The BP Well Is Dead, but Challenges Live On
The "nightmare well" is dead. But the Gulf coast's bad dream is far from over.
Federal officials declared Sunday that the well where the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded had finally been killed. Workers drilled a relief well into the damaged one and drove a cement stake deep into its oily, black heart.
Its official end came 11 years after Texaco first sank an exploratory well near that same spot 50 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, then moved on after finding it unprofitable. When BP purchased the rights to explore for oil there in 2008, it held an in-house well-naming contest. The winning team chose the name Macondo, after the mythical town from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude."
Carved out of a "paradise of dampness and silence," the Macondo of the story is a cursed place, a metaphor for the fate awaiting those too arrogant to heed warning signs.
BP's name choice came to seem prescient last April 20.
That day, an explosion on the rig — which had drilled the well and was in the process of capping it — killed 11 men instantly and started a slow-motion disaster that has jeopardized the livelihoods of legions of fishermen, hotel and restaurant workers, drilling employees and others.
For those most directly affected by the spill — the ones who still await BP checks for lost wages and revenues, who live on beaches where oil mats are just now coming ashore — the feeling of helplessness remains raw, like a freshly stitched wound.
"If you had to live with all the uncertainty, for all those months," says Mike Helmer, a fishing guide out of Lafitte, La. "I can promise you it's not easy. And it's not over."
At the well's death, Associated Press reporters who covered the disaster checked in with scientists awaiting test results, with business and legal analysts seeking answers and resolutions, and with Gulf residents looking to an uncertain future and struggling against the "quicksand of forgetfulness" that consumed the fictional Macondo. What follows are their reports.
The Blowout Preventer: Under Guard at NASA
Before the smoke even cleared, fingers of blame were pointing in many directions.
BP's internal investigation, released earlier this month, accused subcontractor Halliburton of improperly cementing the well. It blamed rig owner Transocean for problems with the blowout preventer on the seafloor a mile down. It even pointed at itself, acknowledging that if the results of a critical pressure test had been correctly interpreted, workers would have known something was horribly wrong in time to do something about it. (It was a BP engineer who once described Macondo as a "nightmare well.")
While the company's report went a long way toward previewing its legal strategy and explaining how a bubble of explosive gas made a 3-mile-plus journey from the bottom of the well to the drilling rig, it left many questions unanswered.
Those questions will be addressed by government investigators, other companies' investigations, congressional committees and by examinations of key pieces of evidence plucked from the seafloor.
Some of those probes are looking specifically at factors BP downplayed — including the company's well design.
"The whole matter of the [blowout preventer], whether it worked or didn't work ... could change the whole outcome of the whole investigation."
The conclusions will help determine who is liable for the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, and what share of the blame — and of the bill — the various companies with ties to the rig and its equipment will be responsible for. Based on an upper estimate of the oil spilled, BP and others could be fined up to $5.4 billion for violating water pollution laws, or up to $21 billion if gross negligence is found.
The blowout preventer, perhaps the most critical piece of evidence, now sits under guard at a NASA facility in New Orleans, awaiting forensic analysis.
"The whole matter of the BOP, whether it worked or didn't work ... could change the whole outcome of the whole investigation," says Daniel Becnel, an attorney representing a host of plaintiffs in the consolidated federal court case.
The examination, however, is not set to begin until at least Oct. 1, according to internal e-mails and court documents obtained by AP. Meanwhile, scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey are analyzing pieces of debris that rained down on an adjacent cargo ship, the Damon Bankston, during the blast.
This rocklike debris, which could be cement or chunks from the sea floor, will also help piece together what went wrong inside the well.