar with the matter said July 11. Robert Dye, a spokesman for Apache, and Max McGahan, a BP spokesman, declined to comment.

Even if the new stack of valves stops the Gulf oil leak, BP said it will need to finish drilling an intercept well to permanently plug Macondo with cement. The first of two relief wells, started May 2, is on schedule to intercept the leaking well by the end of July, Suttles said. Plugging it may take until mid-August, he said.

Macondo is unsuitable for production because it blew out before it was completed, BP said. The company plans to abandon the well after plugging it.