THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Key step toward killing gulf gusher could happen sooner

First, crews must complete drilling offshore relief well

Thad Allen spoke with coastal parish officials concerned that the Coast Guard and BP will pull back from the response. Thad Allen spoke with coastal parish officials concerned that the Coast Guard and BP will pull back from the response.
By Harry R. Weber
Associated Press / July 30, 2010

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NEW ORLEANS — A procedure intended to ease the job of plugging the blownout gulf well for good could start as early as the weekend, the government’s point man for the spill response said yesterday.

The so-called static kill can begin when crews finish work on drilling the relief well 50 miles offshore that is needed for a permanent fix.

Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said crews would drop in casing for the relief well later yesterday, and that could speed up work on the static kill, though he did not say how much. He previously said it would begin late Sunday or early Monday.

The static kill, which involves pumping heavy mud into the busted well from the top, is on track for completion some time next week. Then comes the bottom kill, where the relief well will be used to pump in mud and cement from the bottom; that process will take days or weeks, depending on whether the static kill works.

A temporary cap has held in the oil for the past two weeks, and Allen said crews are having trouble finding patches of the crude that had been washing up since the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig exploded April 20, killing 11 people.

Before the well was capped, it spewed anywhere from 94 million to 184 million gallons of oil into the gulf. No one knows for sure how much of that oil might still be lurking below the surface, but most of what was coming ashore has broken up, been sucked up by skimming boats, or burned.

Also yesterday, Allen had what he called a frank and open discussion with coastal parish officials concerned that the Coast Guard and BP will pull back from the spill response once the oil is stopped permanently. “You know these parish presidents; no one held anything back,’’ he said.

He said they will work together to come up with a plan by next week for how to clean up any oil that might continue washing up on beaches and in wetlands.

Billy Nungesser, Plaquemines parish president, said as he arrived for the meeting that it’s clear the cleanup effort is being scaled back even though oil is still showing up on the coast.

He said his biggest fear is “they are going to start pulling back. They say they are not, but already they have canceled catering contracts, they’ve stopped production of boom at factories.’’

Barring a calamity, the oil won’t start flowing again before BP can permanently kill the well, which could happen by mid-August. Allen said the Coast Guard expects that oil will keep showing up on beaches four to six weeks after that happens.

In Boise, Idaho, a federal judicial panel wrestled yesterday with perceptions of bias and conflict among both judges and geography in figuring out where to consolidate more than 300 lawsuits filed against BP and other companies following the spill.

Some of the 23 lawyers who appeared before the seven-member US Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation suggested that sending the cases to the oil-and-gas hub of Houston, favored by BP, might appear unfair to the gulf fishermen, property owners, restaurateurs, and others suing for spill-related economic losses.

The clear favorite among plaintiffs and the US Justice Department is New Orleans federal court, which is closest to the disaster and has the most pending cases. The judicial panel is expected to announce its decision in August.

Some attorneys questioned whether New Orleans was a good choice, considering only four of the New Orleans-based judges would be available to hear the case, in part because of recusals due to their oil and gas industry investments. In addition, many people in Louisiana could ultimately benefit from a major oil spill settlement.

The lawsuits claiming economic damages from shrimpers, commercial fishermen, charter captains, property owners, environmental groups, restaurants, hotels, and others began appearing only days after the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank. Filed in at least 12 states, they mostly name as defendants BP, rig owner Transocean Ltd., well contractor Halliburton Co., and Cameron International, maker of the well’s failed blowout preventer.

Some family members of the 11 men who died, as well as rig workers who survived, have also filed lawsuits, mainly in state court. One key question for the judicial panel is whether to keep those separate or consolidate them with the economic cases. There are also separate lawsuits filed by BP shareholders over stock losses.

It’s difficult to predict how much the lawsuits will ultimately cost BP and the others, but most lawyers say it’s likely to reach many billions of dollars. One wild card is how many people will decide not to sue in favor of filing a claim directly with BP, which has set aside at least $20 billion for oil spill cost. The company reported Wednesday that it has paid more than $256 million so far.

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