NEW ORLEANS, La. - Engineers on the Gulf of Mexico hoped to begin work Monday on a plan to to shove mud and perhaps cement into the blown-out oil well at the seafloor, making it easier to end the gusher for good.
The only thing keeping millions more gallons of oil out of the Gulf right now is an experimental cap that has held for more than two weeks but was never meant to be permanent.
The so-called "static kill" attempt carries no certainty, and BP PLC engineers still plan to follow it up days later by sending a stream of mud and cement into the bottom of the mile-deep underground reservoir through a relief well they've been digging for months.
But the oil giant's engineers and petroleum experts say it's the clearest path yet to choke the blown-out well and make it even easier for the crews drilling the relief well to ensure oil can never again erupt from the deep-sea well, which has spewed as much as 184 million gallons since the rig connected to it blew up in April and killed 11 workers.
The developments have the makings for an interesting week.
"It could be the beginning of the end," said Darryl Bourgoyne, director of Petroleum Engineering Research Lab at Louisiana State University.
When it begins, crews will slowly pump heavy mud through lines installed last month straight down the throat of the leaky well. If the mud forces the oil back into the massive underground reservoir and scientists are confident the pressure remains stable, then engineers can pump in fresh cement to seal it.
"The only thing that separates the oil from the sea now is the valve. This puts thousands of feet of mud and cement in between," said Eric Smith, associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute.
"The idea is to have as many barriers as possible between the ocean and the reservoir. We're adding an extra level of safety."
Officials may then begin the process of choking the underground reservoir feeding the well by pumping mud and then cement down an 18,000-foot relief well. BP officials have long said the process is the only sure way to choke the well for good - plugging up the source of the oil, not just its route to the sea.