Reporting from Atlanta — Engineering crews working on the BP oil well disaster Monday continued efforts to remove an obstacle to their undersea endgame: a 3,000-foot drill pipe that is stuck in the blowout preventer and extends far down the well.
Specifically, the pipe is jammed in a shear ram, a last-resort safety device that is supposed to seal an oil well and quell a gusher like the one that erupted below the Deepwater Horizon rig April 20 off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico.
Officials hope removing the pipe will make it easier to replace the original blowout preventer with a stronger one that should help engineers safely execute a "bottom kill" — the final step in fully closing a well that spewed an estimated 4.9 million barrels of crude until its provisional closure with a huge metal cap in mid-July.
During the bottom kill, crews will intersect the original well with a relief well deep underground, jamming mud and concrete into the area called the annulus, which is between the well pipes and the underground rock.
The bottom kill, originally scheduled for mid-August, was delayed by weather and by recent concerns that the operation could dangerously increase pressure in the annulus. Officials fear that could, among other things, compromise a seal on top of the well, releasing some trapped oil into the water.
Experts determined they could better handle any increases in pressure with a replacement blowout preventer. But replacing the original equipment has necessitated further testing, and consideration of the stuck pipe. Federal officials now say the bottom kill is not likely to begin until the week after Labor Day at the earliest.
Officials also want to recover the pipe for "forensic purposes" as part of the civil and criminal federal investigations into the disaster, said Thad Allen, who is leading the spill response for the government.