The first of two relief wells being drilled to stop the Gulf oil gusher could be done by the end of the month, BP officials say, but if that doesn't succeed, one backup being considered is transferring the crude to non-producing underwater wells that are miles away.
BP would run the flow through pipelines across the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, said retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the Obama administration's point man on the crisis.
"That would take some construction and some time. It would probably move us into the late August timeframe," Allen said.
Still, the best hope to stop the spewing oil from the blown-out well a mile under the sea is the relief wells. Though officials said the first could be finished by the end of July, weeks ahead of schedule, they are quick to point out that such an optimistic timetable would require ideal conditions every step of the way.
That is something that has rarely happened since the leak began more than 2 1/2 months ago with the deadly explosion of the rig Deepwater Horizon 50 miles off the Louisiana coast.
"BP's credibility is basically shot," said Jefferson Parish Council Chairman John Young. "I hope they plug it as soon as they can, but I'm not holding my breath. They're unreliable and they haven't been transparent or open."
In New Orleans, a federal appeals court Thursday rejected the government's effort to restore an offshore deepwater drilling moratorium, opening the door to resumed drilling in the Gulf while the legal fight continues.
The ruling is not the final word on the Obama administration's fight to suspend new drilling projects so it can study the risks revealed by the disastrous BP oil spill. The same appeals court is expected to hear arguments on the merits of the moratorium case in late August or early September.
In the meantime, Allen said crews expect to intercept and penetrate the pipe from the Deepwater Horizon about 18,000 feet below sea level in seven to 10 days. The drilling crew is attempting to hit a target the size of a dinner plate at a depth where water pressure is great enough to crush a submarine.
But crews will not know how long it will take to stop the oil until they get there. Because the gushing well essentially is composed of pipes within pipes, oil could be coming up through multiple layers, Allen said.
The plan is to inject heavy mud and cement into each layer of the pipe, if needed, to overcome the pressure of the huge oil reservoir below.
Several times in the past week, BP Managing Director Robert Dudley has said drilling for a relief well is making fast progress and could be done before August.
But he's quickly made a caveat: Everything would have to go flawlessly, something he considers unlikely especially during hurricane season. Though a series of storms in the Gulf have not disrupted drilling, it has curtailed skimming and other cleanup and containment efforts.
"In a perfect world with no interruptions, it's possible to be ready to stop the well between July 20 and July 27," Dudley told The Wall Street Journal. He made similar remarks to the Houston Chronicle in a story published July 2.
Allen has confirmed that the operation is ahead of schedule, but he won't budge from the expected August completion date.
"There are certain things that can move that date up, but my official position is the middle of August," Allen said Thursday.
If for some reason the drilling doesn't succeed, another plan is to divert the oil.
Donald Van Nieuwenhuise, a University of Houston geology professor who has worked as a lead geologist on several offshore drilling projects, said the transfer to wells two to 10 miles away would take time but would avoid the need for surface vessels and possible interruptions from storms.
"It's easy," he said. "It's just not quick. You have to put more equipment on the (sea)floor."
But the idea outlined by Allen apparently calls for storing the oil with gas and water from the gushing well in a different well so it could possibly be separated and removed at a later date, according to Van Nieuwenhuise.
"Producing the oil now is not something they need to be worried about while they're trying to get oil out of the Gulf," he said.
For the region, the bottom line remains the same: An estimated 68 million to 169 million gallons of crude have gushed into the Gulf since the April 20 blast that killed 11 workers. And a few days' difference matters less than the prospect of stopping the leak for good.
Weather is another factor. A major tropical storm or hurricane nearby would shut drilling down.
Also, as the drill gets closer to the well pipe, the work becomes more delicate, and any mistake becomes nearly catastrophic. That's why Allen and BP are sticking to August as the target.
"If it happens sooner than that, I think we can all jump for joy," he told reporters.
Breen reported from New Orleans. Associated Press writers Vicki Smith, Greg Giuffrida and Michael Kunzelman in New Orleans, and AP Energy Writer Chris Kahn in New York also contributed to this report.
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