- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 3, 2010

NEW ORLEANS | Engineers began pumping heavy drilling mud into the blown-out Gulf of Mexico oil well Tuesday in what they think is their best chance yet to reach the ultimate goal in a delicate process — snuffing one of the world’s largest spills for good.

Crews began the long-awaited effort, dubbed the “static kill,” around 3 p.m. Central time, BP spokesman John Barnes told rhe Associated Press. The effort involves pumping mud and eventually, crews hope, cement down a pipe to seal off the source of the oil.

Tests for the effort started a couple of hours earlier as crews probed the broken well bore with an oillike liquid to determine whether there were any obstructions in the well and to assess the pressure of the bore and the pump rates it could withstand.

Crews should know within hours whether the mud is pushing down the oil as envisioned. But engineers still won’t know for more than a week whether the attempt achieved its goal because they have to wait for completion of an 18,000-foot relief well to reach the reservoir from the bottom.

“This is a really positive step forward,” retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said earlier, calling it “good news in a time where that hasn’t been very much good news, but it shouldn’t be a cause for premature celebration.”

Company officials earlier said the static kill alone, which involves slowly pumping the mud down lines running from ships a mile above, might be enough to plug the oil leak.

But the only surefire way to make certain the well is permanently plugged is to fill it from below with mud and cement, via the relief well, in a so-called “bottom kill,” Adm. Allen said. The relief well is set for completion as early as Aug. 11.

The static kill could take days to complete, mostly because it involves slow pumping of mud, said Adm. Allen, the government’s point man on the spill response.

The effort is meant as insurance for the crews that have spent months fighting the spill. The only thing that had been keeping the oil from blowing into the Gulf was an experimental cap that has held for more than two weeks but was never meant to be permanent.

Adm. Allen added earlier Tuesday that there “should be no ambiguity” that the primary relief well will be finished, regardless.

It’s important to begin soon, he said, with the peak hurricane season just around the corner. Tropical Storm Colin formed far out in the Atlantic on Tuesday, but early forecasts put it on a track off the East Coast rather than the Gulf.

And while diagnostic tests show that the 75-ton cap that has bottled up the oil since mid-July is sound, the static kill should give scientists more confidence the well won’t leak again, he said.

“The quicker we get this done, the quicker we can reduce the risk of some type of internal failure” of the massive cap, he said.

A federal task force said Monday that about 172 million gallons of oil made it into the Gulf between April and July 15, when the temporary cap contained all the oil.

The task force said about 206 million gallons actually gushed out of the well, but a fleet of boats and other efforts were able to contain more than 33 million. The 172 million gallons is on the high end of recent estimates that anywhere from 92 million to 184 million gallons had gushed into the sea.

Judging by the latest estimate, BP could be fined up to $5.4 billion under the Clean Water Act, or as much as $21 billion if it is found to have committed gross negligence or willful misconduct.

The high-end fine would drop to around $17.6 billion if the government credits BP for the oil it has recovered, while the low-end fine would be around $4.5 billion.

Any fines would be on top of the compensation BP has agreed to pay to thousands of people harmed by the spill. Under pressure from the White House, the company set up a $20 billion escrow fund to pay all claims, including environmental damages and state and local response costs.

The company began drilling a primary relief well May 2, 12 days after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and killed 11 workers, and a second backup well May 16. The first well is now only about 100 feet from the target.

BP and federal officials have managed to contain large parts of the spill through skimmers, boom and chemical dispersants meant to break up the oil.

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