Guest Post: The Relief Wells Are Ahead of Schedule … But Will They Work?

Washington’s Blog

By all reports, BP is ahead of schedule in drilling the relief wells. In fact, BP will likely complete the first relief well this month.

The team leader for BP’s relief wells – Boots and Coots – is 40 for 40 in successfully stopping oil spills using relief wells (around 6:10 into video).

Many oil drilling experts are hopeful that BP’s relief wells will succeed on the first try. I hope and pray that they do.

But the relief wells are not a slam dunk, especially at such extreme depths.


“If it was shallow water, it wouldn’t be anything serious,” said Don Van Nieuwenhuise, director of Petroleum Geoscience Programs at the University of Houston.

CBS News states:

“It’s not a solid dunk,” said Eric Smith, a deepwater drilling expert. “It’s going to take some work.”

Smith said two things could go wrong. The cut could miss the broken wellbore, and BP would just try again, or engineers could drill into hidden gas pockets.

“When you are drilling into that you have to be careful of a kick, a blowout in the relief well,” Smith said.


George Hirasaki, a Rice University professor in chemical and biomolecular engineering who was involved in the Bay Marchand oil containment effort for Shell, said engineers have to be very careful when drilling into any formation that has hydrocarbons, which poses the risk of the same type of explosion that destroyed the rig.

Recently-retired Shell Oil President John Hofmeister said that the well casing below the sea floor may have been compromised, which could render success from the relief wells less certain:

[Question] What are the chances that the well casing below the sea floor has been compromised, and that gas and oil are coming up the outside of the well casing, eroding the surrounding soft rock. Could this lead to a catastrophic geological failure, unstoppable even by the relief wells?

John Hofmeister: This is what some people fear has occurred. It is also why the “top kill” process was halted. If the casing is compromised the well is that much more difficult to shut down, including the risk that the relief wells may not be enough. If the relief wells do not result in stopping the flow, the next and drastic step is to implode the well on top of itself, which carries other risks as well.

Hofmeister subsequently told MSNBC:

The question is whether there is enough mechanical structure left at the base of the reservoir to hold the cement when they start pouring cement in [from the relief well].


The more oil we some coming out, the more it tells you that the whole casing system is deteriorating. The fact that more oil would be coming out rather than less oil, would suggest that the construction within the pipe is offering no resistance whatsoever, and we’re just getting a gusher.

Indeed, Hofmeister told Chris Matthews today that he hopes the relief well has a 50-50% chance of being successful [I can’t post video here; see my blog for video].

Yesterday, the Guardian quoted the government official in charge of oil spill response as warning:

“There is a chance – a slight chance – they could nick the wellbore,” Thad Allen, the coast guard commander, said. …

A nick risks starting a new small leak or possibly even a collapse of a section of the pipe given that it was damaged in the explosion in ways still not fully understood.


The intercept could be complicated if it turns out that the oil is flowing around the pipe, between the pipe and the cement of the well bore.

And Spiegel previously reported that there are many dangers with completing the relief wells:

Independent experts warn that relief wells, like any well, are not without risk. “More oil could leak than before, because the field is being drilled into again,” says Fred Aminzadeh, a geophysicist at the University of Southern California. Ira Leifer, a geochemist at the University of California in Santa Barbara, voices similar concerns: “In the worst case, we would suddenly be dealing with two spills, and we’d have twice the problem.”


As straightforward as it sounds, this approach [i.e. killing a spill by drilling relief wells] has not always been easy to implement in the past. The disaster in the Timor Sea, for example, ended in a debacle. It took engineer five tries to even find the borehole under the sea floor. Shortly before the end, the West Atlas oilrig went up in flames, after all.


[David Rensink, incoming president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists] is particularly concerned that BP, in drilling the relief wells, will penetrate into precisely those rock formations in which extreme pressure and temperature conditions facilitated the April blowout in the first place. Gas bubbles and gushing oil from the depths are real possibilities. “Any relief or kill well needs to be drilled with more caution than the first well,” Donald Van Nieuwenhuise, a geologist at the University of Houston, told the New Orleans daily Times-Picayune. “You don’t want a repeat performance.

As CBS notes, even BP is no longer expressing full confidence:

BP leaders have showed supreme confidence in their relief wells.

“I fully expect that the well itself will be shut off in August,” said Bob Dudley, BP’s point man on the spill.

But recently? More caution.

“The drilling of relief wells, there’s nothing guaranteed,” Dudley said.

Indeed, the veteran engineer in charge of the Ixtoc Gulf oil well disaster in the 1970’s states that – given the pressures involved – a single relief well might not be enough:

Carlos Osornio, a Mexican engineer in charge of Pemex’s deepwater drilling operations during the Ixtoc crisis, said BP may ultimately find that both relief wells are needed to contain the gusher.

“One relief well may not be enough to contain the high volume (of oil flow), but two will work for sure,” he said.

Similarly, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich previously noted:

A petroleum engineer who’s worked in the oil industry tells me [that] a recent blow-out off the coast of Australia required five pressure relief wells to successfully shut it down.

In addition, as I’ve previously pointed out, BP’s oil gusher is producing a lot of gas.

Bloomberg has an article today adding some details:

The cap will help BP contend with the particularly strong upward force created by the vast natural gas reservoir that feeds the Macondo well, [David Pursell, a managing director with Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. in Houston] said. The new seal may be able to restrict the amount of leaking mud, creating back-pressure that will more successfully contain the gas, he said.


The Macondo well produces about 100 million cubic feet of natural gas a day. [I had estimated 290 million cubic feet a day, based on the U.S. Geological Survey’s flow rate group’s estimates of the oil flow – and see this – and the flow rate group’s calculation that 2,900 cubic feet of natural gas are escaping for every barrel of oil.] “That’s a big well, anywhere in the world,” Pursell said. Natural gas in a well can provide the same effect that gas in a bottle of soda does, forcing liquid — in this case oil — out of the top at a higher speed.

The strength of the gas could push the mud up and out of the well, he said.

To prevent the mud from rushing out of the well, BP will try to find a mud that is heavy enough to outweigh the pressure of gas coming out of the well, said Les Ply, a Houston-based geologist who has participated in kill operations in the past.

An appropriate balance must be struck — if the mud is too heavy, the rocks around the reservoir can be cracked or overburdened, he said. “Mud will take the path of least resistance. You want the path to be up the well bore,” he said.

Finding the right pressure and mud weight can be challenging for killing a well at this depth, because there’s an additional pressure dynamic created by the 5,000 feet of water bearing down on it, said Van Nieuwenhuise.

“It’s water, so it won’t patch itself,” he said. The goal will be to slow the mud flow enough to plug the well adequately so that cement can be poured in and set, Van Nieuwenhuise said.

Hopefully, the relief wells will work. But if not, I wouldn’t recommend nuking the leaking well.

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About George Washington

George Washington is the head writer at Washington’s Blog. A busy professional and former adjunct professor, George’s insatiable curiousity causes him to write on a wide variety of topics, including economics, finance, the environment and politics. For further details, ask Keith Alexander…


  1. Doc Holiday

    That is a fine report dude, please continue with updates!

    Also see: Stamp prices going up again — 46-cent rate asked-

    Is this an inflationary event in a double dip recession?

    1. bob

      I’m starting a fund, we will buy forever stamps at $.42 and sell them after the price increase at $.47. That’s almost 6% in a very short period of time(after I take my 5%).

  2. prostratedragon

    This is very interesting and informative, thank you for posting.

    I wonder how long it would take to amp up an implosion operation. Four months or more?

    1. psychohistorian

      If our country didn’t have its head up its ass it would have already started the implosion planning in parallel with other options. What are the chances of that?

      It will be interesting to see what the scale of this ecological disaster is in relation to others when and if the well is finally controlled.

      We can only hope that some positive change to social governance will come out of this debacle.

  3. doc holiday

    Giant skimmer captures just 1,100 barrels in 24-hour period,100-barrels-in-24-hour-period

    Moreover, even if results improve once waters calm down, the giant skimmer seems to be inherently inadequate — any solution that depends on calm seas for a spill in the middle of hurricane season is at best incomplete.”

    ==> Yawn … who saw this coming … a little tugboat sweeping an area the size of texas @ 18 mph …. what’s up next on the BP Stage … oh thats right, the relief wells. Hmmm,

    2. Re: Boots and Coots – is 40 for 40

    Boots & Coots Snaps Up John Wright Co.

    Thursday, February 12, 2009

    Boots & Coots has purchased John Wright Company (JWC) for approximately $10 million in a combination of cash and subordinated debt. Based in Houston, JWC provides a suite of relief well drilling and risk management services to the oil and gas industry worldwide. Boots & Coots will integrate the company’s proprietary technology into its Safeguard program, which is currently its fastest growing segment.

    3. Eleven days prior to the April 20 Deepwater Horizon blowout, Halliburton Co., the contractor in charge of cementing the rig’s well, agreed to purchase a little-known company — Boots and Coots, which focuses on oil spill prevention and blowout response. Now, it is assisting with the relief well work – under contract to BP – to help stop the Gulf oil spill.

    Halliburton is among the most diversified oil-industry firms. In their $240 million purchase of Boots and Coots – hmmmm

    1. Paul Repstock

      Weelll. That was disapointing about the super skimmer..:(

      Lol…not!….There is a distict and pervasive smell of coincidence which keeps wafting over this whole sorry episode….Little things croping up with an annoying frequency…and combined with the lack of transparency…I keep having these unfortunate doubts about everything we have been told…HMMMM???

      Haliburton buys Boots and Coots (who are certainly not a “little known company)…Tony sells 1/3 of his shares…BP decides to rush completion of a ‘monster’ well while at the same time compromising all saftey principles..and a couple of other things I don’t have at the top of my memory banks right now…

      What is really going on???????????????

      1. psychohistorian

        There are those of us educated enough to wear tin foil hats all the time….

      2. dh

        What is really going on, is that this is a large scale test to push deepwater drilling and emergency responses and to test public apathy. The GOM has massive amounts of oil and gas and this is either going to turn into an epic disaster or the dawn of a new era of oil consumption … yippie, cheap oil and drive-in movies!!!! Massive SUVs with extended large fins and turbo-charged engines — a new era of designer cars to park inside the McMansion garages — a new glorious day of skyhigh employment and change, change and so much change that no one will care again and we can live without fear inside the next energy bubble!!!

      3. dh

        Halliburton apparently screws up the cement job, because BP was reckless, then, Halliburton buys the company that will drill the relief well …. I’m liking this story; Hollywood could never have dreamed this up…. and that part where Halliburton wrote all the drilling regs and had that guy in bed with Bush — what a story!

        1. Paul Repstock

          Oh yeah, I remembered another of those ‘coincidences’, I believe it was Exon bought up the company making Corexit (a substance for dispersing oil, banned in Europe and probably soon everywhere) there by having the only source. The corexit is then used in huge unheard of volumes. Probably using up the company’s entire stockpile???

  4. doc holiday

    From the Sherlock Holmes Night Edition:

    1. John W. Wright

    He managed the field operations of Vector Magnetics Inc., a casing detection firm in 1991 and 1992.


    Beacon Tracking System

    Point tracking source with 100 meter effective range
    Rotating Magnet Ranging System

    70 meter range for borehole homing-in and intersection

    ==> Recall: “In February 2010, Deepwater Horizon commenced drilling an exploratory well at the Macondo Prospect (Mississippi Canyon Block 252), about 41 miles (66 km) off the southeast coast of Louisiana, at a water depth of approximately 5,000 feet (1,500 m)”

    ==> So, is this another F’ing science experiment? What is the effective range of this little gizmoe?

    See: Elongated cross coil assembly for use in borehole location determination

    United States Patent 7510030

    The relative depths of the coil and the sensors along the lengths of the reference borehole and the borehole being drilled, respectively, is usually known precisely; for example, by measurement of the drill pipe lengths and the deployment depth of the coil. The relative depth of the two is also readily determined by analysis of the z component of the generated magnetic field, i.e., the field component along the borehole axis. If the coil is not twisted, then the relative phase of the fields will be the same for all points along the borehole.

    ==> Extending the effective range ….

    Case Histories Demonstrate a New Method for Well Avoidance and Relief Well Drilling

    Historically, geometric uncertainties at any point along the wellbore have been represented as an ellipse, with uncertainty accumulating as measured depth increases. In fact, this assumption is over-simplified. An example of geometric positional uncertainties is illustrated in Fig. 2, showing a complex shape of uncertainties due to the accumulated errors around a wellbore at different orientations. The consequence of this is that wells which were though possible to drill with minimal risk are no longer possible to drill with acceptable safety margin using standard surveying techniques, as illustrated by comparing Fig. 2 and Fig. 3.
    Well Interference Navigator Method
    The new method, known as Well Interference Navigator*, or WIN*, as presented in this paper, determines the relative position to a nearby target well. It is not subject to accumulated survey errors. Accuracy actually increases with closer proximity between the new and existing wells.

    And finally: Part 11-Relief wells: Advancements in technology and application engineering make the relief well a more practical blowout control option

    In 1970, Shell Oil Co.’s Cox 1, a 22,000-ft Smackover exploratory well, blew out near Piney Woods, Mississippi. Accurately drilling a relief well to that depth with existing techniques was doubtful. This challenge led to the first direct intersection of a blowout tubular using a detection method. Wireline instruments were developed to detect proximity of a tubular by measuring distance and direction from the relief well to the blowout casing. Ultimately, the well was intersected and killed at 10,500 ft, with communication gained by perforating from the relief well to the blowout. This success was the beginning of the modern relief well, establishing strategy and planning for future relief well projects and the basis for commercial casing detection instruments (outside the Soviet bloc).

    Due to a better understanding of the earth’s magnetic field and the ability to sample raw data from accelerometer and magnetometer arrays, quality control of surveys became easier. Relief wells could be targeted more precisely with better information and more confidence.

    Steerable systems. In 1988, fully steerable directional drilling systems were first used on a relief well. Using stabilized bent housing motors in various configurations with a reliable and accurate MWD system facilitates precision directional work required to drill complex relief well trajectories for ranging triangulation and direct intersections. Relef well strategy changes made this same year combined relief well trajectory and electromagnetic ranging constraints into better planning for more accurate and efficient placement of the relief well.

    The result. In 1989, the result of 20 years of new technology and strategy proved itself in the North Sea on the Saga petroleum 2/4-14 blowout, with a direct intersection of an 8 1/2-in. borehole at a depth of nearly 5 km.(7) No sidetracks were requred and only nine electromagnetic fixes were made.

    The project further led to development of a sophisticated, fully dynamic, two-phase hydraulic kill simulation. This software allows complex evaluation of many kill scenarios with various sensititivites, to determine the most efficient kill method. This capability has become a powerful tool in optimizing relief well kill strategy.

    Electromagnetic detection advances have reduced uncertainty in relative distance measurements by using better measurements of the electromagnetic field.

    Direct measurement of distance now is possible independent of the amount of current flowing in the target at distances up to 30 ft with uncertainties of +5% of the distance.

    ** Ahhhh, looks like this all works ok in shallow water….

    > The underground blowout in Saga Petroleums problem well 2/4-14 took nearly a year to get under control.

    Well 2/4-14 was drilled on an upper Jurassic prospect in production license no. 146, which covers the northern production license no. 146, which covers the northern part of Block 2/4. The license area is situated in the part of Block 2/4. The license area is situated in the southern part of the North Sea, approximately 300 km southwest of Stavenger. The location map is shown in Figure 1.
    The operation of the well started with the semisubmersible drilling rig Treasure Saga in October 1988. No particular problems were experienced until the 9-5/8 particular problems were experienced until the 9-5/8 in. casing was run and cemented in the lower part of the upper Cretaceus chalk section at 4437 mRKB.


    > It does not say how many barrels of stuff were leaking, so this may not be good example?


  5. doc holiday

    Now wait a second, that guy from BP in the video, with the penis-shaped head, who seems to be about 7 feet tall — he looks like the perfect symbol for the world of oil-spill nepotism, aka, the incestuous oil circle — which was seen many years ago in Egypt, when BP genes were co-mingled, that union between oil buddies, e.g., Nefertiti was an oil heiress/mummy.. and so on and so on … something about an elongated head or something … lost my train of thought??

    Also see photo of Tony’s Great Grandad: – BP’s Ancient Egypt’s teenage king Tutankhamun was born of an incestuous marriage, scientists said on Wednesday, helping to explain why he limped on a club foot and suffered other deformities and genetic defects.

  6. herbert

    we all suffer from catastrophobia. glued to the latest crisis in a frantic and distracted state. Expectations have consequences, we should all strive to raise ours.

  7. Tom Crowl

    Slightly peripheral but interesting to contemplate:

    Is there a relationship between BP, the British Government, Libya, the recent release of the Lockerbie terrorist… and drilling rights off the Libyan coast?

    I’m sure there couldn’t be a connection. We’re led by very responsible and wise people… I’m sure it was just a slip-up.

    1. Paul Repstock

      To be fair Tommy, the evidence against the al Maghri appears to have been circumstanial. However, in today’s legal/terror climate he would never have been released if it were not that money was brought to bear. They really didn’t even seem too embarassed by the timing?? After all what are civilian live when standing in the way of profit?

  8. S Brennan

    Yves Smith rocks,

    But I found this blog piece:

    Name dropping drivel, with little factual support of arguments, ad hominem augments by parties with axes to grind. Good grist for the inside the beltway sleazoids, but outside the character of Naked Capitalism.

    For example, why is easier to contain a gas than a liquid? That was a presupposition that was completely unsupported and contradicts the facts on the ground. Wasn’t the problem with this well the methane subliming to gas?

    As I say, Washington’s leaders feed on fecal material and that’s all fine and dandy, but why bring such argumentation here?

  9. S Brennan

    By the way “Nobel prize winning physicist Steven Chu” appears to be born February 28, 1948, which makes the claim that he’s ” the man who helped develop the first hydrogen bomb in the 1950s as part of the 5-man brain trust tasked with stopping the oil” somewhat suspicious.

    Like I say, fecal matter is fine for the collective idiocy of the NY/DC nexus, but honestly the folks in the hinterlands have learned not to trust the pond scum that passes for cream in this country.

    1. Paul Repstock

      :)))…Hey the guy was a ‘Baby Prodigy’

      But why the heck not Al Gore invented the internet and GW the Hydrogen engine????

      Your pond scum annalogy has an interesting aspect; perhaps it is the hot air which actually enables the rising to the top. We’ve all been conned. We were told brains and hard work did it..:(

  10. Doc Holiday

    Cutting Edge BP Blimp Story

    Navy Blimp Heads to Gulf to Aid Oil Spill Clean Up

    It would have been there earlier … but

    >> The airship began its flight to the Gulf Coast last month, departing from Yuma, Arizona, and should soon reach Jack Edwards National Airport in Gulf Shores, Alabama.

    Well anyway, thank God the Navy is on top of this deployment —

  11. dh

    Gulf States Give National Guard Minimal Role in Fighting Oil Spill

    Defense Secretary Robert Gates has authorized up to 17,500 National Guard
    troops to fight the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but only a fraction of that number has been deployed so far — raising questions about where the troops are and why they have such a small presence.

    The skill sets these troops have don’t match the needs, the official said, and the governors aren’t about to pay soldiers to stand on the beaches waiting for oil to wash up.

  12. 221

    This time it’s oil trouble for Lake Pontchartrain

    Elsewhere on the Gulf Coast, a new wave of tar balls and brown, oil-stained foam hit Alabama beaches Wednesday after days of relatively oil-free surf, but few tourists were on the coast to see the mess.

    Tar balls from the spill also washed up on Texas beaches over the holiday weekend, meaning the disaster now touches all five Gulf Coast states, spanning more than 500 miles of coastline.

    ==> BP Says Oil in Gulf Must be Changed Every Six Months

    The announcement about the oil change came on the heels of BP’s decision earlier in the week to separate the Gulf into two sections, full-serve and self-serve

  13. doc holiday

    EU energy chief suggests new deepwater drilling ban

    Given the current circumstances, any responsible government would at present practically freeze new permits for drilling with extreme parameters and conditions,” he added.

    “This can mean de facto a moratorium on new drills until the causes of the accident are known and corrective measures are taken for such frontier operations (such) as the ones carried out by the Deepwater Horizon.”

  14. Bambi

    Canada Should Review Oil Sands, Offshore

    Safety questions about drilling in remote regions using newer technologies must be answered after the spill at a BP Plc well in the Gulf of Mexico.

    “The BP spill has got to be a wake-up call,” said Layton, the leader of the smallest of four parties in Parliament. He also reiterated his opposition to any new oil sands projects.

    Canada: Judge Finds Oil Company Guilty in Deaths of 1,600 Ducks

    An Alberta judge found Syncrude Canada Ltd., the biggest producer in Canada’s oil sands, guilty on Friday of charges stemming from the deaths of 1,600 ducks that landed on a toxic tailings pond in northern Alberta in 2008. Syncrude faces a maximum fine of $769,000 in the case, which heightened international concern about the environmental impact of developing the oil sands…

    1. Paul Repstock

      LOL. Didn’t you hear the ‘Xspurt’ Mrrr. Harper right after the blow out. Canadians have nothing to worry about. Our regulations are so much stronger than the Americans’ that we don’t even need blow out preventers….

  15. Bob S

    Please do your readers a favor and STOP linking to misinformed sources. It is abundantly clear that you are not familiar with oilfield operations and I do not expect you to be. But please do your credibility a favor and fact check your links (before linking).
    You are better than this.

  16. rasta vibrations


    Can you provide an example of a problem link that has misinformation? Why not rise above the murk and provide information versus being a critical and clueless dumbass?

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