Video: Pressure builds in pivotal moment for BP

  1. Transcript of: Pressure builds in pivotal moment for BP

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: It may be temporary, it may not hold, but we want to show you something that, for a long while here, it didn't seem like we were ever going to see. Right now, there is no oil spilling into the gulf. For now, the cap is on and working. No new billowing oil beyond, of course, the three-month supply already in the gulf waters and on the shores and in the marshes. They are testing the pressure now. This stoppage may not last. It's not a permanent solution. That can only come from those relief wells. But now we're able to visualize, at least, the day we have been hoping would arrive. We want to begin again tonight with our chief environmental affairs correspondent Anne Thompson , in Venice , Louisiana . Anne , good evening.

    ANNE THOMPSON reporting: Good evening, Brian . You know, even though this is the day that the people here along the gulf have waited some three months for, reaction is muted tonight because people here are hoping that it's when this test stops that the oil is still not flowing. On day 87, the oil stopped, if only temporarily. BP closed all the valves on its new ceiling cap at 3:25 Eastern time this afternoon, at last giving a moment's relief to so many people along the Gulf Coast devastated economically and emotionally by this spill.

    Unidentified Man: It's finally an end to the Groundhog Day of waking up and it being the same and oil still spilling.

    Unidentified Woman: We're just happy. Finally there's an end in sight. There's finally a light at the end of a tunnel.

    THOMPSON: But BP isn't celebrating just yet.

    Mr. DOUG SUTTLES (BP Chief Operating Officer): We have to manage our expectations. It's possible, if the -- if the pressures are low that we'll have to re-initiate the flow and capture it.

    THOMPSON: At the White House , President Obama was every bit as cautious.

    President BARACK OBAMA: I think it is a positive sign. We're still in the testing phase. I'll have more to say about it tomorrow.

    THOMPSON: The well integrity test will take two days, and all eyes will be on the pressure levels. Engineers and scientists in the Houston command center will monitor those readings, hoping to divine what they cannot see under the seabed.

    Mr. DON VAN NIEUWENHUISE (University of Houston): I think it's important to know whether the well has leaks or not. And it could be an important issue for them to watch while they're doing the kill operation itself.

    THOMPSON: The kill operation with the relief well, the permanent solution, is still weeks away. Standing on one of the new sand berms built to block the oil, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said the cleanup doesn't stop just because the oil did.

    Governor BOBBY JINDAL (Republican, Louisiana): This is a very, very -- potentially a very important step forward, if they're successful. But we also know this fight's not over for Louisiana . We know this is a marathon.

    THOMPSON: Everyone involved realizes this may only be a pause in this disaster.

    Admiral THAD ALLEN, Retired (National Incident Commander): Make no mistake, the number one goal is to shut in the well and kill it and stop it at the source. This is merely an intermediate step to contain the oil pending the finishing the relief wells and plugging the hole.

    THOMPSON: Now, every six hours BP and government officials will assess those test results and decide whether or not to move forward. This is going to be a very slow and deliberate process. Brian :

    WILLIAMS: For however long it's shut off, Anne , we'll take it. Anne Thompson in Venice , Louisiana , again tonight. Thanks.

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 7/15/2010 9:37:56 PM ET 2010-07-16T01:37:56

BP's testing of a new cap has at least temporarily shut off the flow of oil, but the federal point man for the crisis said Thursday that the system is likely to be used not as a permanent cap on the well but as an improved siphon.

The fact that the cap was holding up under pressure tests led many to believe that the new system would keep the oil from flowing until a relief well is dug by mid-August to plug the well.

But National Incident Commander Thad Allen issued a statement later in the day, deeming it "likely" that "we will return to the containment process using this new stacking cap connected to the risers to attempt to collect up to 80,000 barrels of oil per day until the relief well is completed."

Allen did not explain why he felt the cap would become a siphon much like the one used earlier. But one possibility is that by capping the oil it could build pressure within the well bore and raise the risk of new ruptures.

BP Vice President Kent Wells hinted as much. "Depending on what the test shows us, we may need to open this well back up," he said.

BP has been beefing up its fleet of siphoning ships and plans to have enough capacity ready by this weekend to collect the entire flow if the cap comes off.

Wells said that oil stopped flowing into the water at 3:25 p.m. ET when the last of three valves in the 75-ton cap was slowly throttled shut.

"I am very pleased that there's no oil going into the Gulf of Mexico," Wells said. "In fact, I'm really excited there's no oil going into the Gulf of Mexico."

Engineers are now monitoring the pressure to see if the cap holds and the sea floor doesn't crack.

'Hallelujah'
The stoppage came 85 days, 16 hours and 25 minutes after the first report April 20 of an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, the beginning of a disaster that left 11 workers dead and tens of millions of gallons of oil following the Gulf and its coastline.

Though a temporary fix, the accomplishment was greeted with hope, high expectations — and, in many cases along the beleaguered coastline, disbelief. From one Gulf Coast resident came this: "Hallelujah." And from another: "I got to see it to believe it."

President Barack Obama, who has encouraged, cajoled and outright ordered BP to stop the leak, called Thursday's development "a positive sign." But Obama, whose political standing has taken a hit because of the spill and accusations of government inaction, cautioned that "we're still in the testing phase."

The worst-case scenario would be if the oil forced down into the bedrock ruptured the seafloor irreparably. Leaks deep in the well bore might also be found, which would mean that oil would continue to flow into the Gulf. And there's always the possiblity of another explosion, either from too much pressure or from a previously unknown unstable piece of piping.

The drama that unfolded quietly in the darkness of deep water Thursday was a combination of trial, error, technology and luck. It came after weeks of repeated attempts to stop the oil — everything from robotics to different capping techniques to stuffing the hole with mud and golf balls.

Fitful starts
The week leading up to the moment where the oil stopped was a series of fitful starts and setbacks.

Robotic submarines working deep in the ocean removed a busted piece of pipe last weekend, at which point oil flowed unimpeded into the water. That was followed by installation of a connector that sits atop the spewing well bore — and by Monday the 75-ton metal cap, a stack of lines and valves latched onto the busted well.

After that, engineers spent hours creating a map of the rock under the sea floor to spot potential dangers, like gas pockets. They also shut down two ships collecting oil above the sea to get an accurate reading on the pressure in the cap.

As the oil flowed up to the cap, increasing the pressure, two valves were shut off like light switches, and the third dialed down on a dimmer switch until it too was choked off.

For nearly two months, the world's window into the disaster has been through a battery of BP cameras, known as the "spillcam." The constant stream of spewing oil became a fixture on cable TV news and web feeds.

On the video feed, the violently churning cloud of oil and gas coming out of a narrow tube thinned, and tapered off. Suddenly, there were a few puffs of oil, surrounded by cloudy dispersant that BP was pumping on top. Then there was nothing.

"Finally!" said Renee Brown, a school guidance counselor visiting Pensacola Beach, Fla., from London, Ky. "Honestly, I'm surprised that they haven't been able to do something sooner, though."

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley's face lit up when he heard the news. "I think a lot of prayers were answered today," he said.

Critical time
The next 48 hours are critical. Engineers and scientists will be monitoring the cap around the clock, looking for pressure changes. High pressure is good, because it shows there's only a single leak. Low pressure, below 6,000 pounds per square inch or so, could mean more leaks farther down in the well.

Allen, the retired Coast Guard admiral overseeing the spill for the government, said it's possible that oil will have to be released into the water again.

When the 48-hour test is complete, more seafloor mapping will be done to detect any damage or deep-water leaks.

The saga has devastated BP, costing it billions in everything from cleanup to repair efforts to plunging stock prices. Though BP shares have edged upward, they shot higher in the last hour of trading on Wall Street after the company announced the oil had stopped. Shares rose $2.74, or 7.6 percent, to close at $38.92 — still well below the $60.48 they fetched before the rig explosion.

The Gulf Coast has been shaken economically, environmentally and psychologically by the hardships of the past three months. That feeling of being swatted around — by BP, by the government, by fate even — was evident in the wide spectrum of reactions to news of the capping.

"Hallelujah! That's wonderful news," Belinda Griffin, who owns a charter fishing lodge in Lafitte, La., said upon hearing the gusher had stopped. "Now if we can just figure out what to do with all the oil that's in the Gulf, we'll be in good shape."

The fishing industry in particular has been buffeted by fallout from the spill. Surveys of oyster grounds in Louisiana showed extensive deaths of the shellfish. Large sections of the Gulf Coast — which accounts for 60 to 70 percent of the oysters eaten in the United States — have been closed to harvesting, which helps explain why one oysterman in Louisiana refused to accept that progress was afoot.

Prove it, said Stephon LaFrance of Buras, La.

"I've been out of work since this happened, right? And I ain't never received nothing from BP since this oil spill happened," he said. "Like they say they stopped this oil leak. I think that's a lie. I got to see it to believe it."

Rosalie Lapeyrouse, who owns a grocery store and a shrimping operation in Chauvin, La. that cleans, boils and distributes the catch, was shocked.

"It what?" she said in disbelief. "It stopped?" she repeated after hearing the news.

"Oh, wow! That's good," she said, her face clouding. "I'm thinking they just stopped for a while. I don't think it's gonna last. They never could do nothing with it before."

Oil will be washing up for months
Long after the out-of-control well is finally plugged, oil could still be washing up in marshes and on beaches as tar balls or disc-shaped patties. The sheen will dissolve over time, scientists say, and the slick will convert to another form.

There's also fear that months from now, oil could move far west to Corpus Christi, Texas, or farther east and hitch a ride on the loop current, possibly showing up as tar balls in Miami or North Carolina's Outer Banks.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is expecting to track the oil in all its formations for several months after the well is killed, said Steve Lehmann, a scientific support coordinator for the federal agency.

Once the well stops actively spewing oil, the slicks will rapidly weather and disappear, possibly within a week, and NOAA will begin to rely more heavily on low-flying aircraft to search for tar balls and patties. Those can last for years, Lehmann said.

In Louisiana's Plaquemines Parish, the worst-hit area of the coast, frequent BP and government critic Billy Nungesser, the parish president, offered a word of caution: This whole mess, he said, is far from over.

"We better not let our guard down," Nungesser said. "We better not pull back the troops because, as we know, there's a lot of oil out there, on the surface, beneath it. And I truly believe that we're going to see oil coming ashore for the next couple of years."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Photos: Month 4

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  1. The Blue Dolphin, left, and the HOS Centerline, the ships supplying the mud for the static kill operation on the Helix Q4000, are seen delivering mud through hoses at the site of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana, on Aug. 3, 2010. In the background is the Development Driller III, which is drilling the primary relief well. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Eddie Forsythe and Don Rorabough dump a box of blue crabs onto a sorting table at B.K. Seafood in Yscloskey, La., on Aug. 3, 2010. The crabs were caught by fisherman Garet Mones. Commercial and recreational fishing has resumed, with some restrictions in areas that were closed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Chuck Cook / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Sea turtle hatchlings that emerged from eggs gathered on the northern Gulf Coast of Florida are released at Playalinda Beach on the Canaveral National Seashore near Titusville, Fla., on Aug. 2, 2010. The sea turtles were born at a Kennedy Space Center incubation site, where thousands of eggs collected from Florida and Alabama beaches along the Gulf of Mexico have been sent. (Craig Rubadoux / Florida Today via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A crab, covered with oil, walks along an oil absorbent boom near roso-cane reeds at the South Pass of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana on Aug. 1, 2010. BP is testing the well to see if it can withstand a "static kill" which would close the well permanently. (Pool / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A boat motors through a sunset oil sheen off East Grand Terre Island, where the Gulf of Mexico meets Barataria Bay on the La. coast, on the evening of July 31. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Oil approaches a line of barges and boom positioned to protect East Grand Terre Island, partially seen at top right, on July 31. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is seen near an unprotected island in the Gulf of Mexico near Timbalier Bay, off the coast of Louisiana on Wednesday, July 28. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Greenpeace activists stand outside a BP gas station in London, England, on July 27 after they put up a fence to cut off access. Several dozen BP stations in London were temporarily shut down to protest the Gulf spill. (Leon Neal / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. James Wilson sells T-shirts to those arriving in Grand Isle, La., for the music festival Island Aid 2010 on July 24. (Dave Martin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Activists covered in food coloring made to look like oil protest BP's Gulf oil spill in Mexico City on July 22. The sign at far left reads in Spanish "Petroleum kills animals." (Alexandre Meneghini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. People in Lafayette, La., wear "Keep Drilling" tee shirts at the "Rally for Economic Survival" opposing the federal ban on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, July 21. Supporters at the rally want President Obama to lift the moratorium immediately to protect Louisiana's jobs and economy. (Ann Heisenfelt / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A flock of white ibis lift off from marsh grass on Dry Bread Island in St. Bernard Parish, La., July 21. Crews found about 130 dead birds and 15 live birds affected by oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on July 19 in the eastern part of the parish behind the Chandeleur Islands. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Kenneth Feinberg, administrator of the BP Oil Spill Victim Compensation Fund testifies during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on July 21 in Washington, D.C. The hearing was to examine the claim process for victims of the Gulf Coast oil spill. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. An American white pelican has its wings checked during a physical examination at Brookfield Zoo’s Animal Hospital by Michael Adkesson and Michael O’Neill on July 21. The bird, along with four other pelicans, was rescued from the Gulf Coast oil spill and will be placed on permanent exhibit at the zoo. (Jim Schulz / Chicago Zoological Society via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Native people of the Gwich'in Nation form a human banner on the banks of the Porcupine River near Ft. Yukon, Alaska July 21, in regard to the BP oil spill with a message to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil development. The images include a Porcupine caribou antler and a threatened Yukon River Salmon. (Camila Roy / Spectral Q via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
    Gerald Herbert / AP
    Above: Slideshow (15) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 4
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  5. Image:
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Map: Gulf oil spill trajectory

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